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Translation: Rediscovering Bulleh Shah

Posted on July 8, 2006
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Culture & Heritage, Music, People, Poetry
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Adil Najam
A whole new generation has rediscovered Bulleh Shah. That is good.

Much of the credit for this rediscovery goes to the ‘sufi rock’ band Junoon and, more recently to the New Delhi singer Rabbi Shergill, and most importantly to the magnetic simplicity of ‘Bulla, ki jaanan mein koun.’ (I guess, Abida Parveen did for our generation what these guys are doing in interpreting Bulleh Shah for a new generation).

I must confess that I am a traditionalist and prefer more classical renditions of this timeless piece. My own sense, much like Deevan’s (of the blog ‘Rambling On’), is that Rabbi Shergill does a far superior job than Ali Azmat did. At least for me, Rabbi seems to ‘gets it’ more than Junoon did. But, in honesty, I am grateful to both; I also think that both should be grateful to Bulleh Shah.

So, why not judge for yourself. Here is the rendition by Rabbi Shergill. If you are new to Bulleh Shah, listen to it a couple of times before giving up on it. You can view it here by clicking on the play (arrow) button on the image below, or go to video.google.

For those who may want it, here is a version of the original and a translation by Kartar Singh Duggal:

I know not who I am

I am neither a believer going to the mosque
Nor given to non-believing ways
Neither clean, nor unclean
Neither Moses not Pharoah
I know not who I am



I am neither among sinners nor among saints
Neither happy, nor unhappy
I belong neither to water not to earth
I am neither fire, not air
I know not who I am

Neither do I know the secret of religion
Nor am I born of Adam and Eve
I have given myself no name
I belong neither to those who squat and pray
Nor to those who have gone astray
I know not who I am

I was in the beginning, I’d be there in the end
I know not any one other than the One
Who could be wiser than Bulleh Shah
Whose Master is ever there to tend?
I know not who I am.

‘Ki jaanan mein koun’ is the best known and most elegant of Bulleh Shah’s work and is itself an adaptation/translation from the works of earlier Persian philosophers. I wish that more people and singers will start looking at the rest of Bulleh Shah’s repertoire. Some have. For example, Shoaib Mansoor has already done a wonderful rendition of ‘Teray ishq nachaya kar thai-ya thai-ya’ as part of the Supreme Ishq series. And Noori has a song that seems inspired by ‘Kuttey tain-to uttay’.

If others also paid Bulleh Shah more attention, they might find that in terms of his themes Bulleh Shah may be the most contemporary poet in South Asia today. Try looking at ‘Bass kar ji’ (Enough is enough) or ‘Moun aayee baat na rehndi hai’ (I must utter what comes to my lips) and you will find them resonating with your most contemporary political and social preoccupations.

Followup post on Bulleh, Jugni, Shergill & Junoon, here.

78 Comments on “Translation: Rediscovering Bulleh Shah”

  1. Owais Mughal says:
    July 8th, 2006 8:49 am

    beautiful song.

  2. Owais Mughal says:
    July 8th, 2006 8:49 am

    beautiful song. thx for sharing

  3. July 8th, 2006 10:44 am

    Thanks for a wonderful post and the video link- not very impressed with the video, but I agree the rendition is very good. To me, the Junoon version sounded very laboured.

    Tanveer- I liked your description of Baba Bulle Shah- “a tatooed, long haired, 60-s type of guy” !

  4. July 8th, 2006 11:59 am

    Lovely post. As a long-time friend of Junoon, it was so refreshing to hear a song that they did in their hey day. I like Shergill’s rendition, but honestly, I still connect more with Junoon’s version. One has to just listen carefully for the guitar riffs in Junoon version that give it the raspy, more fiery, and more rythmic tempo. Besides – I felt Shergill was moving too fast for me – perhaps because I am less familar with the language and had difficulty keeping up.

  5. sabizak says:
    July 8th, 2006 6:05 pm

    Junoon just about destroyed it best they could. The success of a musical rendition is whether or not it manages to convey musically what the poet is trying to say. In Junoon’s version, the tune did not in any way enhance or augment what the lyrics were trying to say. Whereas Rabbi stresses on the right words, bringing out the emotion in the piece, for Junoon it just sounds like another way of shoving their Sufi-ism down our throats.

