A History of Indo-Persian Literature (Part I)

 

Turkish Conquest

The study of Indian literature focuses all too often on Sanskrit literature and modern Indian vernacular languages like Urdu and Bengali. The contribution of languages like Persian to Indian literature is neglected if not entirely ignored. Given the long history of Persian as a literary language in India and given the ongoing Hinduization of Indian history, the understanding of Indo-Persian literature is necessary more than ever.

 

THE TURKISH CONQUEST

The north-west of India has been subject to invasions since ancient times. Beginning in the second millennium BCE until the 10th century, north-west India experienced invasions at the hands of Aryans, Iranians, Greeks, Parthians, Scythians, Kushans and Huns.

In 962, Alptigin (901-963), a Turkic general in the Samanid Empire (819-999) abandoned the court at Bukhara and established a semi-independent state with its capital in Ghazni (present-day Afghanistan).[1] He was succeeded by his son, Abu Mansur Sabuktigin (942-997), who in 986 launched an attack on Kabul and Punjab. Sabuktigin died in Balkh in 997 and was succeeded by his son Mahmud (971-1030).[2]

Ghaznavid Empire

Between 1001 and 1017, Mahmud launched a series of raids into northern India from Ghazni. In 1008, he conquered and annexed Punjab. By the time of his death in 1030, his empire spanned Khorasan, Samarkand, Afghanistan and Punjab.

 

EARLY INDO-PERSIAN LITERATURE

The Turkish conquest of north-western coincided with what the British historian E.G. Browne has called the “Persian Renaissance.”[1] Beginning under the Samanid Empire in Bukhara, which saw the completion of the Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’), Persian literature flourished in courts across Central Asia and Iran.

Mahmud’s court at Ghazni became a centre of Persian literature. Mahmud brought scholars, merchants, artists and Sufis with new ideas in art, architecture, literature and religion to India. Mahmud’s court attracted the scholar Al-Biruni (whose work on the history of India included an assessment of scientific works in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophies and religion) and Firdowsi, author of the Persian epic, Shahnama.

The Ghaznavid Empire in Khorasan was repeatedly invaded by the Seljuq Turks until it was lost in 1040. In 1163, the Ghaznavid Sultans moved their capital from Ghazni to Lahore where they would rule from until 1186.

It was in Lahore where the first Indo-Persian literature appeared. ‘Ali Hujviri’s (d. 1071) Kashf-ul Mahjub (‘Veiling the Unveiled’) was the first Persian treatise on Sufism. It set out such themes as the love of God, the importance of contemplation and the stages of the mystical path:  

Man’s love toward God is a quality which manifests itself in the heart of the pious believer, in the form of veneration and magnification, so that he seeks to satisfy his Beloved and becomes impatient and restless in his for vision of Him, and cannot rest with anyone except Him, and grows familiar with the remembrance of Him, and abjures the remembrance of everything besides.[2]

Early Indo-Persian poets like Abu al-Faraj (d. c. 1102) continued the Persian tradition of panegyric poetry (qasida) at court as well as the Persian poetic tradition of contrasting metaphors such as moth and flame, rose and nightingale and lover and beloved.

 

MAS’UD SA’D SALMAN (1046-1121)

Mas’ud Sa’d Salman’s poetry was especially important to the development of early Indo-Persian poetry. While Mas’ud continued to write in the tradition of Persian court poetry, his verse also showed openness and sensitivity to the new Indian poetic landscape.

Born in Lahore, Mas’ud was of Iranian ancestry. His father, Sa’di Salman, had come to Lahore as an accountant in the entourage of Prince Majdud who had been sent by Sultan Mahmud to garrison Lahore in 1035-36.[3]

Mas’ud spent much of his professional life as a poet between the courts of his patrons and in prison for reasons which are not clear. It was in prison, however, that he pioneered the habsiyat (prison) genre of poetry, a genre that would appear in the later Urdu poetry of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.[4]

Mas’ud often wrote on the pain of his separation from his beloved city of Lahore:

O Ravi, if paradise is to be found, it is you,
If there is a kingdom fully equipped, it is you
Water in which is the lofty heaven is you
A Spring in which there are a thousand rivers is you.[5]

He also introduced the Indian genre of the baramasa to Indo-Persian poetry:

O beauty whose arrows are aloft on the day of Tir
Rise and give me wine with a high melody
Sing of love in the mode of love
Call forth the delightful melodies of nature[6]

 

THE GHURID INVASION

In 1186, Lahore was conquered by Muhammad of Ghur, one of vassals of the Ghaznavid Empire. Like the Ghaznavid Empire, the Ghurid Sultanate encompassed much of Central Asia, Iran and northern India. In 1192, Muhammad defeated Prithviraj Chauhan at Tarain (present-day Haryana) from where he conquered the political centres of north India.

