Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Professor Sarah Ansari, Royal Holloway

Interview with Professor Sarah Ansari, Royal Holloway, University of London (by Saba Sindhri, CEIAS-EHESS)

Professor Sarah Ansari is Professor of History on South Asia’s recent past at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research interests tend to focus on the history of (1) the province of Sindh and its mega-port city of Karachi, and (2) the lives of women in South
Asia. Her main publications are Sufi saints and state power. The pirs of Sindh, 1843-1947, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992; Women, Religion, and Culture in Iran, Editor with Vanessa Martin, Routledge, 2002; Life after Partition: Migration, Community
and Strife in Sindh, 1947-1962, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005; From subjects to Citizens: Society and the Everyday State in India and Pakistan, 1947-1970, Joint Editor with Taylor C. Sherman & William Gould, Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 2014; Boundaries of Belonging: localities, citizenship and rights in India and Pakistan, co-authored with William Gould, CUP, 2019. Continue reading Interview with Professor Sarah Ansari, Royal Holloway

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.

Interview with Ahmet Karamustafa, 2010

Ahmet Karamustafa is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written on various aspects of the social and intellectual history of pre-modern Islam and worked especially on Qalandars and other “deviant” Sufi movements.

During his visit to Paris in May 2010, Delphine Ortis, a MIFS member, interviewed him on his intellectual trajectory as well as his vision of the Qalandariyya, and the differentiation he makes between Sufism and the cult of saints.

Could you first tell us about your educational and professional training, and how you came to work in the field of “deviant” dervish groups and Sufism? What kind of research methodology did you develop?

I did my master’s thesis at the institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal on a subject that led me eventually to the dervishes. In the study of Turkish history, the views of a particular historian, Mehmet Fuad Köprülü, had become very prevalent. He was among the first to ask the question of continuity between pre-Islamic or not yet Islamised Turks. He had peculiar views about this continuity. He saw the deviant or antinomian dervishes as survivals of shamans within an Islamic garb. In order to test this view, I worked on the hagiography of a famous 13th century Sufi master, Hacı Bektaş. After my MA thesis, I decided to work on an early 16th century text in Ottoman Turkish because I wanted to gather more information about the dervishes. My analysis led me to write a more comprehensive though short history of these dervishes from the late 12th century through the 15th century. The thesis put forward in my PhD was drastically opposed to that of Köprülü. We don’t really understand these dervishes if we cast them simply as “survivals” or as superficially Islamized types; rather we should take their religiosity and their Islam seriously and attempt to come up with an explanation. I tried to find in any kind of historical sources all available references to what I called ‘dervish piety’. I sifted texts and synthesised the information I discovered in the light of what I knew about the historical context. I don’t think any single explanation will hold across the board.

What do you consider to be the most striking attribute of the Qalandari path vis-à-vis other currents of piety and other deviant dervish groups?

To my mind the most important trait of the Qalandars was their persistent cultural and social ‘iconoclasticism’ and ‘unconventionalism’. They were persistent in their criticism of respectable mystics and Sufis. The temperament that prevailed was that of the happy, merry and carefree. The Qalandars had liberated themselves from social custom, which pressed down on people. They were libertine in their ways and happy and content about that. They would do anything to set themselves apart from respectable people.

Why do you use the term ‘anarchistic’ that usually belongs to the domain of politics, to characterise a movement of piety?

I use the term anarchism primarily because I wanted my readers to feel the very clear sense of criticism and of standing against established authority that I saw in dervish piety. And this critical stance is what defines them more than any other characteristic. To be ‘anarchistic’ is clearly something that really matters to Qalandars. They are actually persistently needling the authorities. That’s their function. Their agenda is that of reminding people that they have to see through the ways in which power and authority works in society.

Could you determine some reasons why the Qalandari movement was essentially developed in the Persian cultural sphere?

I really don’t know. But let me mention another factor. I think the Qalandari movement, like ‘dervish piety’ in general, is noticeably more prominent in places and times where the prevalent Islamic religious culture was that of the Hanafi-school. This legal school provides a more open space, has a more permissive attitude towards overtly antisocial or unconventional behaviour. Now, from the 13th century onwards the Persian cultural sphere is dominated by the Hanafis. So, this is one possible explanation. But there are others which have to do with the local colouring and local flavour of ‘Sufisms’ in the different regions.

