Category Archives: India

India at 70

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This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

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Punjabi Poetry: Ustad Daman

daman

Written by Randeep Purewall

Ustad Daman (né Chiragh Din) was born in Lahore in 1911. As a boy, he worked at his father’s tailoring shop while also attending school. Daman learned classical Punjabi poetry at home and was educated in Urdu. He also learned Persian and English including Shakespeare, Keats and Hardy.

Having participated in school poetry recitals, Daman began attending musha’ara in the parks, fairs and bazaars of Lahore as a teenager during the 1920s. The movement for India’s independence had already begun. In 1929, the Indian National Congress made its Declaration of Independence from Lahore. The city was also home to Marxist groups like the Kirti Kisan and anti-colonial and revolutionary groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

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Daman recited his own revolutionary and anti-colonial poetry at the musha’ara. While attending one such gathering, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to Daman as the “Poet of Freedom.”

‘In China the Chinese are grand,
In Russia they do as they have planned.
In Japan its people rule over its strand.
The British rule the land of England,
The French hold the land of France,
In Tehran the Persians make their stand.
The Afghans hold on to their highland,
Turkmenistan’s freedom bears the Turkmen’s brand,
How very strange is indeed this fact,
That freedom in India is a contraband’
(Trans. F. Sharma).

Daman remained in Lahore upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The riots of the Partition had consumed his shop and library and he lost his wife and son to illness. His first act of political defiance came in 1958 when he made fun of Pakistan’s first military coup under Ayub Khan. Daman’s arrest however did little to temper his criticism of Pakistan’s military dictatorships and the corruption of its civilian governments in his poetry.

Daman wrote in Punjabi and the form, rhythm and metaphor of his poetry bears the influence of the classical and folk Punjabi tradition. If he could be sober and thoughtful in writing on the Partition, he could also adopt a more comic and satirical note in criticizing General Zia. He maintained a friendship with poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, but lived unassumingly in an old apartment in the precinct of the Badshahi Mosque.

Daman died in 1984. His poetry was published after his death by his friends and followers. The room he lived in near the Badshahi Mosque has since become an academy in his name.

Selected Poems (Trans. F. Sharma)

We may not say it but know it well
You lost your way. We too.
Partition has destroyed us friends.
You too, and us.
The wakeful have quite plundered us.
You slept the while, and we.
Into the jaws of death alive
You were flung. We too.
Life still may stir in us again:
You are stunned yet, and we.
The redness of the eyes betrays
You too have wept, and we.

What a house, this Pakistan!
Above live saints, down thieves have their run
A new order has come into force
Up above twenty families, below the hundred million.
Other people conquered mountains,
We live under the divisions heavy ton.
Other people may have conquered the moon.
But in a yawning precipice a place we’ve won.
I ran and ran and was aching all over,
I looked back and saw the donkey resting under the banyan.


Two gods hold my country in their sway
Martial law and La Illaha have here their heyday.
That one rules there over in the heavens
Down here this one’s writ runs.
His name is Allah Esquire.
This one is called Zia, the light of truth in full array.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Ecstacy does my land surround
All around the Army is to be found.
Hundreds of thousands were surrendered as POWs.
Half of the land was bartered away in the fray.
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

On TV you give recitations from Quran
With fables and traditions you go on and on.
Here we are engulfed in a brouhaha
While up there you are still there, my Allah
A pretender has staked his claim today
Hurrah, General Zia, hip hip hooray,
Whoever can make you go away.

Thankful are some if they can chop wood
The others, on them, their orders bestow.
Why have the people lost their mind?
For every one the Almighty has a loving glow.
People are the real masters of this world
Orders do not from the handle of a sword flow.
The ones, Daman, who have forsaken God,
Those Nimruds are laid low at the very first blow.

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Urdu Poetry: Sauda

lucknow-mosque

Written by Randeep Purewall

To many of his contemporaries, Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781) was the embodiment of the ideal mirza. He served in the army and was a courtier and man of letters. His friendship among the nobility won him patronage as a poet and the audience of the likes of the Emperor Shah Alam (r. 1759-1806).