  6. MSK says:
    July 8th, 2006 9:52 pm

    I think this is so very very powerful. It ddoes really grow on you. Listening to it for about the 10th time today. Thanks.
    I also foudn teh translation really helpful. But the version in translation seems to be different from the one in teh song (slightly).

  7. July 8th, 2006 10:33 pm

    Which version we like is a matter of personal taste so there is no wrong or right (I actually prefer some of the more traditional renditions to both these versions.) My point is to thank both Junoon and Rabbi for doing what they did (bring new sensibilities to Bulleh Shah) and to invite other to look at the rest of Bulleh Shah’s work which is equally or more powerful.

    On the song, as a matter of personal opinion, I do like the Rabbi version better because (1) I think he is not pretentious about it; the music does not distract from the words, and he recites the verses simply putting in the emphasis at the right places and lets the words do the magic (rather than the interpretation). (2) In the Junoon version, I thought they sang it as if Bulleh Shah was TELLING us all the things he is, rather than PONDERING in self-inspection, what his essence might be. (3) I thought the Junoon version was needlessly angry; I do not find anger in these words, I find desperation, a plea for self-inquiry, a quest for one’s own essence. However, I do think that the Junoon video is nicer (although even less relevant to the words), and also that Rabbi may be singer faster than needed, espeically for non-Punjabi speakers

    But all of this is to explain why I like Rabbi’s version better. Which, again, is a matter of opinion; not fact. SabizakI must also say that I do believe that each singer has the right to interpret the song as they wish… the song then belongs to them and not just the poet… my reason for liking Rabbi is that the interpretation imbedded in his rendition is closer to my own reading of the words…. in essence, to each their own… as long as this gets people back to Baba Bullay, I am happy.

  8. July 8th, 2006 10:35 pm

    Folks, I do strongly urge you to also look at the discussion on this song and on Bullay Shah at Deevan’s blog… it is of high quiality and very well worth the read. He also has a different translation there….

    On that, MSK, yes, the verses that Rabbi chooses to sing are only some in teh original poem… same for the translation, it seems to have some and not other verses… similarly, teh Junoon version chooses different yet different verses.

    Bhupinder, like you I like teh Rabbi version better but also had problems with the video part… although, I really liked the cute prompting in English of the ‘key words’…

  9. sabizak says:
    July 9th, 2006 6:34 am

    Adil, exactly. That was a beauty about Junoon singing it like Bulleh Shah is TELLING us something rather than it being an introspective piece.

  10. July 9th, 2006 8:15 am

    including Shah Abdul Latif & Bullah Shah, there are several Sufi poets who have openly admitted their love of Rumi but one anonymous comment on my blog posted at the end of 2004 accuses Bullay Shah of plaigerism which have left me speechless….

    it is due to Adil’s link to my blog that I found this anonymous comment yesterday

    guess history has been kind on Bullay Shah to establish him as most revered Sufi poet so I will ignore this comment completely….

    i was drawn to rabbi because Sikhs have retained punjabi as their primary language and the beauty of the language comes through more plainly… the content of the kafi is undisputed, it is the rendition & the manner in which the language is used by rabbi that attracts me…

    some words in most kafis i have read are no longer used by punjabis whereas they are saved in sindhi…

    for example “pairan poondee mintaa kardee jana taan peya kalay” is a famous Shah Hussain line…(from the famour main vee jana jhok ranjhan day or main vee jhok ranjhan day jana)

    i hope it evokes as many emotions in my punjabi brothers as it does in me….let me demonstrate with an example.. to me the line is important for, to name a few so our good readers can see if they share my observations and have any of their own to understand that the words operate and impact different people differently but as long as we are getting to the deeper meaning

    (a) looking for love when one is at the end of the tether

    (b) a lady vailing pleading and begging for support (falling at the feet & praying for help)

