Friday, November 25, 2011

Favorite Musical Masterpieces: Thankgiving Edition (D.V. Paluskar, Faiyyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali/ Barkat Ali, Salamat Ali Khan)

Ustad Faiyyaz Khan
Here in the United States this is the week of the Thanksgiving holiday. It is one of the more relaxing times of the year and with a four day weekend, I have had plenty of time to re-listen to some great Hindustani classical music. Since its been a while that I posted the sublime Jhinjhoti thumri by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan here are a few more gems that will surely accompany me to the proverbial desert island. Some may notice that these are all by male singers but a post is brewing in my head which will focus on some favorite pieces by female classical singers (Begum Akhtar, Kajjan Begum, Roshan Ara Begum, Girija Devi).
First up is D.V. Paluskar. I have always loved the purity of D.V. Paluskar's sur and the clarity of his singing. What a tragedy that this extraordinary talent died in 1955 when he was only 34. His father, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was a singer and teacher of some renown and founded the premier classical music institute called "Gandharva Mahavidyalaya" in Lahore in 1901.

Here is D.V. Paluskar singing "Piyu Palan Laage More AkhiyaN" in Raga Gaud Sarang:

Next is a little nugget from the emperor of the Agra Gharana, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. Known as Aftab-e-Mauseeqi (a title given to him by the Maharaja of Mysore), Faiyyaz Khan's mastery and his distinctive, booming voice leaves one mesmerized. Faiyyaz Khan was a towering figure of his time; a court musician for the Maharaja of Baroda for many years, a close friend of the Sarangi-maestro Ustad Bundu Khan and a much sought after "Mehfil ka Baadshah" for musical concerts and conferences. Professor Daud Rahbar (Zia Mohyeddin's first cousin) has written a charming book about music called "Kuchh BateiN Sureeli See" which is dedicated to Ustad Faiyyaz Khan ("Jinn kay gaane meiN mohabbat aur himmat kee goonj thhee").

This is Ustad Faiyyaz Khan's "Pawan Chalat" in Raga Chhayanat:

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and his brother Ustad Barkat Ali Khan were great exponents of the Patiala Gharana. Their long association with Lahore makes me think of them even more fondly. Barkat Ali Khan (1908 - 1963) was born and died in Lahore and is buried in the Miani Sahib cemetery. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan moved to India a couple of years after partition but learned much of his music in Lahore with Akhtar Hussain Khan and Aashiq Ali Khan. All these Patiala scions practiced and performed often at "Takia MeerasiaN" near Gawalmandi bazaar.

The two pieces I have selected here are in Raga Pahari so one can contrast the singing of the two brothers side by side in similar light genre performances. Barkat Ali Khan had a gentler voice more suited to semi-classical singing but Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had greater range. His resonant voice and vocal mastery felt equally at home in Thumri/Daadra or Khayaal.

Barkat Ali Khan sings his famous maahiya,"BaaghoN MeiN Parre Jhoole"(written by Chiragh Hasan Hasrat): (unfortunately there is a bit of background crackling noise in this version)

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sings "Qurbaan So Maariye".

When I reflect on the Hindustani classical music tradition and its evolution, there is no doubt in my mind that it is now a shadow of its former self. Pakistan inherited the likes of Salamat Ali/ Nazakat Ali, Fateh Ali/Amanat Ali, Ghulam Hassan Shaggan and Aashiq Ali Khan but the art form died quickly in the culturally hostile terrain despite the best effort of those greats. Their disciples kept up somewhat but almost entirely abandoned the more demanding, long classical forms like Khayaal. Even in India, where there is a much more robust music education infrastructure and far greater number of organized public concerts, the quality of the performers is generally mediocre. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Omkarnath Thakur or D.V. Paluskar are in a different league but amongst under-50 performers one would be hard pressed to find more than a few that are of even Ustad Rashid Khan's quality. The genuinely first rate, even in India, have either passed away or are quite aged (Kishori Amonkar, Girija Devi).

Lastly, we have a heavenly performance by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan with a bandish that seems particuarly apt as one remembers all these vocalists who are no longer with us.

