By Nadir Ali
A little over fifty years ago our Persian teacher, a pious maulana in the old mould, was explaining the exemplary character of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). He quoted lines from Baaba Naanak to explain his point 'Ek ne keh di ek ne maani'. This was not uncommon. From great Punjabi poet Hafiz Burkhurdar (17th century) to a common Punjabi villager, everyone quoted Naanak. Now they teach no Naanak at Punjab University Lahore, because Naanak was a non-Muslim.
However in Muzaffar Ghaffar's series on Punjabi classic poetry, you get an insight into the great wisdom and beauty of Naanak's poetry. Muzaffar is a great cultural asset and in presenting a selection of Naanak after seven volumes in this remarkable series on Sufi poetry of Shah Husayn, Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast and Khawaja Farid, he has excelled himself in this one. His series presenting all the major poets of Punjabi language in English is a work unique not only in the subcontinent but among world literature. In no other language are all the major poets of a language explained so comprehensively and competently by one author. Punjabi has a very rich heritage and Muzaffar has done justice to this colossal undertaking.
I have had an occasion to read most of his works. He has his own point of view in interpretation and you cannot blame him for that, and this he eloquently explains at length. But he does point out all other possibilities and interpretations also. In Naanak's poetry, he has shown greater restraint, keeping in view the Sikh sensitivities, as this is their Holy Book. The result is even better -- more pithy and succinct and yet doing full justice to the task. I have read a few books on Naanak's poetry published in India as well as in Pakistan, US and Britain. None matches Muzaffar's work in the universality of interpretation. Prof. Kishen Singh's book giving a modern Marxist explanation of Naanak and books of orthodox religious explanations of Naanak are voluminous and complex; but those are in a different category.
This selection giving some compositions in full and some in part; 52 pieces out of a total of six hundred odd compositions of Baba Naanak in the Granth Sahib are a very representative selection. In this book the criteria for selection was to go for those compositions which have easier idiom in the original, are less Sanskritised and deal with more universal themes. However, no part of a holy book can be considered inferior. This discretion in selection and the treatment make it a gem of a book.
Muzaffar's triumph is all the more remarkable because he had no encouragement or help from any quarter. Behind this series is fifteen years of tremendous hard work and study. His facility with the English idiom is a great asset. I am against translations in verse. But Muzaffar's work is as close to the original as any medium could be. Here are extracts from two of my favorite pieces , to give the reader a flavor of the work.
Jooth na raageen jooth na
Jooth na chun sooraj ki
Jooth na unneen jooth na
Jooth na meenh waray sabh
Defilement not in musical modes, defilement not in true learning
Defilement not in moon's and sun's mysterious separating defilement not in water defilement not in grain
Defilement none when everywhere there's rain.
Jooth -- defilement according to Hindu upper class belief -- is caused by someone of a lower caste touching or partaking of a food item. But the root is same as Jhooth -- falsehood. Naanak explains how nature's order/truth, an equal bounty for all, is turned into falsehood by our dealings. Look at the condemnation of power which is every mortal's favourite bride.
Aakhan jor chupe na jor
jor na mangan den na jor
jor na jeevan maran na jor
jor na raj maal manshor
Speaking is not power, silence not power
Power not asking, giving not power
Power not life, dying not power
Power not rule, wealth, charter
Jor, power, as well as coercion is again not nature's order. It costs nothing to speak gently or listen patiently. And living and dying are nature's phenomenon. But power, rule, wealth and charter has distorted this natural harmony. Naanak does not approve of this order.
A project of giant proportions, this work would have a thriving market in India, where a larger English readership exists and there is a respect of things academic. Hundreds of departments of South Asian languages will lap up this collection.
This book has a comprehensive introduction to Punjabi Sufi poetry and a short biography and note on Naanak's work and the printing quality is superb.
Each composition has been printed in Urdu/Nastaliq script, in Gurmukhi as well as a Romanised version for the English readers. Each composition is followed by a glossary of difficult words with all shades of meanings, an English, line by line translation in verse, followed by a comprehensive explanation/interpretation.
By Sidrah Haque
It took a brewing July day and a detour from the local gemstone shop, to enter into a dusty, forgotten part of the market that housed aging books and a dead air-conditioner. This newly arrived upon second-hand book shop -- a palatial shell of wondrous tales and truths away from the array of micro cloth houses otherwise littering the market -- was home to double-decked shelves of choice classics on one end, and, as one passed towards the counter sans smiling shopkeeper, the titles grew more garish in nature and the book covers more daringly crude.
With a mere 1/3 of the shop dedicated to those higher tomes of literature (and the remaining for the trash-fic sort of readers) I settled myself on my haunches and worked my way upwards, digging deep into the gut of the place.
Most of the books were bitten, sogged, torn, adorned or disabled in various other forms, by voracious previous owners; but a few stacks lived to tell of a better life: with smudgeless insides and strong creamy smells still emerging from within.
Alas, another shop gone by, with noth a trace of Stephen Fry but I did find Kenneth Grahame. And Roald Dahl and Lewis Carol, and an assortment of other children's writers that once furnished the inner cellars of young minds, with mad tales of anthropomorphic creatures and furiously precocious children and taught us rambunctious endings that are both a sufficient and necessary condition for an enlivened, young mind.
The ying-yang of Arnold Lobel's 'Frog and Toad' early on in life helped settle the issue of ethics and morality for its readers, so important was it! These two amphibians, dotting the pages of illustrations by Lobel himself, might be solely responsible for inducting valuable life lessons such as sharing, helping or even what it means to be there for a fellow friend/amphibian at such a tender, vulnerable age of 5. 'Frog and Toad', as I tell amused friends today, isn't just a recommendation but a moral duty.
Perhaps even more vividly stretched into memory is E.B. White's 'Charlotte's Web'. Read to me first in kindergarten, sitting on the floor, looking up at my English teacher who wore stretchy man-pants and whose voice was laced with coffee and expression, light streaming in through the window outlining her in an all-body halo, she was a godsend and her read words an epiphanous wonder. 'Charlotte's Web' was passed many more times between our palms in the years to come, and I always remember gaining more and more from it, each time I touched to the last page.
A family favourite, Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little House' series, was perhaps the first books that fuelled our passion to read and be read to. Little else compared to the joy of slowly working our way through the complete series, reading of hardships only a very young mind can not comprehend but still be able to envision. Based on the writer's younger years in pioneer America where extreme cold, food shortages, building houses, saving crops and illnesses through mysterious swamp watermelons, were just facts of life. Lucy Montgomery's 'Anne of Green Gables' substituted 'Little House' for later on in life, telling the story of another precocious protagonist, this time dealing with an orphan's ply through mischief and growing up -- but really, Laura Ingalls is irreplaceable, we argued amongst each other.
Morphing the everyday utility of the household objects into the possibility of magic, and causing quite a stir in the household as closets and drawers were continuously left open in our reckless wonder, perhaps the first forte into fantasy fiction, C. S. Lewis' 'Chronicles of Narnia', 'fantasy with a brain' rather, latched with it memories of reading well into winter days, aloud to oneself or under a blanket-tent, will by far stretch the pleasure any three-hour movie can deliver; blessed are we to escape the era of movies-before-books.
Kennethe Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willow' grew on us awkwardly at first, refusing to settle well with us, and being fully appreciated for it's simplicity and victorian charm and tagged theme later on in life. Being young, we still accepted it as something important, like grownup conversations and serious newscasters.
Being fed on the biting rhymes of Dr Seuss early on "I do not like them in a box, I do not like them with a fox, I do not like them in a house, I do not like them with a mouse", ladled with Roald Dahl later on in life in grade school curriculum, ensured a saturation into this artful habit of reading -- infact, it is utterly obligatory, punishable by law otherwise, to feed your young children and siblings on the marvels of Roald Dahl. A young head shaded by titles such as 'Boy', 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', 'Fantastic Mr Fox' and the BFG will turn out to be, an otherwise very good head.
Ladies and gentlemen, wean your children on these great writers of the past, shove into those tiny palms, these tomes of magnanimous wisdom and nonsense! Grease their innards with these impossible tales where good is squeesed out of hardship, and lessons out of play, and visuals out of words! Brighten their backdrops with the canvas of rhyme, rhythm, fantasy, reality, pictures and develop them early on to love what lies on their bookshelves.
By Salman Rashid
The slight aimed at the scholar-soldier in the British army of the 19th century was the derisive line, 'Damn the writing, mind the fighting.' Yet wherever the British soldier went in those times we have ample proof of him not only being a writer but one frightfully erudite and well-read to boot. The record that this breed of army officer left behind, be it from the wilds of Canada or the upper reach of the Nile; in the Congo or the heart of Borneo or Turkistan, is seminal. It gives a vivid picture of life and times in far-off places that would surely have been lost had it not been for these writers.
