Dawn Images, November 20, 2005
The story of Shirin has been treated in film and drama in India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The best known to us are, of course, the Indian version from the 1950s which had songs by Talat Mehmood and, more notably, the Pakistani version from the 1970s starring Mohammad Ali and Zeba, and featuring music by Khwaja Khurshid Anwer (including the famous song ‘Ishq mera dewana’ by Mehdi Hasan).
Most of these dramatic versions simply followed whatever formula happened to be current in the media at that time. The literary refinement of the classics was seldom reflected.
Shirin was a Christian princess from Armenia and lived in the sixth century AD. She got married to Khusrau Pervez, the powerful Persian emperor of the Sassanid dynasty (and incidentally a grandson of Nausherwan the Just). The Persians remembered her by the name Shirin. Apparently it was a corruption of Irene but at the same time meant ‘sweet’ in the language of Persia.
In all probability, her marriage was a political one. Historical facts are scarce, since the Arabs overran the country soon after her husband’s death. Persia was reduced to a mere province of the vast Arab empire that stretched from Spain to Sindh. The new empire was centralist in nature, in which native cultures were at best viewed with suspicion and at worst completely suppressed. Pehlavi (the language spoken in ancient Persia) became a dead language or at least it was never written again. The situation lasted for three centuries.
Sometime in the 10th century, the Arab empire started falling apart. Sindh, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan and parts of Persia became independent, very often under native rulers whose ancestors had converted to Islam. Mahmud Ghaznavi, Salahuddin Ayubi and Alp Arsalan Saljuqi are some of the best examples of these rulers.
Many of them paid nominal allegiance to the Arab caliph at Baghdad but encouraged movements for the revival of regional biases, cultures, and even regional jealousies. Pehlavi language could not be revived but the pride of the Persian people (now mostly Muslim) worked up the birth of a new language out of the old tongue. It was the language today known as Persian — a hybrid of Pehlavi and Arabic vocabulary, following Pehlavi grammar in most instances but written in the Arabic script.
Mahmud Ghaznavi was among the greatest patrons of this new language and encouraged historians to discover and record the pre-Islamic glory of Persia. Mahmud was a staunch liberal where it didn’t concern his prejudice against the minority sects of Islam or his political rivalry with the Indian rulers. He also commissioned the writing of the first great masterpiece in Persian. This was the Shahnamah, or the Book of Kings, written by Firdausi around 1026 AD. From this book originates the love story of Shirin as higher literature.
Firdausi described Khusrau as a prince who fell in love with the Armenian princess and won her hand after much effort. As husband and wife, or king and queen, they lived like role models of a passionate couple — sort of an earlier day Jahangir and Nurjahan. When Khusrau’s son from another wife killed him and wanted to marry Shirin, she asked permission to spend a night at her dead husband’s tomb before taking a new one. This was granted but, unsuspected, she smuggled a dagger and stabbed herself to death over her lover’s coffin.
It is obvious that Firdausi was working from some written histories (now lost to us) and a lot of oral tradition, but above all, he also took into account the various folk tales that had developed around the Persian kings by that time. These were produced by three centuries of nostalgia about a forbidden past. In these tales, Shirin was exceedingly beautiful and Khusrau was a passionate young man. Apparently, the Persians had remembered him in a very different manner than the Arab historians for whom he was mainly the impudent monarch who failed to honour the message of Islam in his court. However, it seems that either Firdausi or one of the writers of these folk stories was also inspired from a very unexpected fictional source — the Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe.
In that story, which was also narrated by the Latin poet Ovid in Metamorphosis, Thisbe stabs herself at the tomb of her dead lover Pyramus (the story later inspired that string of novels about Romeo and Juliet that were finally adapted by William Shakespeare for the Elizabethan stage). Apparently, Shirin became Thisbe in the folk memory of Persia and the great poets, starting from Firdausi, carved that image on words that will last longer than marble and gilded stones.
Firdausi didn’t mention Farhad. However, a folk story had developed around a sculptor, Farhad, who engineered a stream of milk for her and then fell in love while Khusrau was still wooing her. Khusrau invited Farhad to his court, questioned him and then promised to give him Shirin if he removed the Bestoun Mountain from its place as it was blocking a passage to the royal palace.
