The saga of Sohni

Nirupama Dutt recounts how artists have represented the legend of Sohni Mahiwal

Sobha Singh’s painting captured the popular imagination
Sobha Singh’s painting captured the popular imagination

OF the famed love-legends of Punjab, the story of Heer-Ranjha is the most celebrated but perhaps most poignant and picturesque is the saga of Sohni-Mahiwal. This love legend has the Chenab river as the central motif and the water of the river plays the role of bringing together the lovers and then parting them forever.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in his famous qawwali sung of Sohni as the one who lost her all for love. As the tale goes, Sohni, a potter’s daughter in Gujarat and an artist in her own right, baked the most beautiful pots ever. Mahiwal, the prince of Bukharo, came to Gujarat and saw the pots made by Sohni and led from the pots to Sohni, he fell in love with her. Sohni too gave her heart away to the prince charming. The social order would not accept this love for a man from afar and so to be near her, he became a buffalo herd, thus the name Mahiwal.

However, Sohni was married off to someone else but the lovers continued to meet. Sohni would swim past midnight with an earthen pitcher for support to meet her Mahiwal on the other side of the Chenab. He would await her arrival with a fire lit outside his hut. However, her sister-in-law discovered this secret rendezvous and one ill-fated night replaced the earthen pitcher with a half-baked one. Sohni was drowned in the Chenab and her corpse reached her lover.

The legend of Sohni-Mahiwal first captured the imagination of poets like Fazal Shah and Qadir Yaar who are considered the "Sohni specialists", just as Waris Shah and Damodar are the specialists of the saga of Heer.

Qadir Yaar (1802-1892) wrote of the love of Sohni in the Sufi strains where Ishq Majazi (human love) is considered a shortcut to Ishq Haqiqi (love for God) poignantly penned the last night of the qissa of Sohni thus:

Satish Gujral’s version is stylised and romantic
Satish Gujral’s version is stylised and romantic

Manjit Bawa’s painting portrays a pensive Sohni
Manjit Bawa’s painting portrays a pensive Sohni

Arpana Caur depicts the legend through a woman’s eyes
Arpana Caur depicts the legend through a woman’s eyes

Across the Chenab his hut beckoned her

Like a lamp flickering on a grave

On that stormy night the breath of the

Chenab was torn, clouds screamed

To test Sohni, God created this night

Cold, violent and strangely rain-drenched

Speaking Allah’s name she lifts her pot

Knowing intuitively it is half-baked…

The saga of Sohni has also attracted painters of Punjab through the centuries. The first-known painting on Sohni is that by an 18th century pahari painter, Sen-Nainsukh. Thus miniature in gouache on paper shows a bare-breasted Sohni with her wet hair falling on her shoulders smiling and swimming across the Chenab. On the edges of the water are stylised rocks and dwarfed exotic trees so typical of the miniatures. In the fifties, the painting of Sohni-Mahiwal was painted by Andretta-based painter Sobha Singh, showing the two lovers in ecstasy in the waters of the Chenab.

Recently, other Punjabi painters like Satish Gujral, Manjit Bawa and Arpana Caur have re-painted the romance. In late 19th Century we have the painting by Pakistani painter Ustad Allah Bux. This painting shows an aghast Mahiwal receiving the corpse of the drowned Sohni. The painting enjoys a place of pride in the Lahore Museum.

It is Sobha Singh’s painting of 1957, in the collection of Karan Singh, former heir to the Jammu and Kashmir throne, which captured popular imagination the most. Sobha Singh moved from Lahore and set up his studio at Andretta, a pretty little village in the Kangra valley. While art connoisseurs dismiss the work of Sobha Singh as kitsch yet his print of Sohni-Mahiwal was to be found in every middle-class home till the seventies. Commenting on this work, Mehr Singh, a pulil of Sobha Singh and former president of the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, says:

"Many modern artists try to dismiss this work. But it is one of the most outstanding paintings done by an Indian artist in the 20th century. No other work has evoked such an enthusiastic response. New editions of prints are still being taken out and are in wide circulation."

This painting shows Sohni with her wet garment clinging to her shapely body being received by Mahiwal in a half-embrace as both of them, ecstatic, go to the bank of the Chenab. There one can see a glow of the fire that Mahiwal has lit to warm his drenched beloved. Sohni in this painting is fair and lovely and Mahiwal dark and handsome. Mehr Singh once again goes gaga over the form of Sohni, "How beautiful Sobha Singh has made her. She looks to be a naddi (belle) of West Punjab."

After Sobha Singh, the first painter who turned to this theme was Satish Gujral, a product of the Mayo School of Art. His rendering of the theme is lyrical and stylised. Within the rectangles and circles of a square canvas rises a half-bent form of Sohni with Mahiwal sprawled below at her feet and a peacock perched on the green and gold foliage and a pitcher resting below. The pitcher, of course, is integral to any painting of Sohni. When asked how Gujral decided to paint of this theme, his reply is, "I took the legend because it is a part of our heritage — a glorious past when one lived and died for love. The artist turns to the past time and again because without a past there is no present."

After Gujral’s work comes the rather pensive portrayal of Sohni by Manjit Bawa. Done in his own special style, Sohni floats across a placid blue rectangle and the ripples of the water are seen on her pink and peach garments. The pitcher under one arm, she floats along as though propelled by destiny. The work certainly is an engaging one and his Sohni has an ethereal charm. And that is how the nayika called Sohni journeys from the 18th through the 20th Century.

But the real blossoming of this theme as far as the Indian canvas goes comes in the opening years of the 21st century with a woman artist wielding the brush. Arpana Caur in a series of paintings on the theme has re-painted the love legend as seen through a woman’s eyes.

Her paintings of Sohni are earthy, vigorous and there is an empathy with the subject. Arpana says: "Sohni was a very brave and strong woman and her story is indeed inspiring. She defied social norms and swam across the river to be with the one she loved. She swam while others slept."

Thus the connection between the two lovers in her works is seen through a series of pitchers of which one is broken. Her Sohni has the plain looks of the girl next door but her spirit is spectacular as she battles against the waves bare-bodied. In one painting the image of the traffic lights intervenes and Sohni has no care be the light at red or green, she has to reach her love and then return before the sun rises. In another, she dances on the waves and in yet another she sings the song of the waters with the fish.