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Friday, 31 August 2012

Bikat Kahani --- A Study of Afzal Jhinjhanvi's Baramasa

The barahmasa are songs of separation -- both mystic and secular – expressing love and longing for the beloved. Literally meaning ‘twelve months’, they are so called so because they contain one song for each month of the Indian lunar calendar.  While the state of separation remains a constant, the singer’s mood changes with the seasons thus allowing the poet to dwell at length on the anguish and yearning for union but also bring in local, seasonal and natural elements that vary in a country and climate as diverse as ours. Drawing upon its ancient roots in Prakrit, Sanskrit, Hindi and regional dialects, the barahmasa is almost entirely rural. It still survives in the form of lok geet or folk songs. Or, looked at another way, one can say that the barahmasa drew upon lok geet and the existing oral tradition and gave it a more seasonal colour.

The past and the present fuse in the barahmasa as the poet draws upon the popular Hindavi tradition of virah or separation and creates a landscape in which there is no reality save the pain-filled longing of the virahini, or a woman who lives in a state of perpetual separation from her beloved. It is this anguish that gets recorded month after month in plaintive, plentiful detail. One might well ask: Why should a woman’s longing for her absent lover hold any especial interest? What merit is to be found in these works – all on the same theme, all using the same stock of images, metaphors and conceits, almost all being little other than variations on a theme? Especially, since many are by lesser-known poets and some by virtually unknown composers? However, despite its limitations and singular lack of refinements, I do believe the barahmasa deserves to be studied for several reasons that I shall enumerate in this paper. I shall focus on a particular barahmasa, the Bikat Kahani by Afzal Jhinjhanvi which, in later centuries, became a template of sorts for generations of composers of barahmasa.

Sometime in the early 17th century, Afzal Jhinjhanvi compiled the first barahmasa in Urdu, and called it Bikat Kahani (bikat meaning ‘immense’ or ‘terrible’). The frontispiece of the version I have used for this paper describes it as ‘Shumali Hind mein Urdu shairi ka pahla mustanad namoona’), and attributes the date as AH 1035 or AD 1625. Its editors, Noorul Hasan Hashmi and Masood Husain Khan, draw our attention to the description of Bikat Kahani in the tazkiras of the eighteenth century where Afzal is put at par with poets such as Shaikh Saadi, Amir Khusro and Ahmad Gujrati. The verses quoted by Shaikh Muhammad Qayamuddin Qayam in his tazkira Makhzan Nikaat (1755) and Mir Hasan in his Nikaat-as Shuara (1752) are, oddly enough, two similar verses, both from Bayaan Mah Chait, or the description of the month of chait:

                     Padi hai mere gal mein paim phansi

         Maran apna hain aur logon ko hansi

                     Musafir se jinon ne dil lagaya

                     Unhonon ne sab janam rote ganwaya

Hashmi and Khan draw the conclusion that while the barahmasa was fairly well known and many people, especially the bards had consigned it to memory, its written version was possibly read by few in its entirety, including the learned men who wrote these tazkiras.

Here’s a sampler of what Afzal’s Bikat Kahani contains:

                     Ari jab kook koel ne sunayi

                     Tamami tan badan mein aag lahi

                     Andher rain, jugnu jagmagata

                     Oo ka jalti upar tais ka jalata?

                     Ah, when the cuckoo sounds her cooing

                     It sets my body aflame

                     The glow worm glows in the darkness of the night

                     Why does it burn one already on fire?

And, elsewhere:

                     Gayi barsaat rut nikhara falak sab

                     Nami danam ke sajan ghar phire kab

                     Piya bin aikal kaise rahoo ri

                     Sitam upar sitam kaise sahoon ri

                     The rains are gone, the skies are clear

                     But I don’t know when my beloved will return

                     How will I live alone without my beloved?

                     How will I bear affliction upon affliction?

