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DAWN - Features; June 10, 2008

June 10, 2008

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The wonderful art and craft of the chronogram

By Rauf Parekh


IT is a common knowledge that letters express certain numerical values and are put together to show a date. Roman numerals are a common example. For instance, to express 1947 one can write MCMXLVII.

Sometimes a sentence or inscription is concocted in which certain letters stand for a date. In this made-up sentence, known as a chronogram, the capital letters, when put together in order, produce a total of a certain number denoting a year. For instance: MerCy MiXed with LoVe In hIm = 1947.

It has been a tradition in Arabic, Persian and Urdu to record the year of events in verses or phrases, or even in a single word, with the help of numerical values of letters. Based on the traditional Arabic abjad system and known as tareekh goi, chronogram is an art believed to be extremely interesting but equally cumbersome. The verse, line, phrase or word — the numerical value of whose letters adds up to the date of an event — is known as madda-i-tareekh.

Years of many historical events have been preserved by Urdu and Persian chronograms and had it not been for their poets, the dates of many important events would have remained unknown. But in Arabic, Persian and Urdu the method of arriving at the total is slightly different and, unlike Roman numerals, it is not considered necessary to put the letters in order but just the sums of numerical values are jotted down.

Some poets have composed ghazals or poems in which every single line denotes a year. There have been some master practitioners of this art – Maumin, Naasikh, Daagh and Seemaab – for instance, and their chronogrammatic acumen is eulogized not for the dates alone but also for the interesting techniques and unique methods, details of which may not be given here for want of space. Those interested in details may kindly refer to Gharaeb-ul-Jumal, a book by Nawab Aziz Jang Vila that comprehensively captures the wonderful craft of tareekh goi and has recently been reprinted from Delhi.

Some of you might be wondering about the context of what I have said above. I just wanted to remember Hamid Hasan Qadri and the sheer thought of him made me recall the art of chronogram, of which he was a master practitioner and, perhaps, was the last of those who truly had mastered it. Just to understand how immersed Qadri Sahib was in chronogrammatic art, one should read the memoirs of some of his colleagues and students who tell that Qadri Sahib did not have to think about composing a line or couplet that would add up to a year, but it came to his mind naturally and spontaneously.

Be it the birth of a child in the vicinity or the death of a great leader like Quaid-i-Azam or some ceremony in the family, Qadri Sahib would extemporaneously compose chronogrammatic lines and it always correctly added up to the year.

His poetic genius was such that at times he would compose – off hand – more than one chronogram for the same event. From many Quranic verses he derived amazingly interesting and corresponding dates of different events, one of them being the creation of Pakistan that corresponded with 1366 Hijri. He derived some 4,000 chronograms from Quranic verses alone.

Many of Hamid Hasan Qadri’s books, which are 85 in number and almost half of which remain unpublished, have been named in such a way that the numerical value of their letters adds up to their year of publication or year of writing, for instance Daastan Tareekh-i-Urdu denotes 1938 and Bayaz-i-Naatiya 1348 Hijri.

Born on March 25, 1887, in Bachhrayoon (also pronounced Bachhraoon), Muradabad district, Hamid Hasan Qadri was a poet, research scholar, fiction writer, literary historian, critic and translator. He belonged to an order of those traditional scholars who knew many languages, had command over prosody and oriental rhetoric and their knowledge was truly encyclopaedic.

Qadri sahib taught Persian and Urdu at many institutions for about 35 years. After his retirement in 1952, he came to Pakistan where many members of his family lived. Here in Karachi he kept on writing invaluable pieces of criticism and research.

Hamid Hasan Qadri’s son Prof Dr Khalid Hasan Qadri, also known for his new theory about the origin and genesis of Urdu, has got many of his father’s books published and thanks to him many of Qadri Sahib’s chronograms have been preserved.

Apart from writing for children and translating from Persian, Hamid Hasan Qadri wrote a journal for half a century. His personal diaries would have been a priceless source of literary and historical information and they contain thousands of chronograms. It is sincerely hoped such wonderful material would see the light of day and the relics of a bygone era would be preserved for our posterity.

Hamid Hasan Qadri died in Karachi on June 6, 1964.