Punjabi Qissas and the Story of Urdu

Heer-Ranjha in a Pakistani film poster, circa 1970s

The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Literature in British Colonial Punjab
by Farina Mir
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010.
pp-277, price Rs 695

This book straddles several anomalies that are rather obvious once stated but are rarely formulated as such. How is it that the world of Urdu literature becomes so dominated by people from the Punjab in a span of fifty years, beginning circa 1900s, and in a sense, continues to remain so? Iqbal, Faiz, Meeraji, Rashid, Bedi, Manto, Krishan Chander and down to our times Mushtaq Ahmed and Zafar Iqbal, a top twenty or top fifty list of modern Urdu litterateurs would likely contain eighty percent Pubjabis. And how is it that Punjabi, which produced such a brilliant and varied repertoire of stories, epics and poems until the late medieval era by such extraordinary luminaries as Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, Haridas Haria seems to drop out of our horizon in the modern era, where all we know of is an Amrita Pritam or, less likely, a Surjit Patar. Where such poverty after such riches, where such preponderance from such invisibility? And yet, how is it that Punjabi still continues to enjoy immediate and even aural connotations that transcend nationality, religion and, even as it defines a community, a specific ethnicity. What then is a Punjabi community and where and how has it existed specifically in the colonial era but, in many resilient ways, down to our times?

Add to this another vignette. During his trial in Britain in 1940, the revolutionary nationalist Udham Singh, who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab who presided over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, asked to take oath not on any religious text but on Hir Waris, the Hir-Ranjha poem penned by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century. ‘What authority,’ asks the writer of the book under review, ‘was vested in the romance of Hir and Ranjha for this political revolutionary?’

The book examines the notion of a Punjabi identity by investigating the formation of a Pubjabi literary community which centred on the composition, narration, performance and circulation of a set of stories, in verse and often set to music, called qissas. Mir’s thesis is an attempt to define and narrate the formation of a Punjabi literary community woven around the qissas, especially the love stories, that were composed, recited and listened to by people of all faiths and backgrounds.

That this happened at a time when the colonial government in the Punjab was actively propagating Urdu as an official language and consciously downgrading Punjabi shows the resilience of this literary community and its chief practice around which this sociotextual community was formed, qisse. As a genre of literary creation, Qissas in North India were first composed in Indo-Persian by Amir Khusraw who retold the love stories of Laila MajnuN and Shirin Farhad in the masnawi form. These were then translated into several vernacular languages and these and other stories began to be composed in Punjabi which used the Persian masnawi form but relied on indigenous metres. From the eighteenth century onwards Punjabi qissa writers began to acknowledge a literary lineage, even a historicist consciousness, of the genre they were operating in. They began to pay homage to past masters of the genre in their compositions.

Beginning in the seventeenth century these love stories of Pubjabi, especially the story of Hir Ranjha (but also Sassi-Pannu, Sohni-Mahival and Shirn-Farhad) came to define a central element in the definition of a Punjabi identity. These stories were composed by many different kinds of people: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, noblemen and humbler folk, Sufis and courtiers. They were performed, recited, sung and enacted at shrines, village chowks, weddings, fairs and as stage productions. As such they gathered, in a sticky rather than a fuzzy way, a community around them which defined both an ethnicity as well as a regional identity. This continued in the colonial period even though the colonial state actively denied official patronage to Punjabi and sought to impose Urdu as an official language over Punjab. Qissas continued to thrive when print came to Punjab and provide a rare instance, in the nineteenth century, of a successful printing and publishing culture which did not depend on the colonial state for patronage.