Close to Surdas’s Braj-bhasha and Kabir’s Sudakhahni, Afzal’s Khari-boli had crossed the Jamuna and entered the Doaba region to drink deeply from both Braj-bhasha and Khari-boli. In fact, linguists such as Masood Husain Khan have studied the barahmasas as a barometer of the advance of Braj and Khari-boli into Urdu, the changing tone and tenor of rekhta and the extent of this intermingling over a period of roughly 350 years. In literary terms, too, Afzal’s Bikat Kahani is important because he introduced three basic elements that would remain the hallmark of the barahmasa: a gharelu lehja (domestic tone), dramai tarz (dramatic tone), and khud-kalami (use of first person).
Sometimes taking the colour of a lok geet, sometimes adopting the tone of a qissa-kahani, the barahmasa drew inspiration from a variety of sources: the Jain narrative poems describing Neminath’s desertion of his wife Rajmati on their wedding day; a swathe of devotional poetry that dwelt on Radha’s longing for Krishna; the description of the seasons in Kalidas’s epic poem Ritu Samhar (literally meaning ‘a compilation of seasons’, in this case six season) that, in turn, spawned a tradition of rituvarnan (poetic description of the seasons); elements of singhar rasa (the rasa or ‘flavour’ of erotica, one of the nine rasas) that have influenced the depiction of the nayika (the ‘heroine’ or female protagonist) both in verse and painting; an accumulated stock of similes and metaphors that had gained currency largely through word of mouth. Drawing upon these diverse sources, appropriating easily-understood stock images, speaking in a woman’s voice, the barahmasa allowed the fullest possible exploration of the link between memory and desire. It used the set format of the seasons -- and the fairs, festivals, rites, customs, flora and fauna associated with the 12 months of the year that are constant and therefore predictable – to reinforce the near-universal experience of love and its conjoined twin, separation.
A product of qasbahs and suburbs, the barahmasas were remarkably free of the courtly influences that characterized the rest of Urdu poetry, most notably the ghazal. Moreover, the barahmasa poets made a conscious effort to move away from the crippling influence of Persian that held sway over the court poets and displayed a remarkable readiness to experiment with other forms of poetic expression. Evidently, they reveled in the liberating air of dialects such as Braj-bhasha, Khari-boli, Awadhi, Rajasthani, and the occasional smattering of Dakhani just as much as they did in re-inventing or re-appropriating a literary space that had existed in the shade of the high form, be it the riti poetry in Hindi (traditionally written by court poets) or the ghazal and masnavi in Urdu. The barahmasas then appears before us as a valuable testament of multiculturalism, multilingualism and multifariousness. They tell us that voices other than the male voice existed, genres other than the classical were popular and the Urdu poet showed a willingness to accommodate different poetic traditions. More importantly, the barahmasa points to a time when Urdu had not established itself as a hegemonic force -- in a literary and linguistic sense -- nor acquired the purely urban consciousness it now displays.

While Afzal’s Bikat Kahani is mentioned in the tazkira by Mir Hasan, most other barahmasas have been kept beyond the pale. Little scholarly work has been done even in Urdu on the barahmasa tradition save for compilation of 12 barahmasas by Tanveer Alvi. Had the thrust of literary criticism and research been on exploring the oral tradition in Urdu rather than discrediting its presence by casting doubts on its verifiable antecedents, our literary canon would have been that much richer. Had the literary historian not created this artificial distinction between high and low literature, a great deal of folk-related literature whose roots go back to an orally-transmitted cultural legacy would not have been marginalized. However, it is still not too late. Even now, if we abandon the parameters of ‘high’ culture and ‘high’ literature and begin to study the small and the simple and the natural we can avert some of the dangers of separatism

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Kuldip Nayar's Beyond the Lines -- a review

Kuldip Nayar is the grand old man of Indian journalism. His is the classical post-1947 Indian Success Story. He arrived in India, having travelled from his home in Sialkot across the blood-stained plains of Punjab, to build a new life from scratch in a new country. Like countless other sharanarthis (shelter-seekers as they were called in the early days), through dint of sheer hard work and good ol’fashioned salt-of-the-earth ‘Punjabiyat’, call it what you will, he has built a reputation whose cornerstone is honesty and commitment to secularism and peace.

Nayar’s tryst with destiny began at roughly the same time as his new country’s: at the stroke of the midnight hour when the world slept but India awakened to her destiny. His recently released autobiography, Beyond the Lines (Roli, 2012), reveals the highs and lows, the best and the worst, the price and privilege of that historic tryst. Like Nehru, whom he admires, Nayar put his faith in the idea of a secular, socialist republic and a functioning democracy. Over the years, that faith has been shaken, stirred but never shattered. The Emergency declared by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, tested his belief in the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution. Jailed for his ant-Indira writings, he recalls with dismay both the excesses of the government and the frailties of politicians and media alike:

 ‘It was shocking to observe the ease with which Indira Gandhi and Sanjay were able to assume control over the entire administrative machinery and the willingness with which officials and other government employees accepted this….It was disappointing…the way the media and more specifically the journalists reacted to the new situation. Nearly all of them caved in, stricken by an epidemic of fear.’

