Monday, December 22, 2008

The Genius of Mirza Ghalib

Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, known to posterity as Mirza Ghalib, (Ghalib being a nom de plume) is the greatest of all South Asian Urdu and Persian classical poets. A prolific writer, best known for his ghazals, he is also remembered for his elegant and witty letters, letters which are highly informative of the political and cultural developments during his time in Delhi. These included the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 which was to greatly transform Indian life.

Ghalib was born on 27 December 1797 in Agra, and died in Delhi on February 15 1869. During his time Delhi and, to some extent, Lucknow were centres of Islamic culture in northern India; poetry thrived on the patronage of emperors and noblemen. His contemporaries in Delhi included Zauq, the tutor of the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, Momin, notable for his lyrical ghazals, and Mir Mehdi Majrooh. In some ways the tradition of Urdu poetry, and the ghazal in particular, started before him by poets such as Meer Taqi Meer gained much from Ghalib. His genius transformed this genre from one purely depicting themes of romantic love into one that, through greater versatility, provided space for philosophical, religious, mystical as well as other themes, often all in the same place.

Due to developments in the entire political and cultural landscape of India during the final decade or two of Ghalib’s life, developments which, in addition to the physical destruction of Delhi by the British, also, in some ways, put an end to the feudal aristocratic system, the art of Urdu poetry also suffered rapid decline both in quality and quantity with the loss of patronage, particularly after the work of Hali, one of Ghalib’s disciples.

In our own generation Urdu poetry once again came into prominence with Sir Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the most notable of recent poets, although numerous others are regularly featured in poetry gatherings (mushaira). Many ghazal poets, including non-Muslims, have also gained tremendous popularity through the use of their work in songs that inevitably pepper Urdu/Hindi films in both India and Pakistan. Once again, Mirza Ghalib’s contribution to this new medium is strong. His ghazals have been brought to life by some of the sub-continent’s leading singers, past and present—K.L. Saigal, Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum, Noor Jehan, Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmood, and today, Abida Parveen and Daljit and Chitra Singh.

Because of the stunning originality and beauty of these poems Ghalib continues to be remembered as the pre-eminent South Asian poet. He is, undoubtedly, the most popular and influential poet of the Urdu language, a language which, in many ways, he shaped through the incorporation into it of Arabic and Persian idiom to the extent of making it sophisticated--a literary medium of excellence. Today Urdu is regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful languages.

Ghalib’s life has also been the subject of several films and television plays. The Indian film Mirza Ghalib (1954) starred Bharat Bhushan as Ghalib with Suraiya as his courtesan lover, Chaudvin. In Pakistan another film, also entitled Mirza Ghalib (1961), had Sudhir in the lead role with Noor Jehan playing Chaudvin. Both these films had a considerable impact. A historically accurate documentary on Ghalib produced in Pakistan in 1969, regarded as a masterpiece, was never released for public viewing. An Urdu television serial Mirza Ghalib (1988), produced in India with Naseerudin Shah playing Ghalib continues to be popular to date. Once again, the lyrics, sung by Jagjit Singh and Chitra have drawn a worldwide following. In virtually every instance, while other aesthetic elements such as acting may have been significant, the principal attraction has been the songs composed on Ghalib’s immortal words.

Of Ghalib’s numerous memorable ghazals, possibly the most notable is Dil-e-Nadaan tujhe hua kiya hai (What ails thee, my innocent heart?).

My Innocent Heart

What ails thee, my innocent heart?

What, after all, is the remedy for your distress?

I am passionate, while she remains reserved,

Oh my Lord, what matter is stirring here?

I, too, bear a tongue in my mouth,

I wish you would ask me the nature of my desire.

When, without You, nothing at all exists,

What, then, is the meaning of all this commotion , my Lord?

What kind of people are these beloved fairy-faced ones?

What is the meaning of this flirting charm and coquetry?

Why do the curls of her tresses effuse the smell of amber?

What intention lies behind those antimony-darkened eyes?

Whence this greenery and these flowers?

What are clouds made of? What is the substance of air?

I am restless for faithfulness from one

Who does not even sense the meaning of fidelity.

Yes, do a good deed and earn the same in return,

What else is the call of a wandering dervish?

To you I offer the very preciousness of my life

I know not the meaning of prayer or supplication.

I admit it has no worth at all, Ghalib,

But why protest when it comes to you for nothing?

