Veteran stage actor Rani Balbir Kaur sat among the audience with the spotlight on her in a black lacha (sarong) and magenta shirt scrubbing her body in a mock bath by the Chenab, the moon river of Punjab. As she scrubbed her arms and feet chanting the name of Mirza in praise of Sahiban’s beauty, the tone was set for the love legend, Mirza-Sahiban.

Balwant Gargi, a celebrated dramatist of Punjab, directed the love legend at a UNESCO sponsored workshop at Chandigarh in 1976. It had quite a star cast, with Zohra Sehgal playing mother to Sahiban, poet Manjit Tiwana as the friend of the heroine, and Anupam Kher as Kammu the Brahmin, who takes the message of Sahiban to her brave lover.

Looking back on the 40-year-long journey, Rani recalled, “Sahiban is the much decried beauty who betrays her lover, and he is killed by her brothers as far as the popular perception goes. But Gargi had reinterpreted Sahiban’s dilemma and she was established in all her grace and dignity as a tragic heroine of Greek theatre.” At this, she broke out into Sahiban’s song when she urged Mirza to move on: “Sahiban Mirze di dosti jag na rehni lukk /Le chal Danabad nu, jan lukave much/ Jand de hath jatta so rahiyo, uth surat sambhal” (Our love is not hidden from the world, Take me to Danabad for life’s sake/ Why are you asleep beneath the Jand, wake up, let’s move on.)

Balwant Gargi’s version of Mirza-Sahiban.

The tragic end takes place when the runaway couple has almost reached the safe abode of Danabad, Mirza’s village. Full of love, high on his dare and arrogant of his archery, he insists on celebrating the love beneath the old Jand (acacia) tree and then falls into ecstatic slumber resting his head on Sahiban’s thigh. Sahiban begs and pleads that he wake up and they reach their destination, only to be told that as long as he has his bows and arrows, he knows no fear. Then begins Sahiban’s predicament: should she let Mirza kill her kin? Hoping that she will be able to reason with her brothers, she throws her lover’s quiver up the tree where the it hands on a branch beyond reach. It is then that the inevitable happens.

Take the famous four love legends of Punjab: Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, Sohni-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban, penned by Sufi poets. The first thing that strikes one is that the last legend it is the name of the man coming first, unlike the other three where the woman leads the way. Perhaps it is only the demand of the poetic rhythm of speech, yet the folk perception is that it is so because Mirza was wronged.

Relief of Mirza-Sahiban and Heer-Ranjha.

It is also said that Mirza-Sahiban was the last of the love legends because of the great betrayal as seen by the feudal patriarchal order of Punjab, which persists. Ironically, Sahiban is blamed for being partial to her brothers, but they in turn strangle her to death. Sohail Abid, a Pakistani scholar says, “This is a very celebrated tale in the Jhang and Montgomery Districts, and thence throughout the Punjab, because of the tribal feuds caused by the elopement of the heroine, Sahiban, with Mirza, which led to conflicts. The feud, however, continued. Indeed, it was considered unlucky to give birth to daughters, thus leading to extensive female infanticide by strangulation, on the lines of Sahiban’s tragic end”.

The legend of Mirza-Sahiban was first penned by the poet Peelu in the 17th century. Such is the spell of the poetry that the dirges written to Mirza are still sung hauntingly and the macho men of the Land of the Five Rivers shed tears of blood as they drown the sorrow with alcohol. The legend of the star-crossed lovers is an integral part of Punjabi culture sung by many singers including Alam Lohar, Asa Singh Mastana, Kuldeep Manak, Surinder Shinda, Gurmeet Bawa, Harbhajan Mann, Saeen Mushtaq, Saeen Mahboob and Jinder Sharif. Some singers sing rather crude songs, inspired by Peelu’s poetry, blaming the beautiful Sahiban: “Jatti bann gayi bharavan di; Bhayian ton yaar mara ditta” (The Jat girl sided with her brothers; She got them to kill the lover).

Over to the legend that blossoms in a madrassa in the village mosque where Mirza and Sahiban are classmates and childhood sweethearts as is told poetically by Peelu and translated around 1880 by Richard Carnec Temple, a Major of the British Army and deeply interested in folklore: “Sahiban parhdi pattian, Mirza parhe Quran, Vich maseet de laggian, jaane kull jahan” (Sahiban learnt her letters and Mirza read the Quran, In the mosque they fell in love, and to the whole world it was known). The legend was also written later by Hafiz Barkhurdar and Bhagwan Singh.

Mirza-Sahiban’s grave in Danabad, Pakistan. Courtesy Sohail Abid.

The story is that Sahiban was betrothed to a youth of the Chadhar tribe and when her family got wind of the romance with Mirza, they quickly arranged her marriage, timing it conveniently when Mirza had gone to his native village of Danabad to attend his sister’s wedding. Sahiban sends him a message: “You must come and decorate your Sahiban’s palm with the marriage henna.” Brave archer and chivalrous as Mirza is, he takes his mare Bakki and rides to be by his beloved sides. His sisters warn him of feminine frailty but he listens to none.

Amarjit Chandan, the London-based Punjabi poet, said: “The legend is basically misogynist; women who is always unfaithful; women are stupid, naïve and their brain is in their heels (“Khureen jinhan dee matt). Well, this is more of a reflection on the deep-rooted agrarian and male chauvinism especially in the contemporary pedestrian Punjabi music.”

Mirza rescues Sahiban and together they elope riding Bakki to Danabad. Sahiban is anxious to get to the village and cries out that she should be taken to his village for her brothers must be following her. Mirza pays no heed, so overjoyed he is to have his dear Sahiban with him that just short of the village he chooses to rest beneath the Jand. His overconfidence is evident in Peelu’s poetry: “Bakki toon daran farishte, methon daray khuda!; Chobhay vich pattal, udd ke chadhe aakas” (Angels fear my Bakki and God fears me! She can sink into Hell and fly into Heaven).

Commenting on this celebrations of love or consummation of the relationship, social-historian Ishwar Gaur, who considers folklore a vital source for history, said: “It is nowhere written in the poetic legend that Mirza stops to make love but it is implied and understood. It is here that Peelu falls short of the Sufi thought which recognises physical and divine love and does not make room for carelessness. Gratified, he falls asleep”. Sufi thought believes that any “ghaflat” or negligence, drowsiness or stupour on the road from physical love to divine love is to be denounced, and Mirza has to pay the price with for it with his life.

And Sahiban is but a pawn in the patriarchal struggle of controlling female desire and for Mirza, a prize that he has won and must possess at once. Punjabi poet Paul Kaur said, “It is Mirza, no matter how chivalrous and lovable, who is the architect not only of his own death but in a way that of Sahiban’s too. Let’s imagine if Sahiban had not thrown the quiver up the tree and Mirza had killed her brothers. The society would have still held her guilty. It is time to set her free.”

‘Mirzya’ by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.