 

THE FOUNDING OF THE DELHI SULTANATE

 

 

In 1192, Muhammad of Ghur ordered his Turkic slave, Qutb al-Din Aibek (1150-1210), to push further east.[7] This resulted in the conquest of Delhi which, along with Lahore, Muhammad placed under Aibek’s governorship.

In 1206, Muhammad was assassinated. A civil war broke out between his slave commanders with Aibek emerging the victor.[8] Aibek established his own empire with Delhi as his capital, thus founding the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526).

… to be continued.

 

NOTES

[1] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 (University of California Press: Oakland, CA: 2019, 13), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier (Permanent Black: New Delhi, 2010), 19.

[4] Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Literatures of India (Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1973), 11: https://archive.org/details/IslamicLiteraturesOfIndia-AnnemarieSchimmel/page/n3/mode/2up

[5] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 391.

[6] Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier, citing Diwan, 947-8.

[7] Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

Kaun ( Who) -Mudassar Bashir: Synopsis and Analysis of award winning Punjabi Novella

During the last five decades, for a plethora of reasons, Punjabi Literature has been in the doldrums. The primary cause is the almost unique embarrassment of the middle classes who in any society traditionally support their language, to reject it in favour of English. Thus each decade there are less and less Punjabis who can read and write it or want to read and write in it. This situation has been exacerbated by Partition splitting Punjab down the middle and making it two countries with religious bigotry and two separate scripts. If this was not bad enough, there has been the pushing of three alien languages on the population. The three languages I refer to being English, Hindi and Urdu. The latter two are in reality different words for Hindustani, the one and same language. English is of course an economic powerhouse. All of this has reduced the appeal of the Punjabi language, which has successfully been sold to the Punjabis themselves as the language of the yokel.

Whilst currently there is boom in the production of regional language books, from which Punjabi has benefited, the majority of these books are truly under par in regard to the standard of writing, especially when measured by international norms. Most remain parochial, with themes limited to village life , feudal disputed and other such matters. The writers themselves have only been exposed to their village environment or may have experienced immigration, in which case the books remain forever lamenting a loss of an imagined Punjab, and historically are despondent to their children integrating in their chosen society. There is no appeal to the intellectual or urban class . There has to my understanding been no local movement in punjabi literature for decades. The cycle just churns out these same books or books paid for by ( against their will) by rich people who are then deemed “published”.

Five years ago a University in Canada and a business man , Barj Dhahan, decided to improve matters by setting a challenge in the form of a prize for fiction only. This is the Dhahan Prize. It has at least shifted up quality work to our attention. The last three books to win the prize ( For there is a main prize and two runners up) includes Kaun, a novella , presented as a novelette as it has yet to be published in book form, a story written in the Shahmukhi script of West Punjab. This is a significant book. Why?

Well, in Britain there has been the birth of a type of Punjabi Literary movement, dubbed Vachitarvaad, which I have participated in developing by doing my utmost to push boundaries and experiment with language, syntax and subject matter. The latter includes Science Fiction, Phantasy and magical realism. Very few others have tried this, until recently; interestingly both winners of Dhahan Prize, one from India and one Pakistan. The former Pargat Satauj wrote Ik Pind Dee Khabar, using a ghost as a narrator. The second, Mudassar has taken this further in Kaun. All three books can be classified as Vachitarvaad or Transrealist.