As a Muslim, Ghalib was not particularly pious. He was given to drink and spent much of his own or borrowed money on liquor. He is reputed to have generously given away money to beggars, poets and street singers, particularly when a ghazal made a favourable impression on him.

Two interesting anecdotes recall his attitude towards religion and culture. On one occasion, when he was arrested by British soldiers, he was asked if he was a Hindu or a Muslim, he replied that he was half a Muslim for while he certainly did drink, he did not eat pork. Again when criticized for listening to music, regarded by orthodox Muslims even in his own day as haram, his comment was particularly telling: how could any musical instrument, say a drum, be regarded as Hindu or Muslim? The symbol was less than what it symbolized; the instrument was less than the purpose it served. One is reminded of the use of the famous reed symbol in Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mathnawi.

The performing arts have remained controversial or, at best, ambivalent in traditional Muslim societies. This has also been the case in Sufism, although there are interesting metaphorical uses of the shadow play in several major Sufi poets. In the more orthodox orders of Sufism, particularly in certain branches of the Naqshbandiya, there is total avoidance. In others, such as the Chistiya order in India qawwali music is an integral part of rituals as well as a means of preaching. Then there is the Mevleviya in Turkey; founded by Rumi, it is an order well-known for its whirling dances.

Ghalib, through his remarkable fusion of Middle and Near Eastern as well as indigenous South Asian symbols, made possible, no doubt, by his own rich and varied heritage and the new Indian environment, took a middle path between these. This gave a stunning richness to his work, as demonstrated in remarkable ways everywhere in Indo-Muslim culture.

In one of Ghalib’s most insightful ghazals there is a clear suggestion that, had he not been so fond of liquor, given his high thoughts and poetry, he would have been recognized as a saint (wali).

These maxims of mysticism, this your sublime oration, Ghalib,

We would have taken you for a saint had you not been so drawn to wine.

This raises the question of Ghalib’s position as mystic poet. There certainly are, in his verse, in the tradition of Indo-Persian poetry, rich images and symbols that work on several levels --romantic, erotic, religious and certainly mystical. Ghalib shares these with his brother poets of the Middle and Near East.

· 27 December 2008, is the 211th anniversary of the birth of Mirza Ghalib.

· Translations of Ghalib’s verse included here are by the present writer.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Confusion About Indian Malaysians

When it comes to telling people apart, Malaysians are a hugely ignorant lot. This is particularly the case when the people one has to identify are Indians. Yes, there certainly seems to be a great deal of confusion about Indians in Malaysia. This has resulted mainly from ignorance, but also in part, thanks to our education, political system and the manner in which Malaysians originating from South Asia have been officially classified since British times.

On the street the average Malaysian cannot tell who an Orang India is even though the population of India has reached more than a billion, and, if its immediate neighbours, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as those in the diaspora are included, one can count more than one and a half billion souls, approximately a quarter of the world’s population.

To go on, where, pray thee, lies the difference between a Tamil, a Telugu, a Kannada and a Malayalee? None in Malaysia. They are all, once again, Orang India, or to make it even more intriguing they are all Keling. I was told by a former student that when she referred to a Malayalee friend as an Indian he felt insulted! “No”, he said, “I’m not an Indian, I’m a Malayalee.” The designation Keling, if one may be allowed to use that word, with which even Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, our National Language and Literature Agency, has had problems, has the tendency to cause discomfort, embarrassment, even anger amongst Tamils, Malayalees and other South Indians. It has come to the verge of becoming an abusive or insulting term. If someone who is educated enough is called a Keling he may retort that his ancestors did not come from Kalinga!

Then there is the seemingly endless and irritating recurrence of the Bengali and Sikh situation made famous, in recent months, by an incident involving the Menteri Besar of Perak, proving that it is not just the average person in Malaysia who is confused. A Sikh who is called a Bengali may take it as an insult even. In that case what makhluk in the world is a Bengali Sikh or a Bengali Singh? And who or what, in faith, is a Bengali, locally designated Bangali?

Actually, when it comes to the Bengali case, the matter gets even more complicated than that discussed in the case of the Tamils and the three other previously mentioned South Indian communities. Firstly it is not just the Sikhs who are wrongly referred to as Bengali; there are many others, belonging to several different races who arbitrarily get included in this category. In general these may be grouped together as Northern Indians. So if in the case of South Indians we have had to deal with a mere four kinds of people, now we are facing perhaps fifty or more different races, too many even to be named in this place.

