Shah Abdul Latif (1689-1752) has been aptly called the people’s poet, revered alike by the elite and the common folk. He remains one of the greatest sufi poets in history along with Rumi (1207-1273) and Mir Dard (1721-1785). Often chanted in spiritual seances, Latif’s poems have an immediate emotional appeal. They are about love for humanity and depict the seeker’s direct relationship with the Supreme instead of a particular religious group looking for scriptural instructions and injunctions.
His verses are recited today as they have been for more than two hundred and fifty years. An Urs is held annually at Bhitshah in Sindh, Pakistan, where the poet spent the final years of his life and was later buried in a beautiful mausoleum. His disciples and followers from all over the world gather to celebrate and sing his verse.
Shah Abdul Latif was born in Hala, Sindh, in a notable Sayyid family. He was of average height, with a strong build, possessing gentle manners. His dress code was simple like a sanyasi. Some of his clothes are preserved in Bhitshah to this day.
The poet’s lifetime witnessed many historical events, the major being the transfer of power from the Mughal to the Kalhoro rule; but Shah Abdul Latif had little interest in politics. His life was poetry personified and his poetry recorded his experiences: both constituting an organic whole. He authored a major work, Shah Jo Risalo which, according to most sources has thirty surs. It can be described as one long wail of firaq or separation from God. The Risalo is not a philosophical treatise like the Upanishads, but it does propound the doctrine of advaita or non-dualism.
As the story goes, Latif’s disciples put together a volume from memorized verses and showed it to him. The poet, it is said, threw it into the lake for fear of being misunderstood. But later, he himself ensured that the verses were recompiled properly. The Risalo was preserved at the mausoleum of the saint-poet in 1754. Later, the scholar, Ernest Trumpp, published it in Germany in 1866. Subsequently, there was a mausoleum edition which has been in the British museum since 1844. Dr HM Gurbaxani, Dr HT Sorley, Kalyan Advani and Dr Annemarie Schimmel were among the renowned scholars who have worked on interpretations of the Risalo. Since then, others have written innumerable books on Latif, and a few translations have also been done in Pakistan. This volume by Hari Dilgir and Anju Makhija represents the first poetic transcreation of Latif’s selected work in English in India.
Shah Abdul Latif was part of the bhakti movement which had a major impact in Sindh through the spread of Guru Nanak’s teachings. Qazi Qadan, Shah Karim and Sachal Sarmast were some of the other well-known poets belonging to this tradition.
Indian sufism uses the imagery of romantic and conjugal love to depict the bond between God and man. This has been used as the basic metaphor for understanding spiritual life. Kabir says,
Rama is my husband,
I am his little bride.
Like Kabir, Shah Latif assumes the role of the female protagonist of popular folk tales. He becomes Sasui, Moomal, Sohini and experiences the pangs of separation from God. Punhoon, Rano andMehar personify beauty in his poetry.
It was in Shah Latif’s poetry that Indian sufism, which drew its inspiration from the Vedanta, found full expression. Like Bhakti Yoga, it was based on complete surrender to God with the ultimate goal of union. All forms of dogma and authority were rejected. The sufi poets stood for sartorial freedom, and used the language of the masses.
The mystical union of man with God is depicted by Latif allegorically in many surs. In the tale of Sasui-Punhoon, the two come together after Sasui, the seeker, has crossed innumerable hurdles in search of her lover. Finally, she tastes the universal essence of love. Latif speaks to us in Sasui’s voice,
As I turned inwards and conversed with my soul,
there was no mountain to surpass,
no Punhoon to look for,
I myself became Punhoon!
Only as Sasui
did I experience grief.
Sasui reaches a state where Ketch, Punhoon’s native place, and Bhambore, her own village, are reconciled as the One Original Abode.
Realization is possible only by becoming one with the object of realization. In this case knowledge is not in the form, “I know this” but “I am this.” Realization is an intimate knowledge in the form of, “I am Brahma” or “I am Huqq.” If one living does not know the self, then there is endless misery in the form of birth, old age and death. One who “dies” before death, or while alive, and gives no consideration to the external body, becomes liberated. Shah Abdul Latif says,
Those who die before death,
never will be destroyed by dying.
In the tale of Moomal-Rano, Moomal, the seeker, satisfies her desire of being with her lover by sleeping with her sister, who is clad in a man’s attire. When Rano comes to her palace, he mistakes her sister for a man and leaves abruptly. Moomal comes to know of this, and exclaims, “I shall die without you.” After much remorse and introspection her mind eventually becomes still, like the flame of a lamp by which she waits for her true self to emerge.
