Monday, August 31, 2009

Folk fair: Mela of Chhapaar, Mythology & Memories

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 94 Vol IV, August 31, 2009
This was also published in the monthly publication Identity, September 2012

THE civilization of India has been characterised by a uniquely vigorous and ingenious celebration of human life in complete compatibility with all the attendant elements of nature, more particularly the cycle of seasons with the most merciful 'Monsoon Rains' in the prominent focus. The ancient traditions of religious and spiritual domain; long linkages of mysteries of history and mythology; conflicts and co-operation of divides communities; process of continuity and renewal in the realm of folk music & dance; popular entertainments and pastimes in their ever transforming modes including technological developments; the folk fast foods; apparels proclaiming people and commercial wares in their infinite varieties - folk fairs & festivals of India have always encapsulated them all! If the fair of Pushkar attracts people in hundreds of thousands in a rainbow extravaganza amidst the grandeur of beauty of a vast desert, the 12 yearly Maha Kumbh at the civilizational confluence of the trio of sacred rivers has the distinction of being the largest congregation of people for a festival on the planet!

The legendary Panjab, the shield & sword of the ancient land of Bharat and the granary of modern Republic of India, has a proud and rich heritage of fairs & festivals. According to official records, the pre-partition Panjab boasted more than 7,000 fairs; the number was counted 4561 in 1961 for the Indian Panjab. The truncated present Panjab has been left with 2,027 popular fairs. District of Hoshiarpur has the largest - 311 folk fairs followed by Sangrur & Ludhiana, with 136 & 135 fairs respectively. The encouraging trend is that more fairs are getting institutionalised commemorating local heroes and cultural aspects including sports festivals. The generous patronage of rich and famous Panjabis living beyond the seven seas from the soil of Panjab has been imparting a new vitality to the culture of folk fairs. It is also a healthy situation that 750 fairs are held in the rural areas of the state.

Fresco at the Googa Shrine, Chhapar

Mela of Chhapaar, associated with ancient tradition of 'Naag Poojan' i.e. the worship of the deity of Snakes, could be linked to Hindu mythological belief that planet earth is supported by millions of hoods of 'Shesh Naag' - the gigantic snake - whose soft curvaceous body also forms the resting spread of Lord Vishnu, the Lord of Preservation of the entire support system of life in the universe. The process of ploughing, sowing, watering and finally harvesting of crops have all been preceded by 'Naag Poojan' in some form according to ancient traditions of all faiths of India's heritage. The ritual worship of 'Googa Pir' - symbolising human dimension of snake - seems to have developed in North India as a secular tradition in the medieval times. So many intricate tales have got woven around the persona of 'Man-Snake-King' that sifting of reality from myth has been rendered impossible. Interestingly, folk lore even links the place of the fair to the Mahabharat era, being Capital of a powerful Queen, namely Chhapa. Kaul Basanti, the fiance of Arjuna's brave son Abhimanyu, is mentioned to belong to this place. The river Sutluj, it is pointed out, was flowing quite near by in those times. The ancient name of Chhapaar is also mentioned as 'Damrhi Shehar'.

The verifiable references about the Chhapaar Fair indicate that it was in 1833 A.D. that devotees of Googa Pir brought the soil & bricks from the ancient Googa temple in Dadrewa, near Bikaner to construct the present shrine. As the time rolled on, the sand dunes around the shrine were levelled to be brought under plough. The founding of new town of Mandi Ahmedgarh in 1903 at a distance of less than 4 k.m. to be followed by Rail link next year between Ludhiana-Dhuri-Jakhal opened up a whole new world in the region. There is also a reference that in 1914 Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Nabha provided funds for construction pukka shrine and also donated 25 bighas of land to it. The Mahavir Dal has done a lot in recent years to develop the area around the shrine. The two grand statues, one of Googa Pir mounted on his legendary horse and another of Lord Shiva, in his full regalia, riding Nandi Bull have been installed. The devotees offer prayer by splitting soil seven times in a dug up semi circle area in front of 'Marhi' i.e. shrine invoking protection against snake bite. The offerings inside the shrine consist of puffed rice, sugar balls-Patashas-Gur cakes, grains, cash, etc. According to the 1889 District Gazetteer of Ludhiana, more than 50,000 people of all faiths enthusiastically attended the fair - consider,that population of Ludhiana at that time was just 44 thousand (present 35 Lakhs), Malaudh 2889, Kaunke 3,608 & Bassian 2,9621!

