Fragrance of Thari Folk Songs is a slim, compact introduction to a treasure trove of Pakistani folk culture. The book introduces over a dozen and a half popular folk songs from the Tharparkar region, along with translations and commentary, to give the reader a sampling of the richness and variety of our local desert culture.

The author, Noor Ahmed Janjhi, hails from the Vakrio village in Tharparkar. He is a prolific scholar, researcher and author, who has written extensively on regional literature, Sufi poetry and folklore. He is conversant with Sindhi, Urdu, English, Arabic, Persian, Dhatki and Hindi, and is a prominent member of the Sindhi Language Authority. He has edited magazines and translated a diverse range of material between Sindhi and English.

Janjhi writes: “The folk songs are a precious asset of the language and literature of any country. Sindhi folk songs are the mirror of the culture and the literature of Sindh, reflecting the clear, crystal image of the life of the masses. This great mainspring of people’s aspirations and languages is full of humble and beautiful thoughts in spite of the unavailability of traditional poetic code.” He notes in the preface how he grew up among Sindh’s desert communities, watching these songs being performed throughout his childhood, of the strong impression they made on him and of how “[p]eople pour their very soul into these songs.”

The book starts with a brief discussion of the region, its geography, culture and the variety of spoken languages. This is followed by a series of chapters, each devoted to a particular folk song. The text of the song is followed by a translation and a commentary, interspersed with notes from scholarly literature. There are some 19 songs spanning a wide variety of topics, a veritable snapshot of life in the desert.

The songs describe the daily rhythms of life, the rituals, festivals and traditions. There are songs for the sunset, songs to celebrate rain, songs for work and play, songs for journeys and songs for weddings. There are songs about the scenic beauty of the region, the trees and the animals. And then there are songs about relationships, about human emotions, about bravery, affection, love and longing. Some songs draw all of these elements together.

An important documentation of popular Thari folk songs not only introduces the reader to their rustic beauty, but also begs the question about how we experience our culture

For instance, we have ‘Moriyo’, the song of the peacock:

O peacock! You have snatched me of my sleep In the night of rain and thunderstorm With your sweet singing in the dark night.

You are singing mournful tunes, Scattering pangs of pain and love in this stormy night.

None will sleep after hearing such melodies of longing.

The songs are rich in metaphor; they abound with evocative imagery and lay out a vivid and lush tapestry of life in the barren desert. The words and scenes for some songs change over time, but the tone, melody and themes remain the same. In ‘Warsaro’, a monsoon folk song, a young wife misses her husband who is away on a trip and she laments to her mother-in-law:

It is raining heavily in the north.

My monsoon is passing without you, o’ my cloud!

I saw a bird with feathers and thought it a swan…

The cold north breeze has torn my nine-beaded garland.

Your son is away from me, o’ mother-in-law!

We then have ‘Doro’, a song of separation, typically sung before a long journey, or when a new bride is bid farewell from her parents’ home or village:

This brings us to the bigger question: what is being done to preserve and celebrate this cultural heritage? We should be working on audio recordings, music albums, visually rich documentaries and dramas. There should be national efforts to showcase these indigenous cultures, their practices, lifestyle and festivals.

There are lotus plants at the river And may I sacrifice myself over the trees On the banks of the dried riverbed.

The thread… Thread of pure gold.

My other friends are nearer to me, O! my mother, my beloved daughter lives far away from me…

The thread… Thread of pure gold…

My beloved brother holds the lamp And his wife made the nine-beaded garland…

The thread… Thread of pure gold…

As I looked back at the crossing of sand dunes,

I saw my native village remained far away…

The thread… Thread of pure gold…

The doro or thread, in this case, symbolises strong and unbreakable relationships, a golden cord which winds through one’s life, an unchanging constant. The emotions encapsulated in these songs may come across as very simple, but they possess a purity and intensity that catches us unawares.

The book has some drawbacks: the writing is uneven and often shuttles between lofty academic exposition or casual dialogue, which disrupts the narrative flow. Most excerpted songs are followed by English translations and commentary, but some are not, leaving the reader expectant and guessing. The translation is poor in places, which detracts from the charming lyricism of the songs. It would be very worthwhile to undertake a serious effort to draw out the intrinsic melody of these songs in English and make them appealing to a general readership.

This brings us to the bigger question: what is being done to preserve and celebrate this cultural heritage? A quick online search shows no significant resources at all. We should be working on audio recordings, music albums, visually rich documentaries and dramas. There should be national efforts to showcase these indigenous cultures, their practices, lifestyle and festivals. Do these questions factor into the on-going government drive to promote tourism?

Charm and aesthetics aside, though, the real value of this contribution is perhaps in reminding us of the importance of folk culture and tradition, a world that is rapidly vanishing under the tidal wave of globalisation. We tend to inhabit a monoculture characterised by short attention spans and quick fixes, a world of blogs, social media and Netflix. We do not ‘participate’ in culture now as much as we ‘consume’ it. Cultural artefacts nowadays — films, books and television shows — have the feel of a fast-moving assembly line. The transcendental elements have been stripped away.

We have no direct relationship with nature anymore — a monsoon song is little more than an exoticism. Songs about nature and its rhythms, odes to peepal trees on riverbanks and birdsongs after thunderstorms, can come across as charming, quaint and very dated. But folk culture can be a powerful antidote to our modern consumerist outlook. Both have their pros and cons.

Some 700 years ago, the famous scholar and intellectual giant Ibn Khaldun famously described civilisation as the inherent tension between the culture of the urbanites and that of the desert dwellers. Reading Fragrance of Thari Folk Songs, one cannot help but think that he was certainly on to something.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Fragrance of Thari Folk Songs
By Noor Ahmed Janjhi
Kanwal Publications, Hyderabad
150pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 3rd, 2021

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