    (c) these cliches of “pairaan poondee” & “mintaan kardee”…. touch a raw nerve leaving the listener mesmerized

    (d) that this language is long gone n vogue & we hardly see such expressions used in Punjabi anymore

    (e) sufistic interpretation of carrying out the final journey to meet the Lord alone without the crutches of material things

    lastly, more than rabbi or junoon, jawed bashir lead vocals of meekal hasan band (MHB) does a much more awesome job since he comes from semi classical qawali background…i just wish i had a dollar for every time i have promoted MHB i would be a rich man

    :)

  11. FU says:
    July 9th, 2006 9:04 am

    No match to Aabida Parveen,but certainly Rabbi is more appealing than Janoon.

  12. July 9th, 2006 10:25 am

    adil, another translation posted on my blog site if anyone is interested…i now remember what got me to appreciate rabbi….he starts the kafi remaining true to it and calling out BULLA and rabbi is Bulleh Shah…whereas Ali Azmat calls out bullay-aa so Ali Azmat is addressing Bullay Shah

    In my books that changes the context but that could just be me

  13. July 9th, 2006 10:54 am

    Thanks all, for these wonderful comments, am still digesting this rich fare (especialy about the ‘lost’ Punjabi from Naveed…. by the way, as testimony to the power of teh blog, Naveed and I knoew each other on message boards years and years ago when we were students, then we lost touch entirely and this blog has brought us in contact again…. now is that not wonderful….

    Anyhow, the one think I want to comment on is the issue that an Anonymous poster on Naveed’s blog (Rambling On) comments on; suggesting that Bulleh Shah plagiarized this from earlier Persian Sufi poetry. My understanding has alwasy been that MUCH of Sufi poetry in teh sub-continent, Punjabi, Seraiki and other was influenced by Rumi and others and much of it was consciously trying to translate/transmorgify it into local subcontinental languages. I do not think the intent or the effect was plagiarism, it was translation — but more than that it was transformation into more local sensibilities and the addition of new subtleties… I wish we did more of that today….

  14. habib says:
    July 9th, 2006 12:11 pm

    Thanks for a really nice post. A few things.
    1. I too was amazed at the picture of Bulleh Shah. Is that real. I must admit, I also expected a less-establishment-looking-dude.
    2. It seems that those of you who come to this from the direction of the poetry and of Bulleh Shah like Rabbi’s version. Those coming from the side of music like Junoon’s. No?
    3. Anyone notice the relevance of the words to the state of Pakistan’s politics. Do we really know WHO WE ARE, as a people, as a nation? Is that why this is so enticing. Was that your hidden purpose, Professor sahib?

  15. sabizak says:
    July 9th, 2006 5:42 pm

    If we take this plagiarization bit is true, then most of Shakespeare’s work could be termed plagiarization as well since most of his stories have been taken from other lesser writers. Its the way he treated them that made him what he is.
    And mr. Najam, in your blogs of note, i am really surprised not to find ‘The Olive Ream’s blog.

  16. July 10th, 2006 12:26 am

    Sabizak, I must confess that I too am surprised at not finding The Olive Ream on my blogroll… since it is a one of my favorites and one that I have an automatic feed from….. I had thought it was there… obvioulsy, I was mistaken…. I have just added it and I do hope readers will enjoy and be inspired by it as much as I do …. (BTW, I am a big fan of what messers Alvi and Alvie and what they are doing to better organize the Pakistani blogshpere).

    Readers, do please also suggest other Pakistan-related blogs I shodul be keeping a regular tab on in order to be informed and inspired about all things Pakistan.

  17. July 10th, 2006 12:53 pm

    Sabizak, thank you so much for your recommendation. And Adil I thank you sincerely for your comments and I’m flattered.

    As far as the topic of discussion, art of any form is highly subjective. I like Junoon’s work but I much rather prefer the more folk renditions. Pathana Khan comes to mind..