I was luckier to experience directly the gusto, colorfulness and pulsating character of the Chhapaar fair when my family shifted residence to Ahmedgarh from our neighbouring village and I was put in the school there in 3rd grade in May 1951. For the next 20 years till 1970, I was a keen witness to the fun fare & splendid spectacles of this land mark fair. The passage of time with attendant socio-economic changes has been transforming the nature of the fair too. The traditional folk singers, rhymesters, minstrels of heroic ballads, artists of 'jinda'-live- dance; jokers, tricksters, tattooists - all have been plying their trades in the best traditions of their skills. The make shift shops selling amazing variety of wares; mechanical swings; Circuses (Gemini & Romon come to mind) with lions, elephants, horses, bears, male/female gymnasts; wells of Death; tented cinemas - all that presented, as if, a mix of Disney Land and Fairy Land - the on-off illuminations were indeed an other-worldly sight for people before introduction of electricity in 1956! My first film 'Koday Shah', shown by my father in company of his friends when I was in 6th grade, still remains my most favorite for delightful comedy in Panjabi and haunting songs. The lyric, 'Jagg wala Mela yaro, thori der da/ hansdia raat langhe, pata nee saver da!' - Fun-fare of the world is too short/ A night full of laughter; morning, we might cease to be! - sung in the soul-ful voice of Mohammad Rafi filled the atmosphere with message of an eternal truth by Sufi saints!!

After Independence, the conferences at the Fair by the political parties have become an interesting integral dimension of the fair. The Congress & Panthic Parties have been vying with each other in putting up larger Shamianas & ensuring that top leaders do come to address this popular open forum of people. It was, however, the make-shift stage of the Communist Party (when it was united) under the starry and moonlit sky that used to exercise a magical magnetic pull for the people. The gifted and dedicated group of Party's artist-activists including Joginder Bahrla, Balbir 'Mast', Narinder Dosanjh and many more inspired a generation of masses of Malwa region to adopt progressive ideals. When CM Captain Amarinder Singh failed to attend the Fair twice, in 2005 & 2006, while P.S. Badal was thundering there, the verdict of elections of Feb 2007, according to Fair loving Panjabis, had become a forgone conclusion!

It was on 21st October 1997 that as Indian Ambassador to far off Panama - the bridge land between the two mighty oceans - I persuaded visiting eminent thinker-dancer Sonal Man Singh to go to the annual folk fair at the church of Black Christ in Portobello, an ancient port city in mid-Caribbean. The fair, representing African connection of Christianity, simply overwhelmed Sonal who said, "It was such an impressive spectacle of devotees, dressed in purple and maroon colors, dancing all the way...that my Krishan Kannahiya would appear in this way before my eyes, I had never imagined this to happen in Panama!" Perhaps, similar mystical experiences are blessings of those who, purged of all pride & ego, mingle themselves among the multitudes of people brought together by feelings of love and friendship, in Mela Chhapaar or in any other similar folk fair!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

India's Muslim Question

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 93 Vol IV, August 15, 2009

MY search for answers & explanations to, 'India's Muslim Questions' had, as if, begun very early in life. I can recall, with all the profound innocence of a four years old, the strange atmosphere of the summer of 1947. The red covered 'Vahi', also called 'Chaupatta', i.e. the double-folded long-paper-sheets, family-record-book, confirms, "July 26: Rs 7/- spent on the materials for 'Amrit-paan', i.e. the Sikh Baptism ceremony". The partaker was my father who had added, 'Singh' to the given family name and also started sporting the Sikh 'Kachhehra', i.e. long pair of breeches extending up to knees instead of Dhoti. He also gave up sharing the 'Hookah', i.e. the traditional 'hubble bubble' with his grandfather. He was exactly 27 year old at that time, well read and well travelled, his spiritual journey from from a 'Sahajdhari' to 'Amritdhari', I may now say, reflected the spirit - 'Garam Hawa' - of the fast changing Time! The 'Vahi' has also on record that my great grandfather, a renowned physician-scholar and Guru of my father, passed away on 19th October - a day after the death of long ruling popular Nawab Ahmed Ali of Maler Kotla, the only Muslim state in the east of Sutluj.

