It is hard to partition tradition

Mela Chiragan or the Urs of Madho Lal Husain is a unique cultural and secular festival of Lahore, says Nirupama Dutt

The mazaar of Shah Husain in Lahore
The mazaar of Shah Husain in Lahore. — Photo by Akram Varaich

Pakistani poet Syed Najam Husain dances at the mazaar of Shah Husain
Pakistani poet Syed Najam Husain dances at the mazaar of Shah Husain. — Photo by Huma Safdar

WHAT made Lahore the legendary city was its multi-cultural and multi-religious heritage having been the kingdom of Hindus, Mughals and the Sikhs as well as a prized city of the British after the annexation of Punjab. With the Partition of the country, Lahore went to Pakistan and there was large-scale migration of the Hindu and Sikh population and an Urdu poet of Lahore had cried out in anguish: Na butkade mein chiragan, na maikade me kehkahe/Tamam shehar musalman ho gaya jaise (No lamps in the temples and no laughter in the bars; The entire city seems to have embraced Islam.)

However, in spite of being part of the Islamic republic and very much in the hands of rigid mullahs, there were some synchronic traditions that could not be done away with for it is hard indeed to partition tradition. In spite of all religious bigotry, Lahore still celebrates two spring festivals that are cultural and secular. One is of course, Basant, even though kite flying assumed menacing proportions and had to be banned this March, and the other is Mela Chiragan or the Urs of Madho Lal Husain that was celebrated with much enthusiasm on March 28 this year.

Madho Lal Husain? Doesn’t it seem too much of a Ram-Rahim kind of name? Theatre director Madeeha Gauhar says: "While you here refer to the famous 16th century Sufi poet as Shah Husain, in Lahore we call him Madho Lal Husain. And there is a very interesting story of bonding across religions that led to this." As the story goes Madho Lal, a Hindu Brahmin, was the closest friend and companion of Shah Husain. However, there was a vast age difference between them.

Husain was a celebrated seasoned poet with a large following and Madho was but a boy. One day Madho said to his friend, "You are well known but what will become of me when you are no longer there. No one will ever know me." That very moment the great master of the kafi changed his name. The tombs of the two friends are built side by side in the mazaar close to Lahore’s Shalamar Bagh.

The Mela Chiragan or festival of lights was a peasant celebration for their favourite poet who had spoken thus of the Heer-Ranjha love story: Sajjan bin raatan hoiyan wadiyan`85 Mughal Sikh and British administrators celebrated this festival officially and during the Sikh period, Maharaja Ranjit Singh used to lead the procession from the Lahore Fort.

However after the creation of Pakistan, administration withdrew support for the festival because Sufi thought was considered a reaction to Islam. The celebration was almost lost till it was revived by singers like Hamid Ali Bela and the Majlis Shah Husain was formed in 1964. Among scholars who have presented a critique on the poetry of Shah Husain are Syed Najam Husain, Mohan Singh Diwana and Kartar Singh Duggal. Duggal says: "Shah Husain wrote in impeccable central Punjab idiom and can claim to be one of those writers who have brought mediaeval Punjabi closest to modern usage."

During the oppressive regime of Zia-ul-Haq, the practice of playing the drum at the mazaar and dancing was brought to an end but after some years activists from the university marched there with a drum chanting: Madho Lal, Madho Lal, Mehangi roti, mehangi dal, Ho gaye poore sat saal`85This was a straight dig at the Zia regime and how the activists danced including Najam Husain. After that no strictures were put on dance or drums.

And this year it was a jubilant celebration with people the mela like never before for it is not just a mela but a tradition close to the hearts of the people. A tradition that says if Madho Lal and Shah Husain could co-exist in the 16th century then why not in the 21st Century?