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DAWN Tuesday Review, May 21-27, 1996

Multi-Splendored Folklore

Folk stories help exploring a people’s psyche. Since they all have come down to us with every generation, including its own biases and undertones, any folk story at any given moment of time can be taken as an opaque image of a collective consciousness.

Work carried out by various scholars in this field highlights at least three significant functions of folk stories: spiritual, psychological and social.

Spiritual
At a spiritual level, almost all folk stories tend to embody some religious message in them. The great romances of the east are all studded with long passages about the love of God, devotion and exaltation.

Laila Majnun, Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punhoon, Sohni Mahinwal, Marvi are just some of the examples. The idea that the love of the opposite sex should be transmuted into a feeling of higher order is central to all eastern (especially Islamic) folk stories. It was perhaps derived from the great tale of Yousuf and Zulekha, a part of which has been related in the Holy Quran itself (Surah Yousuf). Although the Quran does not elaborate on how Zulekha’s love evolved into a feeling of the higher order, the mystic storytellers of the later generations found inspiration from some of the Quranic verses to show themselves that a simple yearning, such as that of Zulekha’s, can be transformed into a devotion to the Almighty.

Quite a good many of these stories come close to being spiritual allegories. Annemarie Schimmel has shown, for instace, how the pattern of the folk tale of Sassi Punhoon can be explored to reveal the motifs of religious conversion, spiritual journey (sulook) and the search for a divine ideal.

This spiritual dimension was always understood by the audience of the folk stories. In fact some of their authors had actually undergone incidents in their early lives that paralleled the stories they were going to write later. To name just two: Muhammad Seer of Shugram, Chitral and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. It is said that Seer was crossing a river through a narrow suspension bridge, one day, when he came face to face with his beloved who was coming along the same bridge from the opposite side. He was so intent on avoiding physical contact, that he jumped into the river and swam his way through. His poem Yar-e-Man Hameen is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Chitrali literature. 

Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai fell in love with a lady far above him in social status. When the marriage was refused, he left home to wander in the desert. Finally the girl’s family conceded and called him back. But the young mystic had totally transformed by that time, so that even after getting married to the beloved, he could not take his heart away from the higher devotion. Finally he left the physical pleasures of home and returned to the life of an ascetic on the mound of Bhit.

It is therefore, safe to assume that the spiritual message, even the allegorical characterization of our folk stories was quite deliberately placed by their authors and generally understood by the audience.

Psychological
The psychological dimension might be a different case. It could have existed only at the level of the unconscious -- or the collective unconscious, to borrow the term from Jung. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist of our times, recounts that in almost every culture, fate summons the hero and shifts "his spiritual center of gravity" from his tribe and land to an unknown territory. Thus we have Majnoon, Ranjha, Punhoon, Mahinwal, all leaving their homes and finding themselves in love with girls in stange lands. Severing old bonds in order to enter the new territory seems to be a religious idea ikn its origin. For it is common in the stories of such figures as Adam and Eve, Moses and his tribes, Rama and Buddha. (Feminists have pointed out that this is a rather patriarchal concept).

Interestingly, in such stories as Sassi Punhoon and Marvi, the woman’s journey is just as significant as, if not more than, the journey of the man.

Psychoanalysts like Sudhir Kakar and John M. Ross have tried to unearth the more mundane motifs which they think were buried in the unconscious of the authors. They point out that the young heroes or heroines of these stories always die in the end, especially the heroine.

According to these psychoanalysts this was a warning from the patriarchies who could not compromise with social rebels. "Faithful to a lover freely chosen rather than to their marriage vows, loving in secrecy and concealment yet without shame or guilt, these heroines are examples and ideals of the capacity for choice that is possible for women even under restrictive social conditions. The price for this subjecthood is indeed cautionary: death. Yet the reward is equally momentous : the promise of the immortality attained in becoming ensconced in the pantheon of love’s legendary goddesses." (Tales of Love, Sex and Danger  published by Oxford University Press, Delhi).

