Heer Damodar — revived in translation
The Heer-Ranjha love legend 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 talented poet has left little behind himself except repeated chants such as “Damodar name, Gulhati caste” in the riveting story, which has been the subject of numerous films and plays for decades on both sides of the India-Pakistan divide. . The plot, the characters, the tribes and the places have been almost the same in all the narratives with minor changes. For example, Waris Shah names Heer’s mother Malki but Damodar calls her Kundi.
Researchers were only able to uncover scant details about the writer of this Heer variant, such as that he was a Sikh named Damodar Das Arora, a resident of Jhang, where Heer’s tomb 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 very eyes is dismissed by critics as nothing more than poetic fantasy. Among other things, they say, the vocabulary he has used reveals that he lived sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. Damodar and his work were virtually unknown until 1927, when the first of his three Heer manuscripts was discovered in Jhang.
Although the Waris Shah version of Heer has outshone all other narratives and thus has not been widely read or appreciated, Heer Damodar is clearly remarkable in certain respects.
“Damodar’s Heer is written like a fast-paced script. There are no pauses or descriptive flights of the imagination. The story moves forward with great speed. Damodar builds an immense amount on his understanding of human nature and the problems of rural society. Punjab in history and its characters,” says Muzaffar Ghaffar in his preface to the book, which is a link in the Within reach poetry series: Punjabi masterpieces. “He is a masterful storyteller who always keeps the reader’s interest alive. Indeed, his Heer should have become a great favorite with professional storytellers, but… he is virtually unknown in the oral tradition. And yet there seems to be strange material in the three manuscripts that are available. Such corruptions generally only occur with widely told and orally transmitted tales. This is another enigma about Heer Damodar.”
When we evaluated Muzaffar Ghaffar’s Within reach series, we really ran out of adjectives. Call it fantastic, grand, great, marvelous, monumental, phenomenal, marvelous…none of the words would seem like 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 earned a scholar a Pride of Performance award during the Musharraf regime. The writer, I reserve his name to disparage his contribution to Punjabi language and literature, really deserved the award. But I firmly believe that each of Muzaffar sahib’s books deserves such recognition. His other works, five collections of English poetry; How governments work; The brain, the body, the soul, the mind; and Unity in Diversity: A Vision for Pakistan are also illuminating and easy to read.
What does he have in those Punjabi Sufi poetry books that is weird? He took a wide selection from each of the works of the great masters first in Nastaliq and made their poetic translation in Gurmukhi. As with these books, he particularly tries to reach out to lovers of English reading of classical Punjabi poetry all over the world, translates it into romanized script, translates the poetry into English verse (only one line for each line), explains the meaning of difficult words. and then has a detailed discussion of those lines in lucid language. To further facilitate the reader’s work, it offers an elaborate glossary at the end of each volume. Just a random quote from Heer Damodar can illustrate the point:
“The charm comes now. Heer Syal has grown up. Her beauty and demeanor are affirmed by telling us that her feet do not touch the ground. (In this sentence, the word zamin is usually pronounced zimin). She skims the ground gracefully and beautifully, she is almost in flight. This description may be setting us up for haughtiness in Heer. Such indifference to 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 basis for his behavior by telling us that his feet did not touch the ground. This is so for good reason, not just out of innate arrogance…”
Muzaffar’s interest in what is his true labor of love seems to increase with his increasing age and declining health. His latest book, Shah Husain, consisted of three volumes. The book under review has four, the entirety of Heer Damodar. His next adventure, Heer Waris Shah, which is being put to the finishing touches, will run for six volumes. And one can hope that the process will continue and that what might be extinct in the original text will come to life in its excellent translation.
Considering the high quality production, the cost could be justifiable. But how ordinary people interested in Punjabi Sufi poetry would access and benefit from this book is a question that needs to be addressed.
Heer Damodar: Close at Hand (Four Volumes)
By Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar
Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd
60, Shahrah-i-Quaid-i-Azam Lahore;
277, Peshawar Street, Rawalpindi;
Mehran Heights, Clifton High Street,
Four-volume boxed set Rs3,995