  18. Altamash Mir says:
    July 10th, 2006 11:41 pm

    I’ve been itching to write on this topic, but my internet has been down for 2 days……..
    Yes, Thank you Junoon for Bringing us kalaam from Baba Bhulley Shah and Allama Iqbal in the shape of beautiful compositions. Bhullea is one of Junoons best creations. Both the sound quality and composition were great. If you have a good sound system or good headphones, please do hear the quality of music. This kind of music is rarely heard in Pakistan. As you might have guessed uptil now, I’m not a fan of Rabbi Shergil. Anyone who takes two titles from my favourite bands work is simply disgusting & is by no means talented in my books. Besides there are plenty of Bhulley Shahs poems to compose, then why Bhulleya ?

  19. July 11th, 2006 10:54 am

    adil – a different translation for bulla kee jana main koon from the Ferozsons recent release on Masterpieces of Sufi Literature is now posted on my blog if anyone is interested.

  20. m says:
    July 12th, 2006 12:53 pm

    love it.

  21. Chirag says:
    July 20th, 2006 5:20 pm

    Well ppl i just know one thing ive not seen or heard the junoons version but in rabbi’s album the video is shot in the DARGAH SHARIEF of SARKAR (HAZRATH KHWAJA MOINUDDIN HASSAN CHISTI JI) thts the best part the album is shot in the place where Baba BULLEH SHAH wrote (thinking about )! so ppl peace!!!!! LOVE HUMANITY HATE TERRORISM!

  22. Chirag says:
    July 21st, 2006 2:44 pm

    no need to mention tht habib bhai. u know the urs sharief of sarkar are starting frm 27th.this is to all plzz pray for peace and humanity pray for ppl who are in painand are unwell.

  23. nasser says:
    July 24th, 2006 1:23 pm

    dear people, please understand the fact that sufiana kalaam is not meant to be sung as modern day music, this in not bhangra or disco and that the writings of Bulleh Shah and other sufi saints have a very deep meaning whereby the writers are expressing thier love and connection with the Almighty. Something for you all to think about !!

  24. MSK says:
    July 24th, 2006 2:36 pm

    Dear Nasser. I am flabergasted.
    Are you suggested that modern music is ‘incapable’ of conveying ‘deep meaning’. Really!!
    And what is wrong with bhangra or disco? Can’t we express our love for the Almighty in bhangra and disco? Why not?
    I am sure that if Bulleh Shah was alive today he would be a punk rocker! In his own time the religious establishment that now reveres his ‘sufiana kalam’ shunned him and he was not part of the establishment. That is what made him and others stand out. After all, “mandir dhaa de, masjid dhaa de” is as much a ‘punk rock’ idea as it is a ‘sufiana kalam’ idea.

  25. nasser says:
    July 26th, 2006 4:47 pm

    dear msk,
    if you truly believe that Bulleh Shah could be a punk rocker in any age, you really need to study a bit more about what a sufi saint is, and to answer your question you cannot express love for the Almighty through music,music is haraam in islam.and i was addresssing the muslim section of the writers on this forum, Mandir dhaa de, masjid dhaa de, if you carry on listening to the words it goes on to say that don,t break a persons heart, the writer is comparing the worldly things to what a person holds spiritually in his heart, i don,t expect you to understand the point i am trying to make nor do i think that i could possibly make you understand that bhangra and disco and sufiana kalaam are poles apart and to even mention such revered poetry in the same breath as punk rock and the like would be a huge in-justice to the great people who penned these immortal words.please also note that in my original post i did not say that there was anything wrong with disco or bhangra merely that sufiana kalaam was not meant to be sung for bhangra or disco dancing, i look forward to reading your thoughts.

  26. MSK says:
    July 28th, 2006 1:13 pm

    Maybe we disagree not only on the meaning of Sufi poetry but also on the essence of punk music. Both are anti-establishment, both are spiritual but defy the custodians of formal religion, and both are retaliations to injustice. I find the attempt to bring the Sufi poets into the ‘mainstream’ interesting; especially becasue mainstream religion had shunned and made fun of these Sufi poets (now called saints)when they were alive. The point of ‘masjid dhaa dey’ is exactly that God does not need these buildings, or the custodians of these buildings (the mullahs), becasue God is in everyone’s heart. So much of Sufi poetry is a retaliation to established religion becasue, like punk, it sees a good thing (faith) being abused by the mainstream. As to music being haram. No it is not. And if it is, then that mus mean that all of sufi poetry is haram too!