It was on 29th October 1947, at the Bhog Ceremony, i.e. the last prayer for my departed great-grandfather after the complete recital of the Sikh scripture, Shri Guru Granth Sahib, that I overheard - and half understood - Pandit Barkha Ram, a learned Brahmin and close friend of the departed, saying "Ghor Kali Yug -the worst of the epochal ages - has indeed arrived; the noble people can no longer endure witnessing the brutal killings and the grossest injustice being heaped on humanity...". The first 100 days of the long awaited freedom of ancient Hindustan and birth of a brand new nation, Pakistan - the land of the Pure - had indeed witnessed the worst kind of violence against innocent people, in the name of religions!

The emergence of Pakistan had been considered an inevitable historical and political necessity by the retreating British empire; hailed as the ultimate solution to the Muslim 'Question/Problem' of Hindustan by the separatist Muslim League led by a determined lawyer, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and an avoidable most tragic blunder by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad & the Indian National Congress. The unprecedented situation was seen by many as the culmination of a process of churning, for centuries, of the waters of the civilization of the great Indo-Gangetic plains - containing both the Amrit, the heavenly liquid & also the worst poison. The Shiva like figure, Mahatma Gandhi, who could have swallowed the 'poison of raging communal hatred' was soon eliminated from the scene by elements interested in only the relentless pursuit of Power.

The majority of my school teachers were 'the refugees' from the other side of the Radcliffe Line. One of them, the erudite Ashni Kumar, remained my, 'friend, philosopher, guide & Guru Extraordinaire' till he breathed his last in 1991. He belonged to the town of Gujarat, the home of legendary folk heroine, Sohni. He had studied in Lahore in the early thirties and used to tell me proudly that he was taught English by Prof. Madan Gopal Singh who was killed in the communal riots (like another brilliant Prof. Brij Narain of Economics) and great Sanskrit scholar Dr. Raghuvira who had later become President of then Bhartiya Jan Sangh. We exchanged regular correspondence often dealing at length on issues relating to religion, politics education, literature, particularly in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi etc. He was, with his clearly progressive leanings, always so eloquent on themes of communal harmony referring to the deepest reservoirs of goodwill in all religious texts-and the ghashtly gaps in practice by the followers! When I had joined the college in Maler Kotla, he would ask me about the atmosphere of studies and the attitudes of Muslim Students. He would tell me that majority of his friends in college in Lahore were Muslims who used to tease him saying 'the real communalist is your Gandhi who is always indulging in strange religious practices in public; our Jinnah never goes to any mosque, nor does he observe any other Islamic rituals ... loves 'good' things of life!'. They would add that Jinnah mostly talked of the economic backwardness of Muslims and their lesser than legitimate share in the structure & system of the prevailing, and would be, governance of the nation.

It was in the above background that the title, 'Muslims in Indian Economy' First Edition, September 2006, caught my attention at the book sale counter on 1st January 2009 at the annual day long cultural congregation organised in memory of playwright political activist Safdar Hashmi 'martyred by hooligans of Congress Party in 1989'. The book has been published by Three Essays Collective in its series focusing on 'issues of contemporary concern ... to familiarise readers with current debates ... '. The reference to the similar questions above by my school teacher - debated during the decade following the adoption of the Resolution of 'Sampooran Swaraj' i.e. Complete Independence on 26th January 1929 and preceding 'The Resolution of Pakistan' on 21st March 1940 in the same city on the Banks of river Ravi. This comparatively slimmer paperback - 240 pages, Rs 275 (India) elsewhere $15 - volume by Omar Khalidi, 'an independent scholar and a staff member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology' poses all the relevant questions in the Introduction of the book, "What is the economic condition of the Indian Muslims at the dawn of the twenty first century? ... How does the economic profile of the Muslims compare with the majority Hindus, Dalits, and minorities like Christians, Sikhs & Parsis? ... Does Islam, or Islam as interpreted or lived, have anything to do with it? ... What is the record of the post-independence central and state governments? ...". Prof. Khalidi rightly points out that 'answers to these questions require a dispassionate reading of contemporary history ... it is also necessary for the appropriate corrective measure that need to be taken, both by the community leadership and by the state'.