The sculptor, in a frenzy of passion, removed the mountain with his pickaxe, at which Khusrau sent an old woman to misinform Farhad that Shirin was dead. Upon hearing this news, the sculptor killed himself with his pickaxe.
The first great poet to weave the Farhad legend into the love story of Shirin and Khusrau was Nizami Ganjavi, who lived in Azarbaijan in the 12th century AD. His native city — Ganjeh — was near Baku and hence not very far away from Armenia, the original country of Shirin (Irene). Also, his wife Afaq, whom he loved passionately, was a former slave girl given to him by a king as a reward for writing a magnificent epic.
Nizami could relate himself to Farhad, only a lot more fortunate one, for he too had worked hard (in writing an epic instead of carving a mountain) and found a beautiful woman in reward (which Farhad had only been promised but never actually received). Afaq, then, was a role model of Shirin for him.
Consequently his next epic turned out to be Khusrau and Shirin, written in 1191. It was the first full-length treatment of the story that had merely filled a chapter in Firdausi’s epic. It was also the poem that gave birth to literally all the conventions followed in the love poetry of Persian (and later Urdu) ever since.
Nizami, however, depicted Shirin as in love with Khusrau. She didn’t reciprocate to Farhad’s essentially one-sided crush on her although she was sympathetic towards the great sculptor. To be in love with a pauper but marry a king would render her unfaithful and greedy, and that Nizami couldn’t do since his ulterior motive, most probably, was to immortalize his wife Afaq through a Shirin modelled after her.
Nizami effectively used the fate of Farhad as a mirror to Shirin — both kill themselves with a sharp weapon but Farhad succumbs to deceit while Shirin manages to follow her lover in the other world. Farhad’s love did not carry the ‘grace’ (in a mystical sense), while hers did. One can almost feel that both Farhad and Khusrau represent Nizami. The sculptor represents the poet’s present station, which he yearns to surpass. The king represents the station he is yearning to achieve (and which he probably achieved as we can see in his next great epic, Layla and Majnun).
Nizami’s epic immortalized Shirin for once and for all. There were numerous imitations of Nizami, countless renderings of the Shirin-Khusrau tale in the centuries to come. Perhaps the most illustrious of such imitators was the great musician and poet Amir Khusrau, who lived in India nearly a century after Nizami. He wrote five epic poems to match the set of five written by Nizami, and this included Shirin Khusrau.
In this later version, however, the Persian king became a villain (a Turk by origin and an Indian by location, Amir Khusrau could experience little natural sympathy with the Persian king with whom he shared nothing but a common name). Here, Shirin was also in love with Farhad but Khusrau gained her through deceit. Shirin was a woman who, of course loved a sculptor but married a king out of necessity.
Other poets interpreted it as her frailty and a moral taint in her character. (The growth of this character parallells the growth of Cressida in European literature, who was simply an abducted girl in Homer but gradually became a woman who leads on two men and betrays the truer of them — ending up almost as a harlot in Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida).
The classical Urdu poets were often condescending or critical towards Farhad. For instance, Ghalib described him as someone who reduced the grandeur of love to free labour for the beautification of the royal palace. In another couplet, he pejoratively stated, “Do we not possess a liver that we should use our craft on a mountain instead?”
Iqbal, following in the footsteps of Ghalib, mentioned Farhad in a similar vein in his early poetry. However, in his later poetry he became the first great Urdu poet to hail the sculptor as a prominent symbol of struggle — sometime representing the labour class taking a stand for their rights against the oppressors and at other times a true craftsman who doesn’t shrink at the Herculean dimensions of an impossible task.
With or without those refinements, and with or without the fidelity of Khusrau, Shirin has managed to survive through the centuries, above all through the courtesy of the poet Nizami. Her name carries magic even today.
However, one wonders how much of this magic was her own and how much of it belonged to Afaq, the woman who served as a muse to the poet Nizami. Or is that the way things work in collective memory, one image overlapping the other until the result is a representation of what each of them brought to the icon, as well as what the present reader is bringing to it? History, then, is always in the making.