  27. July 30th, 2006 5:06 pm

    I only discovered Bulleh Shah a few years ago when coming acrossing a qawalli tape that I discovered in my father’s taxi. This qawalli was sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Although I did not understand most of the qawalli – as it was in hardcore Punjabi – my grandfather explained the whole qawalli, along with its’ relationship with Bulleh Shah.

    The qawalli can be accessed at:
    http://www.musicindiaonline.com/p/x/CUb.JmyVpd.As1NMvHdW/

  28. nasser says:
    July 31st, 2006 2:35 pm

    dear msk,
    in any relationship where there is a disagreement weather that relationship be man and wife or just two people exchanging views over the net, there are three magic words that when said put everything into perspective and usually bring the argument to a satisfactory conclusion for all concerned, and i’d like to say them now to you and all the other punk rock fans. your so right!!

  29. August 20th, 2006 4:26 am

    lovely song.

    a all time favorite.

  30. Hafeez says:
    October 8th, 2006 11:56 am

    I am sad that I discovered Bulleh Shah so late in life. There was relaly no serious mention of him or other sufi poets in our schools or even college. We really should be teaching them early to children, certianly in college.

  31. Rehana says:
    October 18th, 2006 11:48 am

    This is not a rediscovery or revival…. poetry of Bulleh Shah is timeless … it never dies and is always fresh….

  32. Hassan says:
    October 18th, 2006 6:45 pm

    I agree that the Rabbi recording is so much more superior and also more true to the oiginal words

  33. joggi says:
    October 19th, 2006 1:01 pm

    The timelessness of Bulleh Shah and other Sufi poets comes, in my opinion, from the simplicity of their words and message and also that it is a message of the ordinary person, whose challenges remain same today that were then. Good song here.

  34. Bhir says:
    October 19th, 2006 1:35 am

    Not sure who is better but that is not a useful question. The question is about what is the magic of these words. Why do these words carry through the generations? I think because they ring true to our own struggles of existance. Bulleh Shah’s questions are still relevant. That is why he lives.

  35. Humera says:
    October 20th, 2006 4:01 am

    Could you also please do writeups on other sufis. Waris Shah, Sultan Baho, Sachal Sarmast.

  36. Anwar says:
    October 24th, 2006 4:03 pm

    Does anyone have information on how Bulleh Shah was treated during his lifetime? Was he already this popular while still alive and how did the authorities and religious leaders view him?

  37. mani says:
    October 21st, 2006 5:40 pm

    i am doing rsearch on baba bulleh shah..if somebody can help me in providing his poetry in transliteration and the rare songs which r nt available in the market…….

  38. mani says:
    October 25th, 2006 4:46 pm

    FOR ANWAR:
    go to this article

    “the life of bulleh shah” written by J R Puri and T R Shingari….

    do sumbody hv song of bulleh shah or provide me..
    “ALAF ALLAH RATA DIL MERA”

  39. Asad says:
    October 27th, 2006 12:08 am

    Sometimes I wonder if the resurgence of Bulleh Shah is a good thing? Maybe, like Faiz and Iqbal, he is also being highjaccked by the exact people that he struggled against.

  40. October 30th, 2006 6:35 am

    I love both Rabbi’s as well as Junoon’s versions!

    These have been composed in different styles and both are beautiful in their own right.

    It has been a joy reading through the post as well as the comments. Thank you so, so much and may the Almighty bring peace and prosperity to Punjabis all around the world!!

  41. Khalid-s says:
    November 2nd, 2006 3:28 pm

    I come back to this post every few days to listen to this great song. As I do so, and also read all the comments in other places I worry that the spirit of Bulleh Shah is fading from this blog and the extremes are taking over. I get very uncomfortable when people start using this blog to pander their naseehats on me or advertising their favorite ‘alims’. This is not the place for that. I get equally uncomfortable when the self-styled liberal police on this blog tries to intimidate people and poke fun on others in order to pick a fight. But  as I read those comments (and ignore them) and as I listen to the words of Bulleh Shah, I now know why he rebelled against both these types. Now I understand Bulleh Shah better, and love him more.