Salamat Ali Khan sings "Daiyya, KahaN Gaye Woh Log" in Raga Allahiya Bilawal.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Vanished Cultural Landscape - A Reverie Inspired by Alamgir

Flipping channels this morning I stumbled on to a live phone interview with the 80's pop icon Alamgir on Pakistan's Hum TV channel. Listening to the conversation with him took me down a nostalgic spiral into the Pakistani music of my teens. He sang his signature toe-tapping and melodious numbers like "MeiN Ne Tumhari Gaagar Se" and "Dekha Na Tha". He was the bridge between the lively film music singers like Ahmed Rushdi and the future pop phenomenon of Nazia and Zoheb Hasan. Alamgir's Urdu pop songs with their western beats are justly considered the progenitors of Pakistani pop music. I have always particularly loved an enchanting Bengali song which he first sang on PTV in the mid-80's in a benefit concert raising money for typhoon victims in Bangladesh. I was watching that concert at the time and immediately fell in love with "Aamay Bhashaili Rey, Aamay Dubaili Rey".

Then surfing on YouTube I found this gem "Soona Soona Jeevan Apna":

This is Alamgir singing as a guest star on Anwar Maqsood's late 80's television drama serial "Aangan Terha". I have watched this video many times since the morning and find it unbearably sad for it represents a cultural landscape that has likely vanished forever. Surrounding Alamgir you see a group of actors, who in retrospect seem to me the last survivors of the disintegrating urbane old world of the shurafaa of U.P.

Transplanted to their new abode in Karachi after partition, the migrants couldn't help but bring a slice of U.P. (and Delhi, Hyderabad, Bihar and Bhopal) to this alien commercial city far from their ancestral imaginations. (Na woh saawan, na woh hariyaali, na woh jhoola, na woh sakhiyaan, na woh maanjhe ka jora, na woh thumri, na woh kabootar-bazi, na woh mushaira, na woh soz-khwani!). As they settled down, they naturally kept the flame of old traditions alive and enriched their adopted home. If you want to experience some sublime echoes of the Karachi phase of these traditions of the Urdu heartland, here are some personal favorites:
- Album of wedding songs called "Yeh Hari Hari Chooriyan" released in 1978
- Zehra Nigah's tarannum renditions of Faiz ("Jis Roz Qaza Aayegi") and Nasir Kazmi ("Gaye DinoN Ka Suragh Le Kar Kidhar Se Aaya Kidhar Gaya Woh"),
- Kajjan Begum's divine thumris "Sanwari Sooratiya Pe MeiN JaaooN Waari" and "Meherwa Ras Boondan Barse" and a Moharram Noha ("Run MeiN Jab Bano-e-Bekas Ki Sawaari Aayee")
- Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi's uncategorizable masterpiece "Aab-e-Gum". (Yusufi Sahib is Urdu's greatest living writer in my opinion. How I wish he would publish something more. It has been almost 22 years.) "Haveli", the first essay in the book is one of the best pieces of writing chronicling the manners and mores of that old Muslim U.P.(in this instance Kanpur) which in 1947 was already being upended by the steady march of time but whose demise was virtually assured by the consequences of partition. The phrase "Yeh chhorr kar aaye haiN" at the end so poignantly illustrates the grand tragedy of human existence on a miniature scale that it is hard to choke back tears whenever I read it.

But this long-winded reverie orginated with Alamgir's song and the actors in the video. It is because several of the actors in this clip like Shakeel, Mahmood Ali and Salim Nasir along with playrights like Anwar Maqsood were amongst those who familiarized the rest of Pakistan to that old country Urdu-speaking culture. To a child like me sitting in Lahore, turning the television set on and watching the Karachi dramas of Haseena Moin, Fatima Surayya Bajia, Anwar Maqsood, Khawaja Moinuddin and Athar Shah Khan opened the window to another world of refined culture, proper diction and humor steeped in an almost impossible command of spoken literary idiom. Even the street patois of the less literate characters seemed somehow more sweet. Today, when I picture Qurban Jilani, Jamshed Ansari or Azra Sherwani in Uncle Urfi, Salim Nasir in Aangan Terha, Mahmood Ali in Taleem-e-BaalighaN and Shakeel and Neelofer Aleem in Shehzori I imagine them as the last unknowing flag-bearers of the Muslim Urdu culture of Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Aligarh and countless smaller U.P. cities that produced their own leading lights. Both Salim Nasir and Mahmood Ali have passed away. So have Subhani BaYounas, Jamshed Ansari, Azra Sherwani, Ishrat Hashmi, Arsh-e-Munir, Qurban Jilani and Begum Khurshid Mirza. Shakeel, Talat Hussain and Qazi Wajid continue to work along with some of the writers like Anwar Maqsood and occasionally Haseena Moin. But in Karachi too, once the original generation of Urdu-speaking migrants passes from the scene we will increasingly look back at the golden period of PTV dramas from the late 60's to the late 80's as the dying flicker of a culture that has long ceased to exist in the Indian cities of its birth but was not able to take root in its new home either.