Why was Pubjabi marginalized in favor of Urdu? After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the colonial government, in sync with steps in the rest of the country, wanted to develop a vernacular through which to govern Punjab. Punjabi, especially in the Gurumukhi script, was identified, erroneously, exclusively with the Sikh community. Chosing Punjabi, feared some in the colonial administration, might bolster the simmering Sikh nationalist sentiments. Besides, the colonial officials looked down upon Punjabi and found it ‘crude’, ‘barbaric’,  undeveloped, lacking a literature or worse, defined it as ‘merely a patois of Urdu’ which lacked a standardized script and usage. Since Punjabi was unfit the task fell upon Urdu. This was also convenient because a majority of the colonial administrators and their Indian collaborators (who were mainly drawn from Hindustan) were more familiar with Urdu than with Punjabi. The native chieftains in Punjab, it was argued, were also more familiar with Urdu. As elsewhere, in matters of linguistic, caste or religious purity the colonial state often adopted, modified to its purposes of course, the prejudices of its chief native informers. Thus Urdu became the official language of Punjab from 1854 and in addition to administrative usage, it also became the chief language of education.  A three tier school system, village, tehsili and zilla schools, capped by the famous Government College of Lahore evolved with Urdu as the chief vehicle of instruction. As documented elsewhere Punjab’s Department of Public Instruction under William Arnold also attempted a vigorous reform of Urdu literature by organizing theme Mushairas, giving prizes for reformistic essays, commissioning text books and subsidizing newspaper and book publishing. This facilitated a thriving public print culture in Urdu, across the religious divide, dominated by books, newspapers and journals. Thus it was that for a hundred years, until partition, Punjab became a fertile ground for Urdu language and literature. And it was this policy that allowed for a later efflorescence of Urdu literature in Punjab.

However, Punjabi could not be reduced either to a specific ethnic group or a script. Punjabi print data establish that Indo-Persian, Nagri and Gurumukhi scripts were all used to publish texts in Punjabi. Neither could any script be exclusively identified with a particular religion. Mir shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century eighteen different editions of the Adi Granth were published in Punjabi in the Urdu script while five Punjabi translations of the Ramayana were also published in it. Moreover, while the colonial state misidentified the provenance of Punjabi and helped the spread of Urdu in Punjab it also grievously underrated the literary heritage of Punjab. Not only did Punjab have a thriving body of literature, going back a few centuries, but it was a literary heritage that straddled the entire region and across its religious communities. These chiefly consisted of qissas or love stories but also of other classical genres such as var, dole, kafi, doha, si harfi and baran mah. These had been composed, performed, recited and read by a whole miscellany of people living in Punjab. The writers and the literary community which patronized these compositions successfully harnessed print into the service of these genres and crucially, Punjabi print culture, resting on these indigenous and older genres thrived independent of colonial support. The most popular among these genres were qissas, tales of love, imbued often with the piety of saint veneration and composed sometimes by the leading Sufi-saints of Punjab. The most iconic of those was the qissa of Hir-Ranjha and its most outstanding version was composed by Waris Shah in the eighteenth century.

Mir is successful at teasing out the various strands for the popularity and resilience of this literary formation which in her view shows both the limits of the colonial power as also the resilience of indigenous tastes and practices. Instead of cultural rupture that characterises colonial rule elsewhere in the subcontinent here was a cultural practice and a mode of identity that showed continuities from the pre-colonial period. The world of saint-veneration and shared notions of piety where the qissas were nestled allowed many different connotations to play out at once. Ranjha was a pastoralist, a Jat, a nomad, a Sufi-disciple, a form of Krishna as well as a Punjabi. His identity could be defined by his zat, his watan, his des, his suba, his passion, his poetry or his flute. The many different versions of the same story, composed by people of different religions and backgrounds, emphasise similar features, which characterised Punjabi society at large. People who narrated or composed these stories could be professional bards, singers, storytellers, qawwals, noblemen or saint-poets. They were performed at festivals, weddings, ritual celebrations, village chowks, Gurudwaras as well as at Sufi shrines. Their book versions were illustrated and often showed high quality production. The female heroine Hir appeared to enjoy a greater agency as a woman than we attribute to pre-colonial societies. She could challenge social norms, the Mulla and his Sharia, her mother, social dictates and notions of honor from different vantage points in different stories. Qissas were also simultaneously oral and written literature and this again shows continuities with the past as well as contemporary practices in other parts of India. It was as a kind of autonomous activity, independent of colonial institutions and policies, that the qissas made a successful transition to print. However, even as a printed form, their oral provenance and their aural texture remained alive. Fragments or episodes could be published independently because their readers and listeners were already familiar with the main contours of the story.

