Tag Archives: Randeep Purewall

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.

mirza-rafi-sauda

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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The Problem of Pakistan

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“Meri tamir mein muzmir hai ik surat kharaabi ki”

In my being lay the seed of my destruction (Ghalib)

Ulema in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan recently banned women from entering bazaars unless they were accompanied by a close male family member or “mehram.” For many, it seems like one in a long line of laws, edicts and fatwas in Pakistan including the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, the blasphemy provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code and the enforcement of Muslim religious practices – enforcing zakat, fasting duringRamzan and prayer times – as if God, the Qur’an and all the masjids in Pakistan weren’t enough.

Curiously, many Pakistani apologists of the country’s Islamization of law and politics blame Zia while praising the secular legacy of Jinnah. But the the Islamization of Pakistan is a cause of and not a consequence of the Zia era. The “Islamic” character of Pakistan – as sanctioned by the country’s state-sponsored scholars – is inherent in the idea of the Pakistan itself.

First, what is the difference between a country founded as a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state? While I agree with Hamza Alavi that the movement for Pakistan started off as a movement for Indian Muslims to protect their community interests in a Hindu-majority country, the line between a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state became increasingly  blurred as the years went by. In “Now or Never,” published in 1933, Chauhary Rahmat Ali, refers to Muslims as a “millat” with its own distinctive culture, tradition, social code, economic system and laws of inheritance, marriage and succession.

Despite his much vaunted secular credentials, Jinnah also referred to Islam as not just a religion but a civilization and a way of life and exhorted his followers that Pakistan was not simply a question of political independence for the Muslims of India but the means through which “the Muslim ideology” could be preserved in the subcontinent. After 1947, Jinnah exhorted an audience at a speech he made on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday to prepare themselves to “sacrifice and die in order to make Pakistan (a) truly great Islamic State.”

Second, Jinnah’s death in September 1948 paved the way for those who believed Islam should be the guiding principle of Pakistan. The “Objectives Resolution” adopted by the Constituent Assembly in March 1949 provided that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna.” Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan went on to declare that “the state will create such conditions as are conductive to the building of a truly Islamic society, which means that the State will play a positive part in this effort.”

Third, the Constitution of 1956 named the new country the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” What was an “Islamic Republic?” Who qualified as a Muslim? Even before 1956, Sunni Muslims had called on the government to have Ahmadiyyas declared as non-Muslim, resulting in the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of 1953. The country’s first education minister, Fazl Ur Rahman, declared that Pakistani education would be permeated and transformed by “Islamic ideology.” Liaquat Ali Khan’s official injunction on obeying Ramazan resulted in angry mobs attacking restaurants and hotels who cooked and served meals during the day.

Before Zia, it was under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure that Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims in 1974, setting a precedent of using religion as a means of electoral gain. What Zia may have done may have been unprecedented, but the the 1949 Objectives Resolution, the speeches and writings of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali and Liaquat Ali Khan if not Jinnah himself and the Constitution of 1956, all helped lay the foundation on which Zia could erect an Islamic State.

Written by

Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Stephen Hay ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (1988).

Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence (1990)

Choudhry Rahmat Ali, “Now or Never” (1933)

Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (2009).

Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Women in Karak barred from leaving home without Mehram,” in Dawn, July 20, 2013: http://dawn.com/news/1030354/women-in-karak-barred-from-leaving-home-without-mehram

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The Art of Madonna (Part III)

The “American Life” video was born against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq. The video was already causing controversy before the invasion of March 20, 2003. Premiering on American television on March 25, 2003, it was pulled by Madonna on April 1, 2003 who did not want to “risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”

American Life 2

Click here to watch video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weCQ6ahu92g

“American Life” is not a song about war but a song where Madonna questions the American Dream. The video uses the metaphor of war as the outgrowth of greed and ego which the dream has become. Madonna appears as a military commander and a guerilla with a girl squad. A fashion show forms the centrepiece of the video featuring models wearing bullet belts, gas masks, grenade necklaces and other “war-fashion” paraphernalia while the deadened upper crust of American society observe from the audience.

Madonna and her girl squad gatecrash the runway and spray the fashion paparazzi with a water cannon. Images flash on an overhead jumbo-monitor revealing the horror and destruction of war. Madonna drives off the catwalk to a laughing audience and, in an alternative ending to the video, tosses a ticking grenade onto the runway. The original ending shows a George Bush lookalike catching the grenade and lighting a cigar with it.

The video highlights how the violence of war has become embedded in a decadent American society and culture. “No matter how many distractions we put up for ourselves, whether it’s a fashion show or a reality TV show or a hot contest,” explained Madonna “what’s happening in the world is still going on.” The video is “a statement about our obsession with the world of illusion.” American society becomes a fashion show with gawking spectators, insulated from the world and desensitized to its realities.

