Home >Opinion >More power to Heer

For the past few months there have been a spate of innumerable debates and discussions regarding the status of women in India, and the need for amendments to existing laws to ensure their safety and security. Musical tributes and songs of protest have also been offered to women, particularly those who are survivors of incidents of violence and sexual abuse. In light of all the women-centric discussions and music, I wanted to re-examine the great love ballads of the Sufi tradition like Heer-Ranjha and Sassi-Punnu. Although located in Punjab, these epic love stories with universal appeal can, if examined as more than isolated pieces of music or traditional songs, offer the possibility of an understanding of the politics of caste, community and gender, and the hypocrisies of society when it comes to issues related to women and their right to exercise choices, and how little seems to have changed since Waris Shah wrote his epic of the Heer Ranjha in the 18th century.

It would be pointless to write about these ballads without actually savouring what they sound like when sung. I would therefore recommend the following links for those who can spare the time:

Kheriyan De Naal by the late Tufail Niyazi: (a personal favourite from which the other renditions seem to have borrowed generously ).

Kheriyan De Naal by Shafqat Amanat Ali.

Kheriyan De Naal by Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad and Bros.

Jana Jogi De Naal by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Sassi by Saeeda Begum.

Shemeem Burney Abbas in her book The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual explains that Heer, who was the daughter of a powerful chieftain of the Sial Jats of Jhang, fell in love with Dheedo Ranjha, the youngest son of Chaudhry Muazzam of the Ranjha clan of Jats from the Takht Hazara region. Although the young lovers belonged to the Jat community, their romance did not find approval with Heer’s family because Ranjha was less privileged in terms of socio-economic status. Much against her will, Heer was forced to marry the son of a member of the powerful Khera Jats of Rangpur. By refusing to sign the marriage contract, Heer registered her protest against the alliance, in the hope that the clergymen solemnizing the wedding would realize that she was being forced into a marriage that was against the Shari’a, explained by Burney Abbas as “Islamic jurisprudence". Her family, it is said, resorted to the same tactics that we know disapproving families resort to even today—they bribed the clergymen to fake her consent. Forced and threatened into marriage, Heer spent her life trying to be reunited with Ranjha, but was finally poisoned to death. On hearing of her death, Ranjha too is said to have killed himself at her grave.

The stories may change location and chronology, but nothing much has changed since the days of Heer and Ranjha, and we remain members of a society that sanctions extreme criminal violence and brutality against women for attempting to exercise their right to choose a life partner of their own free will. But if these tales of intolerance were not bad enough, check this out: In these days when Sufi music is all the rage, the well-known artiste Idu Sharif of Malerkotla is reported to have been told that he could not sing Heer at the Khalsa College in Muktsar, Punjab!

AlsoRead | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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