Born in 1538 into a weaver
family, a fact he never felt ashamed of, Shah Husayn
received his early education in a mosque as was the
tradition. At an early age he had committed the Quran to
memory and mastered other faculties of religious
Growing as a religious scholar, his devotion and piety
impressed many people so much so that he attracted a
large number of followers. But when he publicly
announced his infatuation with a Brahmin boy, Madhu Laal,
he actually invited the wrath of the so-called
custodians of religion, who quickly unleashed their
hatred against him. His followers thinned away. However,
those who had accepted him with full conviction,
remained loyal to him, interpreting their saint’s love
pronouncement as a ploy to get rid of unwanted elements
and to be left alone.
After initial reluctance, Madhu Laal reciprocated the
affection wholeheartedly. Shah Husayn became Madhu Laal
Hussain, singing and dancing in ecstasy in the streets
of Lahore. Poetry began to flow smoothly from his lips
like water from a spring. Madhu’s name was barely
mentioned in Husayn’s poetry, which was actually a
commentary on the culture and history of the
subcontinent in his time.
The story moves further. Madhu became his vicegerent and
when he died, he was buried in the same grave where Shah
Husayn lay. The tomb is located adjacent to the Shalamar
Gardens, built by Emperor Shah Jahan, in Lahore. An
annual festival of lights (Mela Chiraghan) held there is
a popular event of Lahore. Devotees converging to
celebrate the event include Sikhs and Hindus. In fact,
the “mela” was initiated by a courtesan of Maharaja
Ranjeet Singh, who himself is reported to be a devotee
of the late Sufi poet.
A contemporary of emperor Akbar, Shah Husayn had several
disciples among the Mughal princes. But it is also
believed that Shah Husayn supported Dulla Bhatti, a
Robinhood of sorts who challenged the authority of the
regional Mughal generals. He was finally hunted down. A
Punjabi film portraying Bhatti’s life had become very
popular in the early 70’s.
In the year that Shah Husayn was born, a great poet and
visionary of Punjab had passed away. He was none other
than Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion
and the kafi.
The kafi is a short poem, or lyric. Shah Husayn’s kafis
are particularly crisp because of their brevity, usually
four to 15 lines including the refrain. The later
generation of Sufi poets such as Bulleh Shah, Ghulam
Farid and Sachal Sarmast wrote longer versions of the
genre. It is quite apparent that these poems were
written, if they were written at all, for music
composition. Some of them even mention the ragas they
are to be composed in. But many “smart” singers have
taken liberty with the poems and tampered with them
extensively. There are poems which seem to have a word
or two missing. But in many cases the addition, or
distortion, by these music composers exposed their own
lack of understanding.
In his kafis, Shah Husayn used the female pronoun more
often than other Punjabi Sufi poets did to express his
emotions. It is commonly held that the use of the
feminine gender was an attempt by the poets identifying
themselves with the oppressed class that was women.
Drawing imagery from his ancestral weaver craft, Husayn
highlighted the plight of women in general and working
women in particular. The motherdaughter affinity is a
theme he used effectively to compose his haunting
lyrics. “O mama, who do I tell the state of my
separation ... ?” The loving mama is invoked in his
kafis frequently as a source of solace to the distressed
But when he wants to depict the courage of women, he
presents the folk character of Heer to stress his point.
Heer was a symbol of defiance to society as she had
expressed her willingness to elope with Ranjha, who
groped for a less challenging path to reach his
Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar, the author of the volumes under
review, has done a very wise thing while purging the
text of weeds. He says he has deleted at places a word
or two which he might have found incoherent, but he has
not dared to add even a single word of his own.
The book contains 104 kafis. This is a fair
representation of the poet considering that Ghalib’s
matchless diwan has around 2,000 couplets. Ghalib had,
of course, written ghazals, marsias and sehras that
could have filled many more such diwans, but many
critics believe that this is the selection that has
given him immortality. On the other hand, Mir Taqi Mir
did not make such a selection and his bulky diwan
drowned the verses that could have distinguished him.
The author says he has left out the poems that contained
words that disfigured them and he suspected them to be
Ghaffaar has embarked on a very arduous journey of
bringing the Punjabi poets “within reach” to the English
reading population. His earlier two-volume book on
Bulleh Shah was a remarkable job indeed. This one has
surpassed the earlier work both in quality and quantum.
That more such volumes on other Sufis are in the works
shows the perseverance in hard work of the author.
He follows the pattern he has begun within his book on
Bulleh Shah Within Reach. First, he presents the kafi in
Nastaliq, or Urdu script. Then he gives its Gurmukhi
version, followed by Roman English. Then there is the
glossary of each line before its versified translation
in English. Finally, there are the notes, explaining one
or two lines at a time. The alphabetical glossary at the
end of the book makes the reader’s job easier still.