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The Portable Bullhe Shah: Biography, Categorization, and Authorship in the Study Of Punjabi Sufi Poetry

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The Punjabi poet Bullhe Shah (1680-1758) is revered by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. In the extensive body of interpretive literature devoted to his life and work, scholars have contested his religious identity, characterizing Bullhe Shah in various ways, e. g. as a Sufi, a Vedantic Sufi, or a Vai ava Vedantic Sufi. This article examines the nature of the debates about Bullhe Shah's identity, and how these debates have shaped the varying portrayals of Bullhe Shah's life, the corpus of his poetry, and the characterization of his religious affiliation. I argue that a series of unexamined assumptions — about the nature of biography and its relation to the development of a worldview, about the categorization of religious identity, and about the nature of authorship — have created these conflicting portrayals of the poet and his work, making Bullhe Shah a kind of "portable" figure who is placed in widely divergent contexts. I conclude by arguing that Bullhe Shah's portability, or his placement within different contexts (for different purposes), is itself a useful topic for analysis, and provides the basis for a potentially more fruitful study not only of Bullhe Shah's life and work, but also of his audiences and their responses to him.

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