The Gay Faqir

Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

No Ordinary Sufi

shah hussain

“If you want your life, die before your death” (Shah Hussain).

This is my summary of Fauzia Rafique’s presentation on the life and poetry of Shah Hussain. The presentation was part of the Dead Poets Reading Series which took place at the Vancouver Public Library (Central) on May 6, 2018.

Shah Hussain (1538-1599) was a Punjabi poet from Lahore. He wrote 163 poems in Punjabi and introduced the kafi genre into the language.[1] His collected works remain among the top selling books of all time in Punjabi.

When he was thirty-six years old, Shah Hussain had a dispute with his religious teacher over the interpretation of the following verse:

“duniya khel tamasha hai” (‘the world’s a play and spectacle’).”

For the teacher, the verse meant the renunciation of the fleeting material world. For Shah Hussain, it meant that life is to be enjoyed. With that, he laughed, donned himself in a red cotton robe and became a dancing mendicant in the streets of Lahore.

Shah Hussain was a “malamti” Sufi, one who took pride in the “malamat” or “shaming” he was subjected to. He stood against the the political and religious establishment in support the common people. He identified himself with the julaha (weaver), the chuhra (sweeper) and the faqir. He associated with rebels like Dulla Bhatti who stirred peasant rebellions against the Emperor Akbar. His poetry reflected the folk rhythms and idiom of everyday Punjabi.

Shah Hussain was a rebel in another way. Unlike the male poets of his day who used the feminine voice (rekhti) to express the “feminine” emotions of grief and anguish, Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice to acknowledge and express his own self as a gay man.

If Shah Hussain’s love was transcendent, it was in the earthly sense of overcoming distinctions of class, gender, creed and sexual orientation. He belonged to no sect or lineage other than humanity’s.

Kafi 131

Swaying in ecstasy play on in the inner yard, all is near to those meditating
Rivers flow in this yard, thousands of millions of boats
Some are seen drowning, others have reached the shore
This yard has nine doors, the tenth is locked shut
No one needs to know, from where my lover comes and goes
This yard has a pretty curve, a hollow in the curve
I spread my bed in the hollow to love my lover at night!
A wild elephant in this yard, is struggling with the chain
Says Hussain the Beggar of His Beloved, (the elephant) is teasing the awake

(Trans. Fauzia Rafique)

Jhume jhum khaid lai munjh vehRay, japdeyaN nooN hur naiRay
Vehray de vich nadiyaN vagan, baiRay lakh hazar
kaiti iss vich Dubdi vekhi, kaiti langhi paar
iss vehRay de nauN darvazay, dusswaiN qulf chuRhai
tiss darvazay de mehram nahiN, jit shauh aaway jai
vehRay de vich aala soohay, aalay de vich taaqi
taaqi de vich sej vichaawaN, apnay pia sung raati
iss vehRay vich makna haathi, sangal naal khahaiRay
kahe Hussain Faqir SaeeN da, jagdeyaN kooN chehRay



[1] A kafi is a lyric poem of four to ten lines.










Faiz Centenary Celebrations in UK 1911–2011

Progressive activists, writers, poets, artists of Brittan and of South Asian origin form a broadbased National Organising Committee to celebrate Faiz Centenary in the UK. National committee members of each region and town will involve local organisations and activists form local committees. Due to the size of the committee, NOC will meet on the regional basis.

Calendar of Events
Date: 12 March 2011
Co-ordinators: Anis Zaidi, Riaz Khokhar
Date: 2, 3, 4 June 2011
Co-ordinators: Abbas Malik, Parkash Singh Azad
Date: 7, 8 June 2011
Co-ordinators: Mohsin Zulifqar, Lala Mohammad Younas
Date: 11 June 2011 (Full day event)
Co-ordinators: Ayub Aulia, Munib Anwar, Tanweer Zaman Khan
Date: 18 June 2011
Co-ordinators: Sabir Raza, Basir Kazmi
Date: TBA
Co-ordinators: Sarwan Singh Zafar, Harsev Bans
Date: TBA
Co-ordinators: Dr Alina Mirza, Dr Surjinder Singh, Parmjait Bassi
Date: TBA
Co-ordinators: Dyal Singh Bagri, Avtar Sadiq
Date: TBA
Co-ordinators: Gurnam Singh Dhillon, Jatinder Singh Pattar
Date: TBA
Co-ordinators: Darshan Dhillon, Dr Iftikhar Mahmood

We are also planning events in Nottingham, Derby, Wolverhampton, Oxford, Edenborough, Luton and a last event in November/ December in Central London.

Issued by National Organising Committee UK on January 01, 2011

Pervez Fateh
Coordinator – South Asian Peoples Forum UK
Cell: +44 (0)795 854 1672
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‘Shiv Kumar Batalvi’ by Amarjit Chandan

This thought-provoking appreciation of Shiv Kumar’s poetry and his contribution to Punjabi literature is rendered by another poet of note: Amarjit Chandan; and, is presented here to commemorate Shiv Kumar’s birthday on the disputed date of July 23 (

The Poet of Gloom and Doom was a Good Laugh
By Amarjit Chandan

Shiv Kumar. Southall. 1971. Amarjit Chandan CollectionShiv Kumar, Southall 1971. Amarjit Chandan Collection

Among the post-1947 generation of Punjabi poets, Shiv Kumar (SK) is perhaps the most popular poet. He has the same sort of following as painter Sobha Singh has for his kitsch paintings like Sohni Mahival and Gurdas Mann for his hollow songs. Sant Singh Sekhon, who once called SK as the Keats of Punjabi poetry, defined SK’s creative limitations in his introduction to his English rendering of SK’s Luna (1985):

‘When he [SK] first shot into prominence, he was at once noted for the peculiar charm of his diction and imagery and for his tone of decadent passion and existential despair. His favourite themes were the ache of desire, the melancholy of love and the fascination of death. …Young poets who make a startling initial effect by talking like disappointed old people are found generally to have walked into a dead alley. Shiv Kumar, with very modest education, seemed peculiarly to be such a poet.’
Luna, English version, MS, in my collection

Sekhon’s precise insight sums up the man and the poet. I am not the only person to be in total agreement with Sekhon.

It is a common view amongst Punjabi literary circles that SK’s poetry revolves around unfulfilled adolescent romance. It is all gloom and doom. Morbid imagery is recurrent in almost all his poems e.g. tears, pain, separation, poison, malady and death. He weaves words with pleasant lyrical sounds, which carry away the Punjabi reader without giving much thought to their actual meanings. A contemporary of SK said: Shiv’s poetry is like the stringed musical toy, which is music to your ears while the seller plays it. But in your hands it is just clay.

Though it is a cliché that poetry is impossible to translate, but most of the time the real worth of a poem is put to test when it is translated into another language; in this instance from Punjabi into English. This is another way of deconstructing the text. As an example I cite titles of two of SK’s poems: Vidhwa Rut (The Widowed Season) and HanjhuaN dee Chhabil (Tears dealt out gratuitously to slake thirst). The Punjabi word chhabil has no equivalent in English. It is a variation on the Arabic word sabil, especially a stall put up during Muharram to offer water or soft drinks to passers-by. In Punjab during the month of June, when the summer is at its peak, Punjabis of all denominations put up such stalls – chhabils. I quote a typical couplet from one of SK’s poems titled HanjhuaN de Gah (The Harvetsing of Tears):

jahi laRhi merey kaljey te birhoN dee dhamuRhi
merey jeriaN da arsh te pataal sujjia.
What a terrible wasp of separation it was, who stung my heart
The sky and the abyss of my heart got swollen.
Birha tu Sultan, 1975

The English version of the above lines is a faithful rendering of the original in Punjabi, though the wasp in Punjabi is not of neutral gender; it is she. I can testify that the couplet is as meaningless in the original as it is in the translation.

A random survey of Shiv Kumar’s fans would reveal that his popularity is based on just four or five poems. The top of the pop being mainu paiN birhoN de keeRhey ve (May I be infested with the maggots of separation). Him being handsome with wailing singing voice is another factor. He fits into the popular image of tragic hero, who dies young. He is the Devdas of Punjabi poetry. Unfortunately his later poems written during the rise of Maoist-Naxalite movement in East Punjab in the late 1960s especially Rukh nu fansi (A Tree Hanged) are little known. He tried in vain to be ‘modern’ and did write some prayogvadi experimental poems comparing bottles of beer lying on the table with ballistic missiles. Through Navtej Singh (d 1981), the editor of Preet Lari, SK flirted with the communists and read his poem Nehru de Varisan nu (To the Heirs of Nehru) in the Communist Party of India (CPI) congress held in Bombay in 1964. CPI’s and Preet Lari’s soft corner towards Nehru is well known. Even Navtej Singh found the poem politically naive and edited it before it was published in his magazine. I was close to Navtej Singh and worked under him for a while as an editor of Preet Lari. It all happened before my eyes, as it were.

Though SK borrowed some of his diction from Sufibani and titled one of his collection Birha tu Sultan after Sheikh Farid in the Adi Granth, he failed to take his work to the level of spirituality. Some recent academic studies claim that Shah Hussain was SK’s inspiration. It is worth noting here that Shah Hussain’s work was turned down by Guru Arjan Dev (1563–1606), when he had visited the fifth Guru in Amritsar to impress upon him to include his work in the Adi Granth. [As quoted in Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahankosh – Encyclopaedia of Sikh Literature, Bhai Kahn Singh, Reprint 1990; Ithas Sri Guru Granth Sahib (A History of Guru Granth Sahib), Giani Gurdit Singh, 1990]. If Shah Hussain was SK’s role model, then why he picked up his diction only and not his philosophy of Sufism? In my conversations with Sohan Qadri, a painter-poet and a close friend of SK has to say: ‘Shiv Kumar was a good laugh, but he was not deep.’ Hun-khin (The Present Moment in Time), Navyug 2000.

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Honouring Poet Surjit Patar

The ANAD Foundation organized an event on April 8 in New Delhi at the Stein Auditorium to commemorate the work of Poet Surjit Patar. This event was in memory of Baljit Kaur Tulsi where poetry readings were also offered by contemporary Indian poets Anamika (Hindi), Balraj Komal (Urdu), K. Satchidanandan (Malyalam) and Ashok Vajpayee (Hindi). A solo recital by Leonardo Amar Dhyan Singh titled “Shan”, and “Lehra by pakhawaj guru” by Pandit Ravi Shankar Upadhyay. Here is a taste of Surjit Patar’s words in English:

These words embellished in colours would dissolve

And those chiseled in marble would get wiped out

Words that the burning hands scribbled across the winds

Shall remain written across the winds forever

Anad Kav tarang, New Delhi, April 8, 2008
Punjabi Poetry