The Poems of Bedil

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Written by Randeep Singh

Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil (1644-1720) is one of the leading poets of the Indian school of Persian poetry.

Born in Azimabad (Patna) into a family of Uzbek descent, Bedil lost his parents at an early age and was raised by his uncle. He received a classical education, but also mastered poetry and philosophy through self-study. Bedil served in the Mughal army, but returned to Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb. It was there that he devoted himself to writing poetry.

Bedil composed over 16 books of poetry including ghazals, rubais and masnavis. His poetry deals with philosophical and metaphysical themes and his verses are complex, challenging if also captivating. He was not well received in Iran which generally disdained the “Indian School” of Persian. He remains, however, an iconic poet in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Urdu poets Ghalib and Iqbal cited Bedil as an important influence on their poetry.

The selected verses below were translated from Persian into Urdu by Afzal Ahmed Syed and from Urdu into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (unless otherwise noted).

For too long the heart’s desire bound me
With a drop of blood I was painted whole
Ulfat dil umr haashad dast o paaim basta ast
Qatra-e khoon az sar taa paa hunaaim basta ast

I read in the wave’s fickle, delicate form
The preface of the sea, the wind’s footprint
Mara ma’aena shad az khat-e shakasta mauj
Ki naqsh-e paa-e hava sarnoshat-e aeen darya’st

What heart’s shop is not adorned by desire?
The mirror’s realm of clarity reflects a bazaar
Ko dil-e kaz havas aaraaesh-e dakaanash neest
Dar safaa khaana har aaena baazaare hast

Behold the spring painted with hues of new secrets
What your imagination never grasped the spring reveals
Chasm va kun rang-e asraar-edagar daard bahaar
Aan cha dar vahamat naganjad jalwa gar daard bahaar

In the desert of fancy there are no fixed points
To find our bearings no need have we
Dar dasht-e tauham jahate neest ma’een
Maa raa chi zaroor ast badaaanem kujaayem

In contentment’s land seek not the sun and moon
If a bread and lamp in night rations has been provided to you
Dar mulk-e qanaat ba ma o mahar mapardaaz
Gar naan-e shabe heest o chiraagh-sar-e shaame

For ages we’ve been amused at expressing worthlessness
We are the opener of the pages of stories of nothingness
You could expect nothing from us, but name
we are the messengers of the world of nothingness

’aumrîst kî sargarm-e bayân-e heechîm
tumâr gushâyee dâstân-e heechim
bâ nâmi az ân mîyân, zi mâ qane’a bâsh
mâ qâsed-e paighâm-e jahân-e heechîm
(Translated by Nasim Fekrat)

Sources:

Annual of Urdu Studies: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/27/20BedilPoems.pdf

Encyclopaedia Iranica: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bidel-bedil-mirza-abd-al-qader-b

A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

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Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He still inspires me though and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

 

Nanak Shah Fakir

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Written by Randeep Singh

In April 2015, Sikhs in India, UK and the United States, forced the withdrawal of the film Nanak Shah Fakir from cinemas. The film, a biopic on the founder of Sikhism, was objected to by Sikhs and Sikh organizations on the grounds that filmic representations of Guru Nanak are prohibited. I became aware that this film was banned just a few days back when I was speaking with an old acquaintance about the current state of cinema in India.

I doubt that the depiction of Nanak was prohibited given that there was no film in Nanak’s day, and given how he is depicted with abandon by Sikhs in paintings and images obviously not sanctioned by him.

Jesus has been depicted in films like The Passion of Christ. Muhammad has been depicted in films like The Messenger. Why prohibit films on Nanak? It is so that Sikh religious institutions, and members of the Sikh community, can maintain a particular, sanitized image of Nanak for themselves. They refuse to admit Nanak was a human being or anything less than divine.

Sikhs and non-Sikhs should welcome films and literature that furthers understanding of historical figures like Nanak. Surely the life of the subcontinents great historical personalities – whether Nanak, Amir Khusrao or the Buddha – deserve to be known better.

