Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs of Punjab

A major conflict has broken out in Punjab, between the orthodox Sikh community and a sect (which may or may not be understood as a 'Sikh' sect) called Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS). It's a strange and complex issue, involving caste issues (DSS members are predominantly from what are called 'backward' castes), politics (DSS supporters are overwhelmingly Congress party supporters, while Punjab has for many years been dominated by the BJP-allied Akali Dal), as well fundamental questions of who gets to determine how a religion is defined.

The BBC has the basic details here:

Cities and towns across the northern Indian state of Punjab are shut in response to a general strike called by the Sikh community.

Security forces have been deployed and businesses and schools are closed for the day amid fears of violence.

Sikhs are demanding an apology from the leader of a religious sect who appeared in an advert dressed like one of the Sikh religion's most important figures.

Sikh community leaders say it is an insult to their religion. (link)

The DSS leader's name is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and there was controversy surrounding his leadership of the DSS before the current conflagration began. The DSS has grown quite rapidly in recent years, but its is also being investigated by the CBI on charges of sexual molestation, according to the Times of India:

The era also saw the sect embroiled in a number of contentious issues, especially those involving the dera chief. In 2003, an anonymous letter alleged sexual exploitation of young girls at the dera. Later, murder of a senior member of the dera and a Sirsa-based journalist set the rumour mills working overtime. Family members of the slain scribe moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, demanding a CBI probe into the role of dera in the murder. The case was handed over to the CBI. However, the CBI probe moved at a slow pace despite the HC pulling up the investigating agency. Also, political pressure and protests by dera followers did not help.

More recently, the dera courted trouble just before the Punjab assembly elections this year. Though it enjoyed the patronage of both the Akali and Congress leaders, the president issued an edict asking his followers to support Congress candidates. According to sources, this favour was extended after the party (Punjab Congress) promised relief in the CBI case. Post elections, there have been complaints of Akalis harassing dera men. (link)

That last point in the TOI above suggests how much might be at stake in this conflict; it also shows how intimately religion and politics are intertwined in India. This is at once a religious and a political conflict, and suggestions that the state remain neutral on a matter of religious doctrine, while correct in principle, do not really seem to apply. (It's yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to comprehend India's "secularism")

As a final comment, I should note that while I myself don't have very much first-hand knowledge of the various Dera sects (there are dozens) that are currently active all over Punjab and its neighboring states, a blogger named SidhuSaaheb (via Neha Vishwanathan at Global Voices Online) does have a fair bit to say about the DSS:

As I keep track of the coverage, in newspapers and on television, of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy, there are a few things that strike me as strange.

Firstly, the Dera has been described as a 'Sikh sect' in certain sections of the news media, whereas it has nothing to do with Sikhism (or any other religious faith, as for that matter).

Secondly, something that has been part of conversations in urban drawing-rooms and rural baithhaks in Punjab i.e. the Dera head issued an edict to his followers to vote for Congress (I) in the recent state assembly elections, only because that party offered to help 'dispose off' the criminal cases filed against the Baba and his followers (the charges include murder and sexual abuse), in case it was able to form the government, does not appear to have been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television channel.

Thirdly, most media reports seem to imply that the Sikhs have been outraged merely by the fact that the Baba appeared dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, whereas, the truth is that he not only dressed like the Guru, but also attempted to replicate, to a large extent, what the Guru did on the day of the foundation of the Khalsa (in spite of the counter-claims made in the latest press statement put out by the Dera). He tried to do a 'role play', in which he put himself in the place of the Tenth Master. (link)

He goes on to make some direct allegations about the murder of a family member by DSS members.

The note of outrage in SidhuSaaheb's account of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's actions is one I've also heard from every other Sikh I've talked to in recent weeks, as this has been unfolding. The sense of outrage is also very much present in this Outlook article by Chander Suta Dogra.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Four Talks in Three Days: North Carolina, New Hampshire

This was a busy week for me, as I did four talks in three days, over the course of visits to two different campuses, Catawba College and St. Anselm College.

The first visit was to Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Salisbury is a little town north of Charlotte, and Catawba is a small college with about 1200 students. It’s always nice to visit North Carolina in March, as the trees are already blossoming into life.

The main event was a talk on The Kite Runner, theoretically for the entire first-year class at the college. They put me up at an imposing guest house, which turned out to really be a small mansion decorated in fine southern style.