Are you able to observe significant differences between the Qalandars of the Turkish world and those of South Asia?

Indeed, I believe there are significant differences, even probably back in the 13th century. But I don’t have enough evidence concerning the early centuries of Qalandari history to give you a satisfying answer. I believe things changed drastically after the 15th century with the formation of the large scale empires. And within that context, the subsequent history of the Qalandars is one in which they quite clearly continue to react to the prevalent Sufis. But they would not deal with the same Sufis; I mean the South-Asian Qalandars were dealing with Chishtis in particular, some Suhrawardis and some Naqshbandis later on. So I would say that, yes, definitely there are differences between South Asian and Anatolian Qalandars, but they have to do with the fact that they are essentially evolving in rather different cultural domains, and with the different political circumstances of the early modern era.

In your research on dervish masters, could you discern a particular link between ‘Ali or the family of the Prophet and the Qalandar, as I think is the case for La’l Shahbâz Qalandar?

Such a link is the case for all the dervishes that I am familiar with. That is not particular to La’l Shahbâz Qalandar, I would say. It is quite clear that the shaping of ‘dervish piety’ in general is clearly enveloped in a very special attachment to the family of the Prophet. Now, later on in Islamic history we have a tendency to associate this particular link only with the Shi’is. What we tend to forget is that especially until the 15th century, there is a lot of investment on the part of many Muslims into precisely this kind of attachment to what they consider to be the ‘fountain head’, the spring, the source of sanctity and sacredness in Islam. But certainly with the dervishes it is a clear move in their own minds and in the minds of their audiences to demonstrate their credentials as the true practitioners of Islam; to demonstrate that their close connection to the family of the Prophet is something that they are very clear about. This is one of the puzzles of the study of dervish piety. I still wouldn’t see this as necessarily peculiar to the Qalandaris.

Two ideas you develop echo in particular with my ethnological work. Could you explain the idea of islamization, with regard to the interaction between Islam and local society?

Generally my sense is that, as historians, we really should be extremely close observers of the local scene in order to really understand the ways in which people see themselves as Muslims or are seen by others as Muslims. But as historians, we have serious limitations in doing that. We could still be much more focused on local forms of life and on local forms of piety. The problem is that there are very few historical studies along this line. A new publication of collected essays in seven volumes was just published, called ‘A People’s History of Christianity’ (Horsley, Richard A., ed., 2005 Christian Origins. A People’s History of Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press). This is a history of Christianity written not from the perspective of the church or from that of the authorities, nor of the theologians or the elites, but as we can see that history through the eyes of the people. We don’t have anything like that for Islam. With my research I contributed some things to such a project, but popular piety of the local type is really what needs our attention. What I mean by that is a sort of ethnographical history, we definitely need that focus.

Secondly, you insist on the distinction between Sufism and the cult of the saints at the beginning of Islam. Could you explain this idea, with regard to the origins of the cult of the saints?

On the one hand, we have a special mode of piety, a special form of religiosity, that developed among the urban middle class, an internalized form of piety that insisted on the need to explore within ourselves. But this can’t be a popular form of religiosity.

On the other hand, we begin to see what we call the cult of saints, just like in Christianity. These are popular cults that have nothing to do with Sufism. A local warrior or learned scholar dies, is buried, and then becomes the symbol of a particular village or town. And they all become automatically saints or a member of the family of the Prophet, whatever the reasons that led to sanctity. And sanctity is not confined to Sufism. So the idea is basically that these are developing as two separate phenomena: one is Sufism, the other is the cult of saints. But both flow into one another in a spectacular way, especially from the 5th Islamic century onwards. Eventually, many of the popular saints attempted to be or simply were Sufis. Analytically these are separate developments but they become completely interlinked with one another. And Sufism benefits greatly from this linkage.


Sufism: The Formative Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994. Paperback reprint: Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Vahidi’s Menakib-i Hvoca-i Cihan ve Netice-I Can: Critical Edition and Historical Analysis. Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures, 17; Turkish Sources, 15. Cambridge, Mass.: The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 1993.

Assistant Editor, The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 1, Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies. General editors J. B. Harley and David Woodward. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992 (awarded the R. R. Hawkins Award for Best Scholarly Book [1992] by the Association of American Publishers).

“Sufism,” in Voices of Islam, ed. Vincent J. Cornell. Praeger, 2007.

