Seraiki Language and its Poetics – by Hassan N. Gardezi
(The following article is extracted from the translator and editor’s introduction to ‘Tenement on Sand’, (Sunjian Saalheen) an English translation of selected Seraiki poems of Syed Hassan Raza Gardezi )
Seraiki is an Indo-Hittite, and therefore an Indo-European language, with its original pre- Islamic word-hoard deriving largely from the three stages of Vedic. Sanskrit and Prakrit (the word for ‘broken’ in Vedic is ‘bhajyate’ and in Seraiki ‘bhajjya) it also retains a puzzling and fascinating. smaller hoard of words and formations that have no analogues in Aryan speech and are in all probability carry over from the older Indus Valley forms of speech. Seraiki in its present geographical setting in the Indus valley had begun to evolve as a language of common discourse, distinct from the Magadhan Prakrit as early as the 5th century BC In all probability it was well established when in 325 B.C. Alexander of Macedon besieged the ancient fort of Multan and received the wound from which he was never to recover’.
References to a local speech, which is neither Prakrit or Sanskrit nor the more recent imports of Farsi and Arabic, but is Hindwi, and is spoken in the Indus Valley speech area begin to appear in the accounts of the Central Asian historians of the 10th and the 11th centuries. By the time we come to the middle sections of the Sikh Scripture, the Adi Granth. we come across a substantial body of verse in Seraiki. In these sections dating back to late 15th early 16th century, a clear evidence of the Seraiki poetical imagination begins to surface. Written references to Multani as a distinct speech community are found in an authoritative Farsi text of Emperor Akbar’s period (1542-1606 AD), according to which the province of Lahore is also placed in the ‘Multani’ speaking belt.
Despite the ancient roots of the Seraiki language and it’s oral literary tradition, rather a small body of ‘written’ literature in the language has survived. At the core of the Seraiki literary imagination lies, the fundamental oral imperative which, paradoxically is also the secret of its vitality and survival. It is this imperative which explains the extraordinary urgency and emotive drive as well as the unusual syncretic capacity that are the characteristic marks of the Seraiki poetics and Seraiki imagination.
For a variety of reasons, Seraiki has never been the language of the literate, political, and religious elite and priesthood who, since they were often foreigners, at various times, chose the so called classical languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi, and later on, English and Urdu as their mode of written communication. As emperors, monarchs and sundry adventurers of Hellenic, Central Asian, Iranian, Turkish, Arab and British origin contended for power in the plains of the Indus Valley, turning them into bloody battlefields, the Seraiki speech community resisted domination, fiercely at times, guarding the integrity of the mother tongue by refusing to succumb to the allure of the latest variety of the ‘imperial’ speech. As a consequence, the Seraiki speech community failed to develop a political, and therefore linguistic power base of its own.
For those who did establish themselves as rulers, it was not advantageous to adopt the language of the ruled as the written medium of formal education, religious ritual and discourse, state administration, business and commerce. To do that would demystify their claims to superiority, wisdom and divine rights to rule. It is interesting to note as a significant aside, that when Sikhs ruled Punjab in the first half of the 19th century, they too retained Persian as the court language, despite the fact that their mother tongue was Punjabi, sister language of Seraiki, with script of its own.
Thus Seraiki never got the chance to grow within the formal precincts of the academy, the temple, the mosque, the court or the monastery. To this day, each generation of Seraiki speakers has learned the language by hearing the lullabies of mothers at home, speaking to playmates in yards and alleys and by listening to the elders, story tellers and folk singers. It has preeminently been the tongue of the truly creative living the language of essential human affections (in the Wordsworthian sense). This free and open environment of growth makes Seraiki a natural language endowed with its characteristic qualities which have fascinated many an outside observer. It has been called a ‘sweet’ language which objectively means that it has a mix of acoustic phonemes that strike the ear of the listener with soothing and rhythmic sounds with no sharp breaks. The ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds are uttered softly as in French. Its syntax is simple and flexible which makes it an excellent medium for composing metered and rhymed poetry. Its vocabulary is rich and self-sufficient in giving expression to the range of wants and experiences of ordinary workers, craftsmen, traders, farmers pastoralists, caravan travelers boatmen and women. Seraiki vocabulary and imagery is also a profuse reflection of’ the surrounding natural environment.