Kaun is full of magical realism and cinematic imagery which modern CGI can confer to the Silver screen. The book is primarily about Sarmad, who wants to be an actor. Whilst working in a studio, Sarmad asks a Film Director, Joseph, to give him an opportunity to act. The latter does so by asking him to work in a rehearsal room dominated by three mirrors on three of the walls, and a particularly large one on the end wall. There is a wardrobe in the room he can use to dress up as any one of many characters from the bundles of available film scripts. I counted eight characters in total he dressed up as. But it is not just the dressing up. He reads the scripts related to them, absorbs them, and then we get to know those stories when he transforms literally into them in front of the mirror, which not only shows him his reflection, dressed as the character but confers the life of that character and like a cinema screen shows the scene in which the character lives, sarcastically taunting Samad about being up to playing the part. The use of the mirror as a speaking character by means of a surrealist world in which he enters reminds me of the portals from C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, except the portal talks back. Also it is very much like the British television show, Mr Benn. So through this approach we visit characters from various stages of Punjab’s history and social backgrounds. Significantly this ignores the modern states of Pakistan and India to an extent to remind us of a history much deeper, before religion divided people. Specifically this is dealt with in Channi Palivaan’s story, an old wrestler content not to participate in the rat race and very aware of the Punjab where Muslim, Hindu and Sikh lived together as Punjabis.

Other poignant characters include Shaboo the dancer, dressed as an ape, mixing with a transgender dance troupe. Ditta Saini the labourer representing his trade throughout the ages. There is also Sham Gopal Verma, Mauji Khan the musician who gets to walk with a Fakir whose philosophy inspires a modern Punjabi religion now made world famous with the men supporting flowing beards and wearing turbans. To make it more blunt will ruin the plot. We then see the horrific experience of Bhashkoo, the Ghummar, vividly showing the Indian Subcontinent’s backward attitude since feudal times towards the many lower castes of India. A backward culture which has become the modern Hindu religion. Yet its practices are from a world where the Gods of Olympus, Asgard and the like would be comfortable. The key act of horror something akin to what drove Mel Gibson’s interpretation of William Wallace to take up arms. A courage that the Indian population talks of but in practise is too disintegrated, uneducated or cowardly to do. If they did, then all the upper classes of both India and Pakistan in today’s climate may face the modern equivalent of the guillotine. This won’t happen because the culture and religious belief system has become more than an opiate, suppressing the masses. Then there is the Actor himself, or rather the Romeo. Finally Samad try’s dressing up and living in the skin of a woman that has to live in India / Pakistan. He soon learns how terrifying and distressful that actually is, even in this day and age. The true misogynistic nature of Punjabi, and in general South Asian society is laid bare. Sarmad has to deal with understanding what it means to be a woman in a country where raping women is not a real crime, unless the western media choose to tell the world about it. I can not say too much else without giving away the plot, other than that this alludes to the dark story of Somi, a woman in a man’s world.

So through all of these experiences the plot is simply about Sarmad deciding which part he is capable of playing. However the real story can be divided into two things. Firstly the true social history of the Punjab, most of which is unknown to the Punjabi population of modern Pakistan. That is why Bashir has chosen, I think to write this novella. Secondly this is really about the beauty of the Punjabi language. And does he use beautiful sentences and imagery? Yes. Only the other day I spoke to a young British Pakistani girl, who though proud of her Punjabi roots made it clear that in her mind Urdu was the high language. This falsehood has brainwashed too many Punjabis on both sides of the border, and I feel in the end Bashir’s book is all about addressing these very issues.

If there are any weaknesses in Bashir’s book, it is that he, like Mr Benn, all too briefly steps into their lives. All of them could have been explored in greater depth, which could have made it into a longer novel. That said, this makes it a perfect book for tenth graders to study at school , as it briefly explores all these lives and could bring the discussion into a classroom.

I think anyone who can read Punjabi should go out and get hold of this story and read it. It will open your eyes to these issues and also for those Punjabi readers who are used to the usual fare of village life, property stealing, feuds, immigration woes and remembering 1947, as if 1984 and Zia Ul Haq never happened, it will be new and refreshing. To those who are familiar with the Neil Gaimans, David Mitchells and Haruki Murakami, this will show even Punjabis can on occasion reach world standards.

Indeed this is why the book has won second prize from Dhahan in 2019. There is an English translation being worked on and a Gurmukhi transliteration for the Indian market is already out in Shabad magazine, soon to be followed up by a book version.

There will be a limited edition Gurmukhi version published through a Print On Demand provider, published by Khushjeevan Books London, in the near future for the western market. Of course there is the original version already available in Punjabi in Shahmukhi. Which ever version you read , this is truly aesthetically pleasing writing you will want to experience.