The "spiritual dimension" mentioned above is also revisited by the psychoanalysts. Approaching the issue from an essentially secular point of view they have tried to explain the intrigues of love in terms of plain physical emotions. "The fascination of passionate loves des in its promise to resolve the inner paradoxes of two compelling and at times opposing enticing quests:

  1. the longing for oneness with the beloved, and
  2. the desire for possession. Majnun in his madness embodies the first of these quests and its terrors -- at least this is how we, interpreters of a different ear and ethos, respond conceptually, psychologically, to Nizami’s ancient narrative."

Sociological
Let us now move on to the sociological side of our discussion. It has been pointed out that the stories of passionate love have served as an instrument for catharsis in repressive societies. Consider the following passage from the autobiographical accounts of Younus Adeeb, a famous Urdu writer. Recalling his childhood somewhere from the first half of this century, he writes: "I was young but I had seen Heer Ranjha on stage several times... As I look back to recall the impressions of Heer Ranjha on the inner walled city of Lahore I begin to feel that the people of that society used to story of Heer Ranjha as a channel to meet their own lost souls. The cultural circumstances of the inner city were such that everyone was torn between their own self and the world outside. And that included men and women of all ages. Economic deprivation, cultural tyranny, political slavery, restrictions on marrying outside one’s own caste, and so on... all these had split their personalities in such a manner that they had lost all contact with their own aspirations and their real will. Heer Ranjha was the most popular department of culture in Lahore because it provided a sort of catharsis... Young girls could easily identify themselves with Heer and cry for her. In that inner city every bad person was nicknamed Kidu (after the villain of Heer Ranjha). If ever a girl would stand up in rebellion against the tyrannical injunctions against marriage by choice, an enraged section of society would say it was due to the story of Heer Ranjha." (Mera Sheher Lahore, published by Atish Fashan Publications, Lahore).

Lingering Tradition
Revisiting the famous rendering of Laila Majnun by the great Persian poet Nizami, the psychoanalysts Kakar and Ross call themselves "interpreters of a different era and ethos." Sally J. M. Sutherland, a feminist scholar, would probably disagree with them.

Sutherland rejects the divisions based upon time as a patriarchal bias. She maintains that South Asian societies are still closer to their past than the western societies. And therefore, in our case, it would not be appropriate to consider our legends "ancient". She says: "I would argue that, at least in my case and in others I know, we study not ancient, but traditional The difference is an important one. Because South Asian traditions are so deeply embedded in the modern, the region is to a large extent unique among living cultures of the world... Such stories as Ramayana and Mahabharata still provide a cultural identity for much of the population, as has clearly been evidenced recently by the popularity of Doordarshan’s serialization of the Ramayana. Is this story that has gripped a nation ancient or modern?" (Bridging Worlds, published by Oxford University Press, Delhi).

This perspective brings us to the folk stories with a stronger sense of urgency and seriousness. If they are still as much relevant to us as they were to our ancestors, then a number of implications can be derived (some opposing the others):

  1. The value of these folk stories is not merely decorative. They can be nourishment to our souls just as they were to the dwellers of the inner city of Lahore fifty years ago, and a number of generations all over South Asia before that.
  2. The urban population in particular, and the rural population in general, needs to strengthen their links with the common folk heritage. There is something from everyone... there are not just simple stories by anonymous authors but also such classics as the works of Shah Latif, Waris Shah, Muhammad Seer, Muhammad Bakhsh and others. These are comparable to the works of the greatest writers in the world.
  3. If there are patriarchal biases inherent in some of these stories, they need to be pointed out.
  4. The common folk heritage should also be considered as a ‘literary tradition.' All students, no matter what medium of instruction, should be introduced to the works of the great regional authors named above. Authors writing in Urdu and English should look at these works as potential inspirations... Just as they now look at the traditions of the Urdu and Anglo-American literatures.

Work carried out by various scholars in this field highlights at least three significant functions of folk stories: spiritual, psychological and social.
 
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