How old is the Kashmir Dispute?

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris

Author: Christopher Snedden

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

There can be, and have been, countless books on Kashmir and Kashmiris. Given its geopolitical importance in the Indian subcontinent and the constant needling by Pakistan, Kashmir has been a boiling point in the relationship between the two disagreeing neighbors. It has now been a year since the Indian government changed the status of Kashmir by making amendments to Articles 370 and 35A. Since then, Pakistan’s efforts to highlight this unilateral change and the human rights violations within it have been under the spotlight.

The challenge in writing a book on undivided Jammu & Kashmir — the only Muslim majority state in India — in the backdrop of four wars with Pakistan in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 and also in the context of Chinese conflict in 1962 is enormous. Fortuitously, Christopher Snedden has come out with a book that is unprejudiced and at the same time comprehensive. Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris is just the book you want to read on Kashmir.

Australian politico-strategic analyst, author and academic specializing in South Asia, Snedden has worked with governments, businesses, and universities. Currently, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii, he  visited J&K frequently to undertake research for this and has interviewed many elder statesmen involved in the Kashmir dispute. This authoritative book is the result of that endeavor.

Reads the blurb: “In 1846, the British created the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then quickly sold this prized region to the wily and powerful Raja Gulab Singh. Intriguingly, had they retained it, the India-Pakistan dispute over possession of the state may never have arisen, but Britain’s concerns lay elsewhere — expansionist Russia, beguiling Tibet and unstable China — and their agents played the ‘Great Game’ in Afghanistan and what was then known as ‘Turkistan’.”

Snedden contextualizes the geo-strategic and historical circumstances surrounding the British decision to relinquish Kashmir and explains how they and four Dogra maharajas consolidated and controlled J&K subsequently. He details the distant borders and disintegrated peoples that comprised the diverse princely state. It explains the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir’s controversial accession to India in 1947 — and its unpremeditated consequences.

Writes Snedden in the introduction, “The Kashmir dispute is now seventy years old. This makes it older more than ninety percent of Indians and Pakistanis. Its longevity surpasses the average life expectancy of a Pakistani male (65.16 years) and an Indian male (66.68 years)…Wistfully, some of my friends in J&K, India, and Pakistan tell me that the Kashmir dispute would continue for another two-thirds of a century…This book provides sufficient background information for a reader to understand why such a woeful scenario is possible.

Surely, the ground situation in J&K has changed since the book was written and, particularly, after 5th August 2019. But the dispute is far from over because  Pakistan constantly harks back that Kashmir cannot be removed from the agenda of the United Nation Security Council, which was committed to resolving the issue according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

Coming back to the politico-historical analysis of Kashmir, Snedden weaves a compelling narrative that frames the ‘K’ dispute, explains why it continues, and assesses what it means politically and administratively for the divided peoples of the state and their undecided futures.

Divided into five parts and punctiliously done chapters, Snedden begins with the Sikhs:  “We now come to an intriguing matter concerning the Sikh Empire: the significant role played by two powerful and influential brothers from Jammu, Gulab, and Dhyan (Dhian) Singh. In particular, as we shall see, the British took Raja Gulab Singh very seriously. The Sikh Empire had many non-Sikhs serving as soldiers and administrators. These included Gulab and Dhyan Singh, plus their other brother, Suchet, from the Jammu area that was located immediately to the south of Kashmir and north of the Sikh Empire’s Punjab heartland. Jammu had some strategic importance as its hilly uplands were relatively remote from traditional invasion routes into India that crossed Punjab. People had sought refuge from invaders in such areas, including most recently from marauding Afghans. Nevertheless, there was no distinct geographic division between Jammu and Punjab. Essentially, Jammu was an undulating-to-hilly extension of the Punjab plains that rose northwards to the Pir Panjal range located at the southern edge of the Kashmir Valley, with this range providing a natural boundary between Kashmir and Jammu.

Because Gulab Singh was a brave and capable soldier, in the 1810s, he caught the eye of the Sikh Maharaja. This was significant as both men thereafter engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership that brought them extensive benefits. For the effective but vigilant Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Gulab provided a non-Sikh ally whom the ruler could trust, an important factor in a fractious empire in which Ranjit was the senior Sikh. The ambitious Gulab Singh used Ranjit as a vehicle for Gulab to advance himself and his interests. Gulab Singh apparently first came to Ranjit Singh’s notice in the Kashmir campaign of 1813, after which Gulab was given control of the Reasi area, north of Jammu, in 1815. Later, because of his actions suppressing the uprising in Jammu in 1819, Ranjit Singh recognized the Jammuite as ruler of Jammu in 1822.”

What enhances the beauty of this 360- page is the in-depth analysis is the lucid explanation. Written in a language that is most nourishing and generous, this book is by far the best chronicle on Kashmir. Snedden has adroitly handled the dispute along with its intricate political and geo-strategic dimensions. He goes that extra mile to probe at length the history of the oft-neglected Kashmiris too.

An excellent account of Kashmiri identity and the conflict between India and Pakistan, the book is peerless on one of the world’s most ‘intractable disputes.’



