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Relevance of Waris Shah’s Heer for women in 21st century

It has been more than 250 years that Shah’s Heer, a young Muslim woman from undivided Punjab and the protagonist of the classic romance saga, stood and died for her choice — her ishq — with Ranjha. Even today, the text of 630 stanzas written by Shah in 1766, is relevant for women.

Written by Divya Goyal |
Updated: February 3, 2019 9:13:03 am
Heer and Ranjha depiction by artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai who was from Lahore in Pakistan.

Lae ke satth saheliyaan naal challi, Heer matthdi roop gumaan da ji…Likhi Cheen tasveer Kashmir jatti, kadd saru behashat gulzar vichon… Surma nainan di dhaar vich khubh reha, chadheya Hind tey kattak Punjab da ji…

Describing her like a warrior whose unparalleled beauty and aura are embellished by her great resolve and strength of character, Waris Shah writes about Heer, “As she walked with a group of her 60 friends, she personifies grace. She is proud of her beauty and intoxicated by her enhanced sense of self. A Punjabi Jatti, so beautiful like a painting drawn in China and with the serenity of Kashmir. She is tall like a graceful swaying tree. The kohl in her eyes is as ferocious as might of Punjab unleashed against Mughals led Delhi darbar.”

It has been more than 250 years that Shah’s Heer, a young Muslim woman from undivided Punjab and the protagonist of the classic romance saga, stood and died for her choice — her ishq — with Ranjha. Even today, the text of 630 stanzas written by Shah in 1766, is relevant for women. Giving a new meaning and life to Shah’s Heer is Sumail Singh Sidhu (45), a Bathinda-based historian, who is researching Heer and conducting workshops across the country on the theme “Ishq Heer Da Nawan Banaiye Ji” (Let’s Give A New Dimension and Meaning to Heer’s Ishq). He is on the mission to connect youth with Shah’s Heer.

Sumail Singh Sidhu, Heer, Waris Shah, Muslim woman in undivided Punjab, JNU, India news, Indian Express Paintings depict the tale of Heer-Ranjha

A PhD in modern history from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sidhu refuses to call Heer-Ranjha saga as a “love” story. “It will be a grave injustice. Love is too shallow a word to describe what Heer and Ranjha felt for each other. It was ishq, a passionate desire and longing to be with each other. It was not love or mohabbat — these words are too shallow to describe what Waris Shah wrote,” he says.

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He adds that Heer had dared to fall in ishq and was forced into a marriage against her will and was, ultimately, killed by her own family. Believed to have died in 1452, Heer fought a range of obstacles — from religious orthodoxy and patriarchy to casteism — in mid-15th century and became a symbol for women’s right to choose and the right to love. Centuries later, a woman confessing her romantic feelings for a man still raises eyebrows and she, mostly, has little or no say in who her life partner is.

Hatth badheyaan rahaan ghulam teri, Saney trinjhan naal saheliyaan de; Saanu rabb ne chaak milaaye ditta, bhull gaye pyaar saheliyaan de…. (Emphatic in her love for Ranjha, Waaris Shah’s Heer says: With my hands tied I accept your slavery. It is the Almighty who has made us meet, you are above everyone else for me now, even love of my friends).

Sidhu says that Heer’s ishq for Ranjha was just not about right to choose but also to defend her choice and struggle to make it happen till the end. “The questions that she faced, about basic rights and social justice for women — this is what women continue to face till now. Do we really accept it when a woman says she loves a man? Why it has to be a man first who has to confess? Is she really left with a choice if her family decides on an arranged match? In true sense, Heer continues to be a leader for South Asian women.”

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He points out that the text offers a criticism of religious hegemony when the qazi tries to impose marriage on Heer citing Islamic law, Heer says: “Assan mang dargah theen leya Ranjha, Sidak sach zabaan sach boldi hai.. Khaan vaddiyan nitt imaan vechan, eho maar hai qaziaan saareyan nu… Agla tod ke hor nikaah padhna, aakh rabb ne kadon farmaaya hai…” (I have asked for my Ranjha as a blessing from Almighty, I have righteousness with me. Religious leaders sell their honesty, most of them are corrupt. I am already married to Ranjha. Reading nikaah of a person who is already married — which God has approved of this?)

“The way Waris Shah has described her conversation with the qazi is an inspiration for women to stand up for their rights. It also reflects on how religious leaders distort and present their own versions of holy texts to impose it on people, especially women,” says Sidhu.

Sumail Singh Sidhu, Heer, Waris Shah, Muslim woman in undivided Punjab, JNU, India news, Indian Express Sumail Singh Sidhu

He adds that the text is loved by people across religions because it reflects pluralism and the secular culture of undivided Punjab — Sanjhiwal — which was practised by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who lived together and gave Punjab its texture of tolerance. “It is believed that Heer and Ranjha died years before Sikhism founder Guru Nanak’s birth but it is the farsightedness and intelligence of Waris Shah that his text reflects values of Sikhism, as well as refers to Hinduism and, of course, Islam but without blind orthodoxy,” he says.

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In the story, Heer was served poison-laced food by her family and, after she dies, Ranjha also dies in grief. In modern vocabulary, critics consider it as being a case of honour killing. The case of Jaswinder Kaur aka Jassi, a 25-year old Punjabi Canadian woman, who was allegedly murdered on orders of her mother and uncle in June 2000 for marrying Ludhiana boy Sukhwinder Singh alias Mithu, is an apt example of how Heer crosses paths with women even today.

Jassi’s mother and uncle were recently extradited to India after 19 years to face trial in court, paving way for justice for Jassi.

Sidhu says that Shah wrote of Heer, “Jinnan betiyaan maariyan, roz qayamat, siri tinnan de, wadda gunaah miyaan…Ikk Ranjhey Di gall na karo mooley, Ohda Heer de naal nibhaa miyaan.” (Those who kill their daughters, face guilt every day. There cannot be a greater sin on their heads. Don’t even talk of separating Heer from her Ranjha, with him she is betrothed.)

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First published on: 03-02-2019 at 12:52:53 am

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