Buddhist Political Philosophy

buddha and flower

I first began studying Buddhism in 1999 while living in Canada. Having lived and grown up in the West, I saw how Buddhism was adopted and adapted by the West in terms of science, psychology and the art of living.

I have always been interested, however, in Buddhism as a philosophy and, in particular, as a  political philosophy. For me, this involved thinking about the world and political phenomena from a Buddhist philosophical and ethical perspective.

I will be speaking more about Buddhist political philosophy here in Uddari. For me, it is something that means a lot to me as a South Asian living in the diaspora. Buddhism not only originated and developed in South Asia but it has also become an increasingly influential philosophy in the Western culture in which I have grown up.

India’s Moment of Reckoning

TOPSHOT-INDIA-POLITICS-RIGHTS-UNREST

In 1938, a Nazi law forced German Jews to register their property and assets with the government. In 2001, the Taliban forced all religious minorities in Afghanistan to wear distinctive marks on their clothing to distinguish them from the country’s Muslim majority.

Now, in 2019, the BJP government of India has passed a law which, in effect, will decide whether Indian Muslims are citizens or not on the basis of their religion.

On the face of it, the Citizenship Amendment Act (the “Act”), states that (non-Muslim) illegal migrants who have fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

When read in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (the “NRC”), however, the Act threatens to render almost two million Muslims in India (who migrated to Assam from Bangladesh) stateless.

By making religion a condition of citizenship, the Act and the NRC throw the very idea of India as a secular state into question. Will the law apply only to Muslim migrants and their descendants (even if born in India)? Will it be used against those poorer Indian Muslims who have lived in the country since time immemorial but who have no documents to prove their citizenship?

In 2018, Republicans in Georgia threatened to blacklist African-Americans from voting because they could not prove their identity. Will disenfranchisement hang over the heads of Indian Muslims if they cannot show the right kind of documents if any at all?

Historically, citizenship in India (like elsewhere) was acquired by the citizenship belonging to one’s parents (the jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ principle) or by naturalization if the person has been resident in India for more twelve years. Descent and residence on Indian territory were sufficient for the sake of claiming Indian citizenship, not religion.

In protest of the law, India has witnessed some of its largest demonstrations in decades with public figures like Ramachandra Guha and Shabana Azmi expressing solidarity with the protestors. The Supreme Court of India has issued notices to the Government of India on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the law.

I hope that these protests are an illustration of the Daoist principle that when things reach one extreme, they revert and start moving back in the opposite direction. Just like we saw with the “wake” movement in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations in India have the potential to crystallize into a mass-movement that challenges Hindu Nationalism if they are given the right direction and organization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classical Indian Literature: The Southern (Tamil) Tradition

tamil love poem

Like the classical Western tradition, the classical Indian tradition has two classical languages: Sanskrit and Tamil. Most histories of classical Indian civilization, however, focus on the Sanskrit literary tradition to Tamil’s neglect.

Both traditions, I argue, are integral to our understanding of classical Indian literature. The Tamil tradition is classical not only in the sense that it is ancient (dating its earliest poetry back to the 100 BCE to 200 CE), but in that it constitutes the foundation of an entire tradition that continues without a break to the present.

Early classical Tamil literature was written in a society that recalls Italy during the Renaissance. Southern India during the turn of the Christian era was a confederation of states (the Pandya, the Cheras and the Cholas) which were continually warring and trading with one another.

The Tamil states grew wealthy from sea trade routes that connected India to the West (including the Roman Empire which sought peppers, indigo, cotton and pearls from South India) and South East Asia. Classical Tamil poetry tells the stories of wealthy merchants, warehouses bulging with goods and ships from many different countries meeting at palm lined ports along the east coast.

Classical Tamil poetry is said to have been composed in academies or assembles called the Sangam during which time the principles of poetics, rhetoric and prosody were outlined in the Tolkapiyyam, the first grammar of the Tamil language.

Classical Tamil poetry can be classed broadly into poems on the interior landscape (love, emotions) and poems on the exterior landscape (war and heroic poetry).

