The Dawn: Oct 23, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Books: colonialism, language and spiritual music

Mushtaq Soofi 

It’s heartening to notice that an increased number of scholars, linguists and sociologists are focusing on the question of language that has agitated the public mind especially in the Punjab for generations as it has had serious cultural, socioeconomic and political ramifications in terms of shaping, reshaping and de-shaping the very identity of Punjab’s people. The Punjab after its occupation by the British colonialists in 1849 turned into a modern Tower of Babel creating a linguistic conundrum that has not been fully understood and sorted out.

New book ‘Colonialism, English and Punjabi’ by Dr Safdar Ali Shah, published by NUST (National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad) is a serious attempt to understand and analyse the much misunderstood language issue confounded by colonialism and post-partition particularistic ideologies which had and still have direct impact on literacy, education, culture and collective identity.

His is a historical narrative which starts with phenomenon of arrival of British colonialists in India that peaks in the mid nineteenth century with the fall of the sovereign Punjab.

Dr Safdar on the one hand traces the nature of indigenous education where colonialist were considered as foreign interlopers and on the other explores the introduction of English as a language of power as well as that of modern knowledge in the newly opened European type of schools and colleges in the context of grand colonial enterprise. His narrative lucidly exposes the thinly concealed socio-political motives that prompted the imposition of English language with a view to robbing the people of their cultural identity and mould the local elite in the image of white man.

The basic objective was to alienate the people from their roots in a calculated move to stem the resistance to the foreign rule and create new gentleman from the upper crust enamoured of European values, and loyal to British crown. How Punjabi as people’s language with long literary tradition survived in the face of this unusual and relentless attack is the other side of the historical story told by Dr Safdar. He is scholarly in his approach and objective in his analysis. The book is a very welcome addition to the scant body of research based knowledge on the crisis of linguistic identity the defaced Punjab faces.

Virinder Singh’s ‘Spiritual Music of Punjab’ published by Punjab Lok Leher, a Sahiwal based cultural body committed to promoting the Punjabi language and literature, is an unusual book in the sense that there a few among our academics who are competent and interested in writing on the music of the Punjab, traditional and contemporary. Cover design by Muqaddas Butt graphically reflects the diversity, the bedrock of Punjab’s culture. Virinder Singh, who teaches at the Manchester University, is son of the late Surjit Singh Kalra who devoted his entire life for the promotion of the Punjabi language. Idea of writing this book, in the words of the author, occurred to him while talking to the late Bhai Ghulam Muhammad, a ‘Gurbani’ singer, trained in classical music. Why and how we lost our diverse but shared musical heritage in colonial and post-colonial periods proved to be a motivating force that took the author to different people and places in West and East Punjab. Array of musicians, singers, musicologists and critics he met, talked to and interviewed is impressive but all of them cannot be taken seriously. Some of them, one may claim, are novices or highly opinionated.

The book is divided into seven chapters; Introduction, Music becoming Classical/Clessicul, Music becoming Religious, Making Sikh Kirtan, Making Qawwali, Worldly and Spiritual, and Conclusion. Some of the chapters may not be easily accessible as they seem to be loaded with academic jargon, scholarly terms and references ordinary reader is not familiar with. Virinder’s debate on the evolution and development of what he calls ‘spiritual music’ from pre-colonial to post-colonial Punjab is illuminating. The myth of many a colonial and post-colonial construct is debunked. Analysis of post-colonial modernity is highly relevant.

The moot point however is why the spiritual music of Punjab having diverse strands instead of creating conditions conducive to the acceptance of diversity and plurality, becomes vehicle of division and exclusion? Does spiritual music have organic link with faith? If Bhajan, Qawwali and Kirtan are spiritual music and spiritual music transcends religious and communal boundaries, how come that Bhajan does not move other than Hindus, Qawwali fails to enthral non-Muslims and Kirtan does not have the hypnotic power to put non-Sikhs into trance. These very genres by their exclusive nature provide the evidence of faith driven divisions that cannot be glossed over. Each genre is employed by a particular community to vend its exclusive religious stuff symbolising universal values.The fact of the matter is that spiritual music divides rather than unites the different faith-based historical communities having both inclusive and exclusive musical traditions. One may assert that it is secular music, not the spiritual which has the potential to bring otherwise divided people together evoking historically evolved aesthetic and creative experience that encapsulates the holistic view of our culture.

The strength of Virinder’s book lies in its suggestive power to generate dialogue and debate on the complex question of how Punjab’s music can cement the visible and not so visible aesthetic and emotional bonds between diverse faith-based communities. Additionally, this book as Qaswar Mubarak of ‘Lok Leher’ says in the blurb reflects a serious effort to bridge the increasing cultural gulf between the people of East and West Punjab.

‘Spiritual music of Punjab’ is a rewarding read if you love the sound of music that invariably has an air of mystery about it. —

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page