Since the Bengali and Sikh matter comes up more frequently, it may be timely to explain that they are two different races, the Sikhs, originally from the Punjab, are in fact Punjabis, while the Bengalis originate from Bengal. They also call themselves Bangla. That will, perhaps, ring a bell, for there are countless thousands of workers from Bangladesh in our midst. Bangla, Anglicised as Bengal-- ”Amar sonar Bangla”, our beautiful golden land of Bangla-- was divided by the British in the thirties into two—the western with Hindu majority and the eastern with a Muslim majority. Following the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the two parts became West Bengal, now in India and East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Thus these people from both halves of the erstwhile united Bangla are the genuine Bengalis, and the Sikhs are authentic Punjabis, having no connections of ethnicity with the Bengalis. For further clarification it may be added that Punjabis are to be found both in India and in Pakistan, for like the old Bengal, the old Punjab was also partitioned, the western Muslim majority districts going to Pakistan and the eastern, Hindu and Sikh majority districts, to India. So there are Punjabis who are not Indian but Pakistani.

But all of this is merely the first part of the story.

Complications begin to come in, when, in addition to race, one also has to deal with religion. So just multiply each of the many races—only six have been named in this write-up—by four or five to include those who belong to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and to a lesser extent to Jainism, Buddhism and Bahaism and the waters get really murky like those of the Ganges or Brahmaputra. Once again, just to take three examples for the sake of simplicity: In Malaysia there are Tamils who are Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. In the same way there are Punjabis (Please don’t call them Bangali or Pangkali lo!) who are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even a few Christians, while there are Gujeratis who are Hindus, Muslims and Jains. This belonging to one of several religions may be seen in almost all the South Asian races.

So you see what happens when you call the Sikhs Bangali. Naturally some people, even the “educated” and educators amongst us Malaysians, find all this too complex. So I simplify by telling my students that they should remember, when they refer to the Bangali Sikhs, that there are also Bangali Seven, Bangali Eight, Bangali Nine and so on. Get the picture?

And that is only the beginning of the confusion. Where, one might ask, do I place the Mamak or the Kaka in all of this? Kapitan Keling? Aishwarya Rai? Datuk Shah Rukh Khan of Bollywood and Melaka fame?

And the countless Malays who have Indian ancestors?


To elucidate these and some other cultural conundrums connected with the infinitely complicated Indians, I am currently working on a book on Indians in Malaysia. It should be out in the later part of 2009.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is Mak Yong Really Court Theatre?

In recent years the Malaysian mak yong dance theatre has attracted special attention due to political and cultural policies introduced in the state of Kelantan, as well as Istana Budaya’s spectacular production Raja Tangkai Hati. The fact that mak yong was in 2005 declared by UNESCO as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, gave it a considerable boost. Even so, on the part of the several-times-renamed Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage and its agencies, efforts to bring about a revival of mak yong, to popularise it or to preserve it for posterity have been far from sufficient or successful. Meanwhile, in Kelantan, its traditional home, this art form continues to be banned. It is thus neither dead nor fully alive. Apart from pure apathy as an underlying factor, one can understand some of the possible reasons for this ambivalent situation. Mak yong is, after all, ancient, not totally Malay, in content and purpose highly unIslamic, and in performance not particularly refined except in patches.

Despite its certain antiquity, there are no early records elucidating its origins or confirming its history. Mak yong was mentioned for the first time in 1878 by Frank Swettenham who happened to come across itinerant performers, possibly in Pahang. Walter William Skeat and Jean Cuisinier touched upon it in brief in 1900 and 1936 respectively. Up to that point in time, none of these observers connected mak yong with any royal family or kingdom. They regarded it implicitly as folk theatre, with Cuisinier seeing possible connections with ancestor cults or healing through main puteri, the shaman dance of Kelantan. There was no “theory” of mak yong origins.

This was to change with Mubin Sheppard. In several brief, near-identical, papers written in the 1960’s and 70’s, and also published as chapters in his books, Sheppard advanced two broad views on this subject: the first seeing mak yong as folk theatre and the second as court theatre.

