In Sindh the figure of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai so impacts multiple aspects of  cultural, political and religious life that it seems his poetry forms the foundation of Sindhi collective consciousness.  Being on the western edges of Aurangzeb’s Mughal Imperium, Sindh experienced massive and violent political turmoil as regional elites, sometimes sponsored by foreign interests such as the Afghans, battled for dominance.

At the turn of the 18th century a local clan of pirs known as Kalhora succeeded in consolidating their power and formed a quasi-theocratic state which ruled with a decidedly less tolerant and inclusive style than the Mughals.  Shah Abdul Latif was a young man not yet 20 when Aurangzeb died and the tectonics of power began to shake in Sindh.

As a man of spiritual bent he travelled with bands of sanyasis and yogis to all parts of Sindh, southern Punjab and even into modern Rajasthan and Gujarat.  Eventually he settled in a remote area known locally as ‘Bhit’ (sand hill) where he retreated to meditate and gather around him a community of like-minded souls. Today this complex, Bhitshah, is one of Pakistan’s great mystical/spiritual centres and a centre of intense worship and musical celebrations

Latif’s poetry, composed and sung in Sindhi as opposed to the lingua franca of the elite, Persian, was compiled in the years after his death into the celebrated Shah Jo Risalo. The Risalo is divided into around 30 Surs (chapters) each named for its primary subject or after a classical raga. Latif drew upon the ancient folk stories of the people of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan and Rajasthan to enliven his work and convey his deeper messages.  Among these traditions the ancient tales of tragic lovers such as Moomal and Rano, Sassi and Punho and Umar and Marvi are the most recited and admired.  This week we explore some of Latif’s mighty verses sung by a variety of Pakistani artists.

Fakir Juman Shah
Moomal Rano

Latif’s Risalo features the stories of several powerful women often referred to as the Seven Queens and who exemplify certain ideal aspects not just of womanhood but of the Sindhi national character.  This mesmerising rendition by Sindhi folk artist Juman Shah tells the story of Moomal, a Rajput beauty who, to win back the affection of her lover Rano, sets herself aflame resulting in a "reverse Satiwhen Rano joins her in the fatal fire.

Mohammad Yousaf

Mohammad Yousaf is one of Sindh’s hidden musical treasures. Not known much beyond the province and Sindhi speakers, Yousaf is well loved at home for the variety of music he sings, including the bhittai  (lyrics) of Abdul Shah Latif.  His voice is supple and fluid in this rendition and reminds one of other masters of this style of folk music such as Punjab’s Tufail Niazi.  Much of Latif’s poetry spoke out in favor of the rural, common folk of Sindh and the surrounding areas which were terribly impacted by the political wrangling, even civil wars, that raged in the aftermath of Aurangzeb’s demise.  His repeated advocacy on their behalf, and in their own Sindhi language, won him huge respect among the people but also resistance from the Kalhoran elites who considered his views to be dangerously anti-establishment.

Booli Muhanji Banbyani Allah
Allan  Faqir

Latif has been celebrated (accurately or not is much debated) like many other historical figures as being the Voice of his people. Scholars generally agree that he consistently wrote and spoke out on behalf of the suffering common folk of Sindh and that he showed no discrimination on the basis of religion or caste.  This attitude has been used by Sindhi patriotic writers, including the giant, G.M. Syed to argue that Latif was perhaps the first Sindhi nationalist. A class warrior who denied his own rank and privilege in favour of the poor and oppressed.  Whether there is any merit in such a position is for others to determine but there is absolutely no doubt that this amazing clip of Allan Faqir singing bhittai captures the spirit and timelessness of Latif in thrilling fashion.   Faqir,  a Manganiyar from Jamshoro District, was in his lifetime one of South Asia’s great interpreters of mystical music. His desperately spare accompaniment coupled with his bedraggled hair and beard come about as close to what the music in Bhitshah sounded like at the time of Latif himself.

Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan
Dino Rai Diyach

This rendition by the masterful Ustad Manzoor Ali is a portion of Sur Sorath of the Shah Jo Risalo. This sur tells the tale of the Rajput ruler Rai Diyach and his beautiful Queen Sorath.  Though many of these tales of love involve the female character sacrificing herself for her lover Latif found in their actions themes and ideals of a high moral order that he presented as being essential qualities of individuals as well as communities:  valour, diligence, humility etc. Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan is one of my favourite Sindhi artists, sadly and greatly under-appreciated outside of Pakistan and Sindh.  His voice has a unique melodiousness and is always agile and even playful. His interpretations of Abdul Shah Latif’s bhittai are particularly well regarded.

Abida Parveen
Mandh Piya Day Mo Bahla

The one and only (and here very youthful) Abida Parveen gives a typically animated performance of one of Latif’s poems.  Latif’s early and formative years of living and travelling with Hindu sanyasis and yogis perhaps predisposed him toward an inclusive universal interpretation of religion.  His poetry, like that of other mystics of the subcontinent, often spoke openly and directly against the established powers both temporal and spiritual of the day be they Muslim or Hindu. Given the religious origins of the ruling Kalhora pirs this was a risky stance to take; the spiritual community of one of Latif’s mentors Shah Inayat was physically decimated by Kalhora armies with reinforcements from Delhi as retribution for the tolerant message he preached.  This incident deeply depressed Latif but he did not change his own message, preaching the unity of God and tolerance of the many paths to reach him, until his death. Even today at Bhitshah disciples of all faiths and creeds come to remember the great soul and partake in the singing of his verses.