. . . . . .  
Speech of the launch of the book ‘I saw Myself’ by Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi, 23 Jan. 2022.

First of all, let me thank Mr. Abdul Hamid Akhund for his generous invitation to be your Keynote Speaker this afternoon.

The occasion is, of course, the launch of the Endowment Foundation Trust’s reprint of the book I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif, by Shabnam Virmani & Vipul Rikhi. 

After reading this book, I feel emboldened to speak about it – for two ostensible reasons.

The first is that because one is ignorant about a subject does not mean that one should not be inquisitive about it. In fact, quite the reverse should be true.

The second is that ignorance of a language is no excuse. Like the book’s two authors, I do not speak Sindhi nor can I read Shah Abdul Latif’s qalam in its original script. Nor can I differentiate between the various ragas which provide the rhythmic structure for his poetry. But I hope I still have the sensibility to appreciate what the authors describe as ‘the orality’ – ‘the feeling behind the words’ of this unique inheritance.      

Some years ago, my wife Shahnaz had translated into English the Tilism e Hoshruba. It was a compression of a much longer narrative of epic struggles, magical turns, and the pursuit of love. Being a dastan and belonging to the tradition of ‘orality’, it relied upon the human voice to convey imagery, to conjure imaginary characters, to hold the listener enthralled by a panorama that unfolded at the speed of speech. Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry travels at the speed of sound – the sound of a human heartbeat, the sound of breathless love, the sound of a soul’s silence.          

The authors live on the Indian side of the border that divides a cultural tradition that once knew no boundaries, nor time nor space. Poets and savants such as Shah Abdul Latif and his spiritual guides Rumi and Kabir did not belong to one specific area or to one measurable span of time. The message that tinctured their poetry was as much for their own time as for the future.  They were of their time, for their time and now for our time.

The dates we have for Shah Abdul Latif’s life are 1689 – 1752 C.E.  When he was born in 1689, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir had been on the throne already for 41 years.  By the time Shah Abdul Latif died in 1752, the Mughal throne had suffered six incompetent emperors and was occupied by Ahmad Shah Bahadur, the son of Muhammad Shah Rangeela. It was a period of political and social turmoil, not unlike the period of instability that Mirza Ghalib was later to endure when the Mughal empire disintegrated finally a century later.

The authors mention that the latter period of Shah Abdul Latif’s life was spent under the rule of the Baluchi Kalhoras. They describe it as ‘a period of comparative stability’. It is interesting how such periods of disorder and social upheaval should have been the crucible from which poured poetry of such enduring calibre.

Little is known of Shah Abdul Latif’s personal life.  Born a Syed in a village called Hala Haveli in Sindh, his spiritual inheritance stemmed from the reputation of his saintly great-grandfather Shah Abdul Karim Bulri. The authors tell us that Latif was ‘a man of languages, being proficient in Arabic, Persian, Saraiki, and Urdu, beside his mother tongue Sindhi.’ They do not explain though how or where he mastered this linguistic expertise.

Latif fell in love with a girl from Kotri but had to wait until his obdurate father’s death before he could marry her. In between, he traveled across southern Sindh, visiting Hinglaj. There he paid homage to the local deity, Mata Hinglaj.  

How many of you have visited the shrine of Mata Hinglaj? It is now more accessible from the highway to Gwadar.  Don’t expect to see a large Hindu shrine with large cupolas and deep inner sanctums.  All there is for worshippers who make the trek through the hilly defiles are two large rocks, painted orange, with rudimentary human features.

Why then should thousands of devotees flock to it?

The answer lies in its sanctity. There is nothing in religious shrines or the graves of saints other than the spirit imbued in the earth. It is the purity of their spirit that draws those who seek spiritual comfort and support.   

If Shah Latif prayed to Mata Hinglaj for marriage to his beloved, his prayers were soon answered. He should have prayed for a longer married life, for all too soon, his young wife died, childless. From then on, poetry became Shah Latif’s emotional companion.

The ineffable quality of Shah Latif’s compositions has been summarised by the authors in these paragraphs:

‘Shah Latif has his finger on the pulse of his audiences and he clearly assumes that, and builds upon their familiarity with historical events and folk tales of the region.  Unlike Rumi, who recounts entire stories in his poems, Shah Latif almost never narrates full tales.  He only signals and references. Culling out iconic moments or images or moods from these stories, he then builds them into powerful motifs, imbued with allegorical meanings.’

Shah Latif’s artistry is almost literal:

‘Many of his poems are akin to strokes of a paintbrush, which build one upon another, coming together to create a vast field of experience, an emotionally pulsating canvas of a particular rasa, a particular raga, a particular story, a particular quest.  For listeners just one brush stroke or beyt can signal and summon the mood of the entire painting, just as the particular movement (pakad) between a few musical notes can evoke the spirit of an entire raga.’

Shah Latif’s Risalo is ‘a collection not so much of poetry meant for reading, as much as it is a collection of musical verses meant for singing [.] The thirty Surs into which the Risalo is divided are chapters clustering poetry around a specific theme, but more literally they are ‘musical modes’ based on specific Indian ragas, intended for a musical experience. Shah Latif was clearly among those Sufis who recognize the power of sound in spiritual practice.’

