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A Panjabi sufi poet: Bulleh Shah (1680-1758),

Mlanges de lInstitut Dominicain
dtudes Orientales du Caire 11 (1972) 307-13.

[p. 307, sotto il titolo] L'auteur de cette note, Emilio Panella, un scholar italien, a vcu au Pakistan et s'intresse au patrimoine culturel et religieux de ce pays. Il a obtenu un magistre l'Universit du Pendjab, Lahore, en 1970. Le pome qu'il traduit et explique ici est l'une de ces innombrables oeuvres si caractristiques du sous-continent o la tradition mystique, avec des tendances souvent diffrentes, est extrmement vivante. MIDEO est heureux d'accueillir ici ce texte d'un confrre que de nombreux liens de travail et d'affection relient notre quipe du Caire.

(J.J.) (= Jacques Jomier OP, 2008)


kafi 27


antithetic parallelism


Bulleh Shh great poet in Panjabi language


polyvalence | allusiveness


 opera omnia | norme di traslitterazione | bibliografia |


KAFI  No. 27

traduz. di Manus Domini
maggio 2005

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

Neither mosques as believer do I haunt 

Nor cling to practices of pagans 

Neither pure in the midst of impure 

Nor Moses nor Pharaoh am I

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

O Bulleh, come posso sapere chi io sia?

Non mi reco alle moschee come credente

Neppure abbraccio i riti pagani

Non sono schietto fra gli impuri

Non sono n Mos n un faraone

O Bulleh, come posso sapere chi sono?

I plunge not in the Books of Veda

Nor in opium dreams or wine-bibbing

Neither in debauchery nor in drunkenness do I indulge

Neither awake nor asleep am I

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

Non mimmergo nei libri Veda

N in sogni fantastici o nellinvitante vino

Non mi abbandono alla depravazione o allebbrezza

Non mi sento sveglio n addormentato

O Bulleh, come posso imparare a conoscere me stesso?

I am neither happy nor sad

Neither pure nor impure 

Neither water nor earth 

Neither fire nor air am I

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

Non sono n felice n triste

Non sono puro ma neppure impudico

Non sono n acqua n terra

N fuoco n aria

O Bulleh, come posso sapere chi sono?

I am neither Arab nor Lahori

Nor Indian citizen of Nagauri 

I am neither Hindu, Turk nor Peshawari

Nor in Nadaun do I abide

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

Non sono n Arabo n un abitante di Lahore

Neppure un cittadino indiano di Nagauri

Non sono n indo, n turco n di Peshawar

Non vivo neppure a Nadaun

O Bulleh, come posso sapere chi io sia?

I neither captured the mysteries of religion 

Nor was I born of Adam and Eve 

I have no name to be called with 

I neither sit nor roam about

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

Non sono riuscito a capire i misteri della religione

Non sono neppure figlio di Adamo ed Eva

Non ho un nome col quale essere chiamato

Non mi soffermo ma non vagabondo

O Bulleh, come posso sapere chi sono?

I know myself to be First and Last 

No equal do I acknowledge 

No one is wise beside me.

So solo di essere il primo e lultimo

Non conosco nessuno allaltezza

Nessuno saggio all'infuori di me.

O Bulleh Shah, who then is standing?

O Bulleh, how do I know who am I?

O Bulleh Shah, chi rimane allora?

O Bulleh, come posso capire chi io sia?

II. Bulleh Shh is rightly regarded as one of the greatest poets in Panjabi language (Panjab is the north-eastern region of West Pakistan). And in the specific field of muslim mystical poetry (sfina shir) in Panjabi literature he is no doubt the most outstanding figure.

Bulleh Shh was born in Pandoke village, a few miles from Lahore in 1680. His original name was Abdullah Shh and his family is reported to have been of Sayyed stock. Driven by a mystical bent he moved to Lahore and became a disciple (murd) of the reknowned Pr (Spiritual Guide), Inyat Shh. Bulleh Shhs relatives, being Sayyed, strongly objected to his placing himself under the guidance of an Arn (low caste of agriculturists). Bulleh did not pay much heed to relatives grievances on family prestige and gave himself totally to the guidance of Inyat Shh.