The director of Nanak Shah Fakir, Sartaj Singh Pannu, stated in November last year, that he would release the film with amendments. It makes me wonder just what protestors in cinemas like those in Wolverhampton found so objectionable in Nanak Shah Fakir? The refusal to conform to officially standardized representations of Nanak?  The nerve to ask questions? Surely, Nanak, someone who in the traditional accounts, traveled far, encountered new ideas and debated vigorously against religious leaders, still has a lesson to teach to today’s self-appointed guardians of faith and culture.

India Wins Freedom – The Maulana Speaks

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Written by Randeep Singh

The complete text of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s India Wins Freedom was not released until 1988. Until then, Azad (1888-1958) had withheld his personal comments on the responsibility of Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi for the Partition of India.[1]

The “founder of Indian partition,” was Patel, says Azad. Patel saw partition as a way to eliminate the Muslim League from Indian politics. He found it impossible and frustrating to work with the League’s members as part of an interim government and “openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League.”

While Nehru was less enthusiastic about partition, he became gloomy about the prospects of working with the Muslim League in government and acquiesced to the idea of partition.

Nehru sowed other seeds too. Congress had approved a plan proposed by the British cabinet to create a federation of Indian states with guarantees of provincial autonomy (including Muslim majority areas). This only just placated the Muslim League, says Azad. Nehru however proclaimed that Congress would be free to modify the plan as it wished. This alienated the Muslim League so as to make any further negotiations with Congress pointless.

The “greatest shock” for Azad was the Mahatma’s change in his attitude toward the Partition. The apostle for Hindu-Muslim unity gradually became less vehement in his opposition to Partition. Indeed, Gandhi became convinced that partition was inevitable after his suggestion to invite Jinnah to form the government was flatly rejected by Nehru and Patel.

What I found most illuminating about “India Wins Freedom” is Azad’s prescience regarding what the Partition meant for India’s future. Partition did not solve India’s communal problem; it lodged it permanently in the Indian psyche. In accepting Partition, Patel and Nehru had endorsed the Two Nations Theory. How then were they any different from Jinnah?

“India won her freedom, but lost her unity,” says Azad. It’s worth remembering 69 years on, that those who get the credit for winning India’s freedom should also bear the blame for dividing it.

Further Reading:

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman: Hyderabad, 1988).

[1] Azad was the longest serving President of the Indian National Congress before 1947 and served as independent India’s first Minister of Education. He narrated his experiences in India Wins Freedom in Urdu between 1955 to 1957 to Humayun Kabir who transcribed and translated them into English.

International Women’s Day: The Gulabi Gang

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Written by Randeep Singh

The days leading up to International Women’s Day saw the screening of “India’s Daughter,” a documentary on the rape of murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in 2012. Singh’s rape and murder provoked a national catharsis of demonstrations, clashes with police and soul-searching on how to better protect India’s (middle-class) women from sexual predators.

Singh did not come from privileged circumstances, but she had the aspirations of a middle-class woman. That made her worthy enough of respect of the middle-class. There were however no moments of silence for those indigent Indian women who are raped daily, no national march to fight for the rights of the dispossessed in rural India, the majority of the country’s women.

The Gulabi Gang is a woman’s movement that was started by poor women in 2006 in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh. It began as a band of women who humiliated and punished men for abusing their wives. Today, it has over 300,000 members and fights against dowry death, rape, child marriage and child molestation and caste oppression in northern India.

The Gulabi Gang do not attend classes at Delhi University, read Byron or catch flicks at the multiplex. The antithesis of the modern, enlightened Indian women, they have struck at the heart of patriarchy without the help of NDTV, academia and marches along Rajpath. The fact that this movement has taken place and grown in rural India, tells us that this is where the real battle against violence against women is to be fought if it is to be won.

Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema

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Written by Randeep Singh

In the high and palmy state of Bombay, the Bard and Hindi screen did meet … It was the Parsi theatre which brought Shakespeare to Hindi cinema. The Parsi theatre flourished between 1870 and 1940, adapting Shakespeare’s plays into Urdu, the literary lingua franca of northern India. Those plays were in turn screened and adapted to Hindi cinema.

One of the earliest such films was Dil Farosh (1927), a silent film based on the Parsi theatre adaptation of The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure were adapted respectively in Hathili Dulhan (1932), Kafir-e-Ishq (1936) and Pak Daman(1940). Hamlet meanwhile reigned among tragedies, adapted first into the silent film Khoon-e-Nahak (1928) and later into the “talkies,” Sohrab Modi’s Khoon Ka Khoon (1935) and Kishore Sahu’s Hamlet (1954).

In adapting Shakespeare to India, the dramatists of Parsi theatre recreated his pathos, wit and intrigue in Urdu. With the exception of the drama and opera Inder Sabha (c. 1853), Urdu literature lacked a tradition of drama in the Sanskrit or Elizabethean sense; and yet, the verses of Ghalib and the marsiya of Anis and Dabeer demonstrated that Urdu was capable of dramatic resonance. The Parsi playwrights exploited that potential by making an elaborately rhetorical Urdu the vessel through which Shakespeare was carried to Indian audiences.

Take the following excerpt from Safed Khoon, Agha Hashar Kashmiri’s adaptation of King Lear. The dialogue relates to the first scene between Khakan (Lear) and Zara (Cordelia) where Khakan addresses Zara:


Khakhan: Haan, ab teri gulfishani ka intizaar hai
(Now we await a shower of flower from thy  lips)

Zara: Abba jaan, mai kya arz karoon
Ita’ut mujh se kahti hai ki tu chup rah nahin sakti
Magar mera yeh kahna hai ki mai kuchh kah nahin sakti

(Respected Father, what shall I say –
Obedience tells me that I cannot remain silent
But I have only this to say that I can say nothing)[1]

In the following dialogue, each character speaks half a line to the other, a rising tension building in rhyme:


Khakan: Chhor de yeh zid………Zara: abhi chhooti nahin
(Leave this stubbornness)……….(No, never)

Khakan: Be-adab hai tu…………Zara: Magar jhoothi nahin
(Disrespectful art thou)………(But not a liar)

Khakan: Nuqsaan uthhayegi…………..Zara: era bari ta’ala hai
(You will suffer great loss)…………….(The Creator is supreme)

Khakan: Mai kuchh na doonga tujhko……Zara: Khuda dene wala hai
(I will give thee nothing)……………………  (it is for God to give)[2]

This intensely dramatic Urdu style was well suited not only for adaptations of Shakespeare plays in Parsi theatre but for Hindi cinema as well.

Gulzar’s adaptation of The Comedy of Errors in Angoor (1981) aside, adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in Hindi cinema petered out after 1960. The influence of Shakespeare though has been felt in the theme, story and dialogue of Hindi cinema whether through the The Taming of The Shrew in Junglee (1966) and Naukar Biwi Ka (1983) or Romeo and Juliet in Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952) and Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988).

In more recent years, the bard has travelled to the Bombay underworld, the dusty towns of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir’s valleys of snow. Shakespeare will continue to evolve and inspire in Hindi cinema as in this monologue from Haider:

Dil kī agar sunooñ to hai
Dimāgh kī to hai nahin 
Jaan looñ ki jaan duñ 
Main rahooñ ki main nahiñ[3]

Exeunt

“Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” Rajiv Verma in India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation and Performance (ed. Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz), 269-290.

[1] R. Verma, “Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” 273.

[2] R. Verma, “Shakespeare in Hindi Cinema,” 274.

[3] The barely sane Haider speaks revolver in hand:
“If I listen to my heart – it’s there
It’s not of my mind 
To kill or to die
To be or not to be