Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai … A Compendium of Imagining the Reality

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Statue of great poet of Sindh Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai

The Risalo presents a great thought and can be helpful to advance the society in this so called age of knowledge economy. Latif lives in the hearts of the people of Sindh, so the understanding of his poetry is the understanding of Sindhi language and classical thought as well as the society of Sindh.

By Noor Ahmed Janjhi

Risalo is a transformed message by Shah Abdul Latif (1689-1752), a great thinker, observer of all times, who opted the poetry as a medium of his expression. He was born in a family with Sufi background, but played a pivotal role in evolution of the thought and culture of Sindh. He was misunderstood for a long time and was called as world cursing ‘majzoob’ by some so-called literary figures. Some went even to the extent that they called Latif’s poetry beyond metre and poetic rules and regulations. It was because of short-sightedness of those pigmy people who were familiar only with the court poetry. Latif was away from any court and king. He had touched the core of heart of the masses. People from marginalized and downtrodden classes attracted his attention and he observed their lifestyle and process of living and doing thoroughly. Besides, he noticed the hypocrisy and devastation in the life of elite. He observed life of all the professional communities of the society keenly and minutely. He made the process of production as a touchstone to elaborate different situations of life. He offered his narrative through love stories, historical legends and mythology. However, he has presented his own content and has made the characters of the stories living legends of the society of Sindh. People remembered his poetry by heart and it has been a voice of Sindh since centuries. It was memorized by all the near friends and companions of Bhittai. Along with men, women and children were also good narrators of his poetry. Mai Naamat and Ganga Jat are two leading examples in this regard. The Risalo , in this way, traveled and transformed throughout a vast area  consisting on Sindh proper, Kachh, Kathiawar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, Balochistan, Multan etc. Let me tag it as the cultural Sindh or the minor of Indus Valley Civilization.

Title of one of the many prints of Shah Jo Risalo

The poetic treasure trove of genuine thought spread throughout a vast area, took a shape of published book in 1866 when the great German scholar Ernest Trump got it published from the Leipzig city in Germany. In its preface there is a detailed reflection on every aspect of the Risalo and very diction, style, form and content of poetry. It reads, “The Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif is by no means an easy work, though its style is on the whole lucid and plain; the mystic sense, which underlines the whole, puzzles not infrequently the European reader, and even a learned natives are now and then at their wit’s end, when called upon to explain certain couplets; but the preserving student will on the other hand be amply repaid for his labors by many beautiful passages, he will meet everywhere.” It was the first published documentation of the Risalo. Before it, there were many manuscripts lying with different people and families throughout the cultural Sindh. After the first published Risalo, the other manuscripts followed the suit. Bombay edition can be named a popular version of that time. Scholars did their doctorates on the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif in Sindhi and English language. It was Shah Latif of Bhit, a dissertation by H T Sorley that introduced the poetic thought of Shah Abdul Latif to the people who did not know Sindhi. He painstakingly dealt with the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in the light of contemporary context and tried to communicate the message of a classic, as he himself writes in the preface, “The collection of mystical poems known as the Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit is the only classic which the language of Sindh has yet produced in the realm of deeply imaginative literature.” Moreover, he elaborates the object of it as, “The object of the present work is twofold, first to introduce English readers to the achievement of Shah Abdul Latif, and second, to explain, by reference to the historical and social environment of the age in which the poems were composed, something of the message and meaning they convey.”

Title of Shah Jo Risalo, translated in Urdu by Shaikh Ayaz

There has been a good quantity of work on the poetry of Shah Abul Latif in Sindhi. Dr. H M Gurbakhshani, Kalyan Advani, Ghullam Muhammad Shahani, Muhammad Usman Diplai and Dr. Nabi Bakhsh Baloach have done an excellent research work in this regard. Mir Abdul Hussain Khan Sangi, Mirza Kalich Baig and some other scholars have also written on different aspect of the poetry and life of Shah Latif. Many other scholars and writers have also contributed in this regard. Besides, translations and the commentaries on the Risalo have been published in English too. Ms. Elsa Kazi, Muhammad Yaqoob Agha, Abdul Ghafoor Alasti, Prof Ameena Khamisani, Agha Saleem, Syed Mushtaq Ali Shah, Faiz Muhammad Khoso, Dr. Dur-e-Shahwar Syed, Gul Muhammad Umrani, Dr. Ali Akbar Dhakan and Dr. Christopher Shackle can be mentioned in this regard. The work of Prof Christopher Shackle is a little bit unique as it represents the poetic translation of the Risalo (edited by Kalyan Advani) in present day English. The original baits and wais are also given against the translation. Prof Christopher Shackle is Emeritus Professor of the Modern Languages of South Asia, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The Risalo is published by Harvard University Press and MCL India. In the beginning of the book, there is detailed introduction. It is a prologue to a great poetic compendium discussing life and poetry of Sha Latif.