Perhaps that was never a realistic expectation but many children and grandchildren of the U.P. migrants are barely aware of what has been lost and the state's general deterioration will ensure that the original legacy will almost completely peter out in another generation. Even though as an ethnic Punjabi I am not a direct cultural descendant of the Urdu-speaking Muslims, no one interested in the cultural history of Urdu and of Muslims in India can be indifferent to this tragic loss.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Magic of Qawwali

For the last few weeks I have been immersed in listening to traditional Qawwali music and what a transporting experience it has been! The initial impetus was a couple of divine Coke Studio Pakistan performances this season by the scions of the "Qawwal Bachhay" gharana: Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad's "Kangna" (Raga Malkauns) in episode 2 and Ustad Naseeruddin Saami's "Mundari" (Raga Adana) in episode 3. Additionally, I have drawn endless inspiration from Musab's blog "Tangled up in Blue" which has become my home destination when I want to learn about qawwali and its traditions and savor the offerings of the great qawwals. (Musab is someone I have gotten to know only in the blogosphere but this 24 year old in Pakistan genuinely makes me optimistic that our rich cultural heritage will survive and maybe even thrive for many more generations!)

For me, a large part of the pleasure in the arts comes from sharing treasures with others who also love the diversity and ingenuity of human creativity. So here are a few qawwalis I have been enjoying by some of the masters of this genre.

Let me start with the most famous practitioner of all: Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He recorded so much and experimented with so many things during his final few years that some of his music started to lose its sufi / qawwali essence. Poorly done fusion tracks, thumping incongruous beats and amateurish videos of the Ustad singing "Afreen, Afreen" can only be described as regrettable. For, he was indeed a great qawwal! You have to listen to his traditional qawwalis to remember his magic and to recall the great tradition of qawwali in Punjab to which he was an heir. (We are fortunate that with his father Fateh Ali Khan, uncle Mubarak Ali Khan, cousin Badar Miandad and nephew Rahat Fateh Ali we have access to three generations of this family's qawwali music.) Here's Amir Khusrau's famous kalaam, "Mun Kunto Maula" in a wonderful live rendition in London in 1989:

The next piece is by the lesser known Javed Taufiq Niazi and party from the Khurji Noharbani gharana of Bulundshehr, U.P. Along with Punjab, Delhi and U.P. are the other great centers of qawwali tradition in the sub-continent. Niazi sahib and party are based in Karachi. I hope that they gain more public prominence as their style of singing still feels beautifully rooted in the soil of U.P. and retains a great charm. (Zak, maybe you folks can invite them to T2F!). I have listened to the qawwali "Aaya bana aaya, haryala bana aaya" below at least a couple of dozen times in the last few days. The imagery of Hazrat Imam Hussain (visualized as a bridegroom) transformed to the U.P. landscape mixes the spiritual and the local in a manner unique to the syncretistic culture of the region.

Haider ka poot aaya, Zainab ka jaaya aaya
Haider ka poot aaya, Zehra ka jaaya aaya
Hoor-o-malak nay gaaya
Haryala bana aaya, dulara bana aaya

The last piece is a well-known qawwali (among the afficionado) but what makes it quite unusual is that it is a bhajan with lyrics by Nawab Hilm of Hyderabad. This version below is by Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwal, the worthy current flag bearers (along with Naseeruddin Saami) of the longest line of qawwali singers originating in Delhi at the time of Amir Khusrau. Just the "Qawwal Bachhay" generation ahead of them boasted the great Munshi Raziuddin, Manzoor Niazi and Bahauddin/Qutbuddin Qawwals. I understand that recently the sons of Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad had their initiation and gave their first public performance in Karachi inaugurating the next generation of the 750 year old tradition. I wish them the very best in keeping alive the illustrious family tradition. Here is "Kanhaiya yaad hai kuch bhi hamari".

