Monday, August 15, 2016

Linkages between Sikhism and Sufism

A couple of months ago, at Siri Fort, there was a performance by the amazing Wadali Brothers of Punjab. Like many singers, the Wadali Brothers take their name from their village; Wadali, which is the birthplace of the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobindji.

The Wadali Brothers sing in the Gurbani, Kafi, Ghazal and Bhajan genres of music. They believe in the Sufi tradition deeply and are liberalists at heart, believing in freedom of religious practice as homage to the divine one. Their performances - part dialogue - part music - are deeply stirring. If you want to listen to it, here's the website: http://www.wadalibrothers.in/

Many people think 'Sufi music' (by which they mean quwwali) is a purely Muslim tradition. In the Punjab, though, there has long been a tradition of 'Sikh Sufi music'. 

Sufism became popular in the Punjab through the mystic Baba Farid (Hazrat Khwaja Farīduddīn Mas'ūd Ganjshakar), who belonged to the Chishtiya sect.

But in the 14th century, Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh religion, distilled the Sufi, Nath and Bhakti traditions - three religious genres that influenced Punjab's spiritual tradition - in his divine verses.

Nanak even laid down the 'raag' (melody) in which each of these verses were to be sung. The concepts of love, secularism, universality, music, freedom of spirit and one god shine through in Nanak's verses; deeply influenced by these three traditions. The ballads of Islamic-Punjabi became popular among both Sufi story-tellers and the Gurmukhi musicians.

Thus, Sikhism and Sufism have many linkages, and they are not just at a philosophical level. Did you know that the foundation of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was laid in 1588 by a Sufi mystic, Hazrat Mian Mir? Guru Arjan Dev sent a palanquin to fetch Mian Mir to Amritsar from Lahore!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gramin Seva - a good idea that needs stricter monitoring

If you live in a slum or village on the outskirts of Delhi, you will probably find yourself using one of these decrepit Gramin Seva vehicles for transport. 

The Gramin Seva (Village Service) vans were introduced in 2010. Licenses were granted to 6000 vehicles, mostly 3-wheelers, to ferry people from the villages and slums in the peripheral areas of Delhi. It was a great idea, to meet the needs of an expanding city. The vans offered poor people cheap connectivity to the major city junctions, from where they could further connect via metro, bus and train.

Ticket prices for Gramin Seva have always been low; they range from 5 to 10 rupees in most cases, and for longer distances it is 15 rupees. However, passengers routinely have to deal with overloading of vehicles beyond the permitted capacity of 6 adults. Owners of the vehicles say they cannot run a sustainable service, if they only take 6 people. Sometimes the vans are crammed with double the allowed capacity! The van owners do not invest in vehicle repair, and although there are norms for the quality of the vehicles, most of them are now old and falling apart.

In addition, some vehicles do not ply on their designated rural/outer routes. Instead, they choose more commercially viable routes where they are not authorised to ply (by law, they can ply only up to the Inner Ring Road; and they cannot cross the Inner Ring Road into the city). Several errant vehicles have been issued challans (traffic violation notices) by the Delhi traffic police. 
 
But if you live in a slum or farflung peripheral village, Gramin Seva is still one of the cheapest options, given the shortage of Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses in such areas. The big DTC buses cannot ply these unviable far-flung routes. In many areas, private enterprise has also stepped in to fill the gap. Many private vehicles operate as vans. In some places, there are even private bus services. 

Recently the AAP government has checked and renewed licenses for 4200 of the original 6000 Gramin Seva vehicles. Hopefully some of the really decrepit ones have been thrown out. They have made it mandatory for the vehicles to be fitted with a working GPS, so that it is easy to track whether a vehicle goes out of its assigned route. Will things improve? We can only hope!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Evening gup-shup at Hauz Khas

The ruins at Hauz Khas are a happy place to spend the evening catching up with friends. Amidst the medieval architecture of an old university complex, you can find a quiet spot to relax.
After the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, Delhi became the most important place in the world for Islamic education. Many leading philosophers and teachers migrated to Delhi. The university at Hauz Khas was established in 1352, and became one of the largest and best equipped Islamic seminaries in the world.
They university came up around a beautiful Royal Tank (Hauz Khas). The tank was originally dug by the Khiljis in the 1200's, but it was deepened and improved by Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309 - 1338). Can you imagine how beautiful this university must have been? It is a green oasis even now. Firoz Shah Tughlaq's tomb is also there, in the building on the left.
On weekends, Hauz Khas is very popular. Here's a group that was playing the guitar when I went:
Another bunch of people were practising parkour:
There are usually lots of people around, but you can still find quiet places to sit and chat. Or have a romantic moment. See these photos below, for glimpses of a Sunday evening at Hauz Khas.

So many people, each lost in their own world :) Perhaps just a handful of them knew the history of Hauz Khas; or that algebra was once taught here, and astronomy, and poetry, and calligraphy and geography.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“Nobody now listens to what I say.” - Mahatma Gandhi

On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. 

A couple of months before that, he said in Delhi: "Nobody now listens to what I say". 