Shah Jo Risalo, edited and translated by Christopher Shackle

After an account of poet’s life, Dr. Shackle gives the context out of which the magnum opus is emerged. He mentions the religious and literary traditions of Sufi poetry. He mentions the influence of Holy Quran, Hadith, Arabic and Persian. He has also referred Sufi tradition of Mansur Hilaj and Jalal ud Din Rumi. He calls Mathnavi as the primary source of inspiration of Shah Latif. He writes about the unique thought of Latif, “Instead of reiterating the simpler kind of Sufi vision, Shah Latif in his Sindhi poetry creates for his local audience an entirely new way of imagining reality. All the sources agree that he kept three books with him as his primary sources of continual inspiration: the Qur’an, from whose verses he so frequently quotes in Arabic; Rumi’s great Masnavi; and Sindhi verses of his ancestor Shah Karim.” He gives translation of the bait (جي تو بيت ڀانئيا) as :

What you consider to be poems are divine verses.

They direct the mind toward the beloved.

It is the same attribution as Molana Jami (مثنوي معنوي و مولوي) has given to the Mathnavi of Rumi. Howevr, people regard it mistakenly as a verse by Rumi himself. Some examples of his translation are as follows:

پڙاڏو سو سڏ ، ور وائيءَ جو جي لهين،

هئا اڳهين گڏ، ٻُڌڻ ۾ ٻه ٿيا

(The echo is the utterance, if you understand the mystery of speech. They were originally together, but became two in hearing)

هاريا تو هري ، ڪُپچ ڪيا سين ڪيو

ڪريين جي ڪري ، ته تون توانو ٿئين

(You fool! you became lax in your diet and harmed your body. If you had followed the prescribed treatment, you would have regained your strength)

مڻئي تي موهجي ، موڙهي ڪيئي مرڪ

چئي چنيسر ڄام سين ، وڌو تو فرق،

وري ويو ورق ، آيُئي ڏنءُ ڏُهاڳ جو

(Beguiled the jewels, you foolishly thought much of yourself. With your words you separated yourself from Prince Chanesar. The page has turned, and you have experienced the burning pain of being rejected)

گنگهريا گهڻ ڄاڻ ، موڙهي مت مهائيين

ويا گڏجي وير ۾ ، پيا منهن مهراڻ

اڳيان پويان ٽاڻ ، ويا ويچارن وسري

(Those who knew much were confused, and the wits of the heroes were blunted. Those who entered the waters were drowned in the Indus. Former times and times yet to come were forgotten in their thoughts)

In the end of the book, there are very informative notes elaborating the content of the Risalo. It opens more vistas for research work on the poetry of Shah Latif because there is dearth of actual research in the light of modern research methodology. It is need of hour to prepare a version of the Risalo reflecting much more consensus on its pronunciation with necessary punctuation and diacritical marks. Besides, it is necessary to transform the poetry into modern Sindhi along with the original baits and wais. It will help the young people to understand the message of Shah Latif. Its translation is worth to be done. However, its transliteration in IPA is the need of hour. The Risalo presents a great thought and can be utilized to advance the society in this so called age of knowledge economy. Latif lives in the hearts of the people of Sindh, so the understanding of his poetry is the understanding of Sindhi language and classical thought as well as the society of Sindh.


The writer is a senior educationist based in Mithi, District Tharparkar. He is author of several books on folk literature of Sindh. 

2 thoughts on “Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai … A Compendium of Imagining the Reality

    1. Nobody, including you, has seen Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Whatever paintings and statues are imaginary, and therefore no one cay claim that ‘This doesn’t look like Shah Latif’.

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