Dodo Soomro’s Death (Study of the Opera ‘Doday Soomray Jo Moat’ by Shaikh Ayaz)
By Noor Ahmed Janjhi
I first came across the name of Noor Ahmed Janjhi while researching the folk music of Sindh and read his delightful book Fragrance of Thari Folk Songs. My curiosity to learn more about Sindhi folk heritage — especially its songs, dance and music — led to a meeting, and I was glad to find that we shared a mutual love for Thar, for Sindhi Sufi literature and for the great Sindhi poet Shaikh Ayaz.
Ayaz’s beautiful juxtaposing of contemporary thought with a deep understanding of Sufism has always intrigued me. Janjhi’s new book, Dodo Soomro’s Death (Study of the Opera ‘Doday Soomray Jo Moat’ by Shaikh Ayaz), is his sixth work on Ayaz and is both a study and an analysis of Ayaz’s opera of the same name.
I was so looking forward to reading the Sindhi opera in an English translation but, though the book contains the original in full, Janjhi translates only certain excerpts. Thus, until a full translation comes along, we can consider Janjhi’s book as an introduction of sorts.
Before we discuss the book in greater detail, I must pay tribute to Ayaz. Born in 1923 in Shikarpur, Sindh, he grew up at a time when the British Raj was instigating anti-communal schemes in the Subcontinent, and the populace’s retaliatory struggle, pushing for Hindu-Muslim unity, was at the forefront.
A book is both a study and an analysis of Shaikh Ayaz’s famous Sindhi opera
At the same time, left-wing ideology was becoming popular among Sindhi intellectuals such as Sobho Gianchandani, Gobind Malhi and Ibrahim Joyo. Ayaz was fortunate to be in the company of these great minds, who were Marxists, communists and influenced by other great thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Krishan Chander and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA).
In fact, immediately after Partition, Ayaz was the first and only Sindhi appointed as vice president of the PWA.
Interestingly, at the time he was writing poetry in Urdu. His debut collection, Boo-i-Gul, Naala-i-Dil [Fragrant Flower, Crying Heart] was in Urdu, and obviously influenced by the great Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Ayaz’s last Urdu collection was Neel Kaanth Aur Neem Ke Pattay [Blue Jays and Neem Leaves]. He was also well versed in Farsi.
When I started reading Ayaz’s poems, I was happily surprised to find his diction so close to classical Urdu poetry. I’ve chosen many of his verses — that lend themselves well to choreography — for classical dance performances.
The integration of the traditional with the modern in Ayaz’s works is fascinating and Janjhi’s writings on Ayaz manage to bring out the revolutionary, as well as the Sufi or Bhakti, aspect of his work. Ayaz was deeply rooted in the classical literary heritage and diverse culture of the Subcontinent and his poetry reflects this unique amalgamation of differing colours, ranging from Bengal, to Bihar, to Sindh.
He was inspired by the Vedas, by the poetry of Kabir and Kalidas, and the thoughts of Amir Khusro and Shah Latif Bhitai. He had once said, “A poet is a weaver of dreams. His creative weaving paves the way for others to move forward.” At another moment, he comes across as a visionary: “When religion is used by powerful people for their favour and to strengthen their cruelty, then what results will come out?”
Ayaz was a humanist, socialist and believed in freedom of thought. It would not be wrong to say that such individuals are rare.
The first half of Janjhi’s book discusses Ayaz’s opera Doday Soomray Jo Moat, said to have been written in 1970, with the intent to mobilise the Sindhis into raising their voice against oppression and brutality, and against attacks on Ayaz’s beloved Sindh.
People die every day. Some die in this way and some in that, some in this manner and some different from that. Those who live with brave people and live with swords and arrows, they jump into a fight to sacrifice theirselves for the sake of a great cause. Some take poison from the hands of dispensers and live a lame life. Some succumb to death slowly. — Excerpt from the book
It is a glimpse into the rival forces of truth and falsehood, life and death, a mystical depiction of self-sacrifice for the sake of truth. Ayaz skilfully weaves contemporary social and political decay into symbolic characters, who pit the old against the new, the ancient with the modern, in a historical motif.