The eighteenth century however was a time of political disorder and confusion in Delhi. The Mughal Empire had begun to disintegrate after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In 1719, the Emperor Farrukhsiyar was blinded and imprisoned by his own generals. The city was sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739 and later suffered invasions by the Afghans, Jats and Marathas:

How can anyone close his eyes in sleep these days?
For fear of thieves even mischief keeps awake during the night.

The devastation of Delhi prompted an exodus from the city. In 1754, Sauda left Delhi and went in search of patrons in the Kingdom of Awadh. He took service in the courts of prominent nawabs  in Farrukhabad and Faizabad before settling in Lucknow in 1774 at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.

Under Asaf-ud-Daula, Lucknow experienced an age of cultural splendor. Poetry, music and calligraphy flourished while mosques, gardens and gateways were built. Sauda was named Poet Laureate by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula and remained in Lucknow until his death in 1781.

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Sauda is the greatest non-ghazal of the eighteenth century and one of the three pillars of Urdu poetry. He helped refine the language through mushairras in Delhi. He made Urdu the language of panegyric (qasida), narrative (masnavi), satirical (hajv) and elegaic verse (marsiya). He also composed one of the first shahar-e-ashob in Urdu upon leaving Delhi for Farrukhabad:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi?
There is no house from where the jackal’s cry cannot be heard
The mosques at evening are unlit and deserted
And only in one house in a hundred will you see a light burning

Sauda’s poetry is bold, vigorous and earthy. It reflects the spirit of a man of this world who, while prone to exaggeration, was also funny and playful in his verse. His satires reveal much about the society and culture of 18th century India with its corrupt officials, decadent nawabs, greedy merchants and cunning maulvis.

On the gluttony of Mir Zahik, a Delhi poet and rival of Sauda:

He only has to hear a saucepan rattle
And like a soldier digging in for battle
He’ll take up his position by the door
Nothing can shift him then: that god of war,
Rustam himself, might rise up from the tomb
And try his strength against him. He’d stand firm
He’d fight to the last breath and never yield
Until his corpse was carried from the field.

I am not the fairest flower in the garden
Nor am I thorn in any man’s path
I am neither famous for virtue
Nor notorious for vice
I seek nobody’s favours
And want nobody to seek mine
People may think well or ill of me as they please
I act as my nature prompts me
(Trans. R. Russell)

On Fulad Khan, the Police Officer

O my friends, where are those days
When the hand of a person stealing a lemon was cut off!
What peace and tranquility reign then
And how happily the people lived!
The police officer was above corruption
And not a single thief was to be found
But alas! corruption creeps everywhere now
And the city is full of thieves, loafers and cut-purses …
(Trans. M. Sadiq)

Ridiculing The Times (Tazhik-e-Rozgar)

Should one give up all and take
to Sufism, his fate is then to become
a laughing stock for the poets –
They compare his turban’s end
To a donkey’s tail, the turban itself
To a dome.

If in ecstatic dance at songs divine
He shouldn’t keep time, they whisper
“How silly, to be out of step!”
And if he moves to time, they say,
“What the hell! Is this a nautch-girl’s dance?”

Forsaking the world and trusting in God
If you sit at home, the wife believes
You to be an idle, feckless wastrel
Your son’s sure in his heart that you
Are in his dotage. Your daughter thinks
“The old man’s mad for sure”.
(Trans. S.R. Farqui; R. Purewall)

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, The Satires of Sauda (1706-1781), University of Heidelberg, September 2010.

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

 

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Urdu Poetry: Khwaja Mir Dard

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Khwaja Mir Dard was born in Delhi in 1720. The son of a well-known Sufi, Dard was schooled in theology, philosophy and Arabic and Persian. After serving briefly in the Mughal army, he joined his father’s Sufi order in Delhi around 1748.

It wasn’t the best of times for Delhi. The city was sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739 and marauded repeatedly by Ahmed Shah Abdali and the Marathas. Dard stayed on in the city however, even as his contemporaries Mir Taqi Mir and Sauda fled to Lucknow.