1. The talk on The Kite Runner is called “The Authenticity of The Kite Runner and the Problem of Cultural Translation.” It is a souped-up version of a general interest talk I’ve been doing at other places over the past year or so. The version I gave in Portland last year was perhaps still a little sketchy; this version was much closer to a fully-baked talk.

The students, generally, seemed to like it. But there's one thing I’ve noticed -- when you give talks about authenticity, even if you’re attacking the popular dependence on the concept of authenticity, people will wonder about your own ‘authenticity’ to speak. And every time I’ve talked about this, I’ve been asked something along the lines of “Are you an Afghan? Why are you doing this talk?”

On the one hand, as a literary critic I don’t feel any qualms whatsoever in saying, “well, I’ve studied it and thought about it, and that’s all the authority I need. Moreover, my point here is that authenticity is a value that readers cling to for the wrong reasons -– and insofar as they do cling to it, they’re probably going to be disappointed.” But even as I say that, I recognize that there is something to the idea that contemporary novelists are at their best when they’re writing about what they know, what they’ve personally lived through. (Interestingly, this wasn’t really true for writers like Dickens or Thackeray; perhaps “realism” has come to be defined in more exacting terms than it used to be.) Even if “authenticity” is a questionable concept for fiction, it is a concept that never entirely goes away. (Though it should still be said that the idea of an author's authenticity and a critic's connection to the subject she or he studies are two separate things.)

Critical authenticity or no, I am planning on rewriting this talk for one final time -- to turn it into a publishable (hopefully) essay –- on Afghan Expatriate Narratives (which will include a discussion of Nelofer Pazira’s book and films, Said Hyder Akbar, Saira Shah, Farah Ahmedi, and perhaps a couple of others).

2. At the same college I guest-lectured in a class on travel narratives, which was also fun. I could talk about my approach to teaching travel narratives at Lehigh, and build toward an argument that at the present moment of globalization it’s possible for writers to scramble the old codes and conventions of colonialist travel writing. As with much postcolonial literature in general, though, even as they aspire towards new forms, the legacy of the old forms is still in view. We’ve perhaps moved past the era of postcolonial revisions of colonialist classics (the Wide Sargasso Sea moment, if you will), but not entirely left it behind. One can’t entirely forget the Joseph Conrads and the Katherine Mayos even as one reads new work by people like Rattawut Lapcharoensap, whose Sightseeing is a form of ‘talking back’ to the conventions of western travel narratives, here with a focus on Thailand’s current status as a kind of sexual tourism destination.

I should also note that I enjoyed chatting with the faculty members I met at Catawba about diverse subjects, from the music Nitin Sawhney composed for the soundtrack of Mira Nair’s Namesake, to Lehigh’s famous advocate of Intelligent Design, Michael Behe. Despite the presence of superstar figures in the International Relations department and a top-ranked engineering college, the name most strongly associated with Lehigh –- especially down in Billy Graham country –- is still Dr. Behe’s.

3. On Friday morning I got on another plane and headed to St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire -– a state where the trees are still deep in winter mode, but the political season is fully in bloom. Here the college had arranged with a car service to take me to and from the college and a local hotel. And without exception, every driver I talked to had strong opinions on national politics, as well as specific political candidates. The college itself is also a bit of a political wonk’s paradise, which fairly regularly hosts debates amongst presidential candidates during the primaries. John Edwards, apparently, had come through last year, and in the same building where I gave my talk on Saturday morning (the New Hampshire Institute of Politics -– which has its own, in-house television studio), the New Hampshire Democratic Party was holding an internal election to determine its new leadership. Nearly every faculty member I talked to knew the names of the candidates for the internal leadership of the state Democratic Party. It’s a far cry from a state like Pennsylvania, where only hardcore wonks would really know the ins and outs of a political party’s internal structure.

Again, the main event was a talk on The Kite Runner, this time for a group of about 25 faculty members. Strangely, the talk I gave to first-year students, with only a few adjustments, seemed to work just as well for faculty. (Though it helped considerably that the faculty members were from a number of different disciplines –- everything from chemistry to theology to criminal justice. A talk just for the English Department would have needed to be entirely re-written.)

4. I also guest-lectured in a first-year composition class at St. Anselm. Here I was asked to talk about Sikhism, beginning with the early period, and including a perspective on the Sikh experience in the U.S., up to and after 9/11. And, since this talk was sponsored by the English department, I was also asked to give a brief discussion of modern, secular Sikh literature -– people like Khushwant Singh, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Ajeet Cour, and Kartar Singh Duggal.

