Tag Archives: Language

Learning Sindhi language in India

Learning Sindhi

Sindhi is a language spoken as a mother tongue by 23.4 million people in Pakistan, where it is the official language of the province of Sindh, and 2.8 million people in India, where it enjoys official status since its inclusion in 1967 in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Sindhi’s official recognition has given the language institutional support: the Sindhi Adabi Board and the Institute of Sindhology in Pakistan and the Sahitya Akademi in India which promote the publication of literature and research in Sindhi. Continue reading Learning Sindhi language in India

Preserving endangered Urdu language periodicals

The University of Chicago has been awarded a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), funded by Arcadia, for the digitization and preservation of 60 rare and endangered Urdu language periodicals. You can read more about the project EAP566: Endangered Urdu periodicals: preservation and access for vulnerable scholarly resources. Continue reading Preserving endangered Urdu language periodicals

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.

    []

Interview with Ali S. Asani, 2011

Ali Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University. He is a renowned specialist in the field of Sindhi literary studies. Michel Boivin interviewed him during his passage to Canada for a conference in May 2011.

Could you tell us a few words about your background and training as a scholar?

I received my undergraduate and doctoral (Ph.D.) education at Harvard. My undergraduate (B.A.) degree was in the Comparative Study of Religion with a specialization in Islam and Indo-Muslim literatures, while my doctorate was from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations where I specialized in the study of Islam and Muslim Cultures in South Asia. In receiving this education, which combined the study of religion with the study of South Asian Muslim literatures and cultures, I was fortunate to have two renowned mentors, Professors Annemarie Schimmel and Wilfred Cantwell-Smith.

How did you come to be interested in Sindhi literature? Did Annemarie Schimmel, who was your academic mentor, play a role?

I developed an interest in Sindhi literature for several reasons. While growing up in Kenya, I was always aware of my family’s ancestral roots in Sindh. My father, in particular, educated me about many aspects of Sindhi culture. I also learnt from him the important cultural and social roles that my grandfather and great-grandfather had played in the history of the Khojah community of Sindh. When I came to Harvard to pursue my studies, my interest in Sindhi was further sparked by Professor Annemarie Schimmel who, as you know, was one of the few western scholars to engage in research on Sindhi literature. The fact that my undergraduate and doctoral theses, both supervised by Professor Schimmel, focused on aspects of the Ismaili ginan literature helped consolidate my interest in Sindhi. Several ginans are regarded as examples of early Sindhi literature. In addition, Khojki, the script used in manuscripts to record the ginans and other literatures of interest to Sindhi Khojahs, is one of several vernacular or local scripts used to write the Sindhi language.

According to you, why is Sindhi literature and culture understudied in the West, in comparison with Punjabi, Gujarati, and also Hindi and Urdu?

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Sindhi is regarded as a language of limited political and cultural significance since it is mainly spoken in the province of Sindh in Pakistan. In addition, the language is of little significance in India as Sindhis, lacking a state of their own, have found it difficult to maintain the language among younger generations. In contrast, Urdu/Hindi is considered more influential as it functions as a lingua franca in South Asia and elsewhere. Similarly, the importance of Punjabi or Gujarati is sustained by the fact that they are associated with economically and politically significant populations in India and Pakistan as well as among the South Asian diaspora in the West, many of whom have maintained their connection and interest in their literary heritage. Secondly, Sindhi lacks adequately developed material to teach the language to speakers of Western languages. I have yet to come across a textbook that applies modern methods of language pedagogy to teaching Sindhi to English speakers that is accompanied by a sound set of exercises and audio recordings. Thirdly, Sindhi is more difficult to learn than any other North Indian languages. Its fairly complex grammar with its peculiar use of enclitics, its special sounds (especially the implosives) as well as the use of a modified version of the Arabic script are significant hurdles.

You have done extensive work on data written in Khojki script, the secret alphabet of the Ismaili Khojas. What is according to you the relation of Khojki with Sindh? In your work, did you come over Sindhi scripts like Khudawadi, Lohanaki or others?

Khojki was one of several scripts prevalent in Sindh before a modified version of the Arabic script was introduced as the standard script for the language during British colonial times. As its name indicates, it was a script primarily associated with Sindhi Khoja communities. In this sense, the script served as a marker of Khoja identity. As a member of the Landa family of “clipped” alphabets, it is related not only to other vernacular Sindhi scripts (such as Lohanaki and Khudawadi) but also to Gurmukhi, the script used to record the Sikh religious texts. As with Khojki, Gurmukhi also served to foster religious sectarian identity. As a result of the central role that Khojki played in the manuscript tradition recording the ginans of the Khoja communities, I devoted a lot of time and effort in researching the script’s origins and its relationship to other Sindhi alphabets. In the course of my research on Khojki manuscripts, I came across several varieties of Khojki which I suspect is the result of interaction with other script systems.

