Life goes on
A treasure of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts in Punjab University library, many on palm leaves, comes under researchers' scanner for the first time
Believe it or not, it's a fact. A rich treasure of knowledge -- an invaluable collection of 9,075 Sanskrit manuscripts on various branches and disciplines of Sanskrit literature -- is lying unexplored in Punjab University (PU) library in Lahore since partition. Though they have been preserved properly for decades, hardly any effort was made in the past to study the contents of these manuscripts in detail. Insiders say this indifference was because that the state was least interested in seeking expertise of Sanskrit scholars in India and sharing even an iota of knowledge with them.
This highly guarded secret was exposed when a team of South Korean researchers signed a tri-party Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in February 2007 with PU to study these manuscripts in detail. Under the project, scholars from Geumgang University of South Korea and University of Vienna, Austria will work hand in hand with their counterparts at PU to explore the contents of the manuscripts. Geumgang University is a South Korean Buddhist university located in the countryside, under the shadow of Gyeryong Mountain, near Nonsan, South Korea.
It was the Korean Dr Kang, Professor of South Asian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria who played a major role in bringing the three universities together. On a visit to PU library last year, he was stunned to find a sea of knowledge in front of his eyes. On his return to Vienna, he mobilised all his resources and contacts to win exclusive rights to benefit from these manuscripts before anybody else could put their hands on them.
As the story goes, these Sanskrit manuscripts were discovered from PU premises, packed in sacks, soon after the partition. Written mostly on palm leaves and man-made paper, they date as back as 14th century AD according to careful estimates. The scripts used in these manuscripts are Devnagri, Dravidian, Andna, Sarada, Keral and Prakit.
This valuable collection was given the name of Woolner Collection in recognition of Dr A C Woolner who was a professor of Sanskrit in PU. Dr Woolner was also an honorary librarian of PU library from 1903 to 1928 and became vice chancellor of the university in 1928. Earlier, he had been selected as principal and registrar of the university in 1903. Dr Woolner's statue stands intact right in front of PU's Pharmacy Department in Lahore even today while no other human sculpture does.
Hamid Ali, librarian and custodian of Sanskrit manuscripts at PU library, tells TNS that about half a dozen manuscripts were acquired in the 1880s when Pundit Kashinath Kante catalogued some of the famous manuscripts in libraries at Lahore, Gujranwala and Delhi. He says after that there were no systematic attempts at any level to collect manuscripts. "It was only when Dr Banarsi Das, Professor of Hindi Oriental College, then a student of Masters, brought to the notice of Dr Woolner the availability of Sanskrit manuscripts which could be purchased on reasonable terms that steps were taken in this direction," he says.
During the period from 1913 to 1936, the PU collection of Sanskrit manuscripts increased rapidly and the figure reached 9,075. After that not even a single addition has been made to this treasure of knowledge. The classification and cataloguing of these manuscripts started in 1925 with the help of Sanskrit language specialists. Hamid says though the list had not been prepared according to international bibliography standards it provides enough information about the manuscripts. Two catalogues of Sanskrit manuscripts in PU library were published in 1932 and 1941 respectively.
The catalogues have recently been uploaded on PU library's website. The 28 disciplines covered in these manuscripts are Nyaya (Justice), Vaisesika (Buddhist school of thought -- Indian philosophy), Sankhya (Another school of thought of philosophy), Yoga (Mediation, Act of self-realisation), Vedanta (Vedic Methods, Self realisation, knowledge of Veda), Sikhamata (Sikhism), Gita (Hindu religious book, commentaries on verse), Vyakarana (Sanskrit grammar), Chandas (Sacred poetry), Kosa (Dictionary and Lexicon), Itihasa (History), Purana (Archeology), Mahatmaya (Glorious acts, Greatness), Vrata (Religious vow, Simplicity), Bhakti (Devotion in Faith-Doctrine), Stotra (Hymn, Religious Anthem), Alankara (Decorative Art-Decorating with ornaments) Sangita (Music), Silpa (Statuary & Sculpture ), Kamasastra (Sex, lust, art of love), Jyotisa (Astronomy), Vaidyaka (Vedic literature), Ratna Sastra (Gems, Essences), Kavya, Campu (Classical Sanskrit poetry, prose, composition of music), Niti (Ethics), Natka (Drama) and Buddha & Jaina (Jainism & Buddhism).
Hamid tells TNS that proper fumigation is done every three to four years to preserve these manuscripts. Describing the procedure, he says that they are placed in a fumigation chamber turn by turn for 72 hours. "Quality fumigants like Thymol and para-dichlorobenzene are used to increase live of these manuscripts," he adds.
The manuscripts are not accessible to the general public and only researchers can see them in the presence of library officials. "None of the researchers have ever been allowed to take a photograph of them or get any of them photocopied," he says adding: "You are definitely the first one to take these photographs." The level of security is kept very high to save these manuscripts from rackets dealing in illegal trade of artefacts, he says.
Needles have been used to write scripts on uniformly cut palm leaves. Once engravings were made, the authors of these scripts would pour lemon grass oil on these leaves. The oil would seep into the deep spaces and make the writings legible.
All the palm leaves with Sanskrit manuscripts available at the library are 1.5 inches wide but their length varies from 3 inches to 24 inches. "The leaves carrying information on particular subjects were kneaded together with the help of a thread without disturbing their sequence," says Hamid.
Chaudhry Muhammad Hanif, Chief Librarian at PU Library tells TNS, that international scholars started coming to Pakistan in groups when all the catalogues were made available on PU library's website in 2004. "The interest of Korean scholars was worth-seeing as they practice Buddhist religion and have great reverence for ancient Sanskrit scripts on religious topics," he says.
Explaining the contents of the MoU, Hanif says: "So far we have received high-tech cameras and equipment from Koreans to digitise all the contents of these manuscripts. To date, we have not handed them over any manuscript either in original form or in duplicate." He says at a later stage -- once the digitisation process is complete -- Koreans can come here to teach Sanskrit to our people or take our people with them under a scholars exchange programme.
He says once there are sufficient scholars available at PU -- who can read and understand Sanskrit -- translation of these manuscripts will be started with the help of partner universities. "On completion of this process, the translated content will be the joint property of the Korean university and the PU who will get different books on myriad subjects jointly published in their names," says Hanif.
He says PU's priority is to get exclusive rights to market such books. "I am dead sure if things go as planned, we'll have many best-sellers to offer to the global audience in times to come," Hanif adds.
It was a relief that ATPA's latest production was not 'issue-based', an anthem that every one is marching to the tune of
By Sarwat Ali
It may seem safe to assume that any play by Awareness Through Performing Arts (ATPA), a voluntary organisation believing in the sanctity and impact of arts for a positive change in society, will be issue based but it was not so as their latest production 'Muhabbat Key Chey Sau Teen Tareeqe' (MK603T) did not carry an overt label or advanced a cause.
As it is theatre and the arts are driven by the need to make them purposeful or to give them a usefulness that is recognised within the values that are preached by religious and patriotic ideologies. Theatre like other artistic expressions has wavered between pure entertainment and preaching, and many an artist have striven to find some kind of a mean or an ideal ground where the artistic demands and the needs for preaching come together.
One of the central human themes has been love, both a source of tragedy and endless comic possibilities. Its significance cannot be denied or even minimised and it has throughout human history spread its wide wings to incubate the countless offsprings in all forms of art. The play too revolved round the countless comical possibilities inherent in his essential human dilemma of heightened expectancy and fear of fulfillment. It was a relief in the first place that the play was not issue based, an anthem that every one is marching to the tune of to prove his or her great concern for the people here and finding solutions to their problems. If nothing else at least creating awareness about those issues. A relief essentially because this great concern if expressed through the arts usually shields the important formalistic requirements that go in the making of a play or for that matter any form of art.
The play though strung together by the theme of love was presented in the form of skits or it seemed that the entire play was one long over-stretched skit; it had its comical moments too but it also reflected that the writer and the group have a lot to learn. The most important thing is that they have embarked upon this journey and have selected the right path. Gradually this learning curve will lead them to productions that will be theatrically significant as well.
It appears that the main person behind this entire enterprise is Ahmad Bilal. He has already written a number of plays like Lakeer Key Beggars, Kalay Harf, Khamosh Cheekh, Zalzala 7.6, Kuch Aur Kalay Harf, Aisa Kaise Chalay Ga, and has also participated in television productions like Ladies First, Athwan Rang, Parinda and Nadeem Qasmi.
He has also been arranging workshops where leading figures from the world of performing arts have interacted with the young enthusiasts willing to take theatre, music and dance to a notch above that of crass entertainment. At the end of the workshops performances were staged which had grown and developed out of the weeks that the groups had been together, an activity that suggests the desire to learn and educate in the passages and alleys of the performing arts.
Most of the members of APTA are the students and faculty of the University College of Arts and Design, Punjab University. They have also been associated with another company Natak and if one looked at some of the plays, skits and shadow shows that Natak has been staging it is evident that the productions were stretched in favour of being useful to society. This 'theatre for a purpose' may have drawn a round of an instant applause but it failed to satisfy some of the basic requirements of a good theatrical performance. Though the intention was honourable the play suffered from being simplistic, the usual artistic failing that accompanies an amateur production meant to arouse the feelings of patriotism or religious fervour.
The cast of the play included Majid Rana, Leena Sarwat, Omar Daraaz, Jawada Lubbar, Hina Sajjad, Humaira Asgher and Khalid Butt. And it also seems that this forms the core group of the APTA for all have been associated with direction, set design, stage management, costumes, music, sound choreography and even managing the hall.
Some significant developments have taken place at the Punjab University in the past couple of years. The beginning of a Music/Musicology programme despite plenty of opposition was an achievement of no mean proportion and then the holding of the Inter University Performing Arts Festivals has catapulted the University as a happening place of Lahore.
And this is how universities and institutions of higher learning are supposed to be. As seats of the academia research, publication, holding of exhibitions, festivals of theatre and music, all serve to provide a focal point to the artistic and academic activity that nevertheless happens in the city or country.
Women artists' exhibition at Alhamra Art Gallery only created an unnecessary gender divide in the field of visual arts
By Quddus Mirza
An exhibition of women artists may seem like an outdated concept everywhere else in the world. Not so in Pakistan. Here defunct ideas are kept alive somehow though people are now becoming aware that the classification of a woman artist does not hold anymore -- just like other fading terms: poetess, authoress etc.
Today in some areas the presence of women is more pronounced than what one would have expected two decades ago. One such field is art. One comes across women as famous painters, significant sculptors, important print makers, art educationists, heads of art institutions, gallery directors/owner, curators, critics and collectors. The presence of a woman in one of these roles does not come as a surprise or a shock, since the demands of these jobs do not require any gender distinction.
Such segregation, when mentioned with reference to visual arts, appears irrelevant and odd now. It reminds of times when women were deprived from their positions in the society though actually that has never been a case in the field of art. Anna Molka Ahmed the first appointee to Punjab University's Fine Arts Department (she set up the department) recalls while talking to Salima Hashmi ('Unveiling the Visible') that the then Vice Chancellor Mian Akhtar Hussain as a matter of strategy wanted to admit only female students to the department when it was established in early 1940s. The university wanted to discourage girls from pursuing worthy and serious subjects such as sciences and keep them into the business of painting and sketching, she said. "It's a waste of space and time since they will get married anyway," she recalls him as saying.
An attempt towards segregation was recently observed in the women artists' exhibition, held between August 1-4 2007 at Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore. The show was organised by Punjab Arts Council and included works of Zubeida Javed, Rahat Naveed Masud, Mussarat Hassan, Rukhsana David along with many others. On display were portraits, landscapes, still life and some abstract compositions. The collection comprised known painters as well as recent graduates (a few from the Punjab University, who prior to this exhibition, had their thesis show at the same venue).
The range of participants reflected the way the organisers conceived the exhibition. Several works from the thesis display were put in the exhibition again. Not that the new graduates did not deserve to exhibit with well-established names, but their inclusion marked the easy, rather careless, approach towards the show. Presumably the mere presence of their paintings in the gallery became the criteria for their entry into the exhibition.
This pattern of selection was repeated in the display. As per some unwritten law of Alhamra Art Gallery, the most senior painter was displayed near the entrance and then the rest followed -- according to their age or their ranks and grades. It did not matter if the two artists displaying together did not share ideas, imagery, technique, mediums or concern, because the exhibition was obviously not planned on any visual connection. The organisers, it seemed, sought only one quality in each work -- it was created by a woman. Incidentally none of the works touched feminist issues.
Hence the images rendered on those canvases could as well have been painted by male artists. There was hardly a special feature in those surfaces that made them gender specific -- except the name of the maker. Some names suggested a recognisable style and in a few cases, a development in their personal pictorial vocabulary was evident, as was observed in the works by Zubeida Javed, Maliha Agha, Zahrah David and Rahat Naveed. A number of other participants dealt with their subjects in individual manners like Amna Wilayat, Faiza Cheema and Riffat Chughtai. In their landscapes one could see the typical theme treated in a different way. Similarly Rukhsana David drew the familiar female figure inside the geometric shapes. Both the human body and the abstract constructions were infused with sensitive layers of light brush marks, and reminded of once popular means to portray the condition of women through the hard lines of cubes and other geometric forms.
Apart from a few exceptions, the criteria of eligibility -- gender-- restricted the scope of the exhibition and hence the visible disparity in the works on display.
This short-lived show illustrated the way our government organisations approach, programme and handle art events. For them, the mere fact of holding an exhibition is enough, since official records do not put any premium on quality. Now when curated shows and exhibitions planned on interesting themes are becoming the norm, Punjab Art Council's recent endeavour seems archaic to say the least.
One feels emboldened to predict that our official art bodies would continue to hold such shows unless they are held accountable in some way. To start with, one could suggest that Punjab Arts Council must buy all the works they chose for this exhibition -- to enrich their permanent collection.
Since I have just spent three hours at the airport waiting for somebody who failed to show up, I am in a foul mood. This came after four night shifts meant that I was a tired and sleepy person, who just wanted to get another few hours of sleep. But, there was no one at Heathrow waiting for my dear university friend to fly in from Cairo. She did not and now I am worrying about her whereabouts.
How could this have happened in this day and age of international telecoms and mobile phones? Okay, I don't have her number, but she has all my phone numbers so where on earth is she??? I sincerely hope that in this case no news turns out to be good news as this whole thing is causing anxiety.
And I do not need anxiety, I am on holiday this week and about to fly out to Marrakesh to attend a friend's wedding (friend decided Marrakesh was a good place for a party), so I should be relaxed. But I am not. Instead I am worrying about the family members (elderly parents) who are staying behind and older sister who is flying in to give them company. I am fretting about whether or not I have stocked up the fridge adequately or set up good enough support systems for them to be comfortable in our absence.
Yes, life is truly mundane. Household management is a much underrated undertaking -- it is boring but it has to be done and it is not entirely easy. What is a successful household? I guess I would say it is one where you have enough food and enough heart for everyone. I don't mean you should be rich and have a big house, I mean you should have the right attitude and ensure that there is food on the table for whoever is there. I love households which consider food important. I have never yet recovered from a stint in an in-law's house because she had a very strange relationship with food. She also had a strange relationship with servants as she deeply distrusted all of them. Everything was always locked up in the store room so there wasn't exactly a sense of comfort and plenty in the kitchen. The worst was when once she left me in the house, the phone was out of order and I had no transport. I thought I should feed my toddler something, but there was no fruit. There was nothing to eat in the fridge either -- except (and this was a stroke of luck) an egg!!! One egg.
On another occasion I thought I would have one of the shami kababs she kept mentioning, so I asked their cook/driver to bring me one with a cup of tea.
Well he informed me, he could get the kebab from the freezer but the oil was locked up in the store room and he did not have the key, therefore he couldn't actually fry the kebab. So much for that!
I suppose my household management style is a bit of a reaction to this sort of thing. Lots of food, freely available. Everything stored in a cupboard without a key. Sometimes it all gets a bit excessive but at least we don't have that sense of meanness and the sense of roti and sugar counting that pervades some households.
Well, I suppose I am ranting and raving like this, because I am worried about my missing friend and I am anxious about my travels. But it will all settle down. And perhaps even this household management thing is a bit of a power trip.
I don't really know, but will have to reflect more on this at a later stage. In the meantime, despite my foul mood and my anxiety I realise that the sun is shining, it is a beautiful day, my lovely children are there putting up with my raving and I can hear my elderly parents in the background having a theological and historical discussion ( thank god they are not arguing!).
Best wishes from London, and Happy Independence Day to all! Pakistan is now 60 years old. A miracle, some might say.