Partly because my training is in literature rather than religion per se, I tend to find it awkward to discuss Sikhism in academic settings. Even simple questions like “what is the significance of the turban?” end up requiring rather complicated, nuanced answers. (The Sikh turban, or dastaar, is a central symbol of Sikhism that isn’t actually named in the Guru Granth Sahib, or the ‘Five Ks’ laid down by Guru Gobind Singh.)


Over the course of these various travels, several of my flights into and out of Philadelphia were delayed -– usually for purely administrative reasons –- and I was struck to find how many passengers around me were ready to recite their various travel horror stories. It seems the plague of delayed flights, long lines, non-working self check-in kiosks, and worst of all, missed connections, has made travel misery a central fact of life for anyone flying into and out of Philadelphia in recent months. The mood of air travel has gotten pretty grim; it makes me extremely glad that I’m not in a field like Consulting, which requires almost constant travel. How long before the hordes of disgruntled passengers start rebelling?


And that’s it -- back to daily life, grading papers and changing diapers.

(Not that I equate the two activities, not in the least…)

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, March 12, 2007

What did Guru Nanak look like? Textbooks in California

In California, the Times reports that the School Board unanimously voted last week to alter a seventh grade textbook image relating to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion (or panth), after protests from the Sikh community.

The controversial image isn't the big one pictured, but the small one (I've added a circle to make it clearer). The image is a 19th century painting of Guru Nanak wearing a crown and what looks like a somewhat cropped beard. Both the crown and the beard shape are troubling to Sikhs, who are accustomed to seeing images of Guru Nanak more along the lines of the bigger image to the right -- flowing white beard, and humble attire.

Though the New York Times has good interviews with community members on this, the Contra Costa Times actually spells out the issue more clearly:

The image is taken from a 19th-century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company's policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th-century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538. (link)

All of this raises the question -- what, in fact, did Guru Nanak look like? We don't have any images from his lifetime, and the later ones are clearly products of the values of their eras. What, historically, do we actually know? I went to Navtej Sarna's recent book, The Book of Nanak, to see what I could find out.

First off, I would recommend Navtej Sarna's book -- it's part of a series Penguin is doing, that also includes The Book of Mohammed. It's short, but it's well-written and accessible.

Secondly, Sarna states the obvious problem with any historical account of Guru Nanak: we don't have official (as in modernized, chronological) histories to work with, but rather a series of Janamsakhis, some of which were written down shortly after Guru Nanak's lifetime by personal associates, while others were written down a bit later -- at two or three degrees of separation. Some of the relevant manuscripts are mentioned, sketchily, at the Wikipedia site for Janamsakhis. (This Wikipedia entry could be improved!)

Some professional historians simply opt out of saying anything concrete about Guru Nanak's life. J.S. Grewal, for instance, in The Sikhs of the Punjab, goes right into textual analysis of passages from the Adi Granth, and doesn't mention any Janamsakhis. Sarna, for his part, acknowledges that his own work is based on the Janamsakhi materials, and proceeds on the basis that some of what is described is factual, while some must be under the category of folklore, and educated guesses have to be made. Along those lines, he comes up with a surprising description of Guru Nanak's attire:

Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried his rabab. He dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolized the universality of his mesage. He wore the long, loose shirt of a Muslim dervish but in the brownish red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white kafni or cloth belt like a faqir. A flat, short truban partly covered a Qalandar's cap on his head in the manner of Sufi wanderers. On his feet, he wore wooden sandals, each of a different design and colour. Sometimes, it is said, he wore a necklace of bones around his neck. (53-54)

Unfortunately, Sarna does not tell us which Janamsakhi this derives from -- and I'm sure people would be interested to know, since this is a bit different from the common image of Guru Nanak. Sarna does later mention that at the end of his travels, Guru Nanak gave up these "travel clothes" and adopted the ordinary dress of a "householder."

At every point, however, what's emphasized is the strength of Guru Nanak's personal humility and his rejection of personal wealth or political power (which is not the same as a rejection of the material world). So the crown that's pictured in the first version of the California textbook is certainly incorrect. The rest, however, is probably open to conjecture and argument.


One other thought: this controversy is obviously part of a new pattern of textbook contestation in California. An earlier chapter occurred last year, when the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation wrote long reports offering their criticisms and suggestions of the representation of Hinduism in California school textbooks. In a post on the subject, I reviewed the details of those reports, and came to feel that some were good suggestions, while others seemed to be cases of whitewashing history. Though some of the dynamics are similar, this is a very different (and indeed, much simpler) case.

Labels: , , , , ,