In one scene, two Muslim girls in hijab take the runway and are scared off by two army models to the amusement of the audience. The girls, with their serene, peaceful, sad faces, challenge the idea that there is a “barbarian” other. The water cannon and the grenade are symbols of protest rendered futile in a time of post 9-11 censorship. The grenade tossed at the end of the edited version of the video beckons: what will it take for America to snap out of its stupour?

The “American Life” video was not seen again until it was appeared online in 2005. The irony of the video as a protest is not lost since it was Madonna herself who withdrew it from the air. Yet, in hindsight, “American Life” has proved one of Madonna’s most prescient statements in representing “[her] feelings about our culture and values, and the illusions of what many people believe is the American Dream – the perfect life.” The America of the past ten years – the continued War in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growth of “pop idol” and reality culture, the World Financial Crisis, the loss of homes across America and the bailout of banks – show just how illusory that dream has become, making “American Life” all the more relevant.

Written by Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:  ”From Blatant to Latent Protest (And Back Again): On the Politics of Theatrical Spectacle in Madonna’s ‘American Life.’ Martin Scherzinger and Stephen Smith, Popular Music, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 2007), p. 211-229.

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The Art of Madonna (Part II)

Justify My Love (1990)

The black-and-white European-art style “Justify My Love” video was shot in Paris by director Jean-Baptise Mondino. The video begins with a worn-out Madonna being approached by a stranger in a hotel hallway. While they kiss and prepare to make love, Mondino teases out a series of sexual images, including bisexuality, androgony, cross-dressing, voyeurism and sadomasochism. Madonna leaves the stranger behind and runs down the hallway, laughing. The video ends with the words “poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.”

justify-2

Click here to watch video: http://vimeo.com/59487452

The video is deliberately surreal, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. The furor over the video was all too real. MTV banned the video for its sexual content. Madonna responded by releasing a video-single of the song, which became the best-selling video-single of all time. It was named the “Best Video of the Year” by the critics of Rolling Stone magazine and as one of “Best 100 Videos” of all time by that magazine.

“Justify” asks what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour in (American) society. For Madonna, sexual behaviour with a woman as its subject was always going to be socially problematic. “I was not objectified,” she explained to Bob Guccione Jr., “and that is unacceptable.” The “Justify” video shows Madonna granting permission to her lover to enter her room, taking control of her fantasy, creating one erotic scene after the next and leaving the man after she’s done with him. While a public backlash was brewing against her for going too far, Camille Paglia defended Madonna for exposing the puritanism and hypocrisy of America.

The video also appealed to sexual sensibilities other than standard male heterosexuality. In presenting, homosexual behaviour, cross-dressing and gender-bending, “Justify” challenged the idea of a  heteronormative America. As Madonna explained, “sex is the metaphor that I use, but for me it’s about love…tolerance, acceptance and saying, ‘Look everybody has different needs and wants and preferences and desire and fantasies.’”

Madonna was not the first mainstream artist to showcase voyeurism, androgony or even bisexuality, but she was the first to present that content as natural outside of the conventions of heterosexual male desire. As J.D. Considine points out, music videos like George Michael’s “Freedom 90″ featured lesbianism but as a spectator sport for straight men. “Justify”  on the other hand implied that both bisexual and homosexual desires were acceptable subjects for fantasy.  “These feelings exist” said Madonna in her interview on Nightline defending “Justify,” and “I’m just dealing with that truth here in my video.”

Written by Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Camille Paglia, “Madonna – Finally, a real feminist,” The New York Times, December 4, 1990

J.D. Considine, “How to justify Madonna’s new video?” The Baltimore Sun, December 9, 1990.

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The Art of Madonna (Part I)

Madonna has always been a visual performance-artist rather than a classic singer songwriter in the way of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde.  While her songs and albums have enjoyed commercial and critical success, it is arguably in her visual medium, and her music videos in particular, where her artistic statements on sexuality, race and gender politics find their most potent and provocative expression.

Like a Prayer

Click here to play video: http://vimeo.com/44003277

 Like a Prayer (1989)

When Madonna originally envisioned the video for “Like a Prayer,” she wanted to tell the story of an interracial love affair in the South between a black boy and a white girl who run away together and then are shot by the Ku Klux Klan. Mary Lambert, the video’s director, felt instead that the song was about sexual and religious ecstasy. Madonna visualized this ecstasy as  making love on an altar, an image which finds its way into the video’s climax.

The video begins with Madonna fleeing the scene of a young woman’s murder. She enters a church and sees the statue of a black saint which appears to be weeping. She reclines on a pew, falls into a dream, and through a series of flashbacks, recounts herself witnessing a white woman being murdered by white men for which an innocent black man (who resembles the saint in the church) is arrested. In the video, Madonna kisses the feet of the black saint, experiences stigmata, dances before burning crosses and makes love with the black man/saint on the altar.

From the beginning of her career, Madonna had provoked controversy by toying with religious iconography and sexuality. The “Like a Prayer” video added race to create an unholy trinity. Religious groups across America decried the video as blasphemous. The Pope banned Madonna from appearing in Italy and urged a national boycott of Pepsi which had featured Madonna and the song in a new commercial. Religious and family groups in America urged similar boycotts. Pepsi quickly pulled the commercial from TV airwaves. The video nevertheless topped critics list, winning recognition from Rolling Stone and Billboard as one of the top videos of the 1980′s and of all time, and winning MTV’s 1989’s “Viewer Choice” Award.

The “Like a Prayer” video presents a number of themes for analysis. Although the black saint in the video may be a replica of Martin de Porres (the patron saint of interracial harmony), the narrative of the video – where a black man tries to save a white woman and takes the fall for the men that murdered her – implies that this saint may be in fact be a (black) Jesus, something likely given the resemblance between the black man and the statue in the church, both played by Leon Robinson.

The love-making on the altar can also be interpreted symbolically. On the one hand, the image – along with the scenes of the burning crosses, the bleeding eye of the statue – can be seen tragically as the martyrdom of black men by White America for kissing, gazing or even wanting white women. On the other hand, Grant interprets the love-making as the most poignant scene of the video, driving home the message of racial equality.

Why the video provoked such a religious outcry is also a question. Robinson describes the video as “great for anyone religious – it shows Madonna witnessing an attack and then going to a church for guidance” – in this case, to confront the police as an eye witness to the crime the black man was wrongly accused of and have him set free. The Black Jesus alone was perhaps going too far from some. In this sense, Madonna’s dancing in front of the burning crosses not only symbolizes racial hatred in America and how it is institutionalized through iconography, but how it can be smashed as well.

Written by Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Santiago Fouz-Hernandez and Freya Jarman-Ivans. Madonna’s Drowned Worlds.

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Counterpoint: Why do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

boy in turban

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations” (the Buddha).

Recently when the Quebec Federation of Soccer sought to prevent turbaned Sikhs from playing soccer for safety reasons, there was an uproar from the Sikh community and its supporters. One Canadian Member of Parliament pleaded with the Quebec Federation of Soccer and other soccer organizations to respect the religious rights of the Sikhs affected by the ban and to respect the turban as a religious symbol.

While the QSF decision was rightly questioned, few questioned whether the turban is in fact the religious symbol for Sikhs. Is the turban sacrosanct?

I’m not convinced it is. At best, the turban is a cultural symbol Sikhs have borrowed from Punjabi culture, one with the practical benefit of assisting them in upholding what is a religious practice – the practice of not cutting their hair (‘kesh’).

The Sikh religion does not prescribe any form of head dress (including turbans) for its followers. The Guru Granth Sahib says nothing on this matter.The Sikh tradition holds that the requirement of keeping unshorn hair was ordained by their tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who in 1699, organized the Sikhs into thekhalsa, a community which would adopt the five “K’s.” This crucial event, reenacted every year during the Vaisakhi celebration is, as Jasjit Grewal notes in Sikh History From Persian Sources, an essentially hagiographical account and not a strictly historical one in our understanding of the word.

The turban was not one of the five “K’s.” It was rather an Indic, Islamicate and Punjabi cultural symbol, worn by emperors, princes, gurus, faqeers, sadhus, pirs and the ulema alike. As a cultural symbol, it connoted manly honour, nobility and respect. My guess is that it was adopted and absorbed by the Sikh community as such. By comparison, the “kirpan” (one of the five “K’s”), notes Grewal, was adopted into Sikhism from Punjabi culture, in this case from Punjabi Jatt farmers who carried daggers on guard against would be dacoits.

British colonialism also played a major role in turning the turban into a feature of Sikh identity.  Cohn points out that the turban became a part of Sikh identity due to British army recruitment practices. Thanks to the British recruiting the Khalsa Sikhs en masse into the army, the Sikh turban became  “standardized” and distinguished from the turbans of other Punjabis. The result was a distinctive Sikh head-dress and sense of cultural self-identity.

The turban was part of this ongoing quest for self-identification amongst Sikhs from the nineteenth century onwards, including the publication of Sikh revivalist literature, the adoption of the Gurmukhi script for Punjabi by Sikhs and Sikh control of thir own religious institutions.

Finally, in 1950, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), legislated in the Sikh code of conduct that a Sikh must bear “kesh” or unshorn hair. Even the SGPC though did not mandate the use of the turban to keep the “kesh” in place.

So is the Sikh turban a religious symbol and do questions concerning the turban pertain to religious rights and freedoms? The above I hope starts a dialogue on this question rather than have us believe something is sacred just because we’re told so.

Further Reading:

J.S. Grewal, Sikh History from Persian Sources: Translations of Major Texts (ed. J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habib), Tulika, University of Michigan: 2008.

Bernard S. Cohn. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton University Press, 1996).

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