The heartland of this natural environment constitutes the arid plains of southern Punjab overlapping with northern Sindh. Large tracts of these plains are now irrigated mainly by the Indus and Chenab river and yield rich crops of wheat, cotton and rice. A considerable part of Seraiki heartland is dominated by the Thar desert with its silvery sands and scorching day-time sun, unique flora and fauna, camel caravans, mysteries and optical illusions. Together these stretches of desert, cultivated fields, mighty rivers with their seasonal floods. long summers and scanty rainfalls form the natural surroundings which cradle the numerous Seraiki legends and folk tales celebrating love, beauty and self-sacrifice. These legends and folk tales continue to enrich the imaginations of contemporary Seraiki poets and artists as they have done in the past.
Finally, the Seraiki language has a profoundly distinctive symbolism which gives its speech community a unified world view and perception of the cosmic order. This symbolism has its roots in the beliefs and teachings of the Hindu Bhakti saints and Muslim saints who freely intermingled with the common people since medieval times conveying their message through song and poetry composed in the folk languages. The content of this message is well articulated in the Seraiki poetry to which we now turn.
As is the case with the language itself, much of Seraiki poetry also belongs to an oral tradition and has never been put into writing. it is therefore not quite feasible to reconstruct a history of Seraiki Poetry and its thematic content from its very origins, although the imprints of the obscure past can readily be discerned in more recent and written literature. In what has been preserved orally, one comes, across diverse cultural ideas and beliefs, portrayals of nature and seasons, accounts of battles and conquests, odes and elegies, legends of love and passion, each written in different verse forms. By the 15th century AD however, most of these diverse strands seem to have undergone a striking thematic synthesis into a rich tradition of Sufi poetry. Since this synthesis has left its indelible mark on subsequent Seraiki poetry, it would be in order to recapitulate its salient features, with some introduction to its Poetic exponents.
The Sufi Influence
Although many of the Sufi poets came from a background of formal learning in orthodox Islamic theology and were well-versed in- Arabic and Persian, they chose the languages and symbolism of the masses of peasants and workers for their poetic expression. In Seraiki verse, as in Sindhi and Punjabi, they conveyed their message of’ human fraternity, universal love and respect for all creation. The centerpiece of this message is the concept of ‘wahdat-ul-wajud’, or oneness of all being. God is the primordial manifestation of this oneness, the eternal truth, visualized in Sufi poetry is the Divine Beloved. or simply the Beloved. He is the cosmic reality from which emanates all creation, from lowliest beings to the most elevated saints., prophets ,and gods of all religions, just as light radiates from the sun. By cultivating the love of God or the Divine Beloved one can see His reflection in all forms of existence. including one’s own self. Obversely, it is the destiny of all creation to reunite and be one with the Divine Beloved. The Sufi God is, thus, not the personalized God of institutional religions, feared more by humans for their sins than loved.
Sufi poetry, in particular, dwells extensively on this theme of romance and passionate love with the Beloved as the most exalting spiritual experience. The Beloved is, however, not envisioned as a metaphorical abstraction but as a sensuous, this worldly being full of life and beauty. The vicissitudes of love are also expressed in the common human emotions of joy and delight at the prospect of union with the Beloved, and distress and sorrow on being separated from the Beloved. However, to be close to the Beloved one must renounce arrogance, egotistic conceit, desire to dominate others and feeling of superiority on the basis of rank, creed, caste or color. Sufi poets also stress that without the spark of love no true knowledge of oneself or of external reality can be achieved. Knowledge devoid of love remains only partial leading to the baser motivation of control and destruction of’ other human beings as well as nature in general.
The objective of the Sufi poets is to articulate this entire philosophy and world view not in scholastic jargon but in the idiom of common understanding. Seraiki, with all its popularly developed linguistic resource, natural imagery, Symbolism, folk tales, and legends has provided an excellent medium through which to reach the hearts and minds of a wide audience. The rich symbolic content of the age-old heroic folk tales lends itself eminently to imparting color ,and credibility to the Sufi poets’ beliefs and cosmology. ‘Their poems celebrate the lives of legendary lovers such as Sassi Punnu (Punnal) Sohni, Marvi and many others. Although the tradition of Sufi poetry in Seraiki begins to take definite shape in the 14th century AD in the verse of Baba Farid Shakargang, the first great Seraiki poet widely known for his Sufi poems is Sultan Bahu (c. 1631 – 1691) who lived in Shorkat, north of Multan. He was an eminent Arabic and Persian scholar. but is best known for his Seraiki verse which was compiled for publication long after his death in the early 20th century. All his poems are composed in the same verse form known as ‘siharfi’ which is an acrostic on the alphabet. Words beginning with each letter of the alphabet are selected in sequence to start the first metrical line of the poem. Normally each ‘siharfi’ consists of four lines, each divided into two ‘tukks’ or rhythms. The style of Bahu’s ‘siherfis’ is simple and unpretentious, and he relies almost entirely on the popular imagery, similes and metaphors of Seraiki to convey his message. Spiritual Gnosticism and praise of the Beloved is a pervasive theme of his poetry as illustrated in the following siharfi.
Neither Hindu nor true Muslim; they do no obeisance in the mosque In every creature they see the Lord; they who have not gone amiss. Came wise and turned mad; they who put themselves together My life be gifted to those Bahu; they who chose love’s vocation.
Bahu in his poems shows a special disaffection for the functionaries of institutionalized religion. He lived during the period of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, known in history as the enemy of the Sufis. Aurangzeb patronized the orthodox Muslim ulema, the learned clerics. and posted them to influential positions in the state bureaucracy as qazi. judges and prosecutors, muftis, the arbiters of Islamic law, and so on. Bahu dissociate himself from these men of learning and influence, rejecting the rewards and punishments they hold out for ritual conformity in place of real spiritual experience.
I am not a learned scholar, neither the mufti, nor the qazi Hell I do not desire, Heaven has no appeal to me
The thirty fasts I do not keep, neither do I say my prayers Communion with God is all I seek, the rest is but a false game.
The most celebrated Seraiki poet of the past, who carried the tradition of the Sufi poetry into the dawn of 20th century, is Khawaja Farid (1845 – 1901). His poems are composed in the verse form known as Kafi, most widely used by the Sufi poets of the region. Sufi poetry in Seraiki as well as Sindhi and Punjabi is always composed to be sung. Had it not been for generations of folk singers, minstrels and kawals (inspirational singers) who memorized and passed it on, much less of this poetry would have survived. The Kafi is specially designed for singing to the tunes of the prevalent musical system. Each Kafi is essentially a lyric comprising of unity of sound, imagery, feeling and subject matter. However, any one of these elements may be highlighted in a given Kafi. Thus a prominent English translator of Khawja Farid’s selected poems has compiled them into sections entitled ‘faith and instructions ‘love and distress,” “desert and rains.” Farid with his mastery over the language recreates in his Kafis superb images of nature, feelings of love and lovers’ distress while reflecting at the same time on the metaphysics of existence and reality. The following lines of Kafi for example stress the oneness of all existence.
The world is but an idle dream
It’s shapes a film upon a stream
If you would know reality
Then listen carefully, mark and see
That oneness is a mighty sea
Where pluralism’s bubbles team
The following lines of a Kafi show how Farid can skillfully combine onomatopoeic effects with a sensuous description of the beloved’s charms that torment the one who is in love.
The beloved’s intense glances call for blood
The dark hair wildly flows The Kohl of the eyes is fiercely black
And slays the lovers with no excuse
My appearance in ruins, I sit and wait
While the beloved (Maru) has settled in Malheer I feel the sting of the cruel dart
My heart the, abode of pain and grief A life of tears, I have led Farid
This had to be the script of my fate
Folk tales and Legends
One can truly appreciate such lyrics of love and distress, if one knows the folk tales that have circulated in the region for centuries, and from which the Sufi poets draw their imagery and symbols. These tales have to do with young lovers prevented from uniting by false family and kinship values invariably ending in tragedies for one or both lovers who defy the cruel customs by exceptional acts of daring. In the lines of the Kafi quoted above there is a reference to Marv’s love for her beloved who is forced to move to the distant city of Malheer. One of the most celebrated folktales in Seraiki and Sindhi has to do with Sassi love for Punnu which figures in as many as 66 Kafis composed by Farid. This story also has an intimate association with the Thar desert, because it is here that the final act of this high drama of love and passion unfolds. It may be in order to briefly sketch this folktale for the unfamiliar readers.