Mir ably covers almost the entire gamut of the different facets of colonial production of oriental knowledge. The construction of the colonial archive following administrative imperatives, the understanding that language provided the key to ruling a people and that mastering the language allowed a command over rulership, the ethnographic and taxonomic drive that characterised data collection in the late nineteenth century India, the role played by the socio-religious reformers of the nineteenth century in the construction of nationalities and in sectarian conflicts within and in between communities, the nature and place of women in this discourse, the nature of print production and the book trade in the Punjab in this period, the development and spread of Qawwali, the role of Sufis and religious shrines, there is hardly any strand of her topic that she leaves out. Alongside she shows us how received wisdom about print nationality does not apply to Punjab where this relatively autonomous literary formation continued to thrive and to define itself not against or as an alternative but parallel to the sectarian conflicts between Hindus (the Arya Samaj), Sikhs (the Singh Sabhas) and Muslims (Deobandis, Ahmadiyyas and Barelvis). Even while the political battles raged there were other practices and pastimes which brought people together and this happened along several axes. Notions of piety which emanated from Punjab’s Sufi shrines and their ritual, cult practices animated people as strongly as ideas of religious exclusion or a print nationality. The role and conduct of women in these qissas were different from the reformed and subdued gender identities being purveyed by religious reformers, even or particularly by those who favored education for women. Even while caste or tribe was the main trope for the colonial or official newspaper discoursed in the province, there were other ways of mapping social groupings viz zaat, biradari, misl and qaum.

While Mir exhaustively covers all the related themes around her main thesis my slight cavil with it is that she does not do enough with its core. A book which is titled ‘the social space of language,’ is subtitled ‘vernacular language of British Colonial Punjab,’ and it then narrows itself to a discussion of the formation of a literary community around qissas and then foreshortens that too specifically to the qissas of Hir Ranjha. But the discussion around Hir Ranjha is also embedded in a deep engagement with the cultural historiography of nineteenth century India so we get as much coverage of the existing literature on caste, gender, census, publishing, book trade, popular religiosity, Sufis and Qawwalis. Mir is farily persuasive at recounting these strands and also in connecting it to her main thesis. However, often the background details overshadow the kernel which they are supposed to highlight. To resort to a simplified or perhaps even a simplistic formulation, it is written from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. We learn a great deal about the world around which the Qissas were composed and performed but not as much about their consumption or their reception.

Moreover, the popularity of Qissas in the eighteenth century, or its resilience into the nineteenth, was not restricted to Punjab alone. All across Hindustan, that is North India, several such stories were composed and narrated in ways which were very similar to Punjab. Qissa-e Nal Damyanti, Rani Rupmati aur Baz Bahadur, Betal Pachisi, Singhasan Battisi, Barahmasa, these stories and genres circulated from the vernacular to Persian and back to the vernacular in North India. Legions of Urdu masnawis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries described similar love stories. Many of them, especially in Awadhi, were deployed by Sufi saint-poets, in what came to be known as Premakhyans, to discuss and propagate Sufism. Often these enjoyed enormous cache in both elite and popular circles. Daud’s Chandayan for instance was a highly prized book, was often lavishly illustrated and circulated at courtly circles and at one time, according to Badauni, was read aloud in a mosque in Delhi. These Hindustani tales were also meant to be recited aloud and were presumably set to music and performed too. There is then an elite-subaltern circularity that is similar to the Punjabi situation. Moreover, when print came to North India it was these qissas which formed the mainstay of popular consumption. It was for this reason that a majority of the publications brought out by Fort William consisted of these tales, which had already been in oral and written circulation for some centuries. Book advertisements in the early newspapers of North India as well as analyses of the print runs establish beyond doubt that Qissas remained the most popular genre of readership and oral consumption in North India beyond Punjab. They also contain the same mixture of neeti or akhlaq which is good moral conduct, notions of piety that went beyond any particular religious community and they too recounted stories that were already familiar to people.

