Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan

[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his longer review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]

NagarAmritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399

On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.

‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)

In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).

Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.

To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
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XQ IV: A Conversation with Nausheen H Anwar

 

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. Previously: I, II, III.

 

Anwar_PicNausheen H Anwar received her PhD from Columbia University.  She is currently Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Social Sciences & Liberal Arts Department (SSLA)at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi. Her book, Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan & Beyond was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.

[Interview conducted by Patwari, via email, July 29th-August 24th, 2015]

1. In Karachi, issues such as electricity outages and water scarcity are never far from one’s mind. One way to make sense of these is the failed/failing state narrative, or that the state is missing. In your terrific book, Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan & Beyond, you argue that the state is not missing in this infrastructural crisis, or at least that this is not an adequate framework for understanding Pakistan’s infrastructural woes. Would you elaborate?

At a basic level, my work calls for a reorientation of the ‘state failure’ argument. This line of argumentation has been invoked with particular regularity in Pakistan and that too with damaging consequences in terms of seeing the political-economy as something that has descended into a permanent state of ‘chaos’. Not only is this an over-simplification, but it also elides the complex and contradictory terrain on which the state-led project of infrastructure development has unfolded in historical and contemporary contexts. While there is no doubt that Pakistan’s electricity problems have worsened in the last decade and the state is no longer able to provide uninterrupted electricity, yet it would be a truism to read this problematic as a straightforward illustration of state failure in the overall planning and provision of infrastructure. I have endeavored to situate the infrastructure crisis within a bigger story of the ways in which infrastructure itself has been historically transformed; as a developmental concept, a policy tool and as a technology of rule, and above all to capture the state-infrastructure nexus in relational terms. While incessant electricity breakdowns point to state disconnect, the development of other types of infrastructures such as roads, motorways, highways, ports, signal the state’s ongoing involvement. In the specific context of my research in industrializing urban Punjab, I encountered contradictory narratives about the state’s role in infrastructure planning and provision. These narratives do not mesh with easy explanations of a failed Pakistani state. I contend that rather than seeing the state as absent or missing in the planning and provision of infrastructure, it is far more constructive to examine the ways in which its presence has been reconfigured, for instance through firm-led infrastructural initiatives, privatization and deregulation and processes of globalization. These contradictory narratives enable us to interrogate the relational context in which state-firm relations are assembled on ground, and how such processes hinge on dynamics of state patronage. For instance, in Chapter 2 on Sialkot, I discuss how road building discourses have played a key role in bringing together the state, firms and infrastructures, and I contrast this with the electricity case study in Chapter 3 on Faisalabad. So in a sense the messy terrain of building state-firm relations and the accompanying symbolic aspects of infrastructures also force us to pose important questions about the marginalizing and liberating powers of such technologies.

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Riyaaz – Q & A – II

Patwari: Can we turn to your new album, Ishq? There are five pieces in there, can you talk about how this album came about, taking us through the pieces?

Sonny: Sure. This album is ghazal-specific. Lyrically, it is more romantically involved than our first album, which was strictly religious. So, with this album we wanted to go into a space where the lyrics could be taken either spiritually or in a worldly-romantic sort of way, or both. Ishq-e-haqqiqi and Ishq-e-majazi are always there in Sufiana kalam. So, it was with this idea that I started thinking about other poets who have not been rendered in this way. The idea is that if we render poetry that has this doubling of the two ishqs in a qawwali (a devotional music genre), the listeners will be forced to think of them in this light. So, I started with old poets like Saher Ludhianvi, and then looked at Ahmed Faraz, Faiz, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Bahadurshah Zafar. Then we looked at contemporary poets that are alive, like Munawar Rana, and then a poet named Tahir Faraz whose poetry I love, and Dr. Nawaz Deobandi. So, I searched this wide range of poetry to see what we can incorporate into our sound. We also looked at Anwar Masood who is a comedic Punjabi poet. We wanted to see how far we could push ourselves within the qawwali genre. That was what our thinking was for this album. Now, let me take you through the individual pieces in the album.

The first is Tujhe Dekhein by Bahadur Shah Zafar, rendered in Raag Darbari Kannada. Darbari Kannada is a very romantic raag. I felt like the poetry itself exuded romance and fit the raag really well. It is common in qawwali to juxtapose authors and that I thought was very important. So in all of the qawwalis in this album, we have incorporated various authors and poets to enhance or add a difference aspect to these poems.

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Riyaaz – Q & A – I

[Editor’s noteI (Patwari) interviewed Sonny from Riyaaz Qawwali group on Skype in May 2015. The following transcript was edited by me, and revised by Sonny.]

Locating the Sacred – Riyaaz Qawwali from David Schwittek on Vimeo.

Patwari: Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of your journey into qawwali performance?

