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Poet, Singer, and Activist

Free Audio Download: Heer, “Yaran Asan Nu”

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Audio Download | 2 comments

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 am pleased to tell you that I have finally finished the second track of Heer (also acapella) after a significant amount of recording sessions. 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!

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My Father’s Day Present: Heer CD Cover Design

Posted by on Jun 20, 2011 in Discussion, Punjabi Poetry | 0 comments

Audio CD for Waris Shah's "Heer" sung by Pashaura Singh Dhillon (artwork by Navreet Kaur Dhillon)

Audio CD for Waris Shah’s “Heer” sung by Pashaura Singh Dhillon

This year for Father’s Day, I received a very nice joint gift. My daughter, Navreet Kaur Dhillon, is a physician in the Bay Area, and also a very talented artist. My son, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, is a Creative Writing/English Literature lecturer in New York City.

Both my son and daughter collaborated via phone and internet from East and West Coast to create a CD cover for “Heer,” an album I didn’t even know I was making! I had recorded one track giving my own interpretation to Waris Shah’s epic poem, and uploaded it to FaceBook after several people requested me. It was (and still is) available for free download in a blog post I wrote, “Heer Forever Stands Tall (ਗੁੱਝੀ ਰਹੇ ਨਾ ਹੀਰ ਹਜ਼ਾਰ ਵਿਚੋਂ )” in addition to Audio Downloads (above in the navigation bar). Many have since asked me to sing some more tracks, which I had said I would do in my own time. Now, it looks like I better get moving!

Below is my daughter’s original drawing:

Artwork for Waris Shah's "Heer - Ranjha" by Navreet Kaur Dhillon

Original Artwork for CD Cover of “Heer” by Navreet Kaur Dhillon

And below is my son’s contribution. Have a listen to this CD, which currently only has one track, but there will more soon! Let me know what you think!

While you wait for “Heer” to be completed, check out my e-books, available in Punjabi (both Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts) and English. You can also download/listen to completed digital albums/CDs at


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Punjabi Poetry At A Glance

Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Discussion, Punjabi Poetry | 2 comments

Punjabi Poetry: Sher, Kavita, Nazm, GhazalOne of the questions I am often asked about is something that confuses many people: what are the various terms in Punjabi poetry? People have this misconception that Punjabi poetry is not at par with poetry from other languages in the region, such as Urdu or Hindi. It has an incredibly long history and is as complicated as any other form of literature. There is also a misconception that Punjabi is not a poetic language. What this is based on, I am not sure, but if this were true, at over 70 years old, I would have found another language to sing and write my poetry in by now!

Like many other ancient languages, Punjabi has evolved through various stages and Punjabi poetry is perhaps as old as Punjab’s Indus Valley civilization. It has beautiful and complex ballads both from the past and contemporary Punjabi poetry can easily be compared to verses from Shakespearean sonnets, traditional Japanese haikus, or modern “free verse” forms of poetry, including Spoken Word. Stalwarts from the past have contributed significantly to Punjabi poetry like Waris Shah, Sultan Bahu, Bullhe Shah, Chandar Bhan and Ali Haidar amongst many others. Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh. Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam are considered luminaries who pioneered the new era in Punjabi Poetry. Properly defining the different styles and forms found in Punjabi poetry is an impossible task for someone who is not a literary historian. I have never taken a poetry class, or studied the form in an academic setting. I have read countless poems over the decades and they have all, in some shape of form, influenced my views on life and, of course, on my poetry.  Here is Punjabi Poetry at a Glance:

ghazal has its origins in the Arabic language and is traditionally considered a more scholarly form of poetry. It is a collection of couplets that embody a single thought or subject. A couplet is known as a sher. The plural of a sher is an ashaar(s). A  ghazal contains  5-15 ashaars and follows the rules of matla, maqta, behr, kaafiyaa and radif.
Here is an example of a sher from Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poem, “ਮਾਏ ਨੀ ਮਾਏ”/ Mae Ni Mae :
ਮਾਏ ਨੀ ਮਾਏ/ Mae Ni Mae
ਮੈਂ ਇਕ ਸ਼ਿਕਰਾ ਯਾਰ ਬਣਾਇਆ/ Mai ik shikra yaar banalia

There are many subcategories of a ghazal and the rules that govern its definition can get very complex. For example, a ghazal is an arrangement of lines whereby the first two lines rhyme with each other which in turn rhyme with the fourth, sixth, eighth and so forth. Each couplet conveys a complete message and may be interconnected to continue a theme. I told you it was confusing!

Any poem which does not pass the criteria to be considered a ghazal is called a kavita in Punjabi and a nazm in Urdu.

For a more in-depth look at the intricacies of the ghazal and many of the terms surrounding it, check out this article, “What is a Ghazal?”

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Heer Forever Stands Tall (ਗੁੱਝੀ ਰਹੇ ਨਾ ਹੀਰ ਹਜ਼ਾਰ ਵਿਚੋਂ ): A Post on Punjab

Posted by on Feb 7, 2011 in Discussion | 1 comment

Free Audio Download of me singing “Heer: Ranjha Leaves Takht Hazara” (a-capella)

“Heer forever stands Tall” is something I, and I’m sure many Punjabis take for granted. That Waris Shah’s tragic love story, “Heer” would be counted amongst the most poignant love stories of the world.

But this is not so. Not according to the many lists my son, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, who teaches English literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, sent me.

A few weeks ago, I was preparing a radio talk on folklore literature for the Punjab News and Views Program Radio Talk Show, presented on KBIF900AM,  in Fresno California. It is a discussion program in Punjabi for our central valley family of Punjabi listeners, which I co-host each Sunday between 3.00- 4.00PM. I asked Navdeep if there was a list of famous love stories in literature and folklore revered worldwide. He immediately sent me several lists. And surprisingly, while some of them mentioned some Indian love stories, none of them even mentioned Heer-Ranjha, or any other Punjabi love story. But William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was at the top of most of these lists.

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Punjab is in the Tube!

Posted by on Jan 10, 2011 in Discussion | 2 comments

A Relic of the Past: The Persian WheelA few days back I was invited by one of my friends to attend a dinner party he helped arrange to honor a promising legislator from Punjab. The dinner party took place in Fresno the uncrowned capital of California. Fresnans of the Punjabi community are unique in welcoming politicians of all parties with equal zeal and affection. Although weary of unkept promises to the NRIs by visiting politicians from Punjab in the past and not so good news from near and dear ones back home, they still appear to be ever so anxious to hear any leader big or small, in power or in an opposition party from Punjab tell them what he or she has to say. They love to share their concerns and ask questions in the hope of learning something positive or expecting something new. Any news giving them the hope that Punjab is not going down the tube.
Over the years, I have attended many such gatherings, and the questions posed this time were ones I have often heard over and over covering topics from rude treatment meted out by the Indian Consul General office in San Francisco for getting visas, rampant corruption, brain drain by mass exodus of youth in hopelessness leaving Punjab by whatever means; drugs, unemployment, farmer indebtedness and suicides, safety of NRI life and property in Punjab, and everything in between.

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