Some of these stories were actively patronized by the colonial state. For instance the Qissa-e Chahar Darwesh also known as Bagh-o Bahar that was printed at Fort William by Mir Amman Dehlavi became highly popular thanks in part to the colonial patronage and because it was used to teach Urdu to the colonial recruits. But the colonial administrators had an ambivalent relation with the text and never ceased to harp on the need for a more morally charged literature compared to the obscene and crude fables put out by the Hindustanis. Most of these stories, as production and as comsumption, cut across denominational religious lines. Many of them later became a part of the staple repertoire of the commercial universe of Parsi theatre and thence into Hindi cinema, thus giving us a film version of Laila MajnuN starring Rishi Kapur as late as 1976.

Did the uniqueness of Punjab lie in the lack of official patronage for printing or that the iconic saint-figures constituted a boundary of imagination which was multiplied by a specified set of qissas? Did this commonality of a shared interest in Punjabi literary formation exist precisely because Punjabi had not been elevated as an official language, it was too familiar, too everyday, to cause high political contestation? Is that freedom borne of accidental innocuousness, of a sort, the reason why it continues to survive as something of a labour of instantaneous love across the South Asian divides? Urdu poets from Punjab retained and continue to do so, their familiarity with Punjabi literary cultures, exactly in the same vein as Urdu poets from Awadh did with Awadhi or Braj or Bhojpuri, now and before. How deep this shared literary formation penetrate – writers apart, did the religious-communal warfare and pogroms of partition compel rethinks at the popular level? Farina Mir’s book compels one to ask many questions while leaving us with a groundbreaking work on Punjab and its many identities.


I wanted to use this book review to reopen a debate that started some years ago on Kafila (one and two) where a gentleman called Panini Pothoharvi raised all our hackles by attacking the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhiyanvi on several grounds – that he was a lachrymose versifier as a poet and a mediocre film lyricist albeit a significant cultural phenomenon, that Urdu is an elite language and Sahir did not write in Punjabi but in Urdu because he was seduced by the riches that Urdu, as an elite language, brought to people born outside its fold, that Punjabi had the greatest, of North Indian languages, literary output for a thousand years beginning around the second millennium, that Urduwallahs and their pseudo-secular followers had not allowed Punjabi the recognition and the space it deserves and that Urdu had deprived Punjabi of its rightful place in the literary horizon of India and the world at large.

Some of this goes further back than Panini. Amrit Rai in his A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi had argued that Urdu was an artificial and constructed language dating no older than the eighteenth century. The century which witnessed Nadir Shah’s invasion of Delhi and the disintegration of the Mughal Empire created panic in the minds of the Indo-Persian elites. In order to ensure that their distinction and separate identity remained unassailable they, especially the Delhi writers, systematically cast out Sanskrit and Desi, that is Tadbhav and Tatsam, words from a common literary language called Hindavi or Hindi, which had a pan-India currency and replaced it with a Persianate vocabulary, imagery and literary ethos. Thus Urdu was born out of the desire of the Indo-Persian elites to separate themselves from their Indian legacy. And since Maulvi Abdul Haq, hailed for his services to Urdu as the father of modern Urdu, the Baba-e Urdu, had proclaimed after partition and after he migrated to Pakistan that ‘Urdu it was that had created Pakistan,’ the retrospective judgment on eighteenth century poetic politics, at first glance, does not seem out of place.