Liberation, another name for realization, comes to Moomal now. She is free from the bondage of body and mind; it is a stage of non-distinction. She sees everything in herself and herself in everything. She i the entire world and the entire world is her:
Where should I drive the camel?
All around is His glory;
Kaak’s palace is within me!
There is nothing but peace, nothing but Rano everywhere. Moomal achieves a union without beginning or end. Moomal gives up attachment with her “person,” conscious of Rano in herself and thus realizes Turiya or the Truth, and Shanti.
In the allegorical tale of Sohini-Mehar, Sohini, the seeker, undergoes many hardships in order to meet her lover, Mehar. Their love faces much community opposition. Ever)’ night Sohini crosses a mighty river with the help of a baked pot to meet him on the opposite bank. The two are finally united in death. Sohini becomes one with Mehar, one with God, allegorically. The term istighraqdefines her state. Like Mansur, she is no more the abd, servant, she is Allah herself. One who says anna l’abd, I am the servant of God, supposes duality-the existence of God and his own. But he who says ana I-Huqq, I am the Truth, affirms the Oneness of existence. Sohini says:
If you were to see Mehar’s face but once,
you would no lancer sleep comfortably
beside your husband.
You would pick up the jar,
and plunge into the river!
The Upanishads refer to the nature of the Absolute as neti, not this. The Absolute is undefinable. This is the essence of advaita, the philosophy of non-dualism, propounded by Sankaracharya.
In Shah Latif’s Sur Ramkali, which is inspired by the lives of yogis, shanti or the experienced peace is inexpressible.
Where there is no heaven, no trace if earth,
where the moon and the sun neither rise, nor descend,
that Jar the yogis have set their tryst with the Supreme.
They see the Lord in Nothingness.
This stage is similar to the one in Kath Upanishad:
Where neither sun, moon, nor stars shine,
Where lightning does not strike.
Shah Latif longs for the constant company of the yogis in whom he sees divine qualities, and with whom he travelled far and wide in India.
Take advantage of their presence,
be with them and enrich your experience,
soon they’ll go on a Journey to distant lands,
leave this world of pleasures and reach the holy Ganga.
Sur Ramkali makes it clear that a part of Shah Latif ‘s heritage is derived from the traditions of the Nath sampradaya. However, Latif did not favour mere physical practice of sadhana without bhakti. As such, there is no reference in his poetry to the entire method of penance practiced by the Nath panthis. His is the bhavatmak rahasyavada, mysticism with devotion as its basis, and not thesadhanatmak, that is mysticism based on yogic postures. For Latif, yogis are spiritual beings, who stay away from physical pleasures. They hear the subtle sound pervading the universe, the non-struck sound or the Anahata nada,
They wear loin cloth and need no ablutions,
they hear the subtle call
that sounded before the advent of Islam.
They severe all ties and meet their guide, Gorakhnath.\
The Anahata nada, or sabda, in its ultimate sense is like the sound Om. The mula mantra of the Jap-Ji by Guru Nanak, who is popularly described as a guru of the Hindus and a pir of the Muslims, opens with the highest mystical syllables, Ek Omkar Sat-Nam, Kartar and Purkha. Shah Latif also says:
Constantly contemplate on these words,
the cure jar all your misery:
Keep meem in your mind
and put alif before it.
The reference here is to both Om, which when written in the Arabic script, begins with the letter alif and ends with the meem and Muhammad - after - Allah (meem refers to Muhammad, alif to Allah).
Shah Latif had stayed in the company of the wandering yogis, believing in the unity of being. Sankaracharya’s advaita and the sufi’s Wahdah al-wujud are trikingly similar in their metaphysical quest.
Shah Latif was attracted to spiritual life from his childhood. Contemplative by nature, he shunned worldly comforts and remained more or less in isolation. It is said that when he was taught the alphabet at the age of six, he refused to go beyond the alif which stands for Allah.
Latif followed his father, Sayyid Shah Habib’s advice and rose to be a learned man of his times. He had mastery over his mother tongue, Sindhi, and also knew Arabic, Persian and Hindi along with other languages. The Risalo shows that he had studied the Quran and Vedantic traditions and internalized them through personal observation and experiences. Quran in Arabic, Rumi’s Mathnavi in Persian and Shah Abdul Karim’s baits, in Sindhi were Latif’s constant companions.
When Latif was about twenty, he visited the ailing daughter of Mirza Mughal, Beg who was a descendant of Chengiz Khan. Latif was struck by the young woman’s beauty, and holding her little finger said, “one whose finger is in Sayyid’s hand need fear no fall.”
Mirza Mughal Beg did not approve of the young poet’s words, and forced the Sayyids to leave Kotri and relocate to Haweli.
This separation made Shah Latif restless. One day, he left home without informing his parents, and joined a group of yogis and sanyasis and travelled with them for three years, through Sindh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. This exposure widened his outlook and understanding of Hinduism. The insight he gained helped him to create poetry inspired by the immortal characters of Sa sui, Marui,Sohini and other folk heroines. What Sasui experiences while plodding through the hot sands of the Thar was a part of Latif’s own journey.
When Shah Latif was twenty three, Mirza Mughal Beg lost his life in an armed encounter with robbers. The women of the family attributed this misfortune to the displeasure of the Sayyids. They offered Mirza’s daughter’s hand to Latif and thus he won her in the end.
Latif’s life thereafter was simple and was spent mainly in contemplation and poetry. People would come from distant places to listen to him. Latif built an entire village with his disciples on asandhill in Bhitai, where he spent the rest of his days with his family.
Before his death in 1752, he confined himself in an underground room for about three weeks and spent all his time in prayers. When he came out, he bathed and covered himself with a white sheet and asked his disciples to play music. After three days they discovered that Latif had left his body. He was buried at the same place where his mausoleum still stands.
Latif’s renderings reflected his environment: the landscape of Sindh, which is now part of Pakistan. Deserts, sand dunes, trees and flowers; falcons, vultures, ducks, cuckoos, partridges and a host of other local motifs appear in Risalo, sometimes in their natural hues and occasionally in the poet’s imaginative representations.
Latif’s poetry was considered non-metrical according to rigid canonical standards. Some even called it “rustic.” Latif was a folk-poet, who did not limit himself to the rules of prosody. The folk-poets experimented with the doha which was used in other literary Indian traditions such as Braj and Rajasthani. Latif made a structural change in the doha in which the first and fourth, or the second and third hemistich, ended in rhyme:
Laharunni lakha libaasa pani pasanu hekiro,
oonhe tahin ameeqa jee, vaare chaadi vimaasa,
Kaatee tikhee ee ma thie, maru muniyaaee hoi,
maana virmanni toi, mooni priyaan jaa hathiroa.
(Waves have many a vesture, but water is One.
In the deep sea, there is no duality.
Let the knife be sharp, let my beloved’s hands
remain longer on my neck.)
The waee form comes at the end of every sur as a finale. It begins with a thalh or refrain with the rhyme generally at the end. Usually there are five verses ending with the same rhyme, and after every verse, the refrain is repeated.
mandhu peeande moon, saajanu sahee sunjaato,
mandhu peeande moon.....
pee piyaalo ‘isho jo, sabhukee samaihva-soon,
mandhu peeande moon....
(Having tasted the wine, we recognized our beloved,
Having tasted the wine ...
We drank a goblet if love we understood everything,
Having tasted the wine ... )
Shah Latif ‘s poetry is metrical, but adapted to song. The sufi poets sang out their baits and sometimes a short vowel was lengthened or a long vowel shortened for rhythm. Latif’s music drew upon the classical and the folk and includes songs, ballads and devotional verses.
Unlike in classical raags or melodies, the cadence of Shah Latif’s surs are based on words and meanings of the baits and waees. They are basically musical renderings expressed through the rhythm and melody of words in contrast to classical music which is expressed by the rhythm and melody of sound.
During the days of Shah Latif, the tambura had four strings. He introduced one more string adjacent to the zuban or outer string, tuned as sa, shadaj, of the tar saptak, seven tones, in a conventional style. When the music begins, the melody of the new sur is spelled out at the very start, and thereafter when the vocal performance of the waee composition ascends, the rhythmic beats on thetambura with the right hand of the performer provide the necessary taal. Shah Latif’s purpose was to simplify the complicated technique of the taal and therefore he devised only two basic taals, which he called the dedhi (the 1.5 time) and the du-tali (the double time).
Shah Latif sang his baits in Sindhi in an age when Arabic was the language of the Quran, and Persian the court language.
To appreciate the technicalities and beauty of Latif ‘s surs, one has to hear them in the original and there are many versions available of the same.
The German scholar, Dr Annemarie Schimmel, Pakistani poet Shaikh Ayaz and Prof Kalyan Advani worked extensively on Latif ‘s poetry and sufism in their lifetimes. I am indebted to them for keeping alive the tradition of Shah Abdul Latif.
I am especially happy that Anju Makhija has joined hands with Sindhi poet, Hari Dilgir, to provide contemporary readers with a rendering in free verse that captures the very spirit and essence of Shah Latif ‘s surs. It’s a work of perseverance and embodies an Indianness not found in previous translations. That Shah Latif belongs to both India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, is indisputable. In fact, he belongs to the whole world, to humanity itself.
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