The writer refers in the Preface and Acknowledgement that the Indian Muslim Council USA has funded the research for this book. The readership targeted - 'audiences' according to him - is "India's movers & shakers: legislators, administrators, politicians, leaders in business & industry, and the like". The theme of the book, stated in the introduction by the author, demanded treatment in manageable components in terms of regions or sectors of 'the 130 million Muslims in India ... the second largest Muslim population in the world'. The chapter titled 'Medieval and Colonial India' hurriedly traces the contours of the Muslim society as it evolved c.1200-1800 with three broad categories: the aristocracy and nobility, both secular & religious, the artisans and the cultivators. The Muslim peasants and cultivators, like their counterparts in other religions, remained economically active in agricultural production, fishing, herding and other manual work. Independent professionals among Muslims were few, except the traditional doctors or Hakims. The pattern of Muslim economic life did not change radically during the Mughal period of northern India (1520s-1720s) .The steady growth of the authority of East India company eroded the position of Muslims in law courts and in 1835, the introduction of English as the language for official governmental and legal business further marginalised the Muslims. The disaster, according to author, was "the Mutiny of 1857, which though commenced on caste grounds by Hindus, was blamed on the Muslim community as an anti-British revolt".

The Muslim exclusion from from the British dispensations took time to be rectified and the process was greatly facilitated by Sayyid Ahmed Khan of Delhi & Aligarh and Qazi Shahabuddin of Bombay. The book is replete with figures from the Colonial records to highlight how Muslims had regained their share in the rank and file of bureaucracy when the movement for Independence from the British rule under Mahatama gained full momentum. The Chapters titled, Independent India; Delhi., Uttar Pradesh (78-120), Bihar, Deccan & Andhra Pradesh (139-177), Karnataka, Maharashtra provide richly analytical information on the profiles of the Muslim communities in these regions. The Indian Muslims - in practice, the educated - had the option of migration to Pakistan till 1971. The opportunities in the oil rich Gulf countries during the last three decades have played a significant role in the evolution of the community. The ever strained Indo-Pak relations have continued to cast shadow on the morale and psyche of the community.

In Summary and Conclusions, the author has referred to the progress of the community in the southern states and how lack of education and training in professional fields has continued to negatively impact the Muslims of India. The author has tried to steer clear of politico-religious controversies stating, "the improvement of (Indian) Muslims' economic condition can only be a part of the general programme of poverty alleviation of all (the people of India)".

Syed Shahabuddin, formerly of Indian Foreign Service, an ex-MP & Editor 'Muslim India' observes in Editorial of June, "in 2004, 38 Muslims were elected to Lok Sabha; in 2009 the number has gone down to 30 ... on the basis 2001 census Muslim representation should be 72 ... in the 15th Lok Sabha, the Muslims will largely be voiceless: questions will not be asked...". We may, however, like to listen more attentively to Today's Akbar (M.J.), "Pakistan was only ever a very partial answer to what the British called the 'Muslim Question' ... they (Indian Muslims) are convinced now that 1947 was a mirage; but there is too much fog between them and the next horizon ... Economics has flattened the world into a race track, and not every community is in the race ..."

The most crucial question is: should only the Indian Muslims be feeling concerned over the issues pertaining to them? Should not the Indian Muslims also be deeply involved in the matters pertaining to the Majority Hindus & other minorities in the secular Republic of India and vice versa? I would strongly recommend Omar Khalidi's book to all who think themselves that they are 'Indians First' and also to those who prefer to prefix their religious identity to being Indian.