Along with charges of illegitimacy and elitism and foreign implantations in its literary and linguistic practices Urdu has simultaneously also been celebrated for being a melting pot which came into existence because it assimilated the vocabulary and usage of several languages including Braj, Persian, Turkic, Portugese, Awadhi and English. It has been lauded for its secular orientation and been seen to have arisen in part out of the needs and practices of the Sufis who needed to speak to the common people to spread their message. This last point though has been strongly challenged by Professor Mujeeb Rizvi, recently, who avers that Sufis were already composing their Premakhyans to spread their message and philosophy and they were doing this in Awadhi, and in Braj, languages and/or literatures that were more easily understood by the masses including the peasants and which certainly had a longer reach than Urdu. Moreover, argues Professor Rizvi, writers like Mulla Daud and Jayasi were extremely well versed with High Persianate idioms and they consciously reproduced them in Awadhi thereby virtually creating a poetic tradition, a new vocabulary and almost a new language. They created new themes, new words and coinages to speak of Islam and in short integrated Indian poetic traditions to Indo-Persian traditions over centuries of practice. Compared to the deep constructivist work done by the medieval Sufis Urdu of the eighteenth century was a work of mere ‘embroidery’ without the intensity, ardour and significance of the work done by the Sufi-poets. Urdu’s urge for refinement, its ineluctable imbrications in Sharafat and the Sharif culture perforce cast it in an elitist mode. Thus modern Urdu turned away from its own indigenous past and created a literary vocabulary which was alien to the vast majority of the speakers from which it drew its consumers in a kind of precursor to the construction of modern Hindi in the nineteenth century.

At first sight this seems common-sensical because unlike Punjabi or Awadhi or Braj, peasants do not speak Urdu. Urdu was and is an urban language without a folk. But then again in pre-modern India, as  David Lelyveld says, ‘there was a diverse collection of languages, different languages for different people on different occasions,’ and a case can be made of a linguistic-literary culture where as Mir says, ‘there were colloquial, liturgical, sacred, court and literary languages, some of which overlapped and some of which did not.’ However, unlike the Punjab there is no single dense tradition that can define the much larger region of Hindustan. Divided into Braj, Awadhi, Bundeli, Rajasthani dialects superimposed by Khari Boli Urdu, the literary formations of these regions showed similarities with the Punjab but their regionalism was differently contoured. There is no doubt that the colonial patronage of Urdu benefitted the standardized and Persianised variant of eighteenth century Dehlavi Hindi but the patronage was issued because it was already the lingua franca across vast swathes of Hindustan and Deccan.

The taste for Urdu stretched well into the rural arena and the popularity of Parsi theatre songs and also of Nautanki are testimony to that. Moreover, the Urdu folk does not inhere in the canon in part because of the particularities of the internecine warfare between Hindi and Urdu in the late nineteenth century. But as a living tradition before 1857 it would be difficult to find an Urdu poet who did not also show enough command of the dialect of the locality where the poet or the writer hailed from. Awadhi of course formed the main hinterland of the poets from Awadh. Until at least the 1820s most poets also composed Divans in Braj, Shah Alam did, as did Rangin as did Insha. Deep awareness of the vernacular and participation in its cultural heritage went hand in hand with the high poetics of Urdu proper. Wajid Ali Shah’s thumris, swangs, Rahasaas and Indersabhas emerged from a literary culture where knowing Urdu was not enough. In a culture that prized virtuosity the poets had to show their mastery of several registers of language and also their command of linguistic pyrotechnics which prized performance and therefore knowledge of dialects around the core. Most poets spontaneously composed kabitts, the Braj short poetic form which are a commonplace presence in Masnawis and Dastans. What we get in Hindustan then, including the Punjab, is a literary culture where Braj, Awadhi and Punjabi dominated the literary landscape in certain designated regions but on top of which Urdu held sway. No doubt because of its elite moorings and patronage of the ruling elite but also because it could share affinities and features with all of these languages/dialects more strongly than either could do with each other.

Or perhaps that is incorrect?

14 thoughts on “Punjabi Qissas and the Story of Urdu”

  1. But as a living tradition before 1857 it would be difficult to find an Urdu poet who did not also show enough command of the dialect of the locality where the poet or the writer hailed from

    Well, that depends. Braj and Awadhi were languages that had a deep literary tradition as it is and it is only in modern times that the Hindi-Urdu language has threatened the two. This bilingual-ness, as it were, was starkly missing in the other languages of Hindustan which did not have a similar literary tradition. For example, are there any Delhi poets who left Persian and Hindi-Urdu to compose anything in the khaRii bolii register? Or for that matter, bhojpuurii?


