Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Bhagat Singh: promoting terrorism?

On March 23 this year, when most Pakistanis celebrated the 70th anniversary of Pakistan Resolution, some observed the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) who had been hanged on charges of terrorism on the same date in 1931. Especially under the present circumstances of Pakistan, a few questions may need to be considered objectively and dispassionately.

Bhagat Singh was a member of HSRA, a leftist terrorist organization in India in the 1920s (“when expediency will demand it the Party will unhesitatingly enter into a desperate campaign of terrorism,” said the party’s manifesto; see Wikipedia entry). In 1928, Hindu leader Lala Lajpat Rai succumbed to injuries suffered from baton charge by police during a public protest and Singh set out to avenge him by assassinating the police chief but the bullet killed another police officer instead. Singh fled the scene and later threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly that did not kill anyone but created some terror. He got arrested and defended his position throughout his trial. He was convicted for murder and hanged on March 23, 1931.

In India, Singh is celebrated as a hero. Among Marxists, his pamphlet ‘Why I am an Atheist’ is especially popular as a tool for promoting atheism among youth. Pakistan too has an association with him, since he was born in a village near Lyallpur (now called Faisalabad) and got executed in Lahore. In September 2007, Lt Gen (Retired) Khalid Maqool (governor of Punjab in the Musharraf era) addressed a birth centenary seminar on Bhagat Singh, paid tribute to him and promised a memorial (see Daily Times).

Showing due respect to Bhagat Singh as an icon respected by our neighboring India is one thing. Preaching his ideas to our own youth and presenting him as a role model for Pakistanis are different matters altogether. The country is being accused of harboring terrorists. The international media, especially Indian media, often seems to be giving an impression as if most Pakistanis harbor a longing for becoming suicide bombers. What kind of image shall we receive if at this time some of our lobbies are found to be promoting a “hero” whose recorded statement after throwing a bomb in the assembly was, “We are sorry to admit that we... have been forced to shed human blood. But the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the 'Great Revolution'… is inevitable.”

The implications are:

  • Is this the kind of image we desire to be associated with Pakistan?
  • Is this the message we want to give to our youth?
  • Precisely why did India release not one, but two, biopics about Bhagat Singh defending terrorism soon after 09/11 (both movies were released on June 7, 2002)?

However, the biggest question is that at a time when the country is already combating terrorism, why on earth we need to promote terrorism? We may compare the following excerpts from the pamphlet distributed by Singh after bombing the assembly with the video messages released by the militants of today:

"It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear, with these immortal words uttered on a similar occasion by Valiant, a French anarchist martyr, do we strongly justify this action of ours… In these extremely provocative circumstances, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, in all seriousness, realizing their full responsibility, had decided and ordered its army to do this particular action… We are sorry to admit that we who attach so great a sanctity to human life, who dream of a glorious future, when man will be enjoying perfect peace and full liberty, have been forced to shed human blood. But the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the 'Great Revolution' that will bring freedom to all, rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable. Long Live the Revolution."

Really, do you have to promote terrorism?

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Armaan of a Nation

Published in DAWN, Images, March 14, 2010

The movie Armaan was released on Friday, March 18, 1966. The country was echoing with protests against the Tashkent Agreement signed by President Ayub Khan and the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. It was said that a war “won” on the front had been “lost” on the table. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the dissident foreign minister who was generally identified with a hard line stance against India, had just received an overwhelming ovation at Lahore Railway Station from a multitude of his admirers.

Then, as the film opened in Naz Cinema, Karachi, and other theatres in West and East Pakistan, it captured the imagination of the entire society at once. Did the masses recognize, unconsciously, their deepest ideals in the fantasy about an educated and principle-centered aristocrat stepping down from his ranks for courting an orphaned girl of humble background and himself getting transformed in the process? At least that was the gist of the hero’s journey from the festive ‘Ko ko korina’ to the mature ‘Jab pyar mien do dil miltay hain’ and from the light-hearted rendition of ‘Akele na jana’ by Ahmad Rushdi to the symphonic and cataclysmic orchestra accompanying the voice of Mala, at the end. In retrospect one may say that this was not very unlike the expectations the people were beginning to develop from Bhutto around the same time — whether or not the politician lived up to the ideals given by poets.

The movie was the first Pakistani release to become a “Platinum Jubilee” (running for 75 cumulative weeks). The middle classes, usually reluctant about visiting a cinema, got attracted in large numbers (in some ways this shift had already started with Saheli four years earlier and Naela the last year but it reached its climax with Armaan). The hair style of the writer, producer and actor Waheed Murad became the default for that generation. Conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, educated and the illiterate were equally mesmerized.

