Eclipse of a giant: A tribute to Nabi Bakhsh Baloch (1917-2011)

Nabi Bakhsh Khan Baloch (N. B. Baloch, sometimes written as N. A. Baloch) passed away on April 6, 2011. Born in 1917 in the small village of Jaffar Khan Laghari, in Sanghar District, he belonged to the Baluchi tribe of the Lagharis, but he nevertheless adopted the name of Baloch. It is thus a nod to history that one of the best specialists of Sindhi studies was named… Baloch. In fact, it is a marvelous example of the complex society of Sindh. His father was a poor illiterate peasant who passed away soon after his birth. He was thus grown up by his paternal uncle. Since I had the chance to meet him a number of times, I want to point out that when he was in his nineties, N. B. Baloch had still kept a fascinating memory and intelligence.

N. B. Baloch obtained his B. A. from Junagarh College, in Kathiawar (nowadays Gujarat State in India), affiliated to the University of Bombay, and a M. A. in Arabic from Aligarh University. In 1946, he went to Columbia University in New York where he got a Ph. D. focusing on education in Pakistan. After returning to his homeland, he was soon appointed as Professor in the new University of Sindh, located in Hyderabad (now Old campus). N. B. Baloch used to live in the Old campus until his death, even after the shifting of the University of Sindh to the other bank of the Indus River, in Jamshoro. N. B. Baloch was given the highest positions in the academia, such as vice-chancellor of the University of Sindh, and many others.

The scholarly work completed by N. B. Baloch is impressive. He implemented an encyclopedic approach to a huge topic: Sindh, through history, archaeology, ethnography, literature, folklore… He covered so many fields that one could hardly find a topic on which he did not publish. To some extent, Nabi Bakhsh Baloch is reminiscent of another giant in Sindhi studies, Mirza Kalich Beg (1853-1929). As a staunch Sunni Baloch, N. B. Baloch was nevertheless less interested by Shia devotional literature, as well as Hindu one. Furthermore, he came to be fascinated by classification, and one can think that he felt that this world was disappearing after partition, hence the need to ‘catalogue’ it.

For the student in Sindhi Studies, however, his most salient publication is his five-volume Dictionary of Sindhi Language, also published in an abridged version in one-volume, and afterwards the 42 volumes devoted to Sindhi popular literature. I would like to highlight the latter in relation with the wide corpus of devotional literature. In 1956, the Sindhi Adabi Board created a Folklore and Literature Project with N. B. Baloch as director. The entire Sindh was covered by a network of fieldworkers stationed in each taluka, their duty being to collect oral and written materials. A volume devoted to folk songs (lok gît) is a good sample of his concern over classification. He was able to identify 57 types of folk songs in the lower Indus valley, or Sindh (lok gît, Sindhî Adabî Bord, Hyderabad, 1965). He first classified lok gîts into two main categories: the gîts which became out of fashion, and the still popular gîts.

A subcategory of devotional songs includes maddah, mawlûd, munâjât, and also marsiyah, although he did not, according to my knowledge, published any of these dirges devoted to the martyrdom of Husain and his family in Kerbela (680)1. Among the ‘still popular’ gîts, the 56th is of interest, bearing the name of pîrâno, meaning gîts devoted to the pîr, that is a Sufi master (idem, p. 395-6). Baloch only quotes a single gît devoted to Pithoro Pîr, the pîr of the Meghwars, an untouchable Hindu caste (qawm) of the Thar Parkar. While Baloch coined the pilgrimage place (ziyârat) as âstana,2 it is mentioned in the gît as mârî. The âstana is a word of Arabic origin used in Sindh for the residence of a faqîr, while the mârî designates in Sindhi the upper room of a house, but also a temple, or any place considered as sacred. The song ends with the following verse:

Murîd âhan mohara jâ, âhe âsân jo pîr…

We are the murids of the (his) seal, he is our pîr

Although Baloch was interested in the entire corpus of devotional Hindu gîts, at a time when they were devoted to a Muslim pîr, the volume on maddah (eulogy) and munâjât (confidential devotion) is one of the most precious piece of the collection (Maddahûn ain munâjâtûn, Sindhî Adabî Bord, Jamshoro, 2006, first printed 1966). The 102 devotional poems contained in this collection are almost equally divided between maddah and munâjât. The first lesson we can learn from this corpus is that despite the widespread practice of worshiping saints, the Prophet Muhammad is very much praised, as nabî. Among the Sufis, one badshâh pîr is venerated more than others. He is `Abd al-Qâdir Jilânî, the alleged founder of the Qâdiriyya tarîqa (idem, p. 109). Another one is Ghaws Bahâ’ w’l-Haqq, better known as Bahâ’ al-Dîn Zakariyyâ, the Sohrawardî pîr from Multan (ibidem, p. 507). One can easily understand that only a few maddah-s and munâjât-s are devoted to local Sindhi pîrs. There is hardly one maddah on Shâh `Abd al-Latîf (ibidem, p. 95), and another one on Pîr Pagaro (ibidem, p. 313).

An interesting maddah is devoted to the châr yâr, the “four friends”, a very common topic in the devotional poetry of the Indus valley. In many legends, the châr yâr are Bahâ’ al-Dîn Zakkariyya, Farîd al-Dîn Ganj-e Shakar, Lal Shahbâz Qalandar and Makhdûm Jahâniyyân Surkh Bukharî. Fath Faqîr (d. 1843) wrote a number of maddahs on the châr yâr. One of his maddah-s, which is a very interesting piece of poetry, begins with a number of praises to God, containing the many Quranic names which are given to him. Every verse includes a hemistich and only at the bottom of the maddah, the poet gives us the name of the châr yâr. Interestingly, these four friends are not Sufis, but the first four caliphs of Islam, the khalîfa rashîdûn, the well guided caliphs. First comes Abû Bakr, often referred here as sacho sadîq, the ‘real truthful’; the second is `Umar, third is `Usmân Shâh and the fourth is `Alî Hyder. Another specialist of the châr yâr, Faqîr Lagharî (1809-1878), is very explicit about the role played by them: châr’î yâr nabî’a nûr, the four friends (bear) the light of the prophet Muhammad (ibidem, p. 157).

One of the consequences of Baloch’s work is obviously to highlight the interrelations between devotional literature and Sufism in the Sindhi area3. Such a contribution opens up a wide field of research, while raising also a number of new questions. Where does Sufism begin and end? More precisely, should we restrict the label ‘Sufism’ to the sphere of high culture, as incarnated for instance by the poetry of Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî or Amîr Khusraw? Answering such queries would imply to develop new research projects. On the other hand, it is obvious that the “real” Sindhis interviewed by Baloch and his fieldworkers are not aware of such debates. This finally leads us to question our own categories of thought, which are partly a legacy of orientalism. These thoughts simply provide a glimpse of the contribution N. B. Baloch achieved in the field of Sindhi studies. Needless to say, the immense work completed by this scholar will, for decades, continue to feed and stimulate research on Sufism, and on many other topics related to Sindh.

By Michel Boivin

  1. On the latter, see Annemarie Schimmel, 1979, “The Marsiyeh in Sindhi Poetry”, in Peter J. Chelkowski (ed.), Ta`zieh, ritual and drama in Iran, New York, New York University, pp. 210-221. There are only a few academic works on the devotional literature in Sindhi. Such a topic is usually excluded from ‘official’ publications on Sindhi literature: see A. Schimmel, 1974, Sindhi Literature, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz. See also Ali Asani, 2003, “At the Crossroads of Indic and Iranian Civilizations. Sindhi Literary Culture”, in Sheldom Pollock (Ed.), Literary Culture in History. Reconstruction from South Asia, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, pp. 621-646; 1994, “The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry”, in Alan W. Entwistle and Françoise Mallison (Ed.), South Asian Devotional Literature, New Delhi, Manohar, pp. 213-225. []
  2. I quote the words, and also the names, according to dialectal transliteration as mentioned in Baloch’s publications. []
  3. It is noteworthy to mention the three volumes devoted to qâfiyyûn, which are beyond the scope of this modest tribute. See Qâfiyyûn, 3 volumes, Sindhî Adâbî Bord, Jamshoro/Hyderabad, 1980-1990. See also my forthcoming article entitled “Devotional literature and Sufism in Sindh in the light of Dr N. B. Baloch’s contribution “, The Journal of the  Pakistan Historical Society, published by Hamdard University.

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