Hasham Shah Sassi Punnun

by Christopher Shackle, Athar Tahir.
Hasham Shah Sassi Punnun
Christopher Shackle, Athar Tahir.
Vangaurd Books
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March 15th, 2013


So far as I am aware, the only previous rendering into English of Hasham Shah's Sassi Punnun is to be found in the third volume of R.C Temple's The Legends of the Punjab of 1886. Temple's purpose was to show 'afolktale, after becoming a literary story, in the process, . of returning to the people', and here produces>a terribly· short and mangled version of Hasham's poem from the version recited by a bard in District Hoshiarpur. Temple's version may still be of interest to folklore specialists, but it gives the reader no idea of the literary .quality of Hasham's poem, which is rightly regarded as ale of the finest of the Punjabi verse romances known as qissas. While certainly a most important part of the popular ~ultura! heritage of the Punjab, these qissas are not properly to be regarded as works of pure folkpoetry. They were, after all, the creations of individual artists, the best of whom display a rare sophistication and skill in their narrative art, but who are saved from the excessive artificiality that besets so much of the courtly literature of the ,subcontinent by their closeness to the cultural outlook of their popular audience. As was so often the case in the local literatures of the Indus valley, a creative dialogue between educated poet and unlettered audience gave rise to works at alce both genuinely popular and genuinely artistic. The dates most widely accepted for Hasham Shah's life (1753-1823) place him firmly in the classic age of qissa-writing, before the far-reaching social and cultural changes introduced into the Punjab by the British , conquest of the Sikh kingdom upset the old balance and called new forms of literature into being. Whatever the truth of the popular traditicn which connects Hasham directly with the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, it is known that he was a hakim, practising the traditional medicine, and a spiritual leader of the Qadiri order, whose tomb lies in the village of Tharpal in District Sial kat. , Li ke all the great qissa-writers, therefore, Hasham Shah .. was._aman _of c(?n~iderable education, ,and 'this emerges very' clearly from th~poetry for which -he'is remembered. Besides th~ verse he composed in Persian and in Hindi, his Punjabi poetry includes a very fine ~t of quatrains in the dohr~ form, besides three complete qissas. One of these is on the classical Persian theme ri Shirin Farhad, which Hasham is said to have been the first to versify in Punjabi. His second qissa is on the local Punjabi theme of Sohni, Mahinval. Although this is a fine poem, similar in feeling to his Sassi Punnun, it has been overtaken in popularity by the more ample andelab()r~t~ly <l:rtif!c~~1 handling of the story later ,composed by Fazal Shah. , It is, therefore, on his Sassi Punnun that Hasham's fame chiefly rests. Undoubtedly his master-work, it must be .reckoned among the finest of the Punjabi qissas. In, it Hasham balances the romantic effects striven after by all the qissa-writers with his own distinctively classical sense of economy, of form and expression. In this economy Hasham's style is quite different from the exuberant prolixity of Varis Shah, the master cf the preceding generation. Li ke so many of the qissas, Sassi Punnun is a tale of tragically thwarted love, in this case between Sassi, daughter of the king of Bhambhore-cin Sind, wh0--is cast adrift on the river Indus as a baby after it has been foretold that her love wouldbrjng disgrac;e upon her family, and prince Punnun, the son of the ruler of the Hot tribe of Baloch, whose capital is at Kech in the, Makran desert. Whatever its origin in place and time, the legend has long been immensely popular in all the lands of the Indus valley. Sassi's sufferings as she wakes to find her Punnun gone, and, the torments she endures in the burning wastes of the Maru Thai, as she desperately' pOrsues' the':lrac ks -of-her I'over,-constitute-the high points of the story and have repeatedly received superb literary expression in mystical lyrics, whether in 1he Sindhi Risalo,of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai or in the later kafianof Khwaja Ghulam Farid. Hasham Shah's poem naturally gives great. prominence to the sufferings of the unfortunate Sassi, but since it tells the whole story it provides a superb introruction toa legend which has occupied such an impor'lant position in the local culture of Pakistan. When, by some happy accident,J first stumbled into the field of Punjabi literature, it seemed to me that the narrative qJalityof the qissa ought to ensure that it would appeal more readily to readers outside this field than other, more lyrical and allusive, genres of punjabi poetry, if only versions of the best examples could be made available to readers unable to enjoy them in their original language The task would be a fairly straightforward one if the
qissas could be translated into English prose. But this
seemingly attractive solution is hardly a realistic one,
since so much of the original is lost if its verse form is
completely sacrificed. My distant predecessor Usborne
showed himself to be an enviably accomplished versifier
in his poetic translations of Punjabi folk-poetry.
But when he produced his prose version of the greatest
of all the qissas, Varis Shah's Hir Ranjha, he was able to
convey to English readers orily a bare narrative outline
that is al most a caricature of the rich majesty of the
original· poem. Reluctantly I therefore rejected prose
when I embarked some years ago on an English translation
of Hasham's Sassi Punnun. This first crude
attempt \vas fortunately allowed to gather dust until
I felt able to return to the task of revising it completely.
lCishoped that the English version now published here
wi.1I give the reader at least some hin~ of the .beauties
of HaSham's poehl. .
Sassi Punnun has for the translator the great advantageof
being one of the shortest and simplest of the
classic qissas. To this it adds the further advantage of
being available in a reliable edition, thanks to the
monumental efforts of Professor Harnam Singh Shan
in vetting the manuscript evidence and weeding out the
corruptions which have gathered round the text of
virtually all the qissas over time.
In the version printed here, which fsbas-edon-P-r~fessor
Shan's edition, the poem consists of 124 stanzas
of four lines each, giving a total of 596 lines in all.
Each stanza is unified by having the same rhyme running
throughout, as aaaa, bbbb, cccc. Like all languages
with a full system of grammatical inflections~ Punjabi
lends itself very readily to the rhymester, and a poet of Aasham's calibre has no difficulty in finding four
good rhymes for each stanza. This is only partly imitated
in the translation, where the difficulty of finding
sufficient good rhymes in English without seriously
distorting the sense has reduced me to a token rhyming
of the second and fourth lines of each stanza only.
. The other formal features of the original are, however,
more closely reproduced in the translation. Punjabi
poetry is scanned by syllables, but atso has a marked
pattern of accentual stresses. Hasham's Sassi Punnun
is written in the common ballad metre known as baint
khurd or davaie. Each line consists of fourteen long
syllables or the equivalent, marked by seven beats.
There is a marked break after the eighth long syllable,
following the fourth beat. I have sought to retain this
rhythmic pattern by using seven-beat lines in English
iambics.for.-thePunjabi,trochees ~. divided after the
fourth beat. The half-lines are printed underneath each
other as is usual in the lay-out of English verse. Stanza
98 may be quoted in the original and in translation as·
an example:

nazu k pairgulab saside, mehndi nal singare
ashiq vekh bahe ik vari, jiu tinhan par vare
. balu ret tape vich tlialde, jiuh jaun bhunan bhathiare
hasham vekh yaqin sasi da, pher nahin dil hare
Her delicate and rose-softfeet
made lovelier by henna,
to gain one glimpse of which her lover
would willingly be slain,
were roasted in the desertsand
like barley in the overn.
But, Hasham, gaze on Sassi's faith,
ilnwrned by toil or strain.

Readers familiar with the traditional versions of the poem may miss the exclusion of the famous third line, rejected on textual grounds by Professor Shan: . suraj bhaj varia vich badlin, darda lishak na mare ~. The sun'was swallowed by the clouds, from fear it ceased to shine. It will be seen that I have also deliberately followed the convention that the poet's pen-name should occur in the last line of each stanza. 'In the original, Hasham's pen-name always comes 'at the beginning ofthe last line; but I have been freer in my placing. Some may consider the retentio'n of this conventibnsuperfluous-inc,ERglish, .and the case fordr:opping' it is argued by Taufiq,Rafat in the preface to his accomplished translation -of-Puran Bhagatby Hasham's conteniporary Qadir Yar. But Ifelt it important not to 'lose an important part of the structure of the original, since the pen-name is so often used as a formal device to draw the poet's audience into the action with him, or to denote the express.ion of his reflections on the actions narrated earlier in the stanza. It has already been suggested that Hasham'S Sassi Punnun achieves much of its effect by the tight organization of its formal s-cheme, -and. i.L.s,e~rned ~Q~th attempting to reproduce as many of its features as reasonably possible. For the conven ience of the reader, the mai n sections of the narrative have been supplied with separate headings in the translation. These are li.sted together in the table which precedes this introduction. The classic simplicity of Hasham's style eases the task of both translator and reader by avoid ing the copious allusions so favoured by some of the other qissa-poets, whether to the details of rural Punjabi life or t'a the elaborate commonplaces of Persian literary tradition. The poet does, it is true" make repeated references to the story of the Prophet Joseph, comparing the gri~f of parents to that of Jacob when he lost his beloved son (stanzas 38, 75), referring to Joseph's concealment in the well (26), to the merchants bringing Joseph to Egypt (61, 101), ,to his being sold into slavery (76), and to the love felt for Joseph by Zulaikha, the Biblical wife of Potiphar (44, 47). But I havetaken it that readers would not require pedantic notes to help them appreciate how these repeated references to a well-known story serve further to bind together Hasham's tightly organized narrative by lending a perspective of timelessness to the love of Sassi and Punnun. Footnotes have accordingly been dispensed with, although a glossary of some of the more unusual words employed by the poet has been supplied at the end of the book.

Christopher Shackle

London, October 1983

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