“Sufism,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 5. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans and Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2007.

“Origins of Anatolian Sufism.” In Sufism and Sufis in Ottoman Society: Sources, Doctrine, Rituals, Turuq, Architecture, Literature and Fine Arts, Modernism, 67-95. Edited by Ahmet Yasar Ocak. Ankara: Turkish Historical Society, 2005.

“Early Sufism in Eastern Anatolia.” In Persian Sufism: From its Origins to Rumi, 175-98. Ed-ited by Leonard Lewisohn. London: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1994.

“Antinomian Dervish as Model Saint.” In Modes de transmission de la culture religieuse en Is-lam, 241-60. Edited by Hassan Elboudrari. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1993.


Interview with Kishwar Rizvi, 2010

Kishwar Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History and Islamic Architecture at Yale University. She has recently completed a book: The Safavid Dynastic Shrine: History, religion and architecture in early modern Iran (London: British Institute for Persian Studies, I. B. Tauris, 2010). Dr Rizvi co-edited with Sandy Isenstadt another book, Modernism and the Middle East: Architecture and politics in the twentieth century (University of Washington Press, 2008). During her visit to Paris in December 2009, Annabelle Collinet (Louvre Museum), interviewed her about her work and projects.

Can you tell us first about your background and how did you come to work on this field?

I am an architect and art historian, with an interest in issues of religion, gender and nationalism in the art and architecture. My primary research areas are Iran and Pakistan, with current projects in the United Arab Emirates. My research moves between the early modern period of the ‘great’ empires of 16th and 17th Turkey, Iran, and India, to contemporary cultures of the modern Middle East and South Asia.

I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the United States for Bachelors, Masters, and eventually PhD degrees. During these times, I practiced also as an artist and an architect. Although my recent scholarship has focused on Iran, I have been documenting and photographing architectural sites in Sindh, Pakistan, for many years. Of particular interest to me are shrines and funerary architecture, as found in Makli, Sehwan, and Bhit Shah.

What was your first fieldwork experience?

I have conducted fieldwork in Iran since 1994. My focus has been on Sufi and Shi`i shrines for the 16th and 17th centuries, that is, the Safavid period. My first project in Iran was the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the ideologue of the Iranian revolution. I was interested in the manner in which historical form, such as the tradition shrine type, merged with modern concerns of nationalism and popular culture. I did research for my PhD dissertation on the shrine of the Sufi Shaykh, Safi al-din Ishaq Ardabili, the founder of the Safaviyya order.

What sort of research methodology did you develop at that time?

The primary focus of my research have been the shrines of Shaykh Safi al-din Ishaq in Ardabil (northwest Iran), Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad, and that of his sister, Fatima Masuma in Qum. In my methodology, I depend on close historical analysis of chronicles from the 16th and 17th centuries, illustrated manuscripts, literary texts, as well as European travelogues. I am particularly interested in asking how architecture, as a functional space, also performs as a symbolic site for the enactment of the rituals of piety and imperial ideology. Combining the formal with the phenomenal, one may reach a better understanding of the religious and cultural contexts of a period, in this case, Safavid Iran. I also study, as comparanda, religious and imperial representations in Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India.

As a native of Karachi, you have visited very often the Sufi shrines of Sindh in Southern Pakistan. What did you find particularly appealing about Sehwan Sharif?

I am particularly interested in shrines such as that of Sehwan, because of the access they allow for women. Such is not the case in other spaces, such as mosques, in most Muslim countries. Sehwan also holds a very special place for me on a personal, as well as professional, level. I have visited it since I was a child, and have always been fascinated by the dynamism of the site – as a place of both communal and religious activities. In fact, much of my academic research has been driven by questions first formed in Sehwan; for example, how does one study an architectural monument that is constantly changing and evolving, in form and meaning? What is the role of Sufism in contemporary Pakistani society, and how does the shrine institution augment that role? What are the particularities of Sehwan’s ‘ecstatic’ tradition of Sufism, and how do they affect the way in which the shrine is used and understood? How can we describe the phenomenal qualities of the space? What medium would best capture that dynamism – text, music, photography – and what can the architectural historian contribute to that understanding?

In sum your experience of Sehwan Sharif played an important role in your trajectory. Can you elaborate more about the relationships existing between gender and architecture at the mausoleum of La`l Shahbâz Qalandar? What were the major conclusions of your study at Sehwan?

The shrine of La`l Shahbâz Qalandar maintains what would be considered the ishrâqî tradition of Sufism and, as the rituals and ceremonial evinces, an ‘ecstatic’ mode. By that I mean that the weekly dhammâl in the courtyard (the beating of the ritual drums, qawwâlî, and dancing) creates a space that is phenomenal and also illusionary. In my research I was intrigued by how women’s bodies inhabit the shrine, and how their particular designation (for example, ‘young girl’, ‘prostitute’, ‘transvestite’ and so on) could be codified through architecture and ritual. One of the insights was that the shrine is gendered space, and yet the idea of gender becomes unstable through the complex social and spatial negotiations that take place in it. Indeed, the rituals and dance within ‘powerful’ spaces such as the courtyard and tomb enclosure alter and subvert the male/female dichotomy.

Since your childhood you visited Sehwan. What major changes did you notice in terms of urban architecture?

This is a difficult question, and one that my sociologist and urban historian colleagues can answer better. However, I did see that the shrine is much cleaner and under closer management. My first impression was that the institution has become more commercial and tourism has increased, but I suspect that has always been a factor for popular pilgrimage sites such as this.

How did your experience of Sehwan contributed to your understanding of other sites, ie the mausoleum of Khomeini and others?

There are multiple ways in which the experience at Sehwan continues to inform my research, both in the context of sixteenth-century shrines in Iran and contemporary religious architecture elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia. It teaches us to think more deeply about spaces for women in Islamic society, the political and ideological power of religion, and, perhaps most interestingly, the phenomenological experience of architecture through rituals of devotion.

More on Kishwar Rizvi

“Image of Man, Vision of the Divine: Illustrated Assembly of Lovers manuscripts in 16th-century Iran,” lecture at the workshop, “Troubling Images: Some Cross-cultural reflections,” sponsored by the Religious Studies department at Yale University, May 2010.

“Sites of Pilgrimage and Objects of Devotion,” chapter on the great shrines at Ardabil, Qum and Mashhad, for Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, edited by Sheila Canby, (London: British Museum

Press), publication accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, 2009.

“Locating Architecture, Gender and Ritual at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz in Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan,” on the panel “Boundaries of Sacred Space: How “Public” and “Private” Come into Being,” at the biannual conference of the American Council for Southern Asian Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, lecture, March 2007.

“Religious Icon and National Symbol: The Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran,” Muqarnas: Journal of Islamic Art and Architecture, vol. 20, 2003.


Interview with Richard K. Wolf, 2009

Richard K. Wolf is Professor of Ethnomusicology at Harvard University. While working first on the Kotas of South India, he did fieldwork on Shia and Sufi rituals in Pakistan. Dr Frédérique Pagani, a MIFS member, interviewed him in May 2009 about his fieldwork in Sindh, including his methodology.

How did you come to study Sufism?

I started out studying ritual drumming. I looked at all the different contexts in which drumming was important. I didn’t start out with the intention of doing something Sufi at all. There was a close connection between Sufi and Shia things in a kind of a popular realm even though rather strict Shias don’t necessarily like to be associated with Sufism; still, we found a Shia family for example that was in charge of a Sufi shrine in Punjab, and I guess this is not all that uncommon.

You talk about a kind of porosity of religious boundaries between Shia and Sunni in Sindh which was very interesting. What was your understanding of this situation in Sindh?

Among Sindhis, my impression was that Shias and Sunnis both practice Muharram in the same places and engage in some of the same kind of activities. In some processions, at least, both populations would be together; Shias would also be musicians and so the kinds of distinctions between the two groups, which is more pronounced in most urban areas and outside of Sindh, did not seem to be so pronounced even in the relatively urban area of Hyderabad.

You said that when you cannot attend a musical event, you ask the people to do a demonstration, can you explain in a more detailed way the way you work with the musicians? Perhaps if you take a precise example…

For example, the drummers who played on my video tape of Madho Lal Hussain, I took their names and addresses at the event because I couldn’t talk with them there. And then, I tracked them down later and had them come to my apartment in Lahore. There I had a longer discussion with them about what they were doing there and their relationship with the dancers; I asked them to play their versions of the different rhythms I had been studying.

