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ong before Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet, the tale of ill-fated lovers Heer and Ranjha was passed down from generation to generation in the villages that dotted the Punjab region of the Indus Valley. Yet while most Westerners know the story of the famous Shakespearean star-crossed lovers, few have heard of Romeo and Juliet’s Punjabi predecessors who may well have inspired the Bard’s work.

Samina Quraeshi, a prominent Pakistani-American designer, artist and educator does know the story—and she has made it her mission to share it with others.

While most Westerners know the story of the famous Shakespearean star-crossed lovers, few have heard of Romeo and Juliet’s Punjabi predecessors who may well have inspired the Bard’s work.

Samina Quraeshi

“I grew up with these stories,” says Quraeshi. “To me, as a child, they were pure entertainment, but then they became a powerful aspect of what I came to define as my culture once I migrated to the West. In today’s troubled times, increasingly I find myself struggling to reconcile the images of my culture in today’s media with the images of my lived experience. Part of that experience stretches back into the living tradition of my homeland’s history. And only through re-investigating that history can we come to grips with its future.”

Quraeshi has taken on the ambitious undertaking of that re-investigation, and the result is her newest book, Legends of the Indus: Five Epic Love Tales From the Indus Valley. In it, Quraeshi features five folk tales from the main regions of Pakistan: Adam and Durhkane from the Northwest Frontier, Sassi and Punu from Sind, Sohni and Mahival from northern Punjab, Heer and Ranjha from southern Punjab, and Omar and Marui from Balochistan. These tales have been a part of the rich tradition of the Indus Valley for centuries, and they have often been re-imagined into Bollywood films.

In today’s troubled times, increasingly I find myself struggling to reconcile the images of my culture in today’s media with the images of my lived experience.

But Quraeshi’s purpose in re-telling these stories is not purely to provide entertainment. “I’m also interested in social behavior,” she says. “How have these stories shaped the people? How have the people shaped the stories? These love legends have many dimensions—they are Sufi parables. On the other hand, they comprise the oral tradition—they have been passed down from village to village for eons. So they operate on many dimensions, and one should be aware of them.”

Quraeshi ensures that both the casual reader and scholar alike can gain such an awareness through essays, background information and poetic narration of the stories featured in the book. The text is accompanied by beautiful photographs, textile motifs and miniature paintings that illustrate the works. Most importantly, Legends of the Indus imparts the rich tradition and cultural history of an oft-ignored region of the world.

“It’s a living tradition,” says Quraeshi. “I was just trying to celebrate five of these stories … they are symbolic of the region.”n

Ismat Sarah Mangla traces her roots to Pakistan, but she never knew about these tales until her interview with Ms. Quraeshi.
Published on May 2, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Samina Quraeshi.

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Legends of the Indus

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