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At his home in Delhi, Dard held poetry recitals which attracted Mir, Sauda and Soz as well as the emperor, Shah Alam (r. 1759-1806). A gifted musician, Dard also composed khayals, thumris and dhrupads:

The high and low are equal in my eyes
As the high and low notes on the harp

In addition to his Urdu deewaan, Dard wrote eight Persian works on Sufism. He remained a Sufi in Delhi until his death in 1785.

Dard’s poems are sensual, erotic and, most famously, mystical. As a mystical poet, however, he seeks to live peacefully in the world, not to renounce it. He does not flee from life, but seeks its deeper meaning.

His poems concern the unity of existence, the greatness of man, the mystery of God and the nature of the self. His Urdu is simple and his verse spontaneous and intuitive, carrying both a personal depth and a touch of transcendence.

Dard is widely acknowledged today as one of the “three pillars” of Urdu poetry, along with Mir and Sauda.

If someone has not seen you here on earth
It makes no difference if he sees the world or not

Make the best of your time for life will not come back to you
If some of your life remains, youth will not come back to you

As long as I seek, it’s you I seek
As long as I speak, it’s of you I speak
The longing I feel is longing for you
And when I yearn, it’s for you I yearn

Time moves and soon
We shall be gone
So fill the cup
Let wine flow on

I crossed the garden of the world
And found the hue and scent of friendship’s rose

These flowering fields you love so much
And which receive
Such tender care from you, relate
A different tale to me
For when the flowers fade, the buds
Contemplate
And say: Like them we too one day
Shall wilt away

Give up talk with men and quiet be
Desire only the soul’s serenity
Seek joys of union in a state of wonder
Look for guidance in your heart’s own mirror

Though man was not given wings
He soared higher than the angels

Whom would the preacher
Frighten with his day of doom?
The scroll of deeds I washed clean with my tears

Don’t judge me, O Sheikh, by my drenched cloak
The angels would seek ablutions were I to wring it

Nor heaven nor earth can Thy expanse contain
Tis but my heart that enfolds Thy grace

Roses and greenery
Aren’t worth that inner joy
That place is grove and garden
Which gladdens the heart

Trans. Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An  Anthology of Urdu Poetry; K.C. Kanda, Urdu Ghazals: An Anthology from the 17th to the 20th Century; additional translation, Randeep Purewall

 

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Filed under Culture, Delhi, India, Poetry, Randeep Singh, Urdu

The Literatures of India

 

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Written by Randeep Singh

India is a land of literary diversity underlined by cultural unity. From Sanskrit, India derived much of its epic and mythological literature. From Tamil love poetry came the inspiration for the bhakti movement which shaped the literatures of medieval India. From Persia, India inherited the ghazal while the English novel shaped its modern literature.

The Sangam Age (c. 1st and 2nd century CE)

jasmine-flowers

Tamil is one of the two classical languages of India. It is a Dravidian language with the oldest continuous language of any Indian literature. The earliest Tamil literature was written in what is known as the Sangam Age, the classical age of Tamil poetry.

The poets of the Sangam Age composed epic and lyric poetry on love, war and kingship in the assemblies or “sangam” of the ancient Tamil kingdoms. Tamil epics told tales of duty, virtue and revenge while Tamil lyric poetry mused on love and separation in the midst of the lush hills, white waterfalls and jasmine blossoms of the Tamil country.

In the thicket
Of fresh lotuses rising from the ponds
Caressed by splendid paddy fields
And sugarcane are heard, as on a battlefield
Where two kings fight for victory
Various kinds of clamorous sounds
Made by waterfowls, screaming cranes,
Red-footed swans, green-footed herons,
Wild fowls, cormorants, snipes,
The ural water birds, large herons
And other birds. Buffaloes enter and immerse
Themselves in the soft, unploughed mire
With the hair on their bodies unwashed, eyes
Red, they come and rub
Their itching backs against the unspoilt, straw bins
Thus loosening the twisted strands that hold them
The bins come apart spilling the rich grain
Stored inside with sheaves of excellent paddy
That resemble cowries.
One heard the noise of the loud talk of labourers
With strong arms and farmers standing
In knots. One heard the sound
Of songs in new styles by low born women
Who turned on by strong wine worked in the fields.
Eyes wide like red minnows,
They bandied indecent words and looked
Singularly charming in their clothes splashed
With mud that also glazed their breasts and shoulders
Clasped by armlets. From their hair they picked
The fragrant flowers and thrust seedlings instead.
One heard the ploughmens’ song of praise
As they stood by their ploughs and worshipped
With folded hands. They appeared to break open
The earth radiant with wreaths bound
With shining ears of rice, plaited
With blue lotuses and the thick, vine-like hariali grass