In Lahore the best place to record and interview was at my home; there, other people would not come and interrupt us, give their own opinions, and things like that. But sometimes I was forced to discuss these things in crowded places where there were a lot of interlopers and distractions. It was sometimes difficult to find a place where drummers could demonstrate because it’s so loud. The drumming would alert people and they would wonder why it was going on.

Has it also something to do with the fact that, you’re explaining in your paper on Madho Lal that there are appropriate ways to do music and inappropriate ways. Is it sometimes inappropriate to do music in front of you? Is it disrespectful? For example if it’s a musical religious event and if it’s detached from the context, has it something which sounds a bit disrespectful?

No. Not in that way. It’s not disrespectful. There are a number of different kinds of issues. So like among the Kotas, if you play funeral music when it’s not a funeral, then you don’t play any of this stuff, loud instruments, outdoors except for maybe some celebratory and not particularly marked occasion; but it’s OK if you go at distance, away from the village. Because otherwise people think that there is a funeral and they start feeling bad and so people would come and say, “Don’t do that.”

As for Muharram performance, if a group of musicians agree to go out to an open field and play the different rhythms, it usually doesn’t matter. But in urban contexts it could matter. In one Karachi neighborhood, as I discussed in my Muharram drumming article in the Yearbook for Traditional Music, a community that supported Muharram drumming was under pressure to curtail this activity and a number of related rituals such as carrying the taziyah. Their processions and drumming during Muharram were sort of tolerated; but reformers didn’t really think that’s a proper way to observe Islam. So members of this community were under pressure not to go outside and perform for me even though it was still the general period of Muharram (but not the first ten days). They did it indoors for me. Sometimes playing out of immediate context can be a sensitive issue, but it’s not a matter of musicians lacking respect for the context of the music exactly.

You give the concept of emotion a fundamental place in your paper on Muharram drumming and in several other publications. Can you detail a bit more the relation between emotion and music?

Well I got interested in that mainly because of funerals. Many people have been interested in why there are celebrations even on occasions of mourning. I was particularly interested in how we deal with the combination of different emotions that are associated with occasions like this – and the fact that musical pieces or styles can be associated with some components that have explicit emotional connotations.

In your paper on Madho Lal Hussain, you speak of the `urs as a “highly heterogeneous event”. Can you explain the notion of heterogeneity in relation to the rituals and the way you try to deal with this?

I think it’s very hard to talk as if you are dealing with a single culture when you’re looking at a very complex event. So many things are going on at once. But it turns out that there are usually some themes that people hold in common. They might deal with them differently. We can’t just say: “This is so heterogeneous, there is nothing at all in common and we have no grounding whatsoever.” People experience the same kinds of events over and over and develop certain expectations that are based on that experience. They’re also exposed to certain kinds of poetry in the respective languages that brings up so called Sufi themes… So it’s inevitable that there is going to a certain amount of common knowledge.

That means that you really need to be used to the event…

Ideally yes. It’s pretty hard to get used to the events themselves, but the picture starts to look more cohesive when you put together general observations with the points that participants make repeatedly during interviews.

Can you explain for instance how you worked on precise events?

I usually heard that something was coming up and I would decide I would go; I didn’t necessarily have time to prepare…

Yes, for example, you record, you try to analyze this, you show it to the participants…

Yes, that’s what I try to do. I would record interviews. Back in 1996, I would go over the recordings carefully with my Urdu teacher, and listen for where our discussions were ambiguous; there was often an issue to be explored at such places in the interview. So in general just working through the materials in multiple ways is very helpful. Often I found out about interesting places to research from these interviews with drummers. I would ask them to tell me stories of what happened when they were playing or about the pieces. Then I would want to go and see them in those contexts.

More on Richard K. Wolf

Richard K. Wolf has written about classical, folk and tribal musical traditions in South India as well as on musical traditions associated with Shi’ism and Sufism in North India and Pakistan.

(ed.) Theorizing the Local: Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and Beyond,

Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.

The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space, and Music in the Lives of the Kotas of South India, Permanent Black, 2005 and University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Interview with Monik Kervran, 2008

Monik Kervran, a researcher at CNRS, headed the French Archaeological Mission in Sindh (MAFS) between 1989 and 2002. We interviewed her in October 2008 to reconstruct the scientific itinerary that led her from the Persian Gulf to the Indus Valley and the region of Sindh, specifically the site of Sehwan Sharif.