The legends spawned by Armaan spread wide and were going to prove lasting. Fellow filmmaker Nazrul Islam, in his greatest film Aina (1977) eleven year later, named the heroine Najma (played by Shabnam) after the role played by Zeba in Armaan. In a subsequent movie Nahin Abhi Nahin (1980), Nazrul not only named the main character Armaan, but even persuaded the lead actor Faisal Rehman to use this as real name (recently, Faisal has directed a television sequel to Nahin Abhi Nahin where the protagonist Armaan, now grown up and teaching in a college, confronts the spirit of Allama Iqbal and seeks answers to questions about the existence and destiny of Pakistan).

In Armaan is one of the pegs around which threads of our collective consciousness are tied then it very well deserves that prestige. It was an offering from well-educated and imaginative youth who respected their culture and wanted to bring a healthy change through the unity of imagination. Waheed had an M.A. degree in English Literature from Karachi University and his obsessions included James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Henry James (one of his dreams was to make a stream of consciousness film and he arguably achieved it three year later in one of his productions). In developing the story of Armaan, he drew upon Cinderella, She Stoops to Conquer, The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights but used his sources ingenuously for creating a brevity that effectively conveyed the messages ingrained the greatest cultural movements of recent history (attachment to Iqbal ran in Waheed’s family, since his grandfather Manzur Ilahi Murad was an acquaintance of the poet-philosopher in Sialkot).

The director Pervez Malik, who also wrote the screenplay, had a masters’ degree in filmmaking from California. Camera work, imagery and symbolism were at par with some of the best masterpieces of that time: one could identify allusions to La Dolce Vita and Hiroshima Mon Amor. Later, Pervez was going to win a pride of performance for his patriotic films, including a trilogy about the awakening of masses through the power of love: Anmol (1972), Dushman (1974) and Pehchan (1975). The second of these is also significant because a year before India discovered “the angry young man” in Deewar (1975), Pervez Malik created the icon here and articulated its social context with much more clarity and boldness than elsewhere.

Masroor Anwar, who wrote dialogue and lyrics, had received a fresh impetus from his work in the recent war. A fascinating aspect of the poetry of Armaan is that each song from this movie, although so moving as an expression of ordinary love, can also be interpreted as a national song. Consider, for instance, ‘Akele na jana’. The Ahmad Rushdi version is probably what every Pakistani may like to say to Pakistan: “Diya hosla jis nay jeenay ka hum ko….” (“You are a beautiful feeling that gave us courage to live. You are the certainty that never leaves the heart; you are the hope that lasts forever”). It should surprise no one that the same Masroor Anwar later gave such national songs like ‘Sohni Dharti’ and ‘Vatan ki Mitti Gawah Rehna’.

Sohail Rana, who gave music to Armaan, came from a literary family. His father, Rana Akbarabadi, was a renowned poet and had approved of his son’s passion only on condition that the talent should be used for perpetuating noble values. Sohail not only composed music for memorable national songs including ‘Apni jaan nazr karoon’, ‘Sohni Dharti’ and ‘Jeevay Pakistan’ but was also destined to set music to ‘Hum Mustafavi Hain’ by Jamiluddin Aali, which was adopted as the national anthem of the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974 (it retains that status and is played wherever the summit is held). In the 1970s and the 1980s, Sohail was best known to the youth in Pakistan through his popular television programs in which he taught music and good manners. Armaan, in a way, had started with him. One night in 1963 or 1964 he heard a melody in his dream. He woke up and wrote it down. The words that were given to it eventually were, “Akele na jana…” The rest is film history, though sadly unwritten for the most part.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

True Mentors

Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73) wrote about true mentors:

When you see two of them meet together as friends, they are one, and at the same time six hundred thousand. Their numbers are in the likeness of waves: the wind will have brought them into number. The Sun, which is the spirits, became separated in the windows, which are bodies. When you gaze on the Sun’s disk, it is itself one, but the one who is screened by the bodies is in some doubt. Separation is in the animal spirit, the human spirit is one essence.

Can we say this about Nezami Ganjavi and William Shakespeare, and perhaps also about Rumi, Goethe and Iqbal?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Bhittai: the Visionary

The following article of mine was recently published in Dawn, Sunday, January 31, 2010. The illustration is from my friend Khudabux Abro, the renowned artist, and appeared in the print edition of the newspaper.

