Harking back: Origin of the folk songs ‘Nanni Apo’ sang

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Aug 3 , 2014


My late mother-in-law, known to one and all as ‘Nanni Apo’, used to sing a lullaby to my daughters. They loved it immensely. It went like this: “Tootaya, mann motaya, uss gali no jaa, Us gali daay Jatt pharay landay phaiyan paa”. (Parrot, oh dear parrot, do not go to that lane, surely the crafty Jats will overwhelm you with charm).

One day I asked her where she had heard it from. “My ‘nanni’ who had heard it from her ‘nanni’”. But who wrote it originally, asked my elder daughter. “I have no idea, but people say it belonged to an age before even Sanskrit”. What an amazing reply. I informed her that this was not possible. “Well, believe what you like, but this is what we had heard from elders,” she closed the matter.

Surely this folk song has been with us over the ages and is a delightful verse sung by our women to tease friends. The framework of the parrot telling a new story emerging from the one the night before covered an ageless timeframe. Last month as I was researching the life of probably the oldest Lahore poet, Masud Sa’ad Salman, who was imprisoned by Mahmud Ghazni and taken to Afghanistan, he mentions the fact that of all the classics ever written, few can match the sweep and imagery of ‘Kitab Alif Laila wah Laila’, or ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. It is classic full of all the elements that make life so livable. But then he mentions that there is “a tale within the tales” itself.

The world came to know this classic as having Arab origins, with a dispute over whether it was Syrian or Egyptians. But for the first time Masud claimed that the framework was copied from that the ancient Indus Valley classic ‘Suka-Saptati’ (‘Seventy Tales of a Parrot’), for it had been translated into both Arabic and Persian. Each story started by a beautiful princess in conversation with her parrot, and that the bird kept warning her of the dangers of her wish to meet her lover.

In that collection was the story of a Sindh River pirate, who was called ‘Sindhbad Jahazran’. The Egyptian writer Masudi, writing in 951 AD, had attributed this famous story as being part of ‘Kitab-e-Sindbad’, a collection of stories brought from India and all connected to adventures on the River Sindh (Indus). Both mentioned the same Indian or Indus source.

But what about the great ‘Suka-Saptati’? There are surely several versions of this epic translated from the original Sanskrit, which one version claims as having been written before the Sanskrit language came into being. Sanskrit has its origin, primarily, in the ancient Punjabi spoken in the Indus Valley, as well as in other ancient languages of the various peoples of the Indus Valley and of Kashmir, and that its evolution, and preservation in script, is because of the Brahmin classes of the subcontinent. The undecipherable Indus script must also have played a role in its evolution, for in this great language our greatest ancient classics have been written.

But first let me locate where this was written. No clear writer’s name appears on the oldest versions available. Such epics, with an oral background, evolve over time. This is so because it is partly in Sanskrit and partly in Prakrit. This is much like the legendary folk tale of Heer and her Ranjha. In relative recent times Damador Das Arora of Jhang and much later Syed Waris Shah of Jandiala in Sheikhupura were to produce two classic versions. Other versions extolling Hindu and Sikh religious symbols are also there. But then this epic flowed from the earlier story of Krishna and his flute. The resemblance is uncanny.

So it was with ‘Suka-Saptati’, written very much in the land between the Beas and the Indus, the land in which Hinduism was born. It was, therefore, a classic Indus Valley product. Now back to the parrot. This is the very framework that was used in ‘Alif Laila’ which revolved around the suspicious king Shahryar and his beautiful wife Shahrerazade, who told her king a countless series of stories so as to survive.

In the story of Sindbad there comes a time when he confronts the deity Agni in a river that ‘flows fastest’. This, experts believe, is a reference to Indra the goddess of Iravati (Ravi). But surely the rivers of Punjab are where this legend was created. The Persian translation ‘Sindhibad Nameh’ is clearly Indus Valley in every respect. The story of the mongoose in another Sanskrit epic ‘Pancatantra’ is part of a ‘Thousand and One Nights’, which shows the origins of this great epic.

Great literature cannot be confined within geographic boundaries, just as the verses of Pablo Neruda are very much Pakistani as they are Chilean. The ancient literature that was nurtured along the rivers of Punjab need to be revived in Pakistan, even though we are averse to trying to understand our own land before the Afghans invaded, not that they have stopped.

You might be wondering just why I am harping away on our ‘deliberately forgotten’ past. There is a reason which I wish you to share with each other. The last time I visited the Punjab Public Library, I found rare Sanskrit book lying on the floor, as were other rare books. A group of friends offered to assist in cash, kind and free expert advice. No reply still.

Then I visited the immensely important Punjab Records, the largest archives after the British Museum Library collection, which is dumped in a dilapidated horse stable. We tried to assist. No reply. False promises followed. Is our heritage, like our walled city, destined to decay, eventually to get lost.

I can see in my mind’s eye my daughter’s ‘Nanni Apo’, smiling behind her half-dupatta hidden face, cheering the new generation to do something. Her songs belong to an oral tradition, which with the disappearance of joint families will also be lost. Surely all is not lost?

Published in Dawn, Aug 3rd, 2014




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