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Favorite Musical Masterpieces: #1 - Abdul Karim Khan ("Piya Bin NaahiN Aavat Chain")

I heard music in my house for as long as I can remember. There was my father's record collection and his spools of taped recordings from which he would sometimes play his favorite pieces for us (K.L Saigal, Mehdi Hassan, Begum Akhtar). There too was my mother's ubiquitous transistor radio, with a brown leather covering, on which over the years I listened to untold hours of music broadcasts from Radio Pakistan Lahore and All India Radio's (AIR) Urdu service. There was the twice weekly doses of 'Chitrahaar" on Doordarshan. My love of old film songs owes much to AIR's program "Aawaz de kahaN hai".
This may just be a personal peculiarity but I have always felt an urge to share with others whatever music, art and literature moves me. More often than not it has been my wife on the firing line but many others have received my enthusiastic "gifts". I now intend to use this 'safe' space to introduce some of the pieces that have deeply moved me over the years. (No chance here of holding people forcibly hostage). I have listened to many of these recordings dozens of times and the few people who periodically hit this page may chance upon something that they otherwise may not have experienced.

My first selection is Ustad Abdul Karim Khan's famous 1925/26 thumri "Piya bin naahiN aavat chain" in Raga Jhinjhoti. Abdul Karim Khan was the doyen of the Kirana Gharana and fittingly its is his bust that sits in the main entrance of the All India Radio headquarters. This thumri is revered by many fans of Hindustani semi-classical music. This is marvellously effortless singing and Abdul Karim Khan's mastery of 'sur' is breathtaking. Virtually all Kirana musicians (including Malika-e-Mauseeqi Roshan Ara Begum) at one time or the other have performed this thumri but Abdul Karim Khan's original recording remains in a league of its own.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

My Pakistan Photo Journal (Part 2) - The Walled City

February 15th - Inside the Walled City, Lahore:

Went with a friend on a walking tour inside the walled city ('androon shehr'). We entered via Masti Gate from the Minar-e-Pakistan / Badami Bagh side of Circular road and eventually exited from Delhi Gate after going through numerous alleyways and bazaars of the inner city. We stopped along the way to see some mosques and historic buildings and enjoyed a Kulcha/Chhole lunch at the stepped entrance of Sonehri Masjid.

The front courtyard and facade of Begum Shahi Mosque
Entering Masti Gate our first stop was the oldest extant Mughal mosque in Lahore, the Maryam Zamani or Begum Shahi Mosque (above) built in 1614. This beautiful mosque close to the Akbari Gateway entrance of the Lahore Fort was built by Emperor Jahangir's mother who was known as Maryam-uz-zamani (Mary of her age). This wife of Emperor Akbar and mother of Jahangir was a Rajput princess, the daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber (now Jaipur). She was born Rajkumari Hira Kunwari.

In her Lahore Travel Guide, Yasmeen Lari writes: "Comparatively small in size, its present exterior hardly provides the foretaste of the wealth of decoration in the prayer hall. ---The central dome rises above the remaining domes and is carried on a drum; while those on the flanking bays are rather flat hemispherical cupolas. The treatment of the enormous dome itself is remarkable in its muqarnas (stalactite squinches) and elegantly painted fresco network."

The beautiful interior of the dome of Begum Shahi Mosque with its painted frescoes
From the Begum Shahi mosque we stepped into the Masti Gate bazaar and walked south past the dense rows of shops toward Moti bazaar. Many of the bazaars inside the walled city tend to specialize in specific product categories interspersed with food shops. For example, Masti Gate and Moti Bazaar have dozens of footwear shops. Arriving at Chowk Surjan Singh from Moti bazaar we took a left turn onto Hatta bazaar. Continuing on Hatta bazaar we arrived at the junction of Shahalmi bazaar heading south and Dabbi bazaar heading east. At this junction slightly south east is the Kasaira (utensils) bazaar and hidden amongst shops full of shiny pots, pans and pressure cookers is a very narrow entrance to a hidden historic garden called Baoli Ranjit Singh Bagh. This now dilapidated garden once had a stepped well (baoli) where people bathed in the summer months. The baoli marked the residence of Sikhism's fifth guru, Guru Arjun Dev (1563 - 1606). Yasmeen Lari informs us that "later, the well was filled with the debris of Guru Arjun's demolished house and lay uncared for many years. It was restored when an ailing Maharaja Ranjit Singh dreamt that he would recover only after he had taken a bath in the waters of the baoli." The abandoned bagh today with a few young kids playing cricket awaits a modern savior.

