Heer Damodar

Heer Damodar — revived in translation

The love-legend of Heer-Ranjha has been narrated by as many as 42 different poets. No other epic in world literature is known to have achieved this distinction. Among the surviving versions of the story, Damodar’s Heer is probably the oldest.

The gifted poet has left little behind about himself except the repeated chants such as “name Damodar, caste Gulhati” in the mesmerising tale, which has been the subject of numerous movies and stage plays over the decades on either side of the Pakistan-India divide. The storyline, characters, tribes and places have almost been the same in every telling with minor changes. For instance, Waris Shah names Heer’s mother as Malki but Damodar calls her Kundi.

Researchers could barely unearth scant details about the writer of this variant of Heer such as that he was a Sikh named Damodar Das Arora, a resident of Jhang, where Heer’s grave is still venerated as a shrine. His claim that the legend took place during the reign of Emperor Akbar and that he saw it unfold before his own eyes is dismissed by critics as nothing more than poetic fancy. Among other things, they say, the vocabulary he has used reveals he lived sometime in the late 18th century or early 19th century. Damodar and his work were virtually unknown till 1927 when the first of his three manuscripts of Heer was discovered in Jhang.

Though the Waris Shah version of Heer has eclipsed all other narrations, and hence not much read and appreciated, Heer Damodar is distinctly remarkable in certain ways.

“Damodar’s Heer is written like a fast-paced screenplay. There are no pauses or descriptive flights of imagination. The tale moves with great speed. Damodar builds in an immense amount of his knowledge of human nature and of the issues in the society of rural Punjab into the tale and its characters,” says Muzaffar Ghaffar in his preface to the book, which is a link in the Within reach – masterworks of Punjabi poetry series. “He is a master storyteller who always keeps the reader’s interest alive. Indeed his Heer should have become a great favourite of professional storytellers, but… it is virtually unknown in the oral tradition. And yet there appears to be extraneous material in the three manuscripts which are available. Such corruptions usually only occur with much-told, orally transmitted tales. This is another enigma about Heer Damodar.”

When we evaluate Muzaffar Ghaffar’s Within reach series, we really run short of adjectives. Call it fantastic, grand, great, marvelous, monumental, phenomenal, wondrous… none of the word would seem a hyperbole. He has produced Bulleh Shah (two volumes), Baba Fareed Ganjshakar, Baba Nanak, Sachal Sarmast, Sultan Bahu, Khwaja Ghulam Fareed and Shah Husain (three volumes). Even a single volume on Khwaja Ghulam Fareed in Urdu fetched a scholar a Pride of Performance Award during the Musharraf regime. The writer, I withhold his name lest I seem to be slighting his contribution to Punjabi language and literature, really deserved the award. But I firmly believe that each of Muzaffar sahib’s books merits as much recognition. His other works, five English poetry collections; How the governments work; The brain, the body, the soul, the mind; and Unity in diversity – a vision for Pakistan, are also enlightening and highly readable.

What does he have in those books of the Punjabi sufi poetry that is rare? He has taken a vast selection of each of the great masters’ works first in Nastaliq and did its poetic translation in Gurmukhi. As with these books he particularly tries to reach the English-reading lovers of Punjabi classic poetry across the world, he renders it in Romanised script, translates the poetry into English verse (only one line for each line), explains the meanings of difficult words and then has a detailed discussion on those lines in lucid language. To make the reader’s job easier still, he gives an elaborate glossary at the end of each volume. Only a random quote form Heer Damodar may illustrate the point:

“The allure comes now. Heer Syal has grown up. Her beauty and demeanour are both affirmed by telling us that her feet don’t touch the ground. (In this phrase the word zamin is usually pronounced zimin). She skims on the ground with grace and beauty, she is almost in flight. This description may be preparing us for haughtiness in Heer. Such nonchalance of being oblivious to her surroundings is surely the result of an irrefutable self-knowledge that she is beautiful. (And beauty has its own power). The poet masterfully gives a grounding in her deportment by telling us that her feet did not touch the ground. This is so for good reason, not just an innate arrogance….”

Muzaffar’s interest in what is his true labour of love seems to be increasing with his growing age and falling health. His last book Shah Husain was in three volumes. The book under review has four, the whole of Heer Damodar. His next venture, Heer Waris Shah which is being given final touches, will have six volumes. And one may hope that the process will continue and what might become extinct in original text would come alive in his excellent translation.

Considering the high quality production, the cost might be justifiable. But how would common people interested in Punjabi sufi poetry would access and benefit from this book is a question that needs to be addressed.

Heer Damodar: Within Reach (Four volumes)

By Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar

ISBN 978-969-0-02173-1

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Four-volume boxed set Rs3,995