Bunched at the very center of the folk culture of Punjab and Sindh are a bundle of love stories. The tales of Heer Ranjha, Sassi Pannu, Sohni Mahiwal, Laila Majnu, Dhola Maru Umar Marvi (to mention only a few) are a deep well of cultural identity and artistic inspiration. These tales generally are referred to as ‘tragic love stories’ in the same way the European tale of Romeo and Juliet tells of ‘star crossed’ lovers. These stories are dramatised by untrained actors in village festivals and have been made and remade into hugely popular films and TV shows. They have provided material to thousands of singers and musicians over the centuries and remain even today, a major source of lyrics, sentiment and message for folk musicians across northwest India/Pakistan.
Let me retell the story of Sohni and Mahiwal. This story is old and revered. The ultimate Bible of Sindhi mystical poetry Shah Jo Risalo, compiled by the daring seer/poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, has included this story giving it an entire sur (chapter) that emphasizes its grand tragedy.
Sohni was a beautiful potter’s daughter who lived along a busy trade route that connected Delhi with the fabled Muslim kingdoms of Bukhara and Samarkand. As soon as the water jugs, vases and plates came off her father’s wheel, Sohni began to decorate each with intricate and colorful painted scenes. Her father’s pottery was the most sought after in the town thanks to Sohni’s beautiful decorations.
The town where Sohni lived was frequented by customers from all over world, including a handsome and wealthy nobleman from Samarkand named Izzat Beg. As soon as he laid eyes on Sohni, Izzat Beg forgot all about his business interests and tarried on in town, finding any excuse to buy more and more painted pots from Sohni. The young girl was smitten by this great man’s attention and affection. And even though she was from the very low potter’s caste she expressed her love to her foreign nobleman.
Izzat Beg was so head and heels in love with Sohni he pretended to be a lowly manual worker and asked Sohni’s father to employ him as a buffalo herd, a mahiwal. During the days he would sit on one bank of the Chenab River with his buffaloes and gaze and wink and flirt with Sohni on the opposite side.
Whispering and busybody relatives, jealous of Izzat Beg’s attention for Sohni, alerted the potter, who with the help of his community, quickly arranged for Sohni to marry ‘one of your own’. Unable to protest, Sohni married another potter but one who, unlike her father, was cruel and mean. As for Izzat Beg, he was so distraught, he renounced the world and became a faqir (wandering mendicant) who eventually found where Sohni and her husband lived. He set up a small camp along the river bank but no one suspected it was he.
Each night Sohni would venture across the river, sitting on a kiln-dried shard of pottery. Izzat Beg caught and cooked fish for her which they ate together after making love. Once, when he wasn’t able to catch a fish he cut out a piece of his thigh and gave it to Sohni to eat. He denied it was not fish when she questioned him but when she touched his thigh and discovered his wound, she broke into tears at the thought of how much he loved her.
Eventually, Sohni’s sister-in-law suspected something was up and followed her. She saw where Sohni kept her pottery shards and the next day substituted a wet piece of pottery for her dry pot/boat. That night as Sohni moved out into the river to meet Izzat her pot disintegrated and she drowned. Izzat seeing her struggle dove in but also drowned.
The music for today is a tremendous collection that pays tribute to the many similar love tragedies of Punjab. These are artists known in their local and regional areas of India only. They sing in a variety of styles and using traditional instruments. If you were to pass an evening in the rural community in Pakistan or India you would hear this sort of rendition of the story. Pure culture. Alive, breathing, singing and crying.
01 Dhola Maru [Vishan Das and Group]
02 Sohni Mahiwal (Sufi Dhadi) [Sharif Idu]
03 Sohni Da Ghadha [Shaukat Ali Matoie]
04 Kyon Hoon Dad Vatdayen [Gurmej Raja]
05 Tera Pyar Menu [Saida Begum]
06 Laila Majnu [Shaadi Ram]
07 Heer – Jogi [Narata Ram]
08 Mere Ranjha [Akhtar Ali]
(Track six distorted for first 60 sec)