Baoli Ranjit Singh Bagh near the junction of Shahalmi and Dabbi Bazaars
There are homes and buildings that surround the Baoli Ranjit Singh Bagh. Standing inside the garden I saw the fascinating facade of the building below ("Gobind Ram Kahan Chand, Estd. 1805, Hindustan Commercial Bank Ltd."). It was puzzling to me how this facade has survived in its current condition because it looks freshly restored. (A bit of Googling revealed that Gobind Ram Kahan Chand was the founder of a company in Lahore in 1805 focused on spreading Ayurveda and its benefits. The company moved to Delhi after partition and is still in business today as GK Herbals.)

Facade of an old building visible from Baoli Ranjit SIngh Bagh
Exiting the bagh we continued our walk east into Dabbi bazaar which is a shopping area popular with women of the walled city with its shops full of crockery, kitchenware and sewing and knitting supplies. It is from Dabbi bazaar near the Kashmiri bazaar chowk that one enters the famous, elevated Sonehri Masjid with its golden domes. This mid-18th century mosque was built by Nawab Bhikari Khan, Governor of Lahore during the time that Mir Mannu was the Mughal ruler of Punjab. Mir Mannu had defeated Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1748 in a battle in Sirhind and remained the Governor of Punjab until his death in 1753.

A view of Sonehri Masjid from the front entrance
Sonehri Masjid was elevated above the shops in Dabbi bazaar with the intention that the rent from the shops below the mosque would provide a steady source of revenue for the mosque's maintenance. For a short while during the reign of Ranjit Singh, the mosque was shut down due to the complaints about disturbance caused by the azan by local Sikhs who had placed the Garanth Sahib in the adjacent baoli mentioned above. The intervention by the Fakir family of Bhati Gate, who had good relations with Ranjit Singh, resulted in the Sikh ruler reversing his decision.

The streets of the walled city were decorated extensively for Eid Milad-un-Nabi (Prophet's birth anniversary)
After enjoying an impromptu lunch from the street vendor at the entrance of Sonehri masjid we continued east through Kashmiri bazaar shops past Chowk Kotwali to the grand Masjid Wazir Khan. Perhaps the finest inner city mosque, Masjid Wazir Khan built in 1634 is an architectural and cultural treasure. It has been extensively photographed and is an oasis of calm in the midst of the bustling walled city. Flocks of pigeons perched on the domes and minarets of the mosque frequently fly over the courtyard from one side of the mosque to the other creating a surreally beautiful environment with the sound of their fluttering wings. Most of the surrounding buildings looking onto the mosque courtyard are residential and fit in seamlessly with the mosque's architecture unlike some other parts of the walled city where ugly new developments sometimes sit in jarring conflict next to sublime monuments.

Entrance gateway and minarets of Wazir Khan mosque as viewed from outside the prayer area entrance
Hakim Aliuddin, the trusted aide of Emperor Shahjahan was granted the title of Wazir Khan in 1620. He became the governor of Punjab in 1632 and left a legacy of numerous monuments, the most famous of which is the Wazir Khan mosque. He also established the town of Wazirabad located 100 km north of Lahore in Gujranwala district. 

Single aisle prayer chamber of Masjid Wazir Khan
After spending some time in the peaceful Wazir Khan mosque we walked south east past the Delhi gate bazaar exiting the walled city via Delhi gate where our car was waiting to transport us back home to a more spacious, amenity-filled but less enchanting Lahore.

To Follow:
Part 3 - Shahdara Monuments
Part 4 - A Visit to Multan
Part 5 - Snapshots of Personal History

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Trip to Pakistan - A Photo Journal with Random Musings (Part 1)

February 12th & 13th - Alhamra Arts Council, Lahore:

The renowned Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was born on February 13th, 1911 and his birth centenary is being celebrated this year both in Pakistan as well as in many other cities all over the world. Faiz's family spearheaded the efforts to organize numerous events in Lahore to mark the occasion. This included an exhibition of photographs at Faiz Ghar in Model Town, release of some new books on Faiz, a colloquium on his life and work at LUMS, a session of readings and reminiscences by some of Faiz's friends and family and an evening of music with Tina Sani singing Faiz.

No photography was allowed at the performance events but I sneaked in a badly lit, badly taken photo just for the record.