As for its folk origins, Sheppard connected mak yong with the spirit of the rice, semangat padi, also named Mak Hiang, who, in his view, gave the genre its name. Having come into being, it appears that this theatre form was further connected with rituals honouring Mak Hiang or some other higher being through her mediation on behalf of the raja. There exist several variant statements on this subject, but Sheppard nowhere developed the arguments in any way, in strong contrast to his alternative view.

As for its supposed royal origins, Sheppard sees the beginnings of mak yong in the palaces of Langkasuka and Patani. Mak yong was, he says, the favourite entertainment of “generations of rulers” of Langkasuka, Ligor, Patani and finally Kelantan. He mentions no other art form that may have had a place in the palaces. More interestingly, not a single name of any royal performer, enthusiast or patron of mak yong in any of the three kingdoms, excluding Kelantan, to which we will return, appears in his articles. Sheppard does not provide any evidence for the supposed connections of mak yong with Langkasuka. This does not come as a surprise for, apart from its name, nothing is known about that kingdom, not even the identities of its rulers. Being a pre-Islamic kingdom, Langkasuka would have been a Hindu or Buddhist polity. Sheppard claims that Ligor was a “successor” state to Langkasuka and, following that, Patani succeeded both Langkasuka and Ligor, suggesting a possible continued history. Studies in the history of Patani do not confirm this.

For his claims that mak yong was performed in the Patani palace Sheppard relies on two sources of information--firstly a brief description by Tome Pires of a performance this traveller-trader witnessed during a visit to Patani in 1613, and secondly, several passages in Hikayat Patani, an important 17th century history of that kingdom. Pires’ description, in which he suggests resemblances between the one or more dances he saw in Patani and those performed in Java, is insufficient to establish the precise nature of the unnamed dance he witnessed. Hikayat Patani, in itself a highly interesting work, does indeed provide evidence for strong support for certain styles of performing arts in the Patani palace during the period covered by the work. Much of what Sheppard attributes to the arts in Patani, including mak yong, based on Hikayat Patani is, however, quite incredible. This is glaringly so, since even the most diligent search does not produce a single reference to mak yong anywhere in the hikayat.

Sheppard claims, finally, to neatly complete his picture, as it were, that once imported into Kelantan, mak yong continued to be supported by royalty in that State, with several hundred actresses involved, until the “royal troupes” were disbanded in the 1920’s. For this too, neither Sheppard nor history provides any evidence. On the contrary Hikayat Seri Kelantan mentions that one of the Sultans actually forbade mak yong performances.

Apart from this, all that is known about mak yong and its connections with the Kelantan palace is that Tengku Temenggong Abdul Ghaffar in the 1920’s had several rural-style panggung built on the grounds of Istana Lama in Kota Bharu for various types of performances, including mak yong. This venue has come to be known as Kampung Temenggong. The prince attempted to refine mak yong—possibly focusing on its dance and music rather than theatre aspects—possibly for performances before noble audiences. No actual confirmation of such performances exists.

The Tengku Temenggong’s unsuccessful initiative ended with his self-exile a few years before his demise. Information for some of the developments in Kampung Temenggong and particularly the role played by that royal enthusiast of the arts, was given to me in 1975 through personal communication by several performers once active in Kampung Temenggong. These included one of the prince’s final wives, Zainab binti Samad, fondly known as Zainab Tengku Temenggong.

In the light of all this, without the support of even the flimsiest evidence, Sheppard’s stance that mak yong was court theatre is nothing short of being contrived, false and misleading, the product of fantasy or an overly active imagination. His purpose in presenting these “theories” can only be guessed at.

*I have discussed these and other possible views regarding mak yong origins in greater length in several published and unpublished works listed on my website.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Glorification of Ignorance

Finally it has come. The fatwa against yoga. It seems that this is part of the ongoing effort to “clean up” Malay Islam of elements likely to confuse the Malays, highly prone, it appears, to confusion, and to weaken their faith, a faith that needs to be protected. If this process continues, with the animistic, Hindu, Buddhist, and other elements in Malay culture being totally removed, assuming that such a thing is possible at all, there may be very little left.

One does not have to be well-versed in the history of culture, including religion, to see what Malay culture is made up of. The fact is that, even if, just as an exercise in fancy, these so-called potentially threatening elements were removed, there would remain the root animism, which is certainly indigenous, indigenous in the sense that it belonged to all lands, including our own, before the arrival of the “higher” religions. Research has shown that apart from its Arab elements, in every part of the world, wherever Islam reached, it absorbed local elements. That is what enriched the culture of Islam, shaped it into a vibrant and diverse force for positive change, made it universal, and universally attractive.