Elsewhere, too, he keeps his sternest words for the media, which is the greatest bugbear of democracy, and also its greatest strength. Stressing the need for every major newspaper to have an ombudsman, he speaks of the need to have internal checks and balances and to constitute a regulatory body such as a Press Commission. Good journalism, he writes, ‘is all about exposing injustice and highlighting heroes regardless of the consequences.’ A popular figure at public sit-ins, marches and demonstrations, Nayar has repeatedly found common cause with those who have suffered victimisation and marginalisation. ‘Injustice still hurts me,’ he notes, ‘just the same way as it did over sixty years ago, and among my very few friends are those who similarly care for the violation of basic values.’

However, the book has courted enough controversy. The Sikhs are up in arms over allegations that Sikh Students’ Union President Bhai Amrik Singh, who died during Operation Blue Star in June 1984, was an 'IB agent (Falcon was his pseudonym)'. The chapter on Punjab has raised a hornet’s nest due to Nayar’s depiction of the role of Dal Khalsa while writing about the genesis of the Punjab problem as well as the charge that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a creation of the then Congress and a genie that escaped from the Congress’s bottle. Similarly, the late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s son is issuing vehement denials; Nayar has accused Rao of ‘conniving’ and locking himself up in his room and, apparently, praying when the mosque was being pulled down at Ayodhya in a classic case of Nero playing while Rome burnt.

Coming from the pen of a man whose personal odyssey in the field of Indian journalism has coincided with the nation-building project, this book is a valuable addition to national historiography.
(Reviewed for The Herald, Karachi, August 2012)

Kuldip Nayar: The Lion in Winter

In a career spanning over six decades, India’s veteran journalist has covered a host of events; he has met, interviewed and written about major figures in India’s political life as well as also those from the world arena: Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jai Prakash Narayan, Mujibur Rahman, Ziaul Haq, Z. A. Bhutto, A. Q. Khan. The list is endless. His first major assignment as a cub reporter working for the Urdu newspaper Anjaam (The Conclusion) from Delhi was to write on Gandhi’s assassination. The poignancy of that moment left a deep impact on his psyche. Only three months old in the field of journalism, he could ‘see’ history explode before his eyes; he admits he wept unashamedly. He is still haunted by Gandhi’s words, delivered at a public prayer service a few days before his death where Nayar was present: Hindus and Muslims are like my two eyes, the Mahatma had said.

In a previous book, Tales of Two Cities (co-authored with senior Pakistani journalist Asif Noorani), Nayar has written with empathy and clarity about the momentous event that changed countless lives, including his own, forever. Was partition inevitable, I ask? Could its thirst for blood been slaked by some means other than the division of the country? Holding Jinnah and Nehru equally ‘responsible’, he says, to begin with, Partition was not inevitable. The Cabinet Mission Plan held out promise of resolution but as events panned out and Nehru and Jinnah remained implacable, it became inevitable.

Having witnessed at first hand the blood and gore, the massacres and the communal carnage, how, then, did he not go the ‘other’ way? After all many did. In fact, right-wing organisations on both sides of the border – the RSS and its affiliated wings in India just as the Jamaat or the MQM and the pro-Muhajir parties in Pakistan – fed on precisely the trauma that the first-generation of migrants had experienced to swell their ranks and obtain sympathisers if not members? Nayar tells me that it is precisely because he saw the trauma and the madness that his belief in pluralism was strengthened. He learnt to judge a person by his beliefs and commitments, not his religion.

Nayar’s great love for the Urdu language is well known. In fact, in his youth, he even wrote poetry till the maverick but hugely talented poet-politician, Hasrat Mohani told him he was wasting his time ‘writing verses that made no sense’! Yet Urdu has remained his ‘first love’ and he is one of its most vocal champions. But what of the neglect of Urdu? Why is it that any Urdu-related soiree sees only a grey audience? What does he make of the Indian Muslim’s oft-repeated lament that Urdu has languished due to official apathy? Holding Urdu to be the worst casualty of the migration, Nayar blames political parties, including the Congress that held sway in post-partition India, to be responsible. In his characteristically blunt manner he asks, ‘(Such deliberate neglect) is understandable on the part of the BJP, but why the Congress?’

In 1992, Nayar started the practice of a candle-light vigil at the Indo-Pak border on the night of 14-15 August. Scores of peaceniks join him as he marches up to the crossing at Attari, candle in hand; an equal number of activists, writers, poets, performers, surges from the other side. This annual event is viewed with some bemusement by hard-nosed political commentators and dismissed as dewy-eyed idealism or jingoism of the worst sort by hawks on both sides, especially in times when bilateral relations suffer from frost bite. But what compels a man of 88 years to undertake this long journey – by rail from Delhi, by car from Amritsar and eventually on foot, that too at the perilous hour of midnight  – year after year to raise the cry of ‘Hindustan-Pakistan Dosti Zindabad’ in the face of continuing cynicism? ‘I am an optimist,’ he tells me. ‘One day, all of South Asia will be a Union – one visa, one currency… everyone will be free to work, travel, think.’ As we wind up our conversation, he recites this sher by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Jis dhaj se koi maqtal mei gaya, woh shan salamat rahti hai

Yeh jaan to aani jaani hai, iss jaan ki koi baat nahi

And this unshakeable belief, gentle readers, is the heart of the matter. Herein lies Kuldip Nayar’s real eminence.
(This interview first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, August 2012)

Saturday, 25 August 2012

On Taiwan

The aquamarine Sun Moon Lake in the centre of the island, ringed by green hills, is like a magical lost land, straight out of a fairytale
There is the Taiwan of popular imagination: an economic giant despite its tiny size, an Asian Tiger revelling in its formidable clout, an export-driven economy churning out cheap commodities ranging from computers to shoes. But there is another Taiwan too, one that has been hidden from view of the Indian visitor who has so far comprised either the business traveller or, in recent times, the yuppy ‘incentive’ tourist. Why Taiwan has eluded the Great Indian Middle Class Tourist, forever in search of new travel destinations, is a mystery.

Possibly few would know that Taiwan’s real name is The Republic of China. Fewer still would know that while China, or The People’s Republic of China, considers the area known as Taiwan to be a part of its territory, the Taiwanese regard mainland China as an extension of its territorial space! Regardless of this David vs. Goliath analogy and regardless too of its ‘real’ name, the island holds out immense promise for the Indian tourist, especially families with children who set aside an annual budget for leisure travel.

Aware of its formidable reputation as a manufacturing giant, I went with visions of an island awash with factories and industries, SEZs and hi-tech industrial parks. Instead, I was struck by the breath-taking beauty and pristine natural charm of its countryside. The urban sprawl of Taipei, the capital city, gives way most spectacularly to scenes of pastoral idyll and scenic splendour: gentle hills clad in a seemingly impenetrable green cover, gurgling mountain brooks, orchards heavy with fruit, fields and terraces a’glimmer with all shades of green, in short, everything that reinforces one’s idea of a tropical paradise. Looking at this ‘other’ Taiwan, I am not surprised that the Portuguese called it Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful island’.

Lying on the Tropic of Cancer, this island – shaped like a sweet potato – has a series of mountain ranges running from the north to south leading to a gently sloping western plain. And it is on this western side that most of its population resides. But it is in its interior that Taiwan hides its real beauty. The area around the Sun Moon Lake in the exact middle of the island, known rightly as the ‘Heart of Taiwan’, is not only the most scenic but also most reminiscent of the island’s aboriginal past. The aquamarine lake ringed by green hills is like a magical lost land straight out of a fairy tale. Here, you can be lazy and just loll about taking in the misty waters; or you can be energetic and explore its lovely alpine setting. Hire a bike and choose one of the specially-planned bikeways along the periphery of the lake; or take the ferry to Lalu Island or hop on a cable car that will take you across mountain peaks. The Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village gives a peak into life at the island before ‘civilisation’ came knocking. A lunch of chicken-rice served in a pretty wooden barrel at the picturesque Cedar Tea House can be followed by shopping for local black tea, pottery and carved wood handicrafts as well as sun-dried locally-grown cherries, plums, peaches, apricots, apples, pineapples, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes. A night’s stay at The Lalu, with each one of its 96 elegant rooms overlooking the lake, allows you to make the most of the serenity that lies at the heart of this charming country.

My itinerary, drawn up by the Taiwan Tourism Board, includes visits to Taichung, a large city on the western coast; a drive through the pretty Nantou County; whale watching off the Wushi Harbour in incredibly ink-blue but choppy waters; a visit to the Leofoo Theme Park with its mind-boggling variety of rides, adventures and safaris; a DIY session of making sun cakes with master chef Chen Shun-Chuan of the Pao Chuan chain of pattiseries; a tea ceremony presided over by a Tea Master who raised the business of making and pouring tea to a fine art form; and a tour of the whimsical Lin Lin-Hsin Puppet Theatre. In-between, there is time for a quick tour of the National Palace Museum – the fourth largest in the world -- to gaze at its sumptuous treasures culled from across Imperial China and preserved for posterity. Other Taipei must-dos are: a ride to the top floor of the Taipei 101 – the tallest building in the world till the Burj Khalifa came up in Dubai; a visit to the harbour; a traditional massage; lunch at the quirky Five Dime Boathouse and dinner at the Modern Toilet (that is, if your stomach permits its stomach-churning interiors); and a shopping expedition at the electronics market.

Of course, no visit to Taiwan can be complete without at least one evening spent at a night market. The one at Shilin, the largest in Taipei, is a riot of fun, food and fabulous shopping. In between buying armfuls of clothes, accessories, shoes et al remember to snack on white karela juice, piping hot corn in a pungent barbecue sauce, an assortment of cut fruit and fried, steamed and braised fish and fowl and every (un)imaginable kind of meat.

Coming away after a week, I am reminded of the words of Francis Hu, our tourist guide: ‘Taiwan is not a country; it is an idea.’ For me, it is an idea that works wonderfully well.

Fact File:

Travel: China Airlines operates twice weekly direct flights from Delhi to Taipei

Food: Enough options for vegetarians available; eating from street vendors is safe and inexpensive.

Currency: Taiwanese$ 1=INR 1.87

Best season: October to February

(This article first appeared in The Tribune,Chandigarh, 26 August 2012)

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Cyrus Mistry's Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer

Echoes of a Living Past
Legend has it that sometime in the 10th century, shiploads of Zoroastrians, fleeing persecution in their native Iran, landed on the coast of Saurashtra in Western India. They met the local king and sought asylum. The king, Jadi Rana, pointed to a tumbler full of milk, indicating thereby that his empire was full to the brim and he had no place for more people. The leader of the strange new people took a pinch of sugar and mixed it with the milk, telling the king that his people would add sweetness to the milk but never let it overflow. And so they stayed, putting down roots, in Sanjan, Variav, Thane, Broach and cities as further afield as Bombay and Karachi. Their women wore saris and spoke Gujarati, the men excelled in trade and commerce with many occupying high posts in government – from Mughal times to colonial to present day. Called Parsi (having come from Persia), they are India’s smallest minority constituting less than 0.02 % of the population. However, being a distinctive community due to their dress, speech, culture, food as well as their visible presence in fields as diverse as law and medicine, politics and industry, arts and cinema, they have a hold on the Indian imagination disproportionate to their actual numbers. Possibly this is to do with the largely stock characters that the Indian film industry has propagated of the Parsi bawa. 

Cinematic representations continue to be unfair in some ways, showing the Parsis as colourful and privileged but also dysfunctional, antsy, idiosyncratic, miserly and querulous; Being Cyrus, Pestonjee and Earth, being recent examples of this brand of cinema verite. On the other hand, a slew of books has provided a corrective and portrayed members of this community in a more realistic manner. Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar, Sooni Taraporewla, Farrukh Dhondy, Firdaus Kanga and Cyrus Mistry have, in different ways, explored the Parsi psyche but also located them firmly within the mainstream of Indian life. Cyrus Mistry’s latest offering, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, shows how the story of a small, marginalised community of untouchables – the khandhias  who bathe and carry corpses to the Towers of Silence – can rise above its time and circumstance and speak of larger, universal concerns.

In speaking of the Khandhias and the terrible humiliation, isolation and segregation they suffer, Mistry not only throws light on this almost invisible sub-group but also weaves a compelling story of love and loss. Phiroze Alchidana, son of a revered priest, falls in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer who lives in the Doongarwaadi atop Malabar Hill. To have Sepideh, he must leave his father’s home, become a khandhia and live the life of a pariah for such is the fear of contamination from the dead and those who handle dead bodies. Sepideh, a fey child-woman who has lived her entire life in the deeply-forested Doongerwaadi, dies a few years after their marriage leaving Alchi to weather the rigidly-enforced isolation as well as take on the might of the powerful Parsi Punchayet.

Running through the warp of Alchi’s benighted love story is the woof of India’s struggle for Independence. Gandhi’s call for Satyagraha finds an echo deep in the khandhias’ disaffected, disgruntled hearts, inspiring them to launch their own peaceful non-cooperation movement, to go on hartal to down tools or, to be precise, not lift corpses, till their demands for more humane working conditions are met. When Gandhi urges the nation in a radio address – ‘The chains of a slave are broken the moment he considers himself a free man’ – his words become a catalyst for change. Part-fiction, part-truth, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story of courage and hope, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story of one man and a nation on the high road of history.

(Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at

Also Read:

1.     The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie dealing with the rise of a world famous Indian rock star named Ormus Cama, has shades of Freddie Mercury  aka Farrokh Bulsara.

2.     Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, details the travails of a Parsi family living in Bombay in the 1970s.

3.     The Space between Us by Thrity Umrigar outlines the lives of two women: a privileged Parsi lady and her maid

 This review first appeared in the Herald, Karachi, August 2012