On February 12th, I attended the session of readings and recollections at the Alhamra Arts Council.  The primary attraction for many attendees was the Indian contingent led by Shabana Azmi and her poet husband Javed Akhtar. (Shabana Azmi's father, the progressive poet Kaifi Azmi, was a close friend of Faiz and she had known "Faiz chacha" since she was a young girl). The Rajasthani singer Ila Arun also accompanied the celebrated filmi pair. The evening was a bit of a hodge podge. There were some sublime moments like Ila Arun's highly unusual and powerful rendition of Faiz's poem "Africa Come Back" with its haunting refrain of "Aa jao Afreeka". Also, the novelist Ali Sethi, whose vocals have been a big hit for a couple of years at the Jaipur Literature Festival, did a nice job singing Noor Jehan's famous "Mujh se pehli si mohabbat" and Farida Khanum's lesser known gem "Sab qatl ho kay teray muqabil say aaye haiN". Javed Akhtar is a natural storyteller and his narration of interactions with Faiz during the poet's visits to India had the crowd in stitches. Shabana Azmi was quite overshadowed by her husband's deft public performance. The rest of the evening was mostly a miss with Arshad Mehmood's pathetic introduction of Indian visitor and Faiz family friend Shama Zaidi ranking as the low point.

The musical evening with Tina Sani on February 13th was more uniformly enjoyable. The playlist had a good mix of the well-known ("Bahar aayee") and the new ("Kuch pehlay inn aankhoN aagay", "Woh butoN nay daalay heiN waswase") with the traditional finale "Hum dekheiN gay". Tina Sani also sang the beautiful number from the Shabana Azmi / Muzaffar Ali film "Anjuman" written by Faiz and composed by Khaiyyam ("Kab yaad meiN tera saath nahiN") and courageously dedicated a verse in that ghazal to Salmaan Taseer.

Jis dhaj say koyee maqtal meiN gaya woh shaan salamat rehti hai
Yeh jaan to aani jaani hai, iss jaaN ki to koyee baat nahiN

February 14th - Garden Town, Lahore:

Visited the Chughtai Museum. Abdul Rahman Chughtai (1899-1975) was the famous national artist known for his large watercolors as well as a distinctive style influenced by Islamic calligraphy and miniature painting. The museum has been established in the residence where the artist died and is owned and run by Abdul Rahman Chughtai's son, Arif Chughtai. Interestingly, Abdul Rahman Chughtai is buried on the property alongside his brother.

February 15th - Allama Iqbal Road, Garhi Shahu, Lahore:

Visited the Allama Iqbal Museum in the morning. This museum was established in 1977 in the house where the philosopher poet spent the last three years of his life and died in 1938. The government bought the property from Iqbal's son Justice Javed Iqbal. Iqbal himself named the house "Javed Manzil" and had bequeathed this property to Javed Iqbal in his own life even though his son was only a six year old boy. This was Iqbal's fourth house in Lahore. (His first house was inside Bhati Gate before he went to Europe for his education, second was in Anarkali and the third was on McLeod Road). This land and house cost him a princely sum of 42,000 rupees in 1935.

The museum houses many of his personal effects such as suits, shoes, bow ties, watch etc. It also has photographs, letters written by him to his family and contemporaries and his various books and educational degrees. There is also the room in which he received guests with its original furniture in place including the bed on which he breathed his last.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Looking for Refuge in Poetry - "In Memoriam" by Tennyson

In grim times, there is always solace to be found in good poetry. Whatever the tribulations of the present it is always wise to regain a modicum of optimism without which life can become quite unbearable. Lord Alfred Tennyson's new year excerpt from his great poem "In Memoriam" is particularly apposite for the occasion even though I am a few days delayed in ringing it in. Perhaps this poem can usher in the new year afresh.

"In Memoriam" [Ring out, wild bells] -
 Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

(Slow) Death of a Nation

The governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assasinated today in Islamabad by one of his security guards. The motivation for the cold-blooded killing seems to be Governor Taseer's vocal advocacy for the reform of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws which are often abused to persecute minorities and frequently exploited to exact personal vendettas. I was not much of an admirer of Mr. Taseer's political style but in a nation cowed with fear of extremists I had enormous respect for his courageous opposition to the dark forces of religious obscurantism that are devouring Pakistan. He had the great virtue of standing up unabashedly in public for his liberal beliefs which were quite evidently not shared by a vast majority of his compatriots. He knew that there were threats to his life but he did not shy away from expressing his views unlike dozens of other politicians who maintain cowardly ambiguity or even worse kow tow to reactionary forces.