The authors quote the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, the talented, open-minded but unfortunate son of Shah Jahan. He had translated the Hindu sacred texts known as the Upanishads into Persian. One paragraph from it is especially haunting:

‘The practice of hearing the Voice of Silence is the path of the Fakirs, the Sultan-ul-askar or the king of all practices. The sound existed even before the creation of the worlds, and exists even now, and will continue to exist even when the worlds continue into non-existence.

This sound is called the infinite and absolute sound. There is no practice higher than of hearing this sound.’     


Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo is divided into dastaans, consisting of beyts.  ‘Each singer picks up the thread of the previous singer’s beyt, and sings another evoking the same theme, creating a complex musical and poetic ambience.’

’If music be the food of love, play on’, says Count Orsino in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Like the Count, Shah Abdul Latif, I suspect, was more in love with the idea of being in love than with love itself. Similarly, Shah Latif’s love is not for a particular woman but for the concept of femininity, for the female ideal. His Risalo contains not one but a number of heroines – Sohini, Sassi, Marvi, Moomal, Leela and Noori. Their efforts to achieve a permanent relationship with their male counterparts is an allegory at one level and their encounters drama at another.   

Sohini’s predicament is to cross the river to meet her beloved, even at the risk of drowning. We know that the heroines represent mankind and the masculine beloved is a symbol for God. But at the highest level of spiritual ecstasy, Shah Latif tells us, is not to be united with one’s lover but to lose oneself, not to reach the other bank but ‘to merge in the swirling waters of the river itself.’

One must seek total annihilation of one’s being. Sohini laments:

I’m in love with one who carries daggers.

I press ahead in the field of love.

My head’s on the chopping block,

Now slaughter me, beloved.


And over two hundred years later, we have another poet – Munir Niazi reciting in Punjabi: 

Kuch shehr dey log vi zalim san;

Kuch sanoon maran da shuq vi see.

         The townsfolk were undoubtedly cruel;

         But then I myself courted death.

Shah Latif’s affinity with natural beauty surrounding him pervades every poem of his. I found the lines from one hauntingly beautiful. It describes the lyrical union of Noori and her lover Tamachi on Kinjhar lake.

         Water below, flowering branches above,

         Lotuses on the lake, fragrance in the air,

Spring has finally come to Kinjhar.


I row the boat. He casts the net.

Yesterday, the whole day

was spent in the chase. 


And in the story of the princess Shireen who implores her parents to entomb her with her soulmate – a dishevelled fakir – Shireen recites:

         Your dear ones’ feet stamp

the earth over your head.

         In all moments we carry

a spade and a string

to dig and measure out our graves.


Many of you might have been introduced already to the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif through H. T. Sorley’s book Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit: His poetry, life and times.  It was first published in 1940 in Mumbai, and reprinted by Oxford University Press here in 1966.

That cultural migration has been repeated by the present volume I Saw Myself, which was printed in India and reprinted by EFT here.

I was surprised to notice that Sorley’s work does not find mention in the bibliography of Shabnam and Vipul’s book. Sorley’s ‘labour of love’ has five chapters on the historical and social topography of Sindh before it concludes with a sixth chapter on Shah Abdul Latif himself. It is still a significant assessment of the poet and his legacy.

Sorley did not attempt a translation of the whole Risalo but an abridgment known as the Munthakab, collected by Kazi Ahmad Shah, containing the most well-known and popular of Shah Abdul Latif’s verse.

He emphasises the union of music with thought and religion.  To support his thesis, Sorley quotes this paragraph from the 11th century Persian savant Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali:

’Listening to music and singing … is an arouser of his longing and a strengthener of his passion and his love, and an inflamer of the tinderbox of his heart. It brings forth from it, states consisting of revelations and caressing descriptions of which cannot be comprehended [.] He whose tasted them knows them.’

To Sorley, Shah Abdul Latif is a poet, not a philosopher. ‘The genius of Shah Abdul Latif being purely lyrical, and lyrical inspiration being difficult to maintain for long at high levels, we shall find the poet’s best work not in any single complete poem but in short passages where a pure lyrical idea is expressed in simple telling language of great power.’

This latest assessment by Shabnam Virmani and Vipul Rikhi echoes Sorley’s admiration for Shah Abdul Latif, whom he describes as ‘the first great exponent of the imaginative use of the Sindhi language’.

We shall be treated later to renditions of Shah Abdul Latif’s compositions. So why should I continue to stammer when there are others here to sing?

Let me end, though, with these verses of Shah Abdul Latif, translated by Shabnam and Vipul. It shines through their wonderful work of research:  

             I’m as patient as the earth.

             Even if you lay beyond sunrise and sunset,

             I would still walk to you on the feet of my eyes.


My compliments to the EFT in reprinting this book. It is a service to humanity, for its medicine is not to heal our bodies but a panacea for our undernourished souls - a sort of Poetry sans Frontières.



24 January 2022
All Speeches
Latest Books :: Latest Articles :: Latest SPEECHES :: Latest POEMS