Text and Images by: Daljit Ami
Love legends in Punjab have not only been rendered in different art forms but also been invoked to negotiate the contemporary social issues. Painting, poetry, songs, films and folk songs are crucial to understand the importance of love legends in Punjabi society where love legends are an integral part of the folk idiom, and are embedded in the sub-conscious of every Punjabi.
If these narratives are so much part of the popular consciousness, how do we read the fact that the legends all forefront the woman protagonist? It is only in the legend of Mirza-SahibaN that the name of the man precedes. What are the possible interpretations in contemporary reality?
At a workshop conducted by Hri at the women-only BBK DAV College in Amritsar in early November, Mirza frequently figured in the discussion. Here, students shared their experiences about gender discrimination and dual standards of society when it came to the liberty to love or choose a companion of one’s own.
Painters and poets have interpreted love legends as metaphors, motifs and representations of the indomitable female spirit struggling against patriarchal social norms. Poets of all hues have used love legend in one or other context. They have been invoked to celebrate the spirit of Punjab; to express the suppressed desires of women; and even to aspire for social revolution. In cinema, the same love legends have also been interpreted in ways that assert violent masculinity entrenched in patriarchy.
While Mirza was being discussed, we screened clips from two films about this beleaguered lover. These films, “Mirza, An Untold Story” and “Hero Hitler in Love” are loosely based on the legend of doomed lovers. The first was adapted with the Punjabi diaspora in mind. In this film, Mirza is a Canadian policeman who chases the killers of his brother. These men also happen to be SahibaN’s drug smuggling brothers. The film reasserts violent masculinity with strong anti-women under tones. The second film has an interesting background. Initially, the producers had chosen the title “Mirza” but it was already registered. Subsequently, they changed their story a little and named it “Hero Hitler in Love”. The male protagonist, Hitler Singh follows his love Sahiba to Pakistan under the pseudonym, Mirza. In the end he asserts that he is not Mirza who will die in every love story but Hitler who kills all those in his path. Indirectly, the film criticizes Mirza for being pacifist and unashamedly asserts caste, ethnic and gender biases.
The participants were absorbed by the film clips and spontaneously commented on the patriarchal values and violence being asserted through these films. Some participants linked these stereotypes to their own experiences and social norms of contemporary society, which were anti-women: women are unreliable, less wise than males and they are objects of male desire and ownership. A student shared that they were under constant pressure to avoid male company. She narrated an incident when she was supposed to go for a study tour. Meanwhile, her distant cousin’s relationship with her boyfriend got exposed. Immediately, her parents withdrew the permission for study tour lest she develop a liaison with a boy. The control is not very different from the centuries-old control of Sohni.
From Mirza, the discussion veered towards strong women characters like Sohni. Participants started with constructing the outline of the story, with others filling in details. After the recreation, the participants were asked how how this simple story qualified to be a “legend”. Different interpretations emerged about why the story had endured through the ages: Sohni’s indomitable spirit and conviction about love. When asked which incident in Sohni’s life was the most significant, participants chose to focus on: Sohni and Mahiwal’s first fateful meeting; Sohni visiting Mahiwal when he was grazing buffaloes; Mahiwal visiting her disguised as a yogi; Sohni eating meat brought by Mahiwal from across the Chenab; drowning Sohni and Sohni clinging on to the legendary pitcher which dissolves in the raging water.
To set the stage for the discussion, emotive musical renditions of the legend by Barqat Sidhu and Sajida Begum were screened. Talking about why the specific occasions were significant, the pitcher was found to be the most important symbol of Sohni’s life. An intense discussion followed, trying to interpret Sohni’s thoughts when she discovered that her pitcher had been replaced by an unbaked one. Students talked about her resolve, the appeal on the other side of the river and patriarchal pressure on her back.
Churning and expression
At this point paintings of different painters over a period of more than a hundred years who had worked on love legends in general and Sohni in particular were shared with the students. Immediately after this when asked about any recent incident involving young couple; within no time they were talking about an incident in Jalandhar a few months earlier where a girl committed suicide after journalists photographed her with her boyfriend. We discussed this incident in detail and students discussed this with anguish. Comparing the girl’s mindset with that of Sohni, the students came up with responses underlining the contemporary relevance of love legends. Some students were of the opinion that contemporary women were being presented through these love legends, as social norms are similar. One girl said, “Sohni had committed suicide…” The students used the blank canvases on the walls and charts to express their ideas of love and the clay pitchers that were installed for the workshop. The resultants were diverse expressions of art forms like illustrations, paintings and poems. Indeed, when love legends are adapted through different art expressions, women in today’s Punjab seem to be negotiating their personal and social spaces through these narratives.