Even though I follow South Asian politics closely, I don't much comment on the sorry state of Pakistani state and society on this blog. There are many inside and outside the country who are chronicling the country's tragic downward spiral. I have instead preferred to focus in this space on the historical and cultural richness of the place where I spent my formative years. However, there are times that it is not possible to maintain the hope that the ship of state will one day be righted and that the perenially suffering ordinary citizens will some day find relief from their unending misery. Today is one of those dark days which signal a steadily accelerating slide into the abyss.

There are many complex reasons why Pakistan today stands at the precipice of catastrophe. Perhaps the most important is the unrelenting exploitation of the country by its ruling elites (military, political, feudal and bureaucratic) since the country's independence. From 1951 onwards Pakistan has been a rentier state whose rulers utterly ignored investment in their own citizens but mastered the art of monetizing their geopolitical location by selling their alliance to imperial patrons. They were first put on the payroll for an extended period by the U.S. during the cold war to join the anti-communist camp which also happened to fit perfectly with the military's obsessively anti-India view of the world. Along with the founding ideology of a religiously-based state, disregard for the needs of its own citizens and military emasculaton of democratic institutions, this uncritical alliance with the likes of the medieval Saudis and the cynical Americans against the "godless" Russians continued to push the population toward creeping intolerance and fanaticism.

The straw that finally broke the camel's back was the disastrous military rule of Zia-ul-Haq and the country's frontline role in the decade long war after the Russians invaded Afghanstan in 1979.  Pakistan became both a major conduit and destination for drugs, guns, refugees, mujahideen and mullahs with billions of dollars channeled through the Pakistani military to turn Afghanistan into Russia's Vietnam. The seeds of fanaticism and systemic rent-seeking by the ruling elite were now firmly planted. After the Russian departure and the end of the cold war, the U.S. lost interest in Pakistan in the 90's and the ruling establishment was temporarily set adrift without an imperial sponsor. The establishment knew no other way of how to run the country and the patterns of empowering intolerance, financial mismanagement and ignoring the needs of the populace continued unabated. The state had temporarily lost any reliable rental income and turned to arms deals with rogue regimes to finance its unsustainable policies but the post-9/11 "war on terror" brought the country back in the limelight. Suddenly, the U.S needed the former client state yet again for a new mission but with the added twist that the ally was also the source of much of the trouble. Also, by now too much had changed for the relationship to return to the former coziness as the population had been radicalized dramatically having been reminded repeatedly of the former friend's treacherous abadonment. More ominously, the children of the Zia years had now grown up and the malignancy initiated in those years had metastasized in every nook and corner of society.

This leads us to the Pakistan of today: a poverty stricken population with a dangerously radicalized youth that lacks education and opportunity and is susceptible to all manner of conspiracies and angry paranoias; a nuclear country living beyond its means hurtling toward anarchy. The country may be past the point of no return with the society now tipped permanently toward the religious fanatics and their sympathisers which includes significant sections of the urban middles classes. Only a very concerted effort by the ruling establishment to unequivocally change direction may have a chance of arresting the slide. However, the ruling elites have demonstrated scant understanding of the existential crisis facing Pakistan let alone showing the willingness and capability to take on the challenge. If things continue as they are, the assasination of even flawed liberals like Salman Taseer and of Benazir Bhutto before her will be seen as signal events hastening the rapidly extinguishing hopes for a moderate, democratic state that can provide opportunities for its people.   

A coda: There has always been a deep confusion about Pakistan's identity and the question of what sort of state its founder intended to establish has never been resolved. It is a topic that can be debated for a long time but Pakistan's example makes one thing plain. Modern nation states cannot thrive when their ideological basis is exclusionary. A state based on primacy of religion or ethnicity will, in a pinch, always relegate minority citizens to an inferior status. In the contest between equality before the law and ideological purity the state's ideological reason for existence will always trump the facade of supposed legal protections for the weak. This is as true of Pakistan as it is of Israel and post-revolution Iran. A state based on principles of absolute equality of all citizens under the law is a prerequisite for a modern nation state. Even when states fail to live up to their principles in practice sound constitutional principles make it possible for individuals to defend their rights and liberites from a position of moral strength. The history of the United States is a gradual march in the direction of greater individual liberty and equality before the law. American minorities won these freedoms by arguments and struggle based on the virtuous founding principles of the constitution even when in practice the principles were not always upheld. The struggle for equal rights in the U.S. is a ongoing process but the principles enunciated by the founding fathers always provide intellectual, legal and moral support for those seeking equal rights under the law.