Nine months ago, after many practice sessions, and gentle nudges by my son and daughter, I was finally happy with the first track of my a-capella (without musical accompaniment) interpretation of Waris Shah’s Heer: Ranjha Leaves Takht Hazara. It was the heart-wrenching scene wrought with emotion when Ranjha makes the incredibly difficult decision to leave everything he knows and loves behind: his family, his ancestral home, and in a sense, his entire world. Something I am sure many of us, especially those living outside of India, can relate to.
As many of you know, I have never studied singing or poetry in any professional capacity, either through a Guru or in a classroom. At a very early age, I discovered the power poetry had to describe emotions and to change minds, first through poetic verses written in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, and also through the progressive poetry of many stalwarts in PreetLarhi (I was introduced to the magazine by Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna).
The first time I read Waris Shah’s Heer on stage , I was studying Ag.(horticulture) at Khalsa College in Amritsar and was mesmerized by the depth of human emotion that was conveyed in the words of Waris Shah from a seemingly simple tragic love story.
In the decades that followed, many life changes took place. I became a landscape architect, a husband and I became a father. With my family, we travelled and lived in many countries half round the world through my job involving the United Nations projects, eventually ending up in Central California , U.S.A. where I returned to my “roots” in agriculture. Like Ranjha, I also had to make the difficult decision to leave not only my home, and everything that was familiar to me, but also my home country. Now I am in my 70s and am a double grandfather to two beautiful grand-daughters and a grand-son.
The reason that I, like many Punjabis the world over, have such a deep connection with Waris Shah’s Heer stems from the beauty of the poetry, the universal sense of longing and separation, but also because this is a part of Punjabi literature, which many have disparaged as having nothing of substance. On the other hand some learned people make the comparison with Shakespeare or references to Greek tragic love stories, such as Jeet Singh “Seetal” who compiled a wonderful scholarly book on “Heer Waris” published by Navyug Press and presented to Bhai Sahab Dr. Jodh Singh, the then VC. Punjabi University Patiala in 1963. He describes the legend of ‘Heer-Ranjha’ as follows:
“In the land of Five Rivers, Waris breathed a new life in to the most famous love story of Heer-Ranjha. In so doing, he created such a ‘Shahkaar’ which played the same significant role in the history of the Punjabi literature as was played by the mythical romance of ‘Hero-Leandran’ in the Greek literature.”
In order not to confuse the reader in what is a legend, a myth or a fable , suffice it to say here that in the society in which it is told, a myth is usually regarded as a true account of the remote past. Consequently the love story of Heer and Ranjha is believed to be a true story of two lovers who once roamed the land of Jhang Sial and Takhat Hazara now in Pakistan, but will always remain in Punjab and in the minds and hearts of Punjabis the world over.
There have been many scholarly books and articles that have been published since then, some separating the myth from the reality, but most follow a similar train of thought and feel the need to compare this love story to a more familiar counterpart. My view is that Heer-Ranjha is in a category of its own. And the reason I say this is not out of an emotional response because of my Punjabi roots, but because there really is no good comparative love story. In the world’s most famous tragic love stories: Romeo and Juliet, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Hero and Leandran, and even love stories from India and Pakistan like Salim and Anarkali, or Laila Majnoon, they all end in the same way. The doomed lovers commit suicide when they realize they can never be together. In Heer-Ranjha, it is much more painful because the lovers still have this realization, but they must continue to live out their lives without their true loves by their side. I can’t think of anything more enduring and tragic than that.
My reason for even wanting to give my own interpretation of the beautiful verses from Waris Shah is to add to the understanding of how profound it is, and for Punjabis to be proud of their literary heritage. Several years ago, I was in Chandigarh for my first Rubaroo (a book launch) for my first collection of poetry. It was attended by many students of Punjabi literature from Punjab University and since there are many expanded versions of it freely available, I was surprised that many of them had not read Waris Shah’s real (Aslee) Heer. Many of them hadn’t even read any version of it!
After being happy with that first track which I finalized nine months ago, with the help of my son, I uploaded it to bandcamp and then to FaceBook where I received some very encouraging responses from people from all over the world. Many of you (especially my family, who are my biggest supporters) wanted me to start working on the second track. My daughter even drew the cover design back in June for a Father’s Day Present to encourage me.
I would like to thank all of you for all your encouragement and support. Please listen to the latest track at the top of this blog post, “Heer: Yaran Nu” and let me know what you think through comments or email.
Although I did not practice much since my college days, a series of audio recordings in my voice, singing selected passages from Waris’s Heer, will continue to improve and follow in my next blogs and You Tube. Punjabi lovers stay tuned!