Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dalrymple on "The Arts of Kashmir"

William Dalrymple has a good essay in this issue of the NYRB on Asia Society's exhibition catalog by Pratapaditya Pal on "The Arts of Kashmir".

The first part of the essay describes the sad devastation of the Kashmir Valley and the destruction of Kashmir's traditionally peace loving and syncretic culture. No matter where one places the blame for this long and deadly conflict, the clash of nationalisms that has played out in Kashmir has ravaged the Kashmiris with no end in sight for this strife torn people.

The exhibition catalog and Dalrymple's essay serves to remind the audience of the historic cultural vitality of Kashmir with its rich Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim past. I particularly enjoyed reading about the early Kashmiri Muslim ruler Zain-ul-Abidin "Budshah" (1420-1470) who was renowned for his artistic patronage and whose 50 year reign is still remembered fondly by Kashmiris despite the passage of 500 years:
Fluent in Kashmiri, his native tongue, and Persian, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, he was a great patron of the arts and architecture, of literature and music, and in the conservation and preservation of Kashmir's heritage, irrespective of his religious affiliation.... Indeed, the only other Muslim ruler on the subcontinent who can be compared to Zain-ul-Abidin for his liberality, his intellectual curiosity, his love of learning as well as music, and for introducing and nourishing a wide range of crafts and arts and architecture is the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605).
One can only hope that Kashmiris and their land are spared further destruction and they gradually find a way back to a culture "of tolerance and syncretism so clearly exemplified in Kashmir's artistic traditions".

Photograph: Shiva and his consort Parvati (ca. 900 AD)

Lessons of the Twentieth Century - Tony Judt

Tony Judt is a British Jewish historian specializing in European history. He is currently a professor at New York University and his most recent book was the critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945 titled "Postwar". Not surprisingly for a historian interested in twentieth century Europe, Judt has reflected deeply and insightfully on war, genocide, occupation, empire and displacement of populations. He regularly writes for the New York Review of Books where many of his past essays are archived here.

His most recent essay titled "What have we Learned, if Anything" in the May 1st issue of the NY Review of Books is an eloquently argued plea to learn the right lessons from perhaps the bloodiest century in human history. Judt argues that, in America in particular, the more distant effects of 20th century suffering and the post cold war triumphalist view of the century's events have led to amnesia about the meaning of war. He calls war the "crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era" and goes on to discuss the dangerous consequences for the republic of not learning this crucial lesson from the 20th century. He looks at America's war against terrorism and examines how it displays massive ignorance of the key lessons from the previous century; "the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them".

It is always difficult to provide excerpts that would do justice to a well-argued, tight knit essay but here are some passages:

War, in short, prompted behavior that would have been unthinkable as well as dysfunctional in peacetime. It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War—total war—has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either communism or fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot. As for the brutalizing effect of war on ordinary soldiers themselves, this of course has been copiously documented.

The United States avoided almost all of that. Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly "good wars." The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.
Ignorance of twentieth-century history does not just contribute to a regrettable enthusiasm for armed conflict. It also leads to a misidentification of the enemy. We have good reason to be taken up just now with terrorism and its challenge. But before setting out on a hundred-year war to eradicate terrorists from the face of the earth, let us consider the following. Terrorists are nothing new. Even if we exclude assassinations or attempted assassinations of presidents and monarchs and confine ourselves to men and women who kill random unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective, terrorists have been with us for well over a century.
This abstracting of foes and threats from their context—this ease with which we have talked ourselves into believing that we are at war with "Islamofascists," "extremists" from a strange culture, who dwell in some distant "Islamistan," who hate us for who we are and seek to destroy "our way of life"—is a sure sign that we have forgotten the lesson of the twentieth century: the ease with which war and fear and dogma can bring us to demonize others, deny them a common humanity or the protection of our laws, and do unspeakable things to them.
Far from escaping the twentieth century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again—or perhaps for the first time—how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike and what happens to us when, having heedlessly waged war for no good reason, we are encouraged to inflate and demonize our enemies in order to justify that war's indefinite continuance. And perhaps, in this protracted electoral season, we could put a question to our aspirant leaders: Daddy (or, as it might be, Mommy), what did you do to prevent the war?

Update: Just after publishing this post I saw in the April 20th New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of "Reappraisals", Judt's new collection of essays.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Urdu in Delhi

There is an interesting essay on the state of the Urdu language in Delhi titled "Urdu and the City" in this week's issue of Outlook India. There is some conflicting evidence presented about a mini-surge of interest in Urdu beyond the traditional Muslim readership (particularly those with the ability to read the script). What I found most interesting were the innovative performing art approaches to introduce Urdu to newer audiences. Anees Azmi's children's plays, his readings of "Ghalib Ke Khatoot" and Mahmood Faruqi's "Daastan Goi" seem to be genuinely creative efforts at a softer pedagogy. Zia Mohyuddin's readings have performed a similarly invigorating role in introducing classics of Urdu literature to the "English Medium" segment of younger Pakistanis. (Photograph is of Mahmood Farooqi during a performance. He performs the epic "Daastan-e-Ameer Hamza Sahibqiraan". I believe Mahmood is the son of the eminent Urdu critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.)