Sonny: I met Dr. Akbar Hyder when I was a student at the University of Texas. Discussions with him about qawwali were instrumental in my turning towards qawwali, and, woh kehte hai na ke lagan lag jati hai, so it became sort of an obsession of mine. In a way it opened for me different realms of thinking. Then, stars aligned in such a way that we ended up doing a couple of very interesting performances that were attended by some academic luminaries and big-name sponsors of the Austin Pakistani community. The appreciation and encouragement they showed, for us, sort of started our journey as a group.

But, I’ve been interested in qawwali for a long time. It’s my misfortune to have discovered qawwali late, in 1998. I distinctly remember discovering qawwali in August of that year because it was like rediscovering my love for music. By the end of the month I was listening to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and realizing that he had passed away only a year ago. So it was my misfortune to have never seen him perform live. He was an important influence in my initiation into qawwali. What Khan sahib did for qawwali is of immense importance, bringing a lot of people, non-South-Asians and South Asians, into the world of qawwali. For me, it was a great introduction to the qawwali tradition and I was then able to explore the vast landscape of qawwali and the works of qawwals such as Sher Ali, Mehr Ali, or Waddali brothers, Aziz Mian, Sabri Brothers, Abida Parveen.

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August Days

Gentle readers,

It has been quiet, I know. I hope all of you are busy writing your books to keep your jobs, or to get new ones. It must be exhausting, and you have my sympathies. I published a review-essay in Caravan looking at four new books on 1947/Partition: the edited volume by Urvashi Butalia, Partition: The Long Shadow, Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, and Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina.

The histories and memories in the new books considered here are in tension with one another. They open up new archives, methods and understandings, just they continue to naturalise the incommensurability of the Muslim with India. It is evident in reading them that our need to understand the deep history of Partition is acute. Just as graveyards are segregated by communities, so are histories. In partitioned South Asia, the Shia, Sunni, Muslim, Hindu, or Assamese, Sindi, Baluchi pasts are also constructed to be separate. The histories we produce must acknowledge the burden of recognising difference and parsing it. For the subalterns, those adrift among borders, the fuller history of Partition remains unwritten. The Rohingya floating at sea are also part of the forgotten stories of Partition. They who once were Indian or Burmese or Pakistani or Bangladeshi are now of nowhere. Without land, they are also without history.

Do take a look, and do let me know what you think.

Bhalo ki Bhalo na

Acchā Jī Acchā!
– Taimoor Shahid, translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri acchī
aslī acchī naq̣lī acchī
sastī acchī mehngī acchī
maiṇ bhī acchā tum bhī acchī
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī acchī
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī acchī
āsmān ke bādal acchay
mauj dularī hawā bhī acchī
garmī acchī sāwan acchā
mailā acchā ujlā acchā
sabzī acchī qourmā acchā
machli bharā pakoṛā acchā
sīdhā acchā bāṇkā acchā
daff bhī acchī ḍhol bhī acchā
bāl bhī acchay ganjā acchā
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā acchā
ḳhastā pūrī belnā acchā
gān purāne sunnā acchā
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā acchā
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi acchā
lekin sab se acchā bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ!

Kāfir Re Kāfir
Taimoor Shahid, translated parody of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri kāfir
aslī kāfir naq̣lī kāfir
sastī kāfir mehngī kāfir
maiṇ bhī kāfir tum bhī kāfir
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī kāfir
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī kāfir
āsmān ke bādal kāfir
mauj dularī hawā bhī kāfir
garmī kāfir sāwan kāfir
mailā kāfir ujlā kāfir
sabzī kāfir qourmā kāfir
machli bharā pakoṛā kāfir
sīdhā kāfir bāṇkā kāfir
daff bhī kāfir ḍhol bhī kāfir
bāl bhī kāfir ganjā kāfir
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā kāfir
ḳhastā pūrī belnā kāfir
gān purāne sunnā kāfir
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā kāfir
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi kāfir
eid-ul fitr ki pūjā kafir*
lekin sab se kāfir bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ

*Line inserted on the recent IS statement banning Eid prayers in Mosul

In Plato’s Cave

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The above image is taken from the second of the five videos released to showcase Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad by the US Department of Defense after the 2 May, 2011 operation of US Navy Seals that was to kill or capture him. It was told that the footage was found among the treasure trove of data collected from his compound. This is a remarkable image. The body, which is supposed to be terrorism personified (let’s call it terrorism-body, for more than being of a terrorist, it represents much that is terrorism and the War on Terror), is hidden from view by a blanket wrapped over it and a winter skull cap on the head. Its rear side view doesn’t reveal much; only a side glimpse of a face with a beard and a hand on remote control being its revelatory organs. For all that is hidden, this is its only manifestation: a terrorist Muslim’s body that has its hand on the trigger.
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