    1. an interesting person to study is nawab raza ali khan the last ruler of rampur, who not only wrote ghazals but also char-bait, wedding songs and soz in khari boli as well as thumris in braj. the use of khari boli as a universal language is prevalent in rohilkhand but has not been given the importance it deserves.


    2. Actually khari boli is the register from which Urdu is said to have emerged, Khari Boli is not to be counterposed to Urdu but to Awadhi and Braj and other traditions.

      And you are right, it would be difficult to show a poet who stopped composing in Khari Boli Urdu but only composed in either Braj or Awadhi. But should they really have to stop one thing to do another? The medieval Hindustani linguistic scape is a minefield and I am not qualified to speak on it but Tulsi and Kabir and Surdas had a linguistic range available to them which extended from Braj to what we may call Awadhi even to Bhojpuri. And they did not necessarily make a distinction in that.


      1. Mahmood,

        Actually khari boli is the register from which Urdu is said to have emerged, Khari Boli is not to be counterposed to Urdu but to Awadhi and Braj and other traditions.

        Yes, Urdu is a standardised register of khaRi boli but that does not mean the two are the same thing. Registers of the same language can sometimes span great lengths, as you would obviously know given your amazing (and rather hilarious) take-down of Sarkari/Manik Hindi in Daastaan-e-sedition. Therefore, literature in Urdu and lit in khaRi can be slotted into seperate silos, just as, say, the essays of Vinobha Bhave would (usually) would not be slotted under Urdu.


        Thank you for that. Will surely look him up.


  2. “And how is it that Punjabi, which produced such a brilliant and varied repertoire of stories, epics and poems until the late medieval era by such extraordinary luminaries as Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, Haridas Haria seems to drop out of our horizon in the modern era, where all we know of is an Amrita Pritam or, less likely, a Surjit Patar. Where such poverty after such riches, where such preponderance from such invisibility?”

    I want to clarify that when I wrote the above lines, my point was not to comment on the quality of modern Punjabi literature. My point was to comment on our ignorance of it, we only know of a Surjit Patar or an Amrita Pritam or a Pash. And I said this to hint at the hegemonic place of Urdu in modern Punjab which in a certain sense marginalised Punjabi from the public sphere-but as Mir shows, not entirely.


  3. Two Residents of Delhi who also wrote in the Non Urdu Persian were Aurangzeb alamgir
    he has written some rather interesting love poetry in Braj Bhasha about his beloved queen Dulari Begum the other was Jafar Zatalli. Nazeer’s too experimented with languages on a very large scale as seen in his khamsa Haft zaban.

    As for the contemporary Punjabi writers, there are many more who have been published and read extensively they include the Preet Ladi group of writers who used to publish the Monthly literary Magazine ‘Aarsi” Pyaraa Singh “Sehrai’ was one of this group and has left behind half a dozen anthologies including several si harfis and vars.


  4. @Mehmood as you have correctly said that after such rich tradition of Punjabi Literature there has been a sort of silence that has prevailed as far as the New Punjabi literature is concerned. The work of the poets that you have mentioned in the old Punjabi Tradition i.e. Baba Farid, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah et al. continued as an oral tradition. For ages these Ballads were sung by traditional bards. There was no written language for them. So when it all came down to having them recorded in print, the script became very important. The language was always the spoken Punjabi but the script was Shahmukhi i.e. Punjabi written in Persian script.
    The Gurmukhi script did exist almost from the beginning of Sikhism. But after the partition Shahmukhi and Gurmukhi scripts (both still used for Punjabi) were tagged along with particular religion. And I know it for a fact that it became politically incorrect at one point of time when a short lived Punjabi Suba Movement was going on in Indian sidon both sidee of Punjab.

    So as far as I understand, the conflict of script delayed the passing on process of rich Punjabi literary tradition to the younger generation at that time. Till the time whole literature was “Indianized” the other influences took over and affected the Punjabi literature on both sides of border.


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