He was referring, of course, to the momentous and bloody events following the Partition of India on religious lines. He had been talking to the leaders of Muslim and Hindu communities, trying to make them see sense. In Delhi, he had been visiting camps of wounded and displaced persons, and trying to bring and end to the violence.  

Eventually on Jan 12, he undertook a fast for 'an indefinite period' to bring about cessation of violence. After 6 days of fasting, when his condition deteriorated significantly, he received assurances from leaders of both communities that the violence would end. He finally broke his fast on Jan 18.

On Jan 20, a bomb exploded at the prayer meeting that he was conducting. In spite of threats to his life, he continued the prayer meetings.  Ten days later, he was assasinated by Nathuram Godse, a member and supporter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu organisation.

I went to Gandhi Smriti recently. That is the house where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life, and the spot where he was assassinated.
Walkway to his death
Diorama showing the laying down of arms after Partition
Painting by Upendra Maharathi: The Fate of Three Great Men (Gandhi, Buddha, Christ)
After my visit to Gandhi Smriti, I understood more clearly the sacrifices that our freedom fighters made in order to get independence for India. It was not a happy visit for me. I stood near Gandhi's spartan room, where he had his last meeting before he walked to his death. I wept. I couldn't stop the tears. To think that we are now building temples to his assassin! It was unbearable.

But the visit taught me something. It taught me that if I am to honor this man, then I need to relook at his message. He lives on through his thoughts and ideas. It is those things which I must read again, and evaluate and implement.

Gandhi was not perfect. He had his own idiosyncracies and theories. I am sure many things that he said are not relevant perhaps, for the India of today. But there's a lot which still resonates clearly with me. It's those bits that I need to work for.
Gandhi on "India of my dreams"
Gandhi's view on India of his dreams:
"I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony"

Gandhi is not a man, Gandhi is an idea. He is only dead if we let the idea die.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal

Just a quick post to show what the current scaffolding at the Taj looks like:
It is on two of the minarets, one at the front and one at the back. Photo clicked 6-Jan 2016. The scaffolding is temporary and meant for cleaning and restoration of the marble. I don't know when it will come off. I will post an update when it does.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Murray's Taj Mahal and the death of an empire

With the advent of photography in the 1800's, armchair travellers in Europe could, for the first time, get a true picture of destinations they had only dreamt about. Monuments from the far-flung corners of the British Empire came alive through the work of many talented photographers. 

Dr. John Murray, employed in the medical service of the Army of the East India Company, took up photography in the early 1850s.

Unlike other photographers who depicted the symmetric perfection of the Taj, Murray's photos described the actual context of the Taj. In this photo, the Taj appears as a backdrop to ruins. There's a crumbling parapet above the Yamuna River, and the men sitting are completely ignoring this beautiful monument. The photo, clicked just after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, speaks to me about the death of the Mughal empire.
Photo credit the Met Museum http://www.metmuseum.org/. 
Here is another photo,  this one is smaller, but it shows Dr. Murray seated in the foreground. It calls out to the photographer and artist in me :) I want to be that person, sitting with my back to the ruins, and sketching what I see!
http://www.clarkart.edu/Art-Pieces/2617
At a time when photographic emulsions were not equally sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, most photographers found it impossible to achieve proper exposure of both landscape and sky in a single picture. For instance, if the negative was properly exposed for buildings, the sky would often appear faded and blotchy. 

Murray solved this problem by blacking out the sky on his waxed paper negative so that, when printed, the heavens above the Taj Mahal would appear limpid and radiant. Here is the paper negative itself; you can see the technique here:
http://www.clarkart.edu/Collection/7354
Text adapted and modified from: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/283162

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Textile tour in Delhi

Last month we had a very interesting textile workshop in Delhi, for a group of visitors from the USA. We visited the home of one of my friends, who is a textile designer. 

The tour began with an audio-visual presentation, an introduction to Indian textiles. We explained many different types of weaves, embroideries and printing traditions to the guests. They also tried their hand at draping a saree. A lovely evening, great conversation, and delightful snacks. Here are a couple more photos from the tour. I'm looking forward to more of these tours in future!



Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A hand-painted signboard in Old Delhi

I enjoy seeing hand-painted boards, even when they are not particularly artistic. The higgedly-piggedly defects seem delightful, compared to the stencilled perfection of computerised graphics. This one is from near the Jama Masjid, describing the municipal corporation's school for girls.
Photo credit: Thomas Hart, who travelled with us last year
Like all official signboards, it is in four languages, English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. And, it is also in four different scripts: Hindi is written in the Devnagri script, English using the Roman alphabet, Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script and Urdu in a modified form of the Persian nastaliq script. No painter of signs can be expected to know all of these :) So obviously the man who painted this was only blindly copying squiggly signs. 

My daughter wrote an article about the multi-lingual signboards of Delhi, and the history behind them. It's a very interesting story. Here is the link: http://delhimagic.blogspot.in/2013/04/signboards-in-delhi-language-debates-in.html