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This Needs Research - VIII:
Who Was The Bard Who Penned The Epic Poem On The War Between The Sikhs And The English?





One of the most delicious experiences I have ever had is forever intertwined in my memory with one of my great regrets as well.

During one of my travels in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to spend a few nights in a Punjabi village. Knowing of my interest, my host -- the village landlord -- graciously arranged for a minstrel to perform a recital of Waris Shah’s Punjabi epic love poem, Heer Ranjha, in the traditional, literally age-old balladeer style of the region.

Come midnight, the entire village joined us outside under January’s star-lit sky, huddled around a camp-fire and bundled up in our respective shawls, chaadars and blankets. What followed, starting late after the day’s chores were done, and going well into the wee hours of the morning, was a non-stop recital of the tragic romance by an 80+ old man, blind since birth, who appeared to have had memorized all 629 stanzas of the epic love poem originally penned in 1766.

He sang and sang, his voice holding up miraculously, until the impending dawn signalled that it was time to call it a night. His delivery was absolutely hypnotizing, eliciting complete silence from the entire audience for hours. Loaded with emotion and heartbreak, yet lifting our spirits to incredible heights.  

I knew instantly that that was how the poem was meant to be sung. The Punjabi art of singing the epic is almost lost by now, nowadays mostly left in the hands of dhaadis and kavishars who believe that volume is all that is needed to convey the sentiments of the poet.

I also knew then, or rather was confirmed, that if you need to dig deep into Punjabi culture and heritage at its best, one cannot do without going to West Punjab.           

Ever since -- sadly, belatedly -- came the seed of my great regret: that I did not ask the minstrel to come back another night and sing Shah Muhammad’s “Jangnama (War Epic) -- The War Between Sikhs and The English“. He would have certainly known it because it was as much a part of popular Punjabi lore as ‘Heer Ranjha‘.

I have never heard the Jangnama sung properly ever and, despite being one of the great specimens of not only Punjabi Literature but also Sikh/Punjab history, it is no longer on the radar of Punjabi language enthusiasts today. Most don’t even know of its existence. Hence, the impending loss of an invaluable treasure, and of an impeccable source of history.

*   *   *   *   *

Shah Muhammad wrote an epic poem consisting of 105 stanzas, all of them octaves (that is, 8 lines in each verse). It is in pristine Punjabi and begs to be sung. Many of its phrases are already part of every Punjabi speaker’s lingo, though we remain oblivious of their origin.

It has two main sections. The first describes the anarchy that took over the Lahore Court after the death of Ranjit Singh, egged on by the treachery of the Hindu Dogras. The second part records in considerable detail the battles of what is now known by the misnomer, “The First Anglo-Sikh War”, and its chief players.

The epic account is brutal in its honesty, never shying away from a poet-historian’s first allegiance - to truth. Shah Muhammad assesses the roles of friend and foe alike, sparing no one the praise and brickbats he or she deserves. All of this without ever straying from stirring poetry which haunts you from the very first time you encounter the lines.

Who then was Shah Muhammad?

We know that he was a passionate Punjabi and understood the realpolitik of the day perfectly. Other than that, we do have a few details of his life, but never with any certainty. All scholars who have written about him to date acknowledge that proper research needs to be done to unearth relevant and important information on him. But no one does. They quote each other ad nauseum, and as far as I know no one has ventured out into the field to do some serious, meaningful digging.

Is it because they are afraid to tackle the other title given to Shah Muhammad’s magnum opus: “The War Between Punjab and India“? Which it exactly was, with the Punjabis of Ranjit Singh’s Kingdom pitted against the rest of the subcontinent which for some time had come to be known as British India. Punjabis were on one side of the battle lines, the rest of ‘India’ was on the other.

We know, for example, that Shah Muhammad was born in 1780 or 82 … or maybe 1789. We know that he died in, maybe, 1862. He was born in either Wadala Veeran in District Amritsar (where his grave is reported to be found) or Wadala in District Gurdaspur.  

Some say he personally witnessed much of what he describes in his monumental work, covering the 1839-46 period. Mysteriously, he then stops with the conclusion of the First Anglo-Sikh War, and says nothing about the Second, even though he was definitely around to witness it as well.

Is it because there was no ’Second Anglo-Sikh War’, only a subsequent concoction by the English to justify their usurpation and occupation of Punjab? Or was Shah Muhammad silenced by the Dogras and/or the English? -- We already know of other instances when this was done.

Where did Shah Muhammad write these verses? How? Why? And exactly when?  

It is time our scholars and literati and glitterati took this subject on and gave it its fair due. There is not a single decent English translation of the Jangnama. Actually, I’m not sure if there’s even a bad one of its full length.

There are a few audio/video recordings of the epic poem on YouTube; none are adequate. Lord, I would give a lot to hear Satinder Singh Sartaaj sing it. Or Dya Singh. But not without researching how it should be sung … not as a folk song or a bollywood mishmash, but as the soul-stirrer that is and is meant to be. West Punjab still has the best practitioners of Punjabi arts and music … should we venture in that direction?

And yes, the epic is a long one. We need to record it in its entirety, as well as some of its key excerpts for easy consumption. Whatever.

But something needs to be done. Soon. Before all of those who know of it pass on and it ceases to exist like the sound of the proverbial tree falling in the forest. 

January 17, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 17, 2017, 9:46 PM.

Shah Muhammad's Jangnama indeed remains the ultimate account of the tumultuous period and luckily available in audio. It gives a raw account in full honesty, including of the treachery of the Dogras. Please check out the following site:

2: Raj (Canada), January 22, 2017, 9:16 AM.

Musically speaking, West Punjab singers (such as Shaukat Ali) would be better to sing it because of their command of the Punjabi language and musical prowess.

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Who Was The Bard Who Penned The Epic Poem On The War Between The Sikhs And The English?"

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