The leading “Sindhologist” Professor N.B. Baloch passed away in April 2011. What is your appreciation of his legacy? What would give as orientations?

Professor Baloch was clearly one of the most prominent scholars of Sindhi literature and culture. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the founder of Sindhi studies. With his demise, Sindhology has lost one of its shining stars.

The life of many Sindhi Sufi poets is shrouded in mystery. For example, you have devoted a study to Qazi Qadan (1453-1551). According to some sources, he was a qazi, but also a Mahdavi. How could we understand what stands like a contradiction?  

The Mahdavi were one of several groups who arose during the end of the first Islamic millennium in response to a widespread belief that a Mahdi (rightly guided one) would emerge to reform Muslim communities and bring them back to the path outlined by the Prophet Muhammad. This belief was shared by both Sunni and Shia groups, so for Qazi Qadan to be a Sunni Qazi and also be a believer in the Mahdi is not a contradiction. Although the Mahdi of Jaunpur, who is commonly regarded as the founder of the Mahdavi movement in South Asia, was persecuted for political reasons, his teachings can be considered in keeping with the religious mores of his time. From a literary point of view, what is significant about the Mahdavis is that they sought to propagate their ideas in vernacular languages. This is of course relevant to the history of Sindhi literature since Qazi Qadan is regarded as one of the early pioneers of Sindhi poetry.

What are the main features of the Sufi poetry of Sindh? What is shared with others like Punjabi and Gujarati? What are the main differences?

The use of folk poetic forms; the mystical interpretations of folk romances; the fusion of poetic and musical traditions; the dominance of the feminine voice and expressions of viraha (love in separation); imagery from agrarian work life (spinning, weaving, grinding grain, etc.); the influence of Sufi, sant and bhakti worldviews – these are some of the main characteristics of classical Sindhi poetry. There are certainly strong similarities with Punjabi literature. I have not studied Gujarati literature in sufficient depth to comment on comparisons with Sindhi.

What are your favorite verses in Sindhi poetry?

My Sindhi favorite verse is from a ginan attributed to Pir Sadr ad-Din (14th c.) that interprets the traditional imagery of a woman spinning cotton as a symbol for an important Islamic mystical practice – the constant recitation of the zikr or remembrance of God. I am drawn to it by the skillful way in which it fuses the material with spiritual significance.

How could we encourage the development of studies devoted to Sindhi literature and Sindhi culture?

The current political and economic climate in Pakistan, and specifically Sindh, is a particularly difficult obstacle to promoting studies of Sindhi culture. I do not see Sindhi studies thriving until there is stability in the province of Sindh. Political and economic stability are essential to promoting interest in Sindhi literature and culture. If European and American universities had more financial resources to devote to the study of Sindhi culture, perhaps through grants or private donations, I think that would also stimulate interest. In this regard, we should perhaps encourage wealthy Sindhis to donate to this cause. Equally critical is making available more research related to Sindh available in the languages of western scholarship. For instance, Professor Schimmel, through her studies and translations of Sindhi mystical poetry, did much to increase awareness about Sindhi mystical traditions among scholars of Islamic Studies. Finally, the study of Sindhi language needs to be made more accessible to those who want to learn the language. For this purpose, the writing of a pedagogically sound textbook providing instruction in the language from an elementary to advanced level with the appropriate audio-visual resources is crucial.

More about Ali Asani

2009 “Satpanth Ismaili Songs to Hazrat Ali and the Imams,” Islam in South Asia in Practice, edited by Barbara Metcalf, Princeton University Press, pp. 48-62.

2003 “At the Crossroads of Indic and Iranian Civilizations: Sindhi Literary Culture,” in Literary Cultures in History. Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by S. Pollock, University of California, pp. 612-646.

2002 Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia, London: I.B. Tauris.

1992 The Harvard Collection of Ismaili Literature in Indic Languages: A Descriptive Catalog and Finding Aid, Boston: G.K. Hall/Simon and Schuster.

Book: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

Farina Mir, The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2010.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. The author is currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. Her study is mainly based on the exploration of what is usually coined as folklore in a more or less derogatory tone, like for example the different versions of the tale of Hir and Ranjhe. It allows her to demonstrate how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. She demonstrates how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Michel Boivin