A Punjabi qissa (story; pl. qisse) is a tradition of Punjabi language oral story-telling that came to South Asia with migrants from the Arabian peninsula and contemporary Iran and Afghanistan.
Where qisse reflect an Islamic and/or Persian heritage of transmitting popular tales of love, valour, honour and moral integrity amongst Muslims, they matured out of the bounds of religion into a more secular form when it reached India and added the existing pre-Islamic Punjabi culture and folklore to its entity Etymology
The word qissa (pronounced [kis-ā]) is a Persian word meaning ‘epic legend’ or a ‘folk tale’. It has influenced almost all the languages of South Asia and occurs as a regular common noun in north-western Indian languages like Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi. If used informally, the world means an ‘interesting tale’.
Qisse and the Punjabi culture
The Punjabi language is famous for its rich literature of qisse, most of the which are about love, passion, betrayal, sacrifice, social values and a common man’s revolt against a larger system. In the Punjabi tradition, friendship, loyalty, love and ‘qaul’ (verbal agreement or promise) are given utmost importance and most of the stories in the qisse hinge on these critical elements.
Qisse are attributed to have inspired folk music in Punjabi and have added depth and richness to its delivery. These traditions were passed down generations in oral or written forms and were often recited, told as bedtime stories to children or performed musically as folk songs.
Each qissa, if performed, has its unique requirements. A person able to sing or recite one may not necessarily transmit another. The vocal ranges on the musical scale and accurate pauses, if not performed well leaves a performed breathless and unable to continue. Most of the beats used in modern Punjabi music (often misleadingly labelled Bhangra), originated from qissa tradition and recitations in old times. Qisse also boast to be among the best poetry every written in Punjabi. To date, places like the Qissa Khawani Bazaar (Market of Story-tellers) in Peshawar, Pakistan are thronged by people who visit them to hear oral recitations of qisse sung by renowned performers.
Poetry based on qisse
Waris Shah's (1722-1798) qissa of ‘Heer Ranjha’ (formally known as qissa ‘Heer’) is among the most famous qisse of all times. The effect of qisse on Punjabi culture is so strong that even religious leaders and revolutionaries like Guru Gobind Singh and Baba Farid, etc., quoted famous qisse in their messages. It will not be wrong to say that popularity and nearly divine status of qisse in Punjabi actually inspired many generations of spiritual leaders and social activists to combine the message of God with teenage love tales. This gave rise to what is known as the Sufi movement in Punjab.
The most popular writer/poet to have written Punjabi Sufi qisse was Bulleh Shah (c.1680-1758). So popular are his kalams (poems) that he is frequently quoted by young and old alike with same respect and on matters of both love and God. In recent times, South Asian singer’s have sported Bulleh Shah's qisse on their albums, for instance Rabbi by (Rabbi Shergill) contained ‘Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun’, translated in English as ‘I know not who I am’, written by Bulleh Shah. A few years back another singer, (Harbhajan Mann), a Canada-based Punjabi singer rejuvenated the story of ‘Sahiba Mirza’, a work by Waris Shah.
Most of the Punjabi qisse were written by Muslim poets who wandered the land. The oldest were usually scripted in Urdu. Some of the most popular qisse are listed below.
- ‘Mirza Sahiba’ / Peelu
- ‘Heer Ranjha’ / Waris Shah
- ‘Sohni Mahiwal’ / Hashim Shah
- ‘Sassi Punnun’ / Shah Hussain / c.1539–1599
- ‘Sucha Singh Soorma’
- ‘Jeona Maur’
- ‘Shirin Farhad’
- ‘Pooran Bhagat’
- ‘Loona’ / Shiv Kumar Batalvi / 1936–1973
- ‘Kehar Singh Ram Kaur’
- ‘Sham Kaur/Sham Singh/Sham Lal’
- ‘Dhol Sammi’
- ‘Yusuf Zulekha’
- ‘Dulla Bhatti’
- ‘Manu Guggu’
- ‘Ustaad Harman’
- ‘Jatt Parmz’