According to legend, Punnu, the chieftain of a Baluch tribe from the city of Kech, arrives in the city of Bhambhore with his caravan, after crossing the Thar desert. Here lives Sassi, a maiden of renowned beauty and daughter of the king of Bhamhhore. On seeing Punnu, she passionately falls in love with him and arranges a big feast in his honor. Punnu kinsmen who do not like this affair serve strong wine to the lovers to make them drowsy. As Sassi and Punnu retire to their bed of flowers, they fall fast asleep. Waiting for this moment, Punnu kinsmen quietly sneak in, carry the slumbering Punnu away to his camel and race back to Kech. When Sassi wakes up in the morning, she finds her beloved gone. Leaving all caution aside she runs to the desert on foot in pursuit of the caravan. By mid-day, when the desert sands heat up under the blazing sun, Sassi falls to the ground exhausted and is scorched to death while still calling for Punnu. A shepherd who had been watching the scene picks up her body and buries her in a desert grave. He lives at her graveside as a fakir for the rest of his life to tell the story of how Sassi perished in the pursuit of her beloved.
The basic legend is told and retold in rich detail in the oral tradition of local story tellers, folk singers and Sufi poets like Farid who read into it profound meanings regarding love, life, death and reality. The Sufi poet puts himself in the persona of the lover, invariably a woman like Sassi to represent her feelings and experiences in natural life setting. Farid as the master of his art speaks through the Sassi persona to portray vividly the desert, in which she died, with its great diversity of appearances, changing seasons and life forms. Note the following verse of a Kafi, for example: .
Where the desert grasses twist my love Ever-shifting shapes exist my love
The crickets creak, the pigeons coo
The foxes howl, the hyenas mew
The geckoes puff, the lizards whoo
The snakes and serpents hiss my love
In these surrounding rises the voice of Sassi.
Oh, in this desert’s blessed sight I’ll die indeed but not take fright
As for Punnu, he becomes for the Sufi a living and pervasive symbol of divine beauty.
See Punnal’s presence everywhere
All mystics mark and hear know only he is here
All else shall disappear
Another traditional Seraiki verse form is ‘Dohra’. It normally has four metric lines, all of which rhyme in the same manner. Dohra is always written to be sung and is employed uniquely in the composition of ‘marsia’, elegies, commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed during Muharam, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Seraiki ‘marsia’, recited in a combination of verse and poetic prose, is so popular that its professional and semi-professional reciters are in great demand in all parts of Pakistan during the month of Muharam. As a literary genre, Seraiki ‘marsia’ is one of the oldest, dating back to the 13th century when Muslim migrants from Arabia and Central Asia had started settling in large numbers in the vicinity of Multan and upper Sindh. These settlers, particularly the syeds among them, started the practice of holding assemblies commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain. The ‘marsia’ in these assemblies was recited in the sad notes of a Seraiki composition known as maaru. Since than a number of Seraiki poets have made their mark as masters of this literary form, as the form itself changed over time. By early 19th century, the ‘marsia’ took its present form in which verse is combined with prose to construct a continuous narrative, depicting specific episodes and dialogues surrounding the martyrdom of Hussain and his companions. The skill of the ‘marsia’ composer and reciter lies in the ability to arouse an intense emotional response in the audience of mourners. That the Seraiki ‘marsia’ and it’s recitation should achieve this objective most effectively is no doubt attributable to the versatility of the language itself as a medium of emotive expression. The following ‘dohra’ ‘taken from a ‘marsia’ composed by Ghulam Haider Fida (1880-1943) is quoted as an example. It captures the tragedy of infant Asghar’s killing by the soldiers of Yazid who had surrounded the camp of Hussain:
Child in arms – the son of Ali (Hussain) begs for water . With down-cast looks, says the Master of the Two Worlds
Oceans will not dry up if you give (this infant) a drink of water
Hurmil (Yazid’s soldier) is ready to answer with a lethal arrow.
Note the irony built into the first two verses.