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New books: Sufism, music, language and culture!

Updated August 23, 2013


Urdu books for sale at the Karachi Literature Festival. –Photo by Hui Huan Tang/
Urdu books for sale at the Karachi Literature Festival. –Photo by Hui Huan Tang/

‘Kafar Kafar Akhde’ (They call me infidel) is a new book on Baba Bulleh Shah authored by Akram Sheikh. The title itself suggests what the book is about. Bulleh Shah is one of the most non-conformist and defiant poets the Punjabi language has produced. Hunted by clergy and persecuted by aristocracy he stood his ground and refused to compromise his intellectual independence.

The book is a laudable endeavour to explore and explain Bulleh Shah’s poetic vision and worldview in a perspective of mystic traditions spread over a long span of time and shared by different cultures. The author discusses the socially dynamic Sufism and spiritually poised Vedanta, rightly arguing that Bulleh Shah got his inspiration from the both to evolve his unique vision that rejected loudly the narrow constraints of caste, creed and class imposed by a society that internalised the notion of human inequality as its raison d’être.

Akram Sheikh has done a commendable literary act by providing us a perspective that can help us understand Bulleh Shah’s highly iconoclastic view that rejects the social inequality, historically conditioned human identity and separation of the mundane from the divine. The book is relevant to a society ravaged by ‘ideological war’. But strangely its last chapter is quite messy and misleading where author tries to compare Bulleh Shah with Waris Shah which is not only unnecessary but also absurd. He obviously bites off more than what he can chew. His effort to paint Waris Shah as a conformist shows that he has not read the bard. If he has, he failed to understand him. Quite a few before him tried to berate Waris Shah but had to bite the dust. You are doing a good job but don’t punch above your weight, Mr. Sheikh.

‘Sangeet Karan Dian Gallan’(Conversations with Music Makers) is a compilation of interviews/conversations of Pakistani and Indian musicians pieced together by Maqsood Saqib. Most of the interviews have been done by the author in Punjabi while some are the translations of the write-ups that appeared in English or Urdu publications. Books on music in Punjabi in our part of the Punjab are scant, notwithstanding the illustrious tradition one may be proud of. The reason is that most of our musicians have no formal education due to various socio-cultural factors that renders them incapable of writing anything on the music they practice.

In the book we come to know about lives and works of some of the distinguished musicians like Master Anyat, Saleem Hussain, Farida Khanam, Noor Jahan, Master Madan and Pundit Hari Parsad Chaurasia. The musicians in their conversations are frank and candid, making us aware of the struggle they have to wage in order to hone their skills in a society that has little appreciation for performing arts especially the music. The book provides much needed information on various genres of music practiced by the artists coming from different back grounds.

The interviewer with his relevant questions brings us face to face with classical instrumentalists and vocalists, popular singers, film composers and music teachers. The book is a good read, as it makes us aware of our highly creative music that is in a stat of free fall due to lack of social and cultural recognition which it otherwise amply deserves.

‘Lok Boli Lok Vihar’ (People’s language, people’s ways) is a collection of editorial notes of a Punjabi literary magazine written by Maqsood Saqib. The notes touch various issues related to the Punjabi language and literature from a supposedly people’s perspective.

The author with no holds barred attitude employs rudimentary Marxian concepts in his analyses that end up as a caricature of Marxian methodology. He seems to have little more than text-book knowledge of Marxism when he, dealing with various issues, invariably lays absolute emphasis on class factor to the exclusion of other which may be at times equally important if not more.

Take the issue of the Punjabi language. While presenting the case of the Punjabi language his is, in the words of T. S. Eliot ‘a tedious argument of insidious intent’. Since the Punjabi has been and is still being used by saints and Sufis and working classes it has acquired a sacred and revolutionary character. Hence it is a sacrilege and a counter revolutionary act to pressure the government to introduce it in the educational institutions and adopt it as its official language.

Tosh! coupled with this kind of logic defying ‘logic’ is an ill-conceived notion of language. Playing hell with the Punjabi language in the name of regaining its purity, the author ends up offering a literary contraption that boggles the mind. The whole intellectual exercise is a shenanigan having nothing to do either with the tradition or with the contemporary Punjabi. You need a saint’s patience to go through this book.

‘Dewan Khwaja Ghulam Farid’ published by Punjab Institute of Language and Culture (PILAC) is the latest edition of ‘Kafis’ of Khawaja Ghulam Farid, a great nineteenth century poet and mystic with Urdu translations done by professor Hameed-ullaha Hashami. Urdu translations are almost literal but smooth which may help the readers not acquainted with the’ Kafis’ to have a glimpse of Farid’s poetic world with its hauntingly beautiful ambiance created by evocative imagery of Cholistan desert. The translator’s note on the poet’s life is sketchy. It seems he could not get hold of highly informative ‘Maqabil-ul-Majalis’ that chronicled the actual day to day life of Khawaja Farid, showing him what he actually was: open minded, forward-looking and highly civilized with a holistic vision. —