The first British officer in the subcontinent, civil or military, was the servant of the East India Company. As the company spread its tentacles across the land, its officers sallied forth on scouting missions. Captain James McMurdo was one such who surveyed Sindh in the 1830s -- less than a decade before the 1843 British invasion of this country. Indeed, we now know that not only were these investigations undertaken to discover the target provinces, but that they were also used to justify and support the Company's military transgressions.
McMurdo had a deep interest in the history of Sindh, but like most of his compatriots he arrived with preconceived notions and stereotypes about the 'natives': there are poorly veiled and almost racist dismissals of oriental peoples. Consequently the work contains such indiscriminate denigrations as, "with most, if not all of the vices common to Asiatics, the Sindhians appear to possess few or none of their virtues." Vices which he considers Sindh guilty of include, among many others, beggary, vagrancy, cowardice, general indolence, court intrigues, misrule, gluttony and obesity (especially among the upper classes). He tells us that corpulence was considered a sign of beauty and in that he may not be far off the mark for among the rustic classes of Pakistan that is how it is even to this day.
At the time of McMurdo's visit the country was under the rule of the Talpurs against whom he blows hot and cold in unequal measure. He accuses the government of inefficiency, yet he does not fail to notice the industry flourishing in such places as Thatta -- something that would have been impossible under a corrupt or incompetent rule. McMurdo was impressed also by the agriculture as well as the considerable saltpeter industry. The latter mineral was exported as well as used locally to produce the "best native gunpowder in India." Yet he does not shy from repeated condemnation of the Talpur rule.
In contrast to the Talpurs (military commanders under the Kalhoras whom they also revered as religious leaders), he finds the Kalhoras as benign, benevolent rulers under whose rule the country had flourished. But he is entirely unmindful of the last two Kalhoras, utterly incompetent and self-serving rulers, who called down the bane of Afghan depredation into Sindh. Indeed, the name of Madad Khan Pathan, the general who led these raids, has passed down into Sindhi lore and is mentioned with venom even today by the most unlettered Sindhi. The Talpurs, who clearly have no truck with McMurdo stepped into this chaos, removed the Kalhora chief and took over the government.
McMurdo's prejudices and preconceived notions aside, his brief (77 pages) report is a treasure house for the researcher. There are essays on commerce, revenue, agriculture, animal husbandry, historical cities, customs and language. One would wish these monographs were somewhat more detailed. The writer's biases stand out at their worst in the essay titled 'People' that swarms with generalisations and widely sweeping statements concerning the many evils that he believes were intrinsic to the Sindhi personality. However, he does make a sound point in recording that revenue collection was a means not to enhance the quality of life for the common man, but to amass wealth in the treasury -- which was of course the private purse of the rulers.
McMurdo gets into his element on the subject of the history and geography of the Indus River. While most of his investigations regarding ancient and now ruined cities are spot on, he fumbles on the question of Alexander's Patala that we later knew as Nerunkot and today as Hyderabad. It needs be said that, despite men like Heddle (a doctor), Carless and Wood (both sailors) who were independently doing similar exploratory work on the Indus at about the same time as McMurdo, the ancient hydrography of the great river was yet rather unknown. It was not until Haig's seminal work (The Indus Delta Country) that this questing began to be answered.
'McMurdo's Account of Sind' is the researcher's volume: to be fully appreciated, it needs background knowledge and the prose is tedious with sentences lasting through the better part of the page. This latter being the style of writing in those distant times. Presented to the Government of India in the mid 1830s, this work was largely inaccessible in recent years. Oxford University Press Pakistan has done well to make it available once again to the reading public.
An imaginary lecture
Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to make an urgent plea for a National Theatre.
I am aware that I would be scoffed at and jeered for making a such a frivolous suggestion at a time when we are going through, in the words of one newspaper, 'agonizing times,' but I do so, unabashedly, for I believe that the theatre can go a long way towards creating a degree of sanity.
Look at it this way: if I were to make a fervent appeal for establishing a genuine National Library, worthy of our ambitions, would anyone demur? No one dares deny the importance of a library. I do not wish to digress by dwelling upon the appalling state of our libraries. Suffice it to say that a library is a veritable source of knowledge and enlightenment. So, indeed, is the theatre.
In the sixty years of our existence, the torch of theatre has been kept burning in spite of censures and strictures. Even in the grimmest period when our puritanical general ruled us, various groups -- amateurs or semi-professional -- kept performing plays, albeit clandestinely. We now take pride in our National Folk Art museum and our newly established National Gallery. Isn't it time, then, that the very best of our dramatic efforts be seen in the National Theatre?
Ladies and gentlemen, the sense of wonder is at the root of all artistic experience, but never more palpably so than in the theatrical art. There are moments, while watching a play, when we have glimpses of beauty which our conscious minds are unable to explain. Drama, like poetry, enables us to see things as though for the first time. A conjurer too, holds an audience spellbound, but after a while his magic wears thin. How many times can you see a scantily clad lady being sawn into half and still emerge, intact, from underneath the coffin?
The magic of the theatre implies a suspension of disbelief and therein lies our complete surrender to what is being presented, in front of our eyes, be it a chain of realistic or surrealistic events. Oddly enough, even the most severe, violent scenes enacted before us can, sometimes, fill us with a sense of purity. A play-goer, watching a great play, cannot leave the theatre without having seen something that he has never seen before. Like poetry, drama is a homage to infinity.
Drama enables us to see and understand beyond our individual limitations. The Greeks, in their drama, interpreted and re-interpreted their myths. These myths have gone on being reinterpreted for over three thousands years. Theatre and myth help us to understand the mysteries of life -- birth and death, love and hate, revenge and forgiveness.
Theatre is a live contract between the audience and the performers. At each performance the audience agrees to imagine with the actor. "And certain it is," wrote Francis Bacon, "though a great secret in nature, that the minds of men in company are more open to affections and impressions than when alone."
The National Theatre will have a permanent company of the best trained actors appearing in a wide repertoire of first-rate plays. This is bound to set up a chain reaction that will encourage a grid of subsidised smaller theatres in other cities. The formation of the National Theatre will be a step towards placing the theatre on the same footing as art galleries, museums, public libraries, zoos and amusement parks.
The National Theatre will present to the public the widest selection of good plays from all periods and places -- each play to be presented in the style appropriate to it. It is an ambition by no means as modest as it sounds. It will not concentrate solely on high-brow, avant-garde experimental work; it will include in its repertoire, drama in all its manifestations, including the hyperbolic melodrama which so gripped the attention of the 19th century Urdu dramatists that they wrote scores of plays in that genre for 80 years.
Good theatre cannot make profit. It is a fact acknowledged universally. You cannot think that public libraries should profiteer or that the educational system should pay its way. National Theatre in all the countries, who possess one, is an amenity for which the state or municipal bodies provide subsidies
Subsidy offers what commercialism negates: continuity. If a new production fails on the first showing, it need not be lost for ever: it can be put to rest for a while and then if the political or social climate changes, be revived. But even if it doesn't fail, the production, when it is brought back after an interval, gains something because like good wine it has had a chance to mature a bit. Subsidy generates permanence of performance.
In the commercial theatre, drama competes with every huckster and it necessarily, turns to a kind of art dependent on quick financial returns. The managements then become concerned, as Tynan says, "to produce uncontroversial, easily digestible, audience-ingrating trifles that pass for dramatic entertainment." Such a fare is invariably, tailored to fit stars. Box office begins to tyrannise the managements.
Our National Theatre will have to make a very serious effort to explain to people that the theatre belongs to them and that it will not be motivated by the need or desire to show profit. It will not offer its backers quick financial gains. It will, instead, offer a repertory run that would last decades. In this way each new generation will be kept in touch with history. The National Theatre must be prepared to have first-rate work play to less than capacity than a third rate work filling the house every night. Public patronage may not be strong to begin with, but given time, and continuity of theatrical activity, it will grow.
The first task of the National Theatre is to assemble the best trained actors and put them into a snowballing repertoire of the best available plays, ancient and modern, comic and tragic. But a National Theatre is not just a company of actors. It is an organisation that needs directors, designers, costumiers, wig-makers, carpenters, stage-hands, electricians, and musicians as well. More: it needs to motivate our poets and novelists to turn their attention to writing exclusively for the stage.
I once asked Intizar Hussain, the eminent novelist and short story writer, why he hadn't written a play for over forty years and he said, "Who do I write the play for? Readers?"
Intizar Hussain's only stage play 'Khoabon kay Musaafir' a drama that reflects the complexities -- and absurdities -- of the society in which we live, would still do the National Theatre proud.
I rest my case by reminding you, ladies and gentlemen, that the theatre does not merely entertain and stimulate an audience; it is also a copious source of instruction as to a nation's ideas, ideals, manners, phobias and philosophy.