According to the traditional pattern of murshid-murd [= maestro-discepolo] relationship in Indus Valley sufism, Inyat Shh had a tremendous bearing on the religious experience of Bulleh and evident traces of this are extant in Bulleh Shhs verses. Under Inyat Shhs guidance he gave up seeking after human knowledge (ilm), learnt the lesson of love (sabaq-e-ishq) and entered the ocean of Unity (wahadat d dary); by Inyats grace he was able to go safely through the whirling-pool (kafi no. 79). When finally his Spiritual Guide disclosed the secrets (bhet), only then were divine mysteries made known to Bulleh Shh (tn khulle sab asrr; kafi no. 152). The triangle pattern of mystical path (God, murshid, murd) so common in Panjabi sufism is poetically rendered by a masterly stroke of that symbolic process of materialization which seems to be one of the most striking formal devices of Bulleh Shhs poetic genius:

Shh Inyat kundin pyn Shh Inyat tied the knots 
Luk chhup khich d dor  (And God) hidden behind pulls the strings (kafi no. 118)

One could go on listing the peculiarities of Panjabi stific poetry that find unrestricted place in Bulleh Shhs writings: superiority of love over knowledge, of intuition over reasoning, an acute sense of the inwardness of religious experience, disregard for merely external faithfulness to the sharat, mockery of the self-appointed guardians of Islm, celebration of the presence of God everywhere, relativeness of positive religions, etc. And one can easily see the common themes of Persian sufism whose influence on Indus Valley islamic mysticism can hardly be overstressed.

Bulleh Shh was endowed with a keen sense of observation and as a poet he assumed into his verses  -  not as flat subject-matter but as potentially symbolic vehicles of expression  -  all that makes up the simple daily life of a Panjabi village. This was possible, however, in a poetry of religious interests, only if a well refined and daring mental process of materialization had been worked out to transfigure trivial dealings of villagers life into highly symbolic references by a touch of creative imaginativeness. It is just what Bulleh Shh does with an extraordinary mastery of language techniques. The most abstract, immaterial notions and perceptions of mystical insights are unexpectedly embodied into a concrete, palpable symbol which springs up from the immediate experience of daily life. The initial sense of disconfort at the twisted mental process in Bulleh Shh gives way to an enjoyable poetic wonderment. Time, life and destiny, for instance, are subtly alluded to by a cotton spinning-wheel so common in Panjabi villages; bewilderment in face of the future and the unknown is vividly evoked in the tense psychological state of a girl on the eve of the marriage; a highly dramatic scene of a woman (the sufi) searching for the thief (God) is depicted by the image of a cloak (bukkal) from whose folds the thief took his flight; the concealment or revelation of God is symbolically cast into the familiar image of lifting or removing the ghunghat by a Panjabi woman (the ghunghat being the border of the veil Panjabi women raise up to cover their face while passing by men).

III. But the most striking linguistic technique of Bullehs poetry lies in a kind of antithetic parallelism carried out by a sequence of double negation in either member of a dichotomy. One can easily guess that at the origin of such a linguistic device there is a deep awareness of the radically ineffable nature of God and mystical experience. This, however, would be still nothing new in either muslim or christian mystical literature. But the solution of the experience of the ineffability, at the linguistic level, into a pattern of bold, puzzling, stubborn sequences of contradictory negations is an extremely genial characteristic of Bulleh Shhs sufic poetry. An altogether new logic is imposed on the human mental process; the presumption of capturing the Ultimate Reality within the ground of usual patterns of human reasoning and words is blown up by positing the absurd of statements both assessed and rejected at one and the same time. And yet a flash of light is thrown on the Unknowable by prompting the meaningfulness of grammatical discourse beyond the orbit of direct referential value of verbal symbols and by recovering an unheard of area of verbal meaning: a zone of meaning detected  -  or created?  -  either in referents to which words analogically allude or in a third one evoked by denying both contradictory terms out of fear of betraying the meaning with a direct  -  and therefore inadequate  -  connotation.

Hence sufic poetry itself  -  and I chiefly refer to Panjabi sufic poetry  -  appears to be more a privileged moment of experiencing the Divine than a literary otium which would turn into an unsuccessful attempt to communicate anything divine to other humans. Moreover, the intimate link between such poetry and music and qawwli (the bulk of Panjabi sufic poetry has been handed down orally in qawwlis) would be a further external evidence to support the idea that poetic activity was taken up by sufis primarily as an attempt to experience the Divine than to speak of it.

The kfi (favourite form of Panjabi sufic poetry) translated here (kfi no. 27) is an evident specimen of that sort of syntactically and logically complex and intricate type of mystical poetry which is peculiar to Bulleh Shh.

To realize the intricacy beyond the apparent simplicity of the text one has to admit, as a zone of meaningfulness, the allusiveness of the counterpart standing beside what is negated and the evokativeness of the grammatical nothing which appears to be the only outcome of the devastating apophatic procedure involved in the linguistic pattern of double contradictory negation.

