Those of you who are NSB long-timers remember the days when we had a live painting every month, no rx created over the course of the night by the amazing Marcus Murray. Marcus’s subjects ranged from his own imaginative, science-fiction-like imagery, to images that celebrated Punjabi culture and folklore.
I remember one month’s painting of a Sikh warrior (I’m not sure who) that was so powerful that one of the NSB attendees bought it right off the easel. I don’t think that the paint had even dried when she and her boyfriend carted it off. But one of my all-time favorite live paintings is this one:
acrylic on canvas
The image is inspired by an episode in the famous Punjabi folktale, Mirza Sahiban — a kind of Romeo and Juliet story. That’s Sahiban in the foreground, with the arrows. Mirza was her lover, and a great marksman with bow and arrow.
But let’s start at the beginning….
During the time of the Emperor Akbar the Great, in the land between the rivers of Ravi and Chenab (now part of Pakistan), there were two villages, Khewa and Danabad. Mahni Khan was the chief of Khewa, and also of his clan, the Sayyal. Sahiban was his daughter. Fateh Bibi, Mahni’s “milk sister” (they were both nursed by Bibi’s mother as babies, because Mahni’s mother had died; and so they were considered siblings), lived in Danabad, where she had married into the Kharral clan. Fateh Bibi’s son was Mirza.
When Mirza was about eight, his parents sent him to Khewa to live with his uncle Mahni Khan, so that Mirza could go to school at the mosque in Khewa. Sahiban went to school there, too, and she and her cousin grew up together, in Mahni Khan’s house.
Sahiban, they say, grew up to be so beautiful that when she went to market the grocer would get too confused and distracted to weigh her produce correctly. When she walked by the fields all the farmers would stop their plowing just to stare. Mirza grew up strong and handsome, and was the best shot with a bow and arrow in the region. It’s not too surprising that these two, growing up together so closely, eventually fell in love.
But of course, they were cousins. Gossip got around, and their parents found out. Mirza’s father brought him back to Danabad, and Sahiban’s parents arranged to marry her off to a man named Tahir Khan, of the Chandar clan. Just before the wedding, Sahiban managed to get a message delivered to Mirza, to tell him of her marriage.
Mirza took his bow and arrows and rode back to Khewa, arriving just as the groom’s party arrived. Mirza snuck into the house (remember, he’d lived there since he was a boy) and found Sahiban, already dressed in her red wedding dress, with mehndi on her hands and feet. He put her on the back of his horse, and the two galloped away.
When Sahiban’s family discovered that she was gone, Sahiban’s brothers and the groom rode off to chase her down. Meanwhile, the escaping couple stopped to rest. Sahiban still worried that her brothers would catch up, but Mirza was confident.
“First of all, they won’t catch up. And even if they do, I have one arrow for Shamair (Sahiban’s oldest brother), one for Tahir, and enough left over for the rest of your brothers.”
And then Mirza fell asleep, with his head on Sahiban’s lap.
Well, Sahiban didn’t like the idea of Mirza killing her brothers, any more than she liked the idea of her brothers killing Mirza. Somehow, she got it in her head that if Mirza were unarmed, her brothers wouldn’t kill him. So, as Mirza slept, she quietly took his quiver and broke all the arrows.
Sure enough, Sahiban’s brothers caught up to them. When Mirza went to defend himself, he discovered what Sahiban had done. Before he could say or do anything, Shamair’s arrow caught him in the throat, and he died, looking into Sahiban’s eyes with reproach. Sahiban threw herself over the body to shield it from more arrows, but it was too late, and she was killed by the arrows that were meant for her lover.
The deaths of the two lovers started a feud, with the Kharrals (Mirza’s family) on one side, and the Sayyals and Chandars (Sahiban’s family, and her fiancé’s family) on the other. The Kharrals won, and they recovered the bodies of Mirza and Sahiban and buried them together in Danabad.
My retelling is based mostly on the version at Folk Tales of Pakistan, which is itself based on the ballad by the 16th or 17th century poet Piloo. In some versions of the story, Sahiban hung the quiver on a tree, out of Mirza’s reach. I like the broken arrows better.
If you can read Romanized Punjabi, there is an untranslated version of the tale in R. C. Temple’s 1884 Tales of the Panjab, Vol 3, online at the Internet Archive.