(from Shilappadigaram, tr. R. Parthasarathy).

Sanskrit: The Gupta Dynasty (4th-5th century)

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Sanskrit is a classical language of India and the language of the earliest Indian literature. From the Vedas to the poetics of the Natya Shashtra to the tales of the Kathasaritasagara, Sanskrit boasts a rich literary, scientific and religious tradition.

The golden age of Sanskrit literature was the Gupta era. Its authors wrote poetry, drama and prose including fables, fairy tales and adventure stories. The Panchatantra is a book of animal parables which instructs kings on how to rule. The celebrated Kalidasa composed poems and dramas like Sakunata blending romance, fantasy and superb natural imagery.

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me and I was you
What has now happened to us two
That you are you and I am me
(Bhartrhari, Trans. John Brough)

May her path be safe and gracious
As gentle breezes blow,
Pleasant be her way dotted by lakes
Where green lotus-creepers grow;
May the burning rays of the sun
Filter mellowed through thick shade-trees;
Let the pollen of water lillies drift
To lie as softest dust beneath her feet
(Kalidasa, Abhijnanasakuntalam, Trans. Chandra Rajan)

Kannada: The Rashtrakuta and Chalukya Dynasties (9th and 10th century)

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Kannada is a Dravidian language with a literature going back to the fifth century. It was designated a classical language of India in 2011.

During the 9th and 10th century, royal patronage and the literacy and learning fostered  by the Jain religion usher in the classical age of Canarese literature. The Vaddaradhane is a collection of Jain stories told by Jain elders on the sufferings of mortals like merchants, courtesans and kings and the way to liberation rhrough humility and self-denial. The era also saw the first great epics on the lives of the Jain saviours by Sri Ponna and the Adikavi Pampa.

Urdu: The Late-Mughal Period (18th and 19th century)

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The Urdu language is a north Indian language written in the Persian script and drawing its literary vocabulary and form from Persian.

During the 18th and 19th century, Urdu emerged in north India as a literary language. Its greatest poets like Mir (1722-1810) and Ghalib (1797-1869) crafted verses on love, passion and loss through the rose, nightingale and spring. In the courts, assemblies and bazaars of Delhi and Lucknow, poets like Dard, Sauda and Zafar mused on the mystery of God, the hypocrisy of sheikhs and the loss of one’s kingdom.

How long is the life of the rose?
The bud just smiles (Mir Taqi Mir)

The free are not trammeled by any ties
The flower’s fragrance emits itself a thousand ways (Zauq)

If someone has not seen you here on earth
It makes no difference if he sees the world or not (Khwaja Mir Dard)

Desire in thousands – each so strong it takes my breath anew
And many longings were fulfilled – many, but even so, too few (Ghalib)

Night has arrived; again the stars tumble forth
A stream rich as wealth from a temple (Ghalib)

Bengali: Colonial and Modern Period (19th and 20th century)

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Above: Fort William College, a center of the 19th century Bengali Renaissance .

Bengali is a north Indian language. It ranks as one of the most spoken languages in the world with over 220 million speakers.

In the 19th century, the Bengal experienced a cultural renaissance which brought English literature and the Enlightenment to Bengal. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) pioneered the Bengali sonnet and an epic poetry blending the best of Indic and English traditions. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) meanwhile created socially realist prose and lyrically magical poetry making Bengali literature known as far as Moscow, Beijing and Paris.

WORKS CITED
Civilization: Past and Present (Vol. 1), Robert R. Edgar et al (2002), 294

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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

 

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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 below 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.

nalanda

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.

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