Nobody who loves Urdu language and literature can be indifferent to the vigor of Urdu's health in the centers of its historical birth in Delhi and UP. Even though Urdu continues to be patronized at the higher education level by the Indian government, the state of the language at the grassroots is by all accounts unenviable. Urdu has suffered in post-partition India both by its exclusive association with Muslims and perhaps more grievously by not having any Indian state which could adopt it as its first and official language. The heart of Urdu's historic presence became the Hindi heartland in post-independence India and Urdu shrunk to a niche language of the Muslim lower middle classes. An essay by Syed Shahabuddin in the 2003 Annual of Urdu Studies titled "Urdu in India, Education and Muslims - A Trinity Without a Church" sheds some interesting light on this issue (even if you don't necessarily agree with his prescription). Fortunately, Urdu's rich literary heritage and its widely appreciated mellifluous cadences have helped it maintain a stubborn presence in the poetic and musical high culture of India.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Sounds of Punjabi Music - Part 1 (Film Music)

Having grown up in Lahore in the 70's and 80's, the strains of lilting Punjabi melodies were always a warm and familiar presence. Even though in middle class upwardly mobile urban families Punjabi had sadly come to be associated with rural backwardness, Punjabi music with its deep cultural roots continued to exert an influence. Even in homes where children were discouraged from all things Punjabi lest they give off a whiff of the "paindu" lower classes, times of celebration such as mehndis remained incomplete without the girls on the dholki singing a repertoire of Punjabi wedding songs. Traditional melodies such as "Mathe Te Chamkan Waal", "Saada Chiriyan Da Chamba Ve", "Raat De BaaraN Wajje Aape Meri Neendar Khule", "Mehndi TaaN Sajdi Je Nache Munde Di MaaN" sung at these functions at least familiarized young boys and girls with the music of their native soil.

I was particularly fortunate to grow up in a family where I was amply exposed to both the Punjabi language and music but many years abroad had served to obscure many of those fond memories. It is only after the internet revolution that I have rediscovered much of that music. In this post (and in future posts) I want to share some of my favorite Punjabi singers and their music and provide a guide to some excellent sources for further enjoyment for those who may want to explore further. This is the first in a series of three planned posts and here I will focus on Punjabi Film Music.

Few now remember that until the 1970's Pakistan had a fairly thriving film industry based in Lahore. Noor Jehan's masterful voice so dominated Pakistan's film music singing that it overshadowed other unjustly forgotten talents. I am particularly fond of Zubaida Khanum's singing. Here's a wonderful song by her composed by "Baba" G.A. Chishti from the 1957 film "Yakke Wali" in which Musarrat Nazir played the title role. The song is "Resham Da Lacha Lak We". These old black & white films evoke a simpler, more innocent time and place. I feel that in many of these songs the Punjabi film heroines are portrayed as less demure figures than their contemporaries in Bombay's films of that era. Many of these women seem to exude a rugged self confidence even within the confines of their traditionally assigned roles.

Zubaida Khanum sang some of the most popular Punjabi film songs of the 50's and 60's. Some of my other Zubaida Khanum favorites include "AssaN Jaan Ke Meet Lai Akh Way" from the 1955 film "Heer" and "Bundey Chandi Dey" from the film "Chan Mahi".

Inayat Hussain Bhatti who hailed from Gujrat is another forgotten name today but many of his songs in the two decades after partition were enormously popular. A glance at his biography shows Bhatti's impressively versatile personality which bucks any stereotype of a Punjabi film hero. The video below is one of my favorite Inayat Hussain Bhatti songs called "Bhagan Waleo" from the 1953 film "Shehri Babu". This song was composed by Rashid Attrey (who along with Master Inayat Hussain and Khawaja Khurshid Anwar comprises the holy trinity of Pakistani music directors). Bhatti himself is the actor in this clip:

Some other of my Inayat Hussain Bhatti favorties include "Chan Mere Makhna" (popularized more recently by Shazia Manzoor) and a nice duet with Zubaida Khanum called "Goray Goray Hath Kali Wang Mundaya".

No post on Punjabi film music can be concluded without including a sampling from Noor Jehan's legendary career in Punjabi film singing. Many of her songs (courtesy of singing at Mehndis) are so deeply rooted in West Punjab's culture that they are intimately familiar even to those who have never set foot in a Pakistani cinema. Here is a personal favorite titled "Chan Mahi Aa" from the 1970 film "Heer Ranjha" composed by the master tunesmith Khurshid Anwar.

"Heer Ranjha" had a phenomenal soundtrack and virtually all the songs were superhits including "Mein Cham Cham NachaN", "Wanjhli Walarea", "Rabba Wekh Laya", "Kadi Aa Mil Ranjhan We" and Irene Parveen's lovely, chirpy number "TooN Chor Mein Teri Chori".

Here are some other Noor Jehan songs I like: "Weh Sonay Deya Kangna Sauda Iko Jaya", (a wonderful song in which Anjuman truly makes Noor Jehan's voice come alive), Tere Mukhre Da Kala Kala Til We", (with Noor Jehan herself in the lead role) "Jadon Holi Jai" and countless more.

Coming in Part 2: Punjabi Sufi & Folk Music