IV. Two more specific remarks may be useful for the understanding of the kfi:

1. The refrain, which gives formal and logical unity to the sequence of antithetic propositions, offers a wide scope of polyvalence if one would refer to the original:

Bulleh, k jnn main kaun?

 It literally reads:     Bulleh how (what) do I know who am I?

But it might be as well understood in a moving stream of meaning gaining new and deeper insights as the poet-mystic goes on probing his own reality which finally appears to be nothing but Gods. Moreover the enigmatic last verse might support well the exegesis of an implicit assessment of God as Unique Real standing (khar) (left over?) when all human and worldly beings have been drowned in the unrestrained universal negation. This view would help to see somewhat through the intricacy bound up with the apparent fluctuant referent for which the grammatical subject stands: a gradual shifting from Bulleh Shhs Self (main) to Gods is produced  -  in my opinion  -  so that in the end God himself becomes the subject of any negation as well as affirmation. The first verse of the last stanza would otherwise be too bold a statement to be palatable for a muslim mystic and milieu:

Awwal Akhir p nn jnn  I am the First and the Last 

If such an interpretation of dynamic meaning is true, then it would do justice to the deep insight of the kfi as a whole, better than any attempt to assign a fixed meaning to the refrain, as Najm Hosain Syed has done. He lists three possible literal translations (op. cit. infra, p. 71):

a) How do I know who I am?

b) How do I know who He (God) is?

c) How can I know the whoness?

And one could easily add a fourth one:

d) What do I know about the Self ?

2. That the message of Bulleh Shhs poetry is not entrusted to the words as such but to what they allude to either by denying or by evoking, is unequivocally made sure, to my mind, by the last verse of the above translated kfi:

Bulleh Shh, khar hai kaun?

It would give a great headache to any interpreter who presumed to render the exact meaning of it. The conciseness of the sentence, the extreme simplicity of grammatical structure, the looseness of syntactic links suddenly breaks through linguistic representation towards an almost immediate, a-linguistic apperception, say, a sort of interjection. And interjection is just as untranslatable as meaningful. No translation (and I mean by translation a reduction of meanings into a linguistic form of expression) can claim to render its meaning, where meaning is just a little more than the apperception itself and transfer into paralinguistic forms of the very simplicity of the unspeakable, indeterminable experience of the One, before any determination whatsoever, when there was neither the Lord nor the Prophet nor Allah but only the One (jad ahad ik akall si)  -  as Bulleh Shh himself says elsewhere (kfi no. 152).

I shall only reluctantly give some exegetical hints to probe the depth of the last verse, on which depends the understanding of the whole poem, but whose plenitude of meaning, however, can be seized only by re-experiencing that same poetico-mystical frustration of being forced to cast the Ineffable into verbally structured forms of knowledge.

Bulleh Shh, khar hai kaun?

a) Who stands up as the Other?

b) Who can stand up and rival me?

c) Who else is (can be) standing there?

d) Does anyone remain?

e) If there is anything remaining of my Self  -  what is it? Who am I now after all?

Scheda "Bulleh Shh"

1. Bulleh Shh is buried in Qasr (few miles from Lahore) where his annual celebration (urs) is held in the month of Muharram.

According to the text of Kullyt (Opera Omnia) published under the auspices of Panjb Adab Akdam (Lahore 1967), Bulleh Shhs work consists of:

no. 156 Kfi

no. 1 Athwra (composition on the days of the week)

no. 1 Brn Mh (composition on the months of the year)

no. 49 Dohre (couplets)

no. 3 S Harf (composition of quatrains whose first line begins with and follows the letters of the alphabet).

2. In the confusion of transliteration from Panjb, a middle-way method has been adopted: English value for consonants and Italian for vowels; more arabic symbols having the same sound in Panjb have been represented by one symbol; long vowels are marked; dentals and liquids are palatal.

3. Bibliographical references.

Kullyt Bulleh Shh, edited by Dr Faqr Muhammad Faqr, Panjb Adab Akdam, Lahore 1967 (with introduction and notes in Panjabi).

Lajwanti Ram Krishan, Panjbi de Sfi Shir, Lahore 1966 (in Panjabi from the original English: Panjabi Sufi Poets, Calcutta 1938).

A.H. Ahmad Kuraishi, Panjbi Adab k Mukhtassar Trikh, Lahore 1964 (in Urdu).

Shafi Aqil, Panjbi Rang, Lahore 1968 (selected Panjabi poems translated into Urdu with short introductions).

Najm Hosain Syad, Recurrent Patterns in Panjabi Poetry, Majlis Shh Hussain, Lahore 1968 (in English).

Karachi, April 1971

Emilio Panella o.p.


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