AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 698

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Session 698: Punjabi Sufi Poetry and Performance

Organizer: Pasha M. Khan, McGill University, Canada

Chair: Virinder Kalra, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

Discussant: Virinder Kalra, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

This panel on Punjabi Sufi poetry explores poetic works from 14th- to 19th-century Punjab, and their afterlives in the present. The issue of performance is key to all of the papers, which address how the works of Punjabi Sufis were performed historically, how they continue to be performed and produced after the authors’ death, and how their past and present performance reflects the performance of South Asian religions. The panel pays heed to the inseparability of (1) textual history, exemplified by Simran Jeet Singh’s and Pasha M. Khan’s manuscript-centred studies of Baba Farid and Ahmad Yar; and (2) ongoing performance, as in the papers by Virinder Kalra and Irfan Moeen Khan on Bullhe Shah. As Harpreet Singh’s and Fakhra Shah’s papers on Shah Husain and Waris Shah show, (3) the performed-ness of these works and their place within the field of religious performance ought to be scrutinized not only in the present, but in the past as well, e.g., in the context of historical performances of Islam. The immense popularity of the works under consideration has not hitherto been matched by a scholarly appetite for analyzing them; the panel helps to remedy this lack. Along the way, it will engage in current debates set in motion by Robin Rinehart, Sheldon Pollock, and Richard Eaton, among others. We hope to share these papers with interested members of the audience online beforehand to stimulate discussion. This panel is dedicated to the memory of Ajeet Singh Matharu.

Farid-Bani: Exploring Sufi Verses in the Sikh Scripture
Simran J. Singh, Columbia University, USA

This paper explores the writings attributed to Sheikh Farid preserved in the Sikh scriptural tradition. These compositions can be definitively placed prior to the compilation of the Adi Granth in 1604 CE and three recently discovered manuscripts have helped to trace some of these compositions to the 14th century. The writings of Sheikh Farid therefore stand as a distinctively early collection of South Asian Sufi verses composed in the vernacular and have much to offer in the way of understanding the early Punjabi Sufi tradition. This paper will draw from the approximately 300 verses available in the Sikh scripture in order to develop an understanding of the theology of Sheikh Farid. This study will focus specifically on saloks, the largest body of writings attributed to Sheikh Farid in the Adi Granth, and will pay particular attention to perspectives on the transience of life, love for the Divine, and the valuation of religious discipline. After exploring and delineating perspectives of Sheikh Farid as represented in the Adi Granth, this paper will juxtapose the theology of Sheikh Farid with that of the Sikh Gurus in order to theorize some possible reasons for the inclusion of verses by a Sufi author within the Sikh scriptural tradition.

A Sufi Poet in Ranjit Singh’s Court: Maulwi Ahmad Yar and the Tale of Hatim Ta’i
Pasha M. Khan, McGill University, Canada

In the final few decades of his life, the prolific Punjabi and Persian storywriter Maulwi Ahmad Yar gained the patronage of the ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, through the agency of the latter’s underling Gulab Singh, ruler of Jammu. For Ranjit Singh, Ahmad Yar wrote a versified Punjabi romance (qissah) entitled The Tale of Hatim Ta’i, on the exploits of Hatim Ta’i, the pre-Islamic exemplar of generosity. Less well-known than the works of the canonical Punjabi Sufi poets, and overshadowed by those influenced by his writings later in the 19th century, Ahmad Yar’s work presents the kind of coincidence of “devotional” and “courtly” elements that has until recently been overlooked by scholars of South Asian literatures in languages such as Punjabi and Braj Bhasha. This paper will look mainly at the Tale of Hatim Ta’i and will examine the way in which the exemplarity of the generous title character is connected to claims regarding the ethical qualities of both saintly exemplars (the Sufi saint Abd al-Qadir Jilani) and courtly ones (Ranjit Singh). Drawing on extensive scholarship by Shahbaz Malik and Christopher Shackle, the paper will also consider other works by Ahmad Yar, and previous Punjabi regional versions of the Tale of Hatim Tai, including a Gurmukhi-script Braj Bhasha version dedicated to Ranjit Singh by a Sikh poet, Saundha (1807/8), and a hitherto unstudied manuscript version in Punjabi verse by a Sufi devotee, Faiz Muhammad (1790).

Bullhe Shah’s Antinomianism: Critical Historiography or Communal Bias?
Irfan Khan, Harvard University, USA

The paper aims to examine 20th century writings on Bullhe Shah (1680-1757) to reflect upon the theoretical approaches that have informed the category of Punjabi Sufism. So far, Robin Rinehart has been the only scholar to treat the discourse around Bullhe Shah as a subject of analysis. The two articles entitled “Interpretations of the Poetry of Bullhe Shah” and “The Portable Bullhe Shah” were published in 1996 and 1999, respectively. Since over a decade, no one has attempted to take up Rinehart’s work. Given the scarcity of scholarship on this major Punjabi poet, the two articles constitute an important contribution towards the study of this remarkable Punjabi figure. Rinehart tackles a number of issues related to the modern construction/s of Bullhe Shah in the work of Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim authors. Although Rinehart’s parameters of inquiry are neatly defined, her conclusions on account of her analysis seem to be overdrawn. Therefore, the paper seeks to reengage Rinehart’s literary criticism to address the broader themes that continue to define the study of Bullhe Shah. Generally, scholars tend to emphasize issues of textuality to the exclusion of the living tradition, and interconnections between Bullhe Shah’s textuality and the socio-cultural context are hardly explored. Rinehart’s work also overlooks important anthropological dimensions that constitute an integral part Bullhe Shah’s poetic/mystical/antinomian ethos lived in the streets of Punjab. Furthermore, the paper will also probe the notion of “syncretism” in the domain of Punjabi Sufism.

Performative Culture at the Shrine of Bulleh Shah, Kasur: 'Cunjaree ban ke, sharam na aaven'
Virinder Kalra, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

One of the central performances on a Thursday evening at the shrine of the 18th-century Sufi Bulleh Shah in Kasur, Punjab, is that of the singing of the kafis (devotional poems) of Bulleh Shah, accompanied by a group of men, dressed in the clothes of the courtesan dancers of the Moghul court, engaging in the dance called dhamaal. These performances begin at dusk and end late in the night. The genealogy of this music and dance is traced (by the performers) to one of the narratives of Bulleh Shah's hagiography and the contemporary is mixed with history in a potent manner. Whilst this is the main performance and takes place in front of the tomb of Bulleh Shah, there are multiple other sites in which individuals are found to be singing. In the shrine complex there is also the presence of another group of singers, fashioned more in the qawwali style more usually associated with Sufi shrines. The multiplicity of performers and styles at this shrine, allows us to recognise and begin to delineate the range and diversity of music and dance at shrines.This diversity enables a reflection on the dominance of qawwali and Chishti Sufi shrines in the study of South Asian Islam.

Shah Husain and the Vernacularization of the Panjab
Harpreet Singh, Harvard University, USA

In recent times scholarship has tried to show that religious identity has played no significant role in the vernacularization of South Asia. In The Language of Gods in the World of Men (2006), Sheldon Pollock has argued forcefully that vernacularization was a project sponsored by the court and divorced from religion. Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (2003), an impressive volume of essays edited by Pollock, furnishes a framework for studying regional literary cultures of South Asia without any substantial inquiry into the role of religious identities. In the absence of real debate on the role of religious identities in the vernacularization of South Asia, Pollock’s model has become the dominant paradigm for studying the phenomenon. I would like to present a case study on the Panjab, a region that has been ignored in broader discussion, to provide an alternative understanding of the phenomenon, which, in my view, took shape in the crucible of “religion”. Through an engagement with the kafis of Shah Husain (1538-99), I will attempt to show the ways in which Islamic identity contributed to the development of Panjabi literary culture.

Sufism and Ascetism: Twin concepts in Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha
Fakhra Shah, San Francisco State University, USA

While containing the most fundamental elements of Sufi poetry and practice, the qissa of Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha resonates widely throughout all of Punjab regardless of religious affiliations. A deeper look reveals that Heer and Ranjha both are guided by various sets of religious and cultural practices that help further their cause at different points in the qissah. For example, in the case of Ranjha the presence of asceticism makes it possible for Ranjha to disguise himself as a jogi in order to be with Heer. Also, despite his Islamic affiliation Ranjha is often portrayed in paintings in the color blue as a jogi, a vocation usually associated with Hinduism. In India’s Islamic Traditions: 711-1750 (2003) Richard Eaton has proposed that Sufism was successful in penetrating the mindset of Punjabis for the reason that asceticism was a pre-existing practice within Punjab. He has also proposed that South Asians have always played an active role in engaging with Islamic traditions to make them their own. The qissah of Heer Ranjha is an example of this active engagement by Waris Shah, who by writing this piece has created a ‘Punjab specific Sufism’—one that captures the many elements of religious practice in Punjab. Waris Shah depicts the ability of Ranjha to creatively employ and explore the existing structures such as asceticism to pursue his own goals. I will explore how Heer and Ranjha have played an active role using both the pre-existing and Islamic/Sufi practices in Waris Shah’s Punjab.