  42. Prophecy says:
    December 1st, 2006 12:57 am

    Those looking for more info about Baba Bullah, here is a book that covers both life and poetry of Baba Jee,

    Sain Bulleh Shah by J.R Shakarpuri, T.R Shingare
    Mustaq Book Corner, Lahore

  43. mahi says:
    February 2nd, 2007 7:54 am

    Hi.. first time. Thanks for this post. I love the song – both its tune as well as the lyrics. I really dont care about Rabbi or Junoon.
    Simply, your post educates me that Bulleh Shah was a sufi poet. I’m a big fan of sufism, though I dont belong to the faith per se. But I belong to all faiths that extol the Divine. How I wish we had sufism, living and accessible, more readily today.

    Bulleh, ki jaan main kaun hoon. So true. This is my life’s mission.

  44. Falak says:
    February 12th, 2007 2:48 pm

    Such a meaningful song…and what shergill has done such a lovely job to revive the spirit of Bulleh Shah’s poetry. Junoon really butchered it!
    This poem/song really makes you rethink how identities were so fluid in the past, and for all our arrogance about being ‘modern’, honestly we’ve just become more rigid, uncompromising, myopic.

  45. February 18th, 2007 4:44 am

    Great to know that we have not forgotten our past heros like Baba Bulle Shah. Thanks for this post.

  46. Baaho da Sangi says:
    March 6th, 2007 12:53 am

    I do agree that at their core the sufi poets of before were like the punk rock of today. They were certainly the LIBERAL voice of their time. At the core their message is a message of rebellion. It is interesting to see people trying to co-opt their message which was always anti-establishment. The reason this poetry is timeless is that it appeals to all generations in its rebellion against the establishment, espesially the religious establishment.

  47. Sufian says:
    February 28th, 2007 5:14 am

    I dont care what the music says I dont care what the poetry says but the moment I listened to this song tears bursted out and every phrase of the poetry made me cry and cry every time i listen to it i cry i find myself in despair i feel myself standing alone …aimless…painless but crushed with painful darts…trust me read the lyrics and the moment you get a hook of them you are deep down in its spell…everytime i listen to this song i feel as if i am an unfaithful perv but the very next moment it makes me proud that i am on the right side …twists my mind my feelings everything …May GOD know if i am faithful or not???? share and email your comments on my email sufian_35677@hotmail.com love and cry

  48. mazhar butt says:
    March 5th, 2007 4:44 pm

    I am sure that if Bulleh Shah was alive today he would be a punk rocker! In his own time the religious establishment that now reveres his ’sufiana kalam’ shunned him and he was not part of the establishment

    i am dumb founded at the height of imagination of this ‘liberal” person ! Thanks goodness he didn’t say the Sufi would striptease at the hoo-ha of bhangra and disco !

    The Sufi is a sufi because he is not a part of his establishment,,,,,he’s a leader not a follower ! If some one doesn’t interest a person he’s not necessarily a person to be looked down upon or made target of ridicule ! The one who ventures to do that is NOT one of his own establishment; he’s out of time and tune !

  49. mazhar butt says:
    March 6th, 2007 3:05 pm

    at their core the sufi poets of before were like the punk rock of today.

    THEY WERE NOT SUFI’S,,,,,,,they were MAJZOOBS !

    there is a lot of difference between a sufi, a qalandar , a majzoob,a dervish, a wali, a qutb , an Imam etc

    Unless one has some good knowledge about all of them it is wrong to say that they were like PUNKS or maybe hippies !

    The sufis were not rebellious,,,,,they only taught the truth and, in a way, you may call bitter truth they preached as mutinous against the contemporary hypocritical society. This however doesn’t lower the rank and dignity of the sufis as such.They were and they will continue to remain above ordinary men.

  50. saleem says:
    March 10th, 2007 8:04 pm

    TRUTH

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