Even in this country, a handful of our leaders, at least, have never denied their great admiration for Andalusian Islam, which, in some vague sense, possibly served as a model for Islam “Hadari”. But Andalusian Islam was a syncretic Islam, like Persian Islam, like Indian Islam, like Anatolian Islam—all different from each other, all great in their own ways. However, given the state of modern jahiliyya (literally, ignorance) being actively encouraged in this country, hardly anything is known amongst Malay Muslims about these civilizations and others like them.

Perhaps, reaching back into the history of Islam prior to these and other great ages, it is the intention of our protectors of Malay Islam to return to the pure and simple Islam of the Holy Prophet (saw) and his early Companions. If this were possible it would certainly be an admirable achievement; for a start, we can begin by hounding away the hantu and banishing the bomoh.

The fact, however, that no critical analysis, no unbiased study, no open discussion of any sort has taken place before the issuance of bans such at that on yoga, suggests nothing but the suppression of the facility of thought, the glorification of ignorance.

A Hundred Things Malay: The Book

During the past few months I have been trying to write another book, a book that will be both simple and yet in some ways complex. Perhaps the word “writing” here is not quite correct, for the book has nothing original about it. It may, more appropriately, be a described as a compilation, like a dictionary or tiny encyclopedia. I hope it will be in some ways exciting. I have a tentative title, also by no means original: A Hundred Things Malay, inspired by an elegant book entitled A Hundred Things Japanese published in 1975 by the Japan Culture Institute, Tokyo.

The complexity of my book-in-progress is best indicated by a question raised by one of my foreign students: Is there anything that is Malay? This set me thinking that I should seriously review the whole situation; perhaps even abandon the project. Having worked in what I have called “Malay” theatre for several decades now, I must confess that such a question did, every now and then, come into my mind as well. My own feelings about this issue and the student’s comments which stimulated them again, pushed me to seek out a solution. Yes, how does one define, first a Malay and then something as Malay?

On the question of who the Malays are and where their origins may lie several opinions are available, anthropological, historical, cultural, political. In the case of Malaysia, the definition familiar to all of us is that provided in the Constitution. This definition, is valid, of course only within the borders of the country, and will probably not be acceptable to others even in the so-called Malay World or Nusantara. The perspectives of the Philippines and Indonesia will, arguably, be different.

After some deliberation I decided that the fundamental element in definition of ethnicity or identity must be language. To me that seemed a good start, and so I would take it that anyone whose native language or mother tongue is Bahasa Melayu will be regarded as a Malay.

To some extent, and to a certain extent only, the dilemma I faced in compiling A Hundred Things Malay seemed to have resolved itself out.

But then there are other issues, concerned mostly with things which are now regarded in some ways as Malay, but which in fact originally came from other cultures, particularly from our Southeast Asian neighbours, from India, China, the Middle East or even the West. The recent confrontations between Malaysia and Indonesia about our National Anthem, the popular song "Rasa Sayang Eh" and the barongan theatre are cases in point. One can, no doubt, add many more items to this list.

The essential question, in this particular instance, is when does an imported cultural or art form become Malay? When, for instance, did mak yong, a pre-Islamic, animistic theatre genre with possible roots in present-day Thailand or even further north in Cambodia, become Malay? What elements turned the Urdu-Hindustani Parsee theatre into bangsawan, and is bangsawan indeed a Malay art form? These questions are symptomatic of larger issues. The answers to these and others like them are likely to be at best vague, loaded with emotion, controversial, potentially explosive.

I am reminded of a short poem I wrote some years back which appears in my Mirror of a Hundred Hues.


In turbulent times when definitions
Change by day and night
When race, religion and name
With random whims and fancies
Are restated time and again
The search for roots commences

The only problem with definitions
Is the change that comes
All too soon, while
The thing about roots
Is that deeper search reveals
Them entangled, inextricable

Thus past, present and future
Merge into pesembur
Now one strand identified, now another
Isolated, while dramatized attempts
At placation face undeterminable end
And the mind, uncertain, questions
The basis of a nation, seeks
The sacred markings
Of nationality

In the meantime, I seek compromises so that, somehow, my volume can be published in the near future even if, in the end, the proposed hundred things turn out to be merely fifty or less.