On the excavation site, Sehwan Sharif

Can you describe us the steps that led you to open new sites of excavation in the Indus Valley?

In the 1970s the Persian Gulf opened up to scientific expeditions from the West, including archaeologists, iranologists and islamologists. At that time, the scientific challenge was to deepen our knowledge of commercial activities between the Arab and Iranian coast. Trade with Asia, India and China, was also a field to be studied, in particular the period from antiquity to the Islamization of the Indian subcontinent. When I did excavation in Bahrain and Oman, I was intrigued by the strong presence of a very special sort of ceramic, which is red and strongly micaceous. Following this discovery, I decided to find the export ports of this ceramic, which led me on the side of the Indus Valley.

The common thread running through your scientific route is the presence of these red glazed tiles, so you wanted to discover its origins.

Yes indeed. During a private trip in Sindh in 1987 or 1988, I was quickly fascinated by the presence of red glazed tiles in the oldest ports that we could find, that of Barbariké/Daybul now called Banbhore. We dated it between 400-300 BC and 950-1000 AD.

Is it there that you opened the first excavation site of the MAFS?

No, not at all. In fact, after negotiations between France and the Government of Sindh for the opening of an archaeological excavation site, an agreement was reached and the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs was ready to finance the project. But in 1989, when we arrived in Pakistan to begin the excavation, the new Director of Antiquities in Karachi did not agree that we work in Banbhore, ostensibly for security reasons. We finally started our excavation work at Ratto Kot (see map), an outpost of Banbhore located fifteen kilometers downstream. Between 1989 and 1995, the MAFS was principally interested in this outpost and then in a second port, the Juna Shah Bandar or Lahori Bandar, mentioned in written sources from the 10th century. During this mission, six ports were discovered in the lower Indus Valley, but only some of them were excavated.

What have you learned from this first campaign of the MAFS?

The excavation of these two ports has helped us to highlight the mechanism with which ships were cleared for entry into Sindh. Such a device was also described by a source dating from the 16th century. But this system met its match when faced with more important invaders, for instance the Arab armies who conquered Daybul and Sindh in 711 or the Portuguese invasions of the 16th century. Having no reference study, we had problems dating the ancient and medieval ceramics. So we had to find a new site in order to have a stratigraphic reference, necessary for the calibration and timing of our samples found in the Indus Valley. After an initial refusal by the authorities (1994) to open an excavation site in the city of Hyderabad, again for security problems, we obtained the necessary permits for the site of Sehwan Sharif.

Why did you particularly choose the site of Sehwan Sharif?

Firstly, this city, which had suffered the invasion of Alexander in 325 BC and of British troops in the 1840s, had the advantage of having a tell overlooking the city and separated from it by a ditch. The site had never been excavated and archaeological layers were clearly visible. The first sounding, from the top of the tell up to the initial layer, that is more than twenty meters sounding, delivered vital information. Seven phases of cultural occupation of the city were made clear and were easily interpretable, from the 4th century BC until the 16th century AD. Finally, we were able to draw up the necessary stratigraphic reference for dating the sites discovered in the Indus delta. This has also delivered a number of clues allowing a better understanding of the history of the city and the region. For instance, we found confirmed that in the 13th century, when the city fell under the thumb of the Delhi Sultans, the tell became essentially a garrison and local people occupied the southern part of the fortress. The stratigraphic reference from Sehwan Sharif between 1996 and 2002 allowed us to put forward many other hypothesis for historical research. The opening of another site in the town of Sehwan itself would have enabled us to look for signs of more ancient urbanization.

More on Monik Kervran

Monique Kervran (2005), “Pakistan. Mission Archéologique Française au Sud-Sind”, Archéologies. 20 ans de recherches françaises dans le monde, MAE, Maisonneuve et Larose/ADPF-ERC, pp. 595-598.

Monique Kervran (1996), “Le port multiple des bouches de l’Indus: Barbariké, Dêb, Daybul, Lâhorî Bandar, Diul Sinde”, Res Orientales, VIII, pp. 45-92.

Monique Kervran (1993) “Vanishing medieval cities of the northwest Indus delta”, Pakistan Archaeology, 28, pp. 3-54.

Monique Kervran (1992), “The fortress of Ratto Kot at the mouth of the Banbhore River (Indus delta, Sindh, Pakistan)”, Pakistan Archaeology, 27, pp. 143-170.