Binapani Mohanty: The iconic Odia story-teller

By Bhaskar Parichha

Binapani Mohanty

‘Writing comes spontaneously from the heart, from one’s own experience, from search for truth and by empathizing with characters and grappling with incidents.’ — ‘Meet the Author’ programme by Sahitya Akademi

When eminent author Binapani Mohanty was recently conferred with the prestigious Atibadi Jagannath Das Samman –- Odisha’s topmost literary award — at her Cuttack residence in the midst of the pandemic, it was only a fitting compliment by the Odisha Sahitya Akademi to an author who has immensely contributed to Odia literature and enriched it.

In a literary career spanning six decades, Mohanty has carved a niche for herself in the field of Odia fiction writing. She was awarded the ‘Padma Shri’ this year. Numerous other awards have come in her way during the long career. 

Born to Chaturbhuja Mohanty and Kumudini Mohanty of Chandol in an otherwise politically sensitive district of Kendrapara, the eighty-four-year-old Binapani Mohanty is a retired professor of Economics at Cuttack’s Sailabala Women’s College — an exalted institution that has added a glorious chapter in the realm of women’s education in Odisha. Mohanty had also been a chairperson of Odisha Lekhika Sansad — the women writers’ group.

Binapani Mohanty’s career as a story-teller began with the publication of ‘Gotie Ratira Kahani’ (Story of a Night) in 1960. Some of her best-known stories are ‘Khela Ghara(Doll House),’Naiku Rasta’(Road to a River), ‘Bastraharana’(Disrobing), ‘Andhakarara Chhai (Shadow of Darkness), ‘Kasturi Mruga O Sabuja Aranya’(Kasturi Deer and the Green Forest).

But it was Pata Dei and other Stories that won her the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990. Mohanty’s oeuvre has been ever-expansive: thirty short story collections, three novels (Sitara Sonita, Manaswini and Kunti, Kuntala, Shakuntala); autobiography; translated Russian folk tales from English to Odia. She has also   a one-act play entitled ‘Kranti’ to her credit. Several of her short stories have been translated into different Indian languages:  Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Urdu, Telugu and obviously English and Russian.

If Odia short stories have evolved over time and kept pace with the changing trends, writers like Binapani Mohanty have experimented the form in all its hues and colors. A feudal society with all its specious characteristics, Odisha has been a fertile ground for literary exploration and the short story genre has only facilitated that quest.

Social injustice, women’s rights, and the caste system have been the central themes of Mohanty’s short stories. The focus has, all along, been on the storyline and the circumstances rather than the new-fangled aspects of syntax and language.

 ‘Pata Dei’ essentially talks of how women are expected to conform to societal norms and are taken for a ride by the very people who take advantage of their hopelessness.

The story begins somewhat like this:

 “Nobody had ever seen Pata dei (1) after that fateful night of Dola purnima. It seemed as if the night itself had engulfed her. The moon was spread clear and bright all over the village. After the ritual journey from house to house the deities were being gathered in the field. The air was thick with the swelling crowds, the sounds of cymbals and bells, and the children smearing colours on one another. The excitement of the purnima night is very different from what follows the next day – the Holi celebrations. This night comes once a year, only to disappear before one realizes it was there. But the experience generally settles down like dust, like the colours, unnoticed by all. It clings to the body and mind the whole year long – piled up inside. That is how, maybe, behind her pleasant smile Patadei had layers of worries spread like slime inside her.”

Mohanty’s Pata Dei (Elder Sister) tackles the hypocrisy that surrounds sexual assault in society. As Pata Dei — the protagonist — returns to her father’s home with a child, slanderous accusations are hurled at her and the villager’s question who the child’s father is. Defiant and fearless, Pata Dei narrates to the villagers the trauma of the night when a group of her own village men had raped her

“You want to know who the father of this child is. There, they are all standing here. Ramu, Veera, Gopi, Naria and a couple more of them later. How can I tell whose child this is? That night, during the Dola festival when the mock fight was going on, these people had stuffed a cloth in my mouth and carried me away to the edge of the graveyard. There, behind the bushes, they had chewed me up alive…like plucking out flesh from bones. My mouth was closed but before losing my senses I did recognize them all by the moonlight. How can I tell whose child this is? Ask that Hari Bauri. He took money from all of them to leave me at Cuttack. I didn’t come all these days because I didn’t want to bring more shame on my father. After returning too, I’ve revealed nothing. But ask them all now. Let them swear on themselves and decide who the father of this child is.” (Translation by Sunita Mishra*)

Then she turns to her infant son and says, “…Why should you cry, dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you…” 

 Pata Dei was serialized as ‘Lata’ in the now extinct Femina in and around 1986. In 1987, its Hindi dramatization was telecast on Doordarshan as a series entitled Kashmakash.

Many of Binapani Mohanty’s stories are grim tales where characters refuse to bow down to social prejudices, despite undergoing extreme torment. But then the reader does not lose all hope and there is a silver lining at the end of each story.

*Sunita Mishra teaches in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad.


Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 




A History of Desire in India

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Infinite Variety – A History of Desire in India

Author: Madhavi Menon

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2018

Taṇhā in Pali or trishna in Sanskrit roughly means desire, thirