Warris Shah is to Punjabi poetry what Chaucer was to English – the pulse beat of its people. He turned poetry into Punjabi and Punjabi into poetry. His chief contribution was the creation of the immortal Heer, the epic poem of love of Heer and Ranjha, sung by the people of Punjab in the same style and syntax without any variation since the time it was completed and composed in 1776 during the 8th invasion of Ahmed Shah Abdali. Warris Shah was 36 at that time. He lived to see his Heer sung for nearly a quarter of a century. Enthralling generations of Punjabi poets, opera writers and listeners, Warris Shah is a literary calossus who bestrode the literary scene of Punjab as no other poet did after Farid. With Warris Shah begins the modern period in Punjabi poetry. Addressing Warris Shah, Amrita Pritam, the prima donna of Punjabi poetry today, wrote after the partition holocaust: “If the tragedy of one Heer could make you cry, what would have happened if you were alive in 1947 when a million Heers were raped in the same land”.
Aj akhan Warris Shah nu
Kithon kabran wichon bol
Te aj kitab-i-isbq da
Koi agla warqa phol
Ik roi si dhi Punjab di
Tu likh likh ware wain
Aj lakhan dhian rondian
Tainu Warris Shah nu kahan
Uth tak apna Punjab
Aj bele lashan wicbian
Te lahu di bhari Chenab
(Oh, Warris Shah, I ask you to speak out from your grave and turn the newpage in the Book of Love. With the cry of one daughter of Punjab you created an epic and gave her tongue a life-s lament. Today, millions of Punjab-s daughters are waling and beckoning you to come out of your grave and listen to them. 0, angel of compassion have a look at your beloved Punjab whose green pastures are littered with corpses and rivers filled with blood)
Who is this Warris Shah whom the poets of Punjab have beckoned for the last 200 years? Why is he a household name in the subcontinent? If Punjabi poetry is to be conceived as a story of moral and spiritual values, Warris Shah occupies the same place as Milton did in English literature and Walt Whitman did in American literature. Heer-Ranjha is both history and poetry. As history it is unread; as poetry it is exquisite. Bulle Shah made these 600 stanzas of Heer immortal by singing it in Kaafi style. Heer has been sung in a dozen styles but the most lyrical is Kaafi. It is said, when it was first sung in Soviet Union people went wild in ecstasy. The Urdu poet Sauda in one of his couplets says,
Suna jo raat woh qissa HeerRanjha ka
To ahl – dard ko Punjabiyon ne loot liya
(Last night when I heard the story of Heer Ranjha I felt that the Punjabis took away my heart).
Warris lived through the invasions of Nadir Shah (1739) and Ahmed Shah (1761). There are references in his Heer about these invasions and the devastation they wrought in Punjab: .
Khade peeta lahe da
Baki Ahmed Shahe da
(Whatever you eat is yours, the rest belongs to Ahmed Shah)
Warris Shah-s Heer also amply demonstrates that though the people of Punjab were divided into various religious sects, they were nevertheless secular in outlook and respected each other-s religion.
Warris Shah describes Punjab as a fertile country with fields of mustard and corn yielding a rich crop. The rulers of Punjab were said to be corrupt and commited atrocities, extorted revenues mercilessly from innocent people. That brought the Hindus and Muslims closer to each other. The foreign invasions further cemented their ties and they developed remarkable cordiality and amity. There are also stray references to the shawls of Lahore and Kashmir, the Phulkaris of Multan, the silken Lehngas and the Tahmads of Takht Hazara, the home town of Ranjha in district Sargodha, now in Pakistan. There was enough milk and honey in Punjab as described in Heer, and the rivers of Punjab have been referred to very evocatively.
More than the official or the formal historical account, Warris Shah-s epic can be easily regarded as an authentic source of the history of Punjab. But more than that, Warris Shah is the historian of the heart of his people.
As poetry, the story of Heer Ranjha is the food of every Punjabi. If wheat is his staple food to eat, Heer is his spiritual food. It touches his soul. Every Punjabi youth remembers it by heart and sings it with an abandon unknown to other regions.
Highest poetry, they say, must conform to the tenets of music. judged from that standpoint, Heer occupies a very high position in the development of Punjabi poetry. After the hymns of. Baba Farid, it is the poetry of Warris Shah and Bulle Shah which inspired the Punjabis to revolt against the twin curse of absentee landlordism and foreign invasions.
Heer-Ranjha is a qissa, a tale, a romance based on Persian Masnavi. Through the voice of Heer Ranjha, Warris Shah has become the spokesman of the Punjabi mind. It must, however, be remembered that the first Heer in Punjabi was written by a poet called Damodar who had not given it a tragic ending. Even Maqbul, the early 18th century Punjabi poet, followed Damodar who sent the united lovers Heer and Ranjha to a Haj pilgrimmage to Mecca. It is only Warris Shah who gave the epic a tragic ending. Since tragedy appeals more to the human mind, the epic became not merely popular but immortal.
Warris Shah died in 1790, at the age of 60. It was his dream to see Punjab free from foreign invasions. Had he lived another ten years, he would have seen his dream come true when Ranjit Singh chased out Zaman Shah of Kabul beyond Jhelum river, never to return. However, he did come back to India but only as a helpless seeker of asylum which the generous Maharaja granted him in Lahore