Landscapes and emotions are carefully interwoven in classical Tamil poetry and each poem is assigned a tinai (‘place,’ ‘region,’ ‘site’) in which the five particular landscapes or regions of the Tamil country with their accompanying seasons, flowers, waters, inhabitants, wild life and time of day correspond to the emotions of the lovers in the poems:[1]

  1. Mountains: union (clandestine); kurunji flower; midnight; winter; waterfall;
  2. Forest: expectancy; jasmine; evening; late summer; rivers;
  3. Fields: irritation; marudam; before sunrise; late spring; ponds;
  4. Seashore: separation; water lily; sunset; early summer; sea;
  5. Desert: impatience; noon; summer; dry wells or stagnant water.

In classical Tamil poetry, nature and landscape symbolize the various moods and experiences of lovers. For instance, a love poem may follow the kurinici convention where the theme is the surreptitious meeting at night of an unmarried woman and her lover in the mountains.

tamil nadu mountain.jpg

The puram poems also have their thematic situations which deal with the warfare and exploits of kings as well as ethical instruction in the form of lyrics, panegyrics and hymns. The puram poems of classical Tamil poetry tell us about the kings, chieftains, battles, political and social life of ancient Tamil kingdoms.

The secular, sensual and naturalistic tone of the early Tamil poetry makes for a refreshing change to the religious and mythological tone of much of classical Sanskrit poetry. Here are some English translations of classical Tamil poetry by A.K. Ramanujan.

 

Sources:

Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology (Volume Three), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Indian Literature (Volume 5), New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi, 1987-1992.

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999), Translated by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz.

Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies, and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape#Poetic_Attrib

Being Punjabi – Fauzia Rafique Collection at the Museum of Surrey

My stuff gets a wholesome exposure at the Museum of Surrey’s community curated exhibition titled ‘Being Punjabi: Unfolding the Surrey Story’ (October 2 – February 23). The above showcase includes the original poster released by Sanjh Publications in Lahore at the launch of Punjabi Shahmukhi edition of Skeena in 2007, a flyer that lists Lahore Press Club as the venue for Skeena’s first launch that was disallowed by the Club’s administration a day ahead of the event, the complete audio of Skeena in Punjabi recorded in my voice by Lahore Chitrkar in 2007 that has never been released, and a letter-size poster of Skeena’s 2011 English edition by Surrey Libraries.

Among the installations showcasing different items from sixteen local Punjabis, the above are some things i like and use. The item on the top left is a wall hanger i made for my son when he was younger. It uses very desi Punjabi feeta trimming from a worn out set of pillow covers my mother gave me, leftover green susi cloth from Sindh, a patch of black with red and white embroidery from an Indian skirt i bought from India Bazar in Toronto’s East end, and, it uses ceramic and glass beads from Lahore, Toronto and Vancouver.

A passage from Skeena, in English and Punjabi Gurmukhi.

‘The first Punjabis came to Canada in 1897. Today Surrey is home to over 100,000 Punjabis. This exhibit presents a selection of local Punjabi voices using written word, audio recordings, video, artifacts, art and images. Being Punjabi is the first exhibition in Canada to highlight Surrey’s Punjabi community, showcasing stories of both struggle and success. It is meant to begin a conversation.’ surrey.ca/culture-recreation

Fauzia Rafique
October 6, 2019
Photos by Hafsah Durrani

Uddari Weblog operates on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen, Qayqayt, Tsawwassen, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
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Tomorrow in Surrey: Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

pakistani women

What inspires me most about this program is the courage of the women it honours. Through their art, their activism, their poetry and their writing, they have dauntlessly challenged institutionalized systems of patriarchal, racial and religious authority, making the world a freer place for all of us regardless of who we are …

Tomorrow, Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS) presents “Women Who Named the Unnamed: Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes” (Sept 28, 6 – 9 PM, Centre Stage, Surrey City Hall). It’s a groundbreaking three-hour stage show which recognizes, for the first time in Greater Vancouver, the contributions of 15 distinguished Pakistani, Punjabi, South Asian, Muslim and women of colour from Pakistan, Surrey and Vancouver to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship and activism.

Our distinguished guests for the evening are Sunera Thobani, Harsha Walia, Surjeet Kalsey, Darshan Maan, Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder, and, Katheren Szabo. We will also recognize a Surrey Woman of Courage.

You can find out more about our program here:

https://pakistanswomenheroes.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/women-who-named-the-unnamed-pakistani-local-women-heroes-saturday-28-sept-2019-centre-stage-surrey-city-hall/

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow!