Category Archives: Culture

Urdu Poetry: Khwaja Mir Dard


Written by Randeep Purewall

Khwaja Mir Dard was born in Delhi in 1720. The son of a well-known Sufi, Dard was schooled in theology, philosophy and Arabic and Persian. After serving briefly in the Mughal army, he joined his father’s Sufi order in Delhi around 1748.

It wasn’t the best of times for Delhi. The city was sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739 and marauded repeatedly by Ahmed Shah Abdali and the Marathas. Dard stayed on in the city however, even as his contemporaries Mir Taqi Mir and Sauda fled to Lucknow.


At his home in Delhi, Dard held poetry recitals which attracted Mir, Sauda and Soz as well as the emperor, Shah Alam (r. 1759-1806). A gifted musician, Dard also composed khayals, thumris and dhrupads:

The high and low are equal in my eyes
As the high and low notes on the harp

In addition to his Urdu deewaan, Dard wrote eight Persian works on Sufism. He remained a Sufi in Delhi until his death in 1785.

Dard’s poems are sensual, erotic and, most famously, mystical. As a mystical poet, however, he seeks to live peacefully in the world, not to renounce it. He does not flee from life, but seeks its deeper meaning.

His poems concern the unity of existence, the greatness of man, the mystery of God and the nature of the self. His Urdu is simple and his verse spontaneous and intuitive, carrying both a personal depth and a touch of transcendence.

Dard is widely acknowledged today as one of the “three pillars” of Urdu poetry, along with Mir and Sauda.

If someone has not seen you here on earth
It makes no difference if he sees the world or not

Make the best of your time for life will not come back to you
If some of your life remains, youth will not come back to you

As long as I seek, it’s you I seek
As long as I speak, it’s of you I speak
The longing I feel is longing for you
And when I yearn, it’s for you I yearn

Time moves and soon
We shall be gone
So fill the cup
Let wine flow on

I crossed the garden of the world
And found the hue and scent of friendship’s rose

These flowering fields you love so much
And which receive
Such tender care from you, relate
A different tale to me
For when the flowers fade, the buds
And say: Like them we too one day
Shall wilt away

Give up talk with men and quiet be
Desire only the soul’s serenity
Seek joys of union in a state of wonder
Look for guidance in your heart’s own mirror

Though man was not given wings
He soared higher than the angels

Whom would the preacher
Frighten with his day of doom?
The scroll of deeds I washed clean with my tears

Don’t judge me, O Sheikh, by my drenched cloak
The angels would seek ablutions were I to wring it

Nor heaven nor earth can Thy expanse contain
Tis but my heart that enfolds Thy grace

Roses and greenery
Aren’t worth that inner joy
That place is grove and garden
Which gladdens the heart

Trans. Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An  Anthology of Urdu Poetry; K.C. Kanda, Urdu Ghazals: An Anthology from the 17th to the 20th Century; additional translation, Randeep Purewall



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Om Puri: Four Performances


Written by Randeep Singh

On January 6, 2017, Om Puri passed away at the age of 66. One of India’s finest actors, he also won acclaim for his performances in British, American and Pakistani films. Here’s a review of just four of his performances.

Aakrosh (1980)

In this devastating indictment of India’s justice system, Puri plays a poor tribesman (Lanya) wrongly accused by his landlords of murdering of his wife. Silent for much of the film, Lanya finally cries out in anguish for deliverance from a life of indignity and exploitation in a masterful balance of intensity and restraint by Puri.

Ardh Satya (1983)

In Ardh Satya, Puri plays a cop battling for his sanity and conscience in a force bedeviled by corruption. Whether in dealing with gang bosses, his superiors, or his domineering father, Puri humanizes the struggle between a life of dignity or selling out to the system.

My Son The Fanatic (1997)

As Parvez, Puri is a whiskey-loving Pakistani immigrant who falls for a local prostitute while his British-born son turns into a religious fundamentalist. Puri deftly plays the role of father, lover and working-class immigrant in one full comic-romantic-dramatic sweep.

East is East (1999)

In another culture clash comedy, Puri plays George Khan, a Pakistani fish and chip shop owner living in Salford in the early seventies. Struggling to establish his sway over his rapscallion Anglo-Pakistani children and his English wife, Puri’s performance elicits laughs, fear and even a little sympathy.

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Filed under Cinema, Culture, Films, Hindi Cinema, India, Randeep Singh, Uncategorized

The Dharma and the Dīwān


Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddha[1] and Ghalib[2] are two of the best known philosophers and poets of the Indian subcontinent. The Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, elucidate the relationship between suffering and desire. In his collection of Urdu poetry, the Dīwān-e-Ghalib, Ghalib, ponders over desire and whether one can ever be content.

We each see new meanings in the mirror of Ghalib’s verse. His poems reflect his thoughts on suffering and desire. They also elicit new understandings on the nature of desire, challenging one’s view of the Dharma.

The first two noble truths of the Buddha are that life is suffering and that the cause of suffering is desire. Ghalib’s couplet (sh’er) poignantly reenacts this drama:

 hazāroñ ḳhvāhisheñ aisī kih har ḳhvāhish pah dam nikle
bahut nikle mire armān lekin phir bhī kam nikle (219.1)

 A thousand such longings, I’d die with each one
Many wishes escaped only to prove too few

We die with each longing. We remain unfulfilled, desiring more than we can attain. The Buddha taught that wanting what we cannot have is a form of suffering.

And yet, desire has its uses:

havas[3] ko hai nishāt̤-e kār kyā kyā
nah ho marnā to jīne kā mazā kyā

What joys of action has desire
What joy has life without death

Would one act without desire? Would the world exist? Desire underlies life and action. And we enjoy life, knowing it will end.

Can we ever be desire-less? Without desire, Siddharta Gautama would not have become the Buddha, he would not have desired to end suffering. For those of us who aren’t monks, desire is fulfilled in moderation and ultimately, transformed from something self-centered (‘tanha’) to the positive desire to better oneself and do good to others (‘chanda’).

Ghalib’s sh’er reminds us that life cannot be lived without desire. It seems that “positive” desire has its joys of action as well.


[1] Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 BCE or 480-400 BCE).

[2] Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (1797-1869).

[3] ‘Desire, lust, concupiscence, inordinate appetite; — ambition; –curiosity’. Platts, John T. (John Thompson). A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English. London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1884, 1241.



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India Bound

india_censoredWritten by Randeep Singh

The film Haider was released on October 2, 2014. The film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the violent backdrop of Kashmir in the mid-1990s. Among other things, Haider looks at the atrocities of the Indian army. It has become one of the most critically acclaimed films in India this year.

On October 15, 2014, the Allahabad High Court issued notices to, among others, the film’s director, director and actors to respond to a petition. The petition was filed by the Hindu Front for Justice an organization which seeks to restrain the film’s screening on the basis that it insults the sovereignty, integrity and unity of India.

How does a film like Haider endanger the “sovereignty, integrity and unity” of India? Aren’t India’s restrictions on the freedom of expression, such as national security, public order and incitement to violence,  sufficient to deal with problems that may otherwise imperil the “sovereignty, integrity and unity” of India?

The “sovereignty, integrity and unity” limitation on freedom of expression merely enables the Indian power to curb any thought or opinion it deems “anti-national.” And what is more cherished to the Indian nationalist mythology than the idea that India is a benign, secular democracy, a view questioned by Haider?

In its stamping out of ideas, thoughts or opinions, which just may have a ring or truth to them, the Indian state privileges the right of an ambiguous and undefined the “nation” over those of democracy which relies on a free flow of ideas. The result is a narrowing of the Indian mind.

If Haider is restrained from playing in Indian cinemas, the Indian state and its fascist enthusiasts will have again (as they have done before with M.F. Hussain, Deepa Mehta, Sonali Bose, Arundhati Roy, Wendy Doniger) have privileged the rights of the “nation” over those of Indians themselves.

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Don’t Cry For Punjabi



Written by Randeep Singh

We hear about the “loss” of Punjabi, the “tragedy” of how Punjabi is not taught in schools in West Punjab, of how Punjabi youth speak only Urdu, Hindi or English in Lahore or Chandigarh. “Imagine the sound of Punjabi and the rich cultural heritage it boasts,” writes Affan Chaudhary, “lost forever.”[1]

If there’s a tragedy, it’s the idea that the demise of Punjabi has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more one believes it, the less likely one will do anything to reverse it and the less likely that anything will change in any positive respect, least of all the feelings of doom and gloom.

I am not denying Punjabi faces challenges, but the circumstances suggest a more balanced view on the question.

First, Punjabi is neither an “endangered” nor a “vulnerable” language.[2] While it may not enjoy national or official status like Hindi, Urdu or French, neither is Punjabi an endangered or vulnerable language like Basque, Corsican or Gaelic all with less than one million speakers.

Punjabi is in fact one of the world’s most spoken languages with its number of speakers ranging from 80 to 110 million.[3] The total number of Punjabi speakers moreover has been increasing, not decreasing, since 1951.[4]

Second, rather than compare Punjabi to Urdu and Hindi, it would make more sense to compare Punjabi to languages like Gujarati, Pashto and Telugu with which its shares a similar legal and official status. What does the experience of these languages have in common with Punjabi? What initiatives have such languages taken in promoting awareness and education in one’s mother tongue in ways which can help Punjabi?

Third, few languages have proved so culturally vibrant in India, Pakistan and in the diaspora as Punjabi. Punjabi has historically dominated the film and music industry in Pakistan thanks to icons like Noor Jehan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan raised the profile of Punjabi poetry through his musical performances. And Punjabi MC’s bhangra/dance track “Mundiyan To Bachke Rahin” topped charts in the UK, Italy and Germany and crossed over into hip-hop collaborations with Jay-Z and Timbaland.

We could add the growing popularity of Punjabi through Sufi Rock, Coke Studio and Bollywood. The point is that any discussion on Punjabi needs to count its achievements and opportunities along with its setbacks.

So don’t cry for Punjabi just yet.

[1] Affan Chaudhary, “I Speak Punjabi but My Kids Might Not,” in Express Tribune (March 16, 2012): International Tribune: :://

[2] UNESCO defines an endangered language as one which children no longer the language as a mother tongue in the home; and a vulnerable language as one which is spoken by most children but whose use is restricted to certain domains like the home.

[3] Ethnologue lists Western Punjabi (Lahnda) and its various dialects as the 11th most spoken language with 82.6 million speakers with an additional 28 million speakers of Eastern Punjabi. The Swedish language million speakers, the Swedish language encyclopedia, Nationalencyklopedin (2007) lists Punjabi as the 10th most spoken language in the world with 102 million speakers.



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An Evening with Saeen Zahoor


Written by Randeep Singh

On May 31, 2014, Pakistani Sufi singer Saeen Zahoor performed at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, sending the audience into trance, dance and inspiring reverence throughout.

The evening brought together local Indian and Pakistani performers, organizers and audience members. Indo-Pakistani band Naqsh IPB opened the evening with their blend of modern Sufi, rock, classical and filmi musical stylings. Through clashing drums, pulsating guitar riffs and the soaring vocals of Daksh Kubba, Naqsh warmed up the crowd for Saeen.

He entered in his long black kurta embroidered in yellow, ghungroo bells jingling around his ankles, carrying his colourfully decorated ektaara (one-string instrument). “I am not an artist,” he began, “I am a dervish who recites the name of His Master.”

Saeen didn’t just sing: he performed in every sense of the word. The spirit of Bulleh Shah poured through Saeen, his songs, his dance, his story-telling. His two hours on the stage was a musical theatre on the life and poetry of Bulleh Shah.

After declaring his devotion to Bulleh Shah in “Ni Mai Kamli Haan” (‘Crazy I Am!’), Saeen sang “Aukhen Painde Lambiyaan Raavan” (‘Hard and Long are the Paths’), of how Bulleh Shah journeyed for miles in search of his teacher. On meeting his teacher, Shah Inayat, Bulleh Shah asks: “how does one find God.” Shah Inayat, planting spring onions, replies: “what do you want to find God for? Just uproot this from here and plant it there.”

Saeen then broke out ecstatically into “Nachna Painda Ae” (‘Dance One Must’) swirling on the stage in his ghunghroo bells just as Bulleh Shah had once for Shah Inayat.

Saeen also sang on Bulleh Shah’s rebukes to legalistic Muslim clerics in “Bas Kare O Yaara Ilm” (‘Enough of Learning, My Friend’). Saeen tells us, Bulleh Shah gave up the shariah for the way of Love just as Heer refused to marry another man according to the shariah because she had been wedded spiritually to her Beloved. On love’s path, Saeen sings “let’s go Bulleh to that place where everyone is blind” in “Chal Bulleha Uthe Chale.”

From his stepping onto the stage, the audience became disciples of Saeen. He sang with abandon, he whirled with frenzy and he ended the night to the boom of the dhol drum bringing the audience to its feet. The air was filled with passion, energy and devotion. People went up to the stage and paid their respects by touching their heads to the stage or folding their hands in reverence: the theatre became a Sufi shrine, a dargah.

Above all, Saeen ensured Bulleh Shah will live on as a shared heritage. His spirit and art were the spirit of love and unity. Says Saeen: “humanity is to love one another.”


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Modern Punjabi Poetry: Poetry from West Punjab

Translated by Randeep Singh

Punjabi poetry from Pakistan (West Punjab) include Sharif Kunjahi (1915-2007) and Ustad Daman (1911-1984) and poets who began writing after Pakistan’s independence in  1947 including Ahmad Rahi (1923-2002), Ahmad Saleem (b. 1945) and Mir Tanhai Yousafi (b. 1955).

Munir Niazi


Born in Khanpur near Hoshiarpur, now East Punjab, Munir Niazi (1926-2006) migrated to Sahiwal after 1947. A leading poet in Urdu and an acknowledged film song-writer, Munir wrote three books of poetry in Punjabi:  Safar Dī Rāt (‘The Night’s Journey), Char Chup Chīzāñ (‘Four Quiet Things’) and Rastā Dasan Vāle Tāre (‘The Path-Telling Stars’).

Paths (‘Raste’)

These paths
These winding paths
Where do they lead?
To ancient palaces
Into the arms of old friends?
Or into deep dark forests
Terrifying us, like a beast?
Or after making us wander aimlessly
Back to where we began?

Ih raste ih lambe raste
Kihṛe pāse jānde naiñ
Bahut purāne mahilāñ andar
Vichṛe yār milānde hain
Uchiyāñ ḍūngiyāñ jangle andar
Sherāñ vāng ḍarānde naiñ
ñ phir aiveñ ghum ghumā ke
Vāpas moṛ liānde naiñ

Means of Being (‘Honī de hīle’)

Some desire I had for a love not of this world
Some days I knocked on each door in search
Some friends never let go their faults
Some rivals stirred in their poison
Some company in separation I found
Some lovers gave me a pain profound
Some of my misfortunes withered away
Some distance brought love closer
Some of those paths were difficult
Some collars of grief I bore
Some townsfolk were tyrants to me
Some too I was fond to slay

Kujh shoq sī yār faqīrī dā
Kujh ishq ne dar dar rol dittā
Kujh sājan kasar na choṛī sī
Kujh zahar raqībāñ ghol dittā
Kujh hijar firāq da rang chaṛhīā
Kujh dard māhī anmol dittā
Kujh saṛ gaī qismat bad qismat dī
Kujh pyār vich judāī rol dittā
Kuch unj vī rāhvāñ aukhiyāñ san
Kuch gal vich gham dā tauk vī san
Kuch shahar de lok vī zālim san
Kuch maiññ maran da shauq vī sī


Najam Hussain Syed

Najam Hussain Syed (b. 1936) was born in Batala, East Punjab and moved to Lahore after 1947. He has written more than a dozen books of poetry in Punjabi (including Rutt Da KammChandan Rukh Da Vera and Bar Di Var) as well as plays in Punjabi and books on literary criticism, including Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry.



Colours (‘Rang’)

Come, celebrate colours
Colours of new leaves
Again and again
New leaves gleam
A message of warmth
Place the warmth in your heart
The gleam in your eye
Come celebrate, again and again
If winter’s arrived, spring shall too
If smoke smoulders, the fire too shall blaze …
Come, celebrate
Again and again
Those who every day decay
Without becoming new
Live a life of death
Reds and greens come out
When they cast off old skins
Come celebrate the colours
Again and again

Naviāñ pattrāñ de
Aāo rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de
Vāre vāre jāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ dī lishk sunehā
Lishk ‘cho’ simdā sek sunehā
Sek dil de andar dharīe
Lishk akhīñ nāl lāīe, rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre jāīe
Chaṛiā māgh, vasākh vee āvsī
Dhukde rahe tāñ mach vī pavsī
Pelo pairīñ āondiāñ age
Dam dam tel chavāīe, rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre vāre jāe
Mar mar nit jihṛe naveñ na hoe
Uh tāñ rahisan jionde moe
Sūhe sāve niklan tāhīoñ
Haḍ gae jad lāīe rang manāīe
Naviāñ pattrāñ de vāre vāre jāīe


Zubair Ahmad

Zubair Ahmad (b. 1958) is a Punjabi poet, essayist, critic and short story writer. A former journalist, editor and previously active in Punjabi street theatre, Ahmad is currently a professor at Islamia College, Lahore. In addition to two short story collections, he has written two books of poetry in Punjabi: Koi Dam Yaad Na Keeta (‘A Breath Not Remembered’) and Sadd (‘The Call’) from which the following poems have been taken.

Feel Me Always, Like This (‘ Roz maiññ inj jāpe’)

Feel me always, like this
Like the evening
Creeping across the river
And the dawn
The quivering day
The furtive night

Roz maiññ inj jāpe
Jiveñ shām
Daryāoñ pār tūñ āve
Te savere dī
Darya darya din āve
Chorī chorī rāt

How Do I Tell Your Story? (‘Teri Kinj Kahānī Karīe’)

How do I tell your story, dear?
We’ve been apart for so long

We picked clean the cotton
Without spinning it into thread
We left with no goodbye
No candles on the sill
For the other to return home
How do I write this tale?
My words and speech have fled
We’ve been apart for so long

A strange evening came to town
When passing that final door
Closing its window to the world
I saw it all in a dream that night
Had my eyes hung on to that night!
But they broke under pain’s water
We’ve been apart for so long

Terī kinj kahānī karīe uṛīe
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ

Pūnī pūnī kar jo katiā
Ohdā tān nā tanīā
Chaldiāñ vidā na kittā
Kakh bāl banere na dharīe
Kinj likhīe rām kahānī
Sabh sukhan zabānī kar baiṭhe āñ
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ

Ajab shām nagar vich āī
Būhā pichlī jo langh āī
Os ḍhoī ḍar dī tākī
Sapan rāt akhīñ vich pāī
Ih raat akhīñ rakh lende
Akhāñ dardāñ pānī kar baiṭhe āñ
Rut purāne kar baiṭhe āñ



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