The saints and scholars of Sindh are dust. Even his living are slowly dying. The Endowment Fund Trust in Karachi, however, ensures the survival of Sindhi culture.
The EFT ignored warnings about COVID-19 and Omicron by holding a January 23 public launch of I Saw Myself, a book about Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. The book was co-authored by two Indians: Shabnam Virmani and Vipul Rikhi. Indian publications being reputed to be seditious by their very origin, they cannot cross the border. EFT reprinted it in Pakistan.
The book launch brought Indians and Pakistanis together on one screen to pay tribute to an 18th-century poet who wrote about love without borders with an unquenchable and unrequited passion.
Shah Abdul Latif (1689-1752) and his spiritual guides Rumi and Kabir did not belong to one region or era. They were of their time, for their time and for ours.
The translators allow us to savor their poetry, to appreciate what the authors describe as “the orality” – “the feeling behind the words”, for Shah Latif’s famous Risalo is “a collection not so much of poetry intended for reading, is a collection of musical verses intended for singing [.] The thirty Sur into which the Risalo is divided are chapters grouping poetry around a specific theme, but more literally they are “musical modes” based on specific Indian ragas, intended for musical experience. [Miniature painters picturised them as a Ragamala of 36 ragas and raginis.]
“Shah Latif was clearly among the Sufis who recognize the power of sound in spiritual practice.” Or what the aesthete Mughal prince Dara Shikoh called the “infinite and absolute sound” – the Voice of Silence.
Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo is divided into dastaans, which are made up of beyts. “Each singer takes up the thread of the beyt of the previous singer, and sings another evoking the same theme, creating a complex musical and poetic atmosphere.”
Similar to the dastaan tradition of “orality” such as Tilism-e-Hoshruba, it relied on the human voice to convey images, to evoke imaginary heroes and heroines, characters and dramatic action which unfolded at the speed of speech. Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry travels at the speed of sound – the sound of a human heartbeat, the sound of breathless love, the sound of a soul’s silence.
Shah Abdul Latif was born in 1689 in the modest village of Hala Haveli. He fell in love with a girl from Kotri. His father opposed it. Shah Latif responded by traveling aimlessly through Sindh. When his father died, he married his beloved, only to lose her a few years later. Subsequently, poetry became Shah Latif’s emotional companion.
“If music is the food of love, keep on playing,” says Count Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Like the Count, Shah Abdul Latif was more in love with the idea of being in love than love itself. Likewise, Shah Latif’s love is not for a woman but for the feminine ideal. Her Risalo contains a number of heroines – Sohini, Sassi, Marvi, Moomal, Leela and Noori. Their adventures are dramatic on one level, allegorical on another.
We know that heroines represent humanity and that the male beloved is a symbol of God. Sohini is determined to cross the river to meet her beloved, even at the risk of drowning. But at the highest level of spiritual ecstasy, Shah Latif tells us, it is not to be united with one’s lover but to lose oneself, not to reach the other bank but “to merge into the swirling waters of the river itself “. A modern Punjabi poet Munir Niazi expressed it thus: Kuch shehr dey log vi zalim san; Kuch sanoon maran da shauq vi see. (The townspeople were cruel, but I myself courted death.)
Shah Latif’s belief in the liberation offered by death permeates each poem. His princess Shireen begs to be buried with her soul mate – a disheveled fakir. She recites: “Every moment we carry a spade and a string/ to dig and measure our graves.
Surprisingly, Indian authors fail to mention HT Sorley’s seminal work, Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit: His Poetry, Life and Times, published in 1940 in Mumbai and reprinted here in 1966 – an earlier example of literary migration.
Sorley published an abridgement known as Munthakab, collected by Kazi Ahmad Shah. containing Shah Abdul Latif’s most popular verses. Sorley admires Shah Abdul Latif as “the first great exponent of the imaginative use of the Sindhi language.” One understands why after reading Shah Sain’s complaint: “Even if you remained beyond sunrise and sunset,/ I would still walk towards you on the feet of my eyes.”
The EFT reprint of I Saw Myself is more than medicine for our minds. It nourishes our souls — a kind of Poetry without Borders.
Fakir S Aijazuddin is a renowned thinker and columnist from Pakistan