At the launch of his own book, Janjhi said, “I have tried my best to deconstruct the poetic thought of Ayaz presented in his opera, with special focus on characterisation in his poetry.”
The opera has four main characters: Dodo, his brother Chanesar, their sister Baghul “Baghi” Bai and Chholi the dancing girl. Although historians reject its factual credibility, the epic tale of Dodo Chanesar has assumed legendary status in Sindhi folk culture and the characters are considered important figures of the Soomro period in the region’s history.
The tale takes place when the people of Sindh must choose between two sons of the Soomro family as their ruler. Chanesar is the elder and thus the crown prince, but his mother comes from the lower class of blacksmiths. Dodo’s mother is Soomro aristocracy.
When Chanesar is informed of his enthronement, he wants to consult his mother first. This apparently annoys the elder statesmen, who then decide to make Dodo the king instead.
Judged through the present feminist lens, this is clearly patriarchy at work, although certainly the vast difference in the two mothers’ backgrounds also played a part. One would imagine that Chanesar’s desire to consult his mother was a beautiful sign of respect, but the elders obviously felt that a man who couldn’t make a decision without consulting a woman’s wisdom would not be a capable king.
This misguided notion leads to making Chanesar into a villain, and Dodo a hero. When Dodo is crowned, Chanesar seeks external help from the Turko-Afghan sultan, Allauddin Khilji, to gain what he believes is his rightful throne. A fierce fight ensues and Dodo dies on the battlefield.
In the opera, Ayaz chooses to eulogise Dodo as a committed and morally steadfast man who commands the Soomro troops with courage. He is supported by his sister, the brave and wise Baghul. She is the one who upholds the cultural heritage of their ancestors and encourages her brother to fight rather than submit to cowardice and sacrifice for the sake of the motherland.
Built on the theme of national struggle, the legend revolves around man’s conflicting attitudes to life and death. Baghi, as she is lovingly called, instils emotions of patriotism, nationalism and love for the land in her brother. She advises him not to fear death, for to die with honour and dignity is better than to live a life of falsehood and disgrace.
In this sense, the character of Baghi is influenced by Bhitai’s heroines, who carry the strength of feminist power forward. According to Janjhi, she is a true reflection of women’s empowerment in early Sindhi society.
Chholi, meanwhile, is young, adventurous, dynamic, ambitious and survives solely through her wits. She is perhaps the story’s most intriguing character, as she is painted neither totally black, nor completely white, and is thus very human in her weaknesses and in her strengths.
Janjhi says: “The character of Chholi reflects wisdom and inspiration.” Representing the oppressed of the land as well as the vast openness of Sindhi culture and heritage, Chholi is symbolic of the Sufi search for truth and freedom. She has a true zest for life and no greed for power. She moulds clay into poetry, sings to Dodo about the immortality of life and says, “Oh Dodo, break the thunders of fear!”
The second half of the book is Janjhi’s tribute to Ayaz’s greatness, containing chapters that deal with other aspects of his poetry. The book’s final section comprises the complete original text of the opera.
Janjhi’s book is undoubtedly an important and relevant document that calls out to be read. As a performing artist, it certainly makes me want to produce and perform Ayaz’s opera and bring it to larger audiences.
I do wish, though, that the English translations had been looked at a little bit more carefully and were not so literal. Even so, throughout the book one is constantly touched by Janjhi’s love and admiration for Shaikh Ayaz, whose contribution to Sindh’s great literary heritage is enormous.
The author should also be thanked for providing interesting information on the historical background of the genre of opera and the glossary that explains many technical terms about which lay readers may not have much knowledge.
The reviewer is a performing artist and cultural activist.
She tweets @tehrikeniswan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2022