Some people say that he fell in love, left home, became a phenomenon and came back to marry the woman who had been refused to him earlier. There is no way of knowing whether the career of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai of Sindh actually paralleled the Count of Monte Cristo so closely (and we need to be careful about apocryphal stories woven around the lives of great saints), but there are other testimonials to the warmth of the heart that throbbed in him.

The most astonishing is the way his work captured the spirit of a new age that was coming up not only in the Muslim world but also outside.

Bhittai was born in 1689 and died in 1752. This was when the Muslim world seemed to be awakening to the realisation that a universal ideal could be manifest in regional forms. Hence Abdul Wahhab in Hejaz set out to distinguish between the crux of Islam and historical accretion while Shah Waliullah of Delhi taught that the traditional model of Islam was an application of its ideals in the context of the seventh century Arabia and many other applications were possible in other contexts. Surprisingly, the new ideals that started developing in Europe around this time also converged on regional states.

The only poet from that period whose work may be said to represent all possible facets of this new life on behalf of everyone was Bhittai. If the works of earlier Sufi poets from any region were translated into another language they would all sound the same, but the work of Bhittai could not lose its local reference in any translation. Yet, it could not be said to be lacking in what was embodied in all others.

This was something which, interestingly, would become increasingly pronounced in subsequent popular writers of Muslim India such as Waris Shah, Mir Taqi Mir, Sachal Sarmast, Mir Amman, Mirza Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Iqbal and so on. In this string, the poetry of Bhittai serves as the first practical demonstration of the fact that a universal vision could manifest in regional form — or “think global and act local,” as the environmentalists were going to declare much later.

How world class poets receive their inspiration is still a mystery, but most Sufi poets who cared for the feedback of their audiences (unlike the proponents of “high literature” in our times) used certain common symbols, metaphors, patterns and designs within designs — mise en abyme — in their work. One such pattern was the Five Divine Presences. Another was the “seven stages” which may have been originally derived from the seven verses of the first chapter of Quran but subsequently it became the framework for strings of seven stories in The Seven Beauties by Nezami Ganjavi and The Seven Thrones by Abdul Rahman Jami, and the seven valleys in The Conference of the Birds by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar, the seven destinations in the celestial journey of Iqbal in Javidnama, the seven lectures in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by the same thinker and some products of subsequent mainstream Pakistani culture.

In the work of Bhittai, these stages find expression through his famous heroines. Orientalists have observed that the succession of Sohni, Sassi, Leelan, Moomal, Marui, Noori and Sorath represent the seven stages of the soul. The journey begins with the breaking of the pot which carries Sohni across the river but also brings her back after each meeting with the beloved, and therefore it must break — and she must drown — if she has to be united with him forever.
Subsequently, Sassi learns the unity of creation, Leelan finds out that Truth is a jealous beloved, Princess Moomal has to be won through dangerous tests of ingenuity and resilience, Marui must defy oppression, Noori should remember her roots and Sorath must die on the funeral pyre from where her lover will come back like phoenix rising from the ashes.

Indeed, quite an apt allegory, and Bhittai’s speciality is that he doesn’t narrate complete stories but offers dramatic monologues highlighting the lessons to be learnt at each stage.

What has been generally overlooked by the Orientalists is that the journey can be seen to represent more than the development of an individual. The great Sufi secret that has been lost in our age was that the development of an individual is not different from the journey of the entire humanity from Creation to Judgment Day, and the same process is being repeated in the lives of societies.

In the light of Iqbal’s Javidnama, parallels can be drawn between Bhittai’s heroines and the history of ancient civilisations: Sohni (the Age of Adam), Sassi (the Age of Noah), Leelan (the Age of Abraham), Moomal (the Age of Moses), Marui (the Age of Zulqarnayn), Noori (the Age of Jesus Christ) and Sorath (the Age of Islam).

The crux is that we cannot always adjust history to our personal experiences. We also need to place ourselves in the larger context and make readjustments in ourselves. That cannot be extremely pleasant because we are pitted against personal insecurities at the very first step.
The mandate of poets like Bhittai is to make it pleasant and painless, not only for a few well-read listeners but for everyone. They help everyone come out of their shells, acquire genuine self-worth and join hands in giving birth to new civilisations.

If Pakistan is the catalyst for a process through which “Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense… but in the political sense as citizens of the State,” then there is no reason for dislocating Bhittai from the history of his region, as so many scholars have been doing so far.

Not only does his message seem to portray what Pakistan truly means to the masses, but Bhittai also seems to be the point from where the course of history turned in this direction. Thus, he stands out as the man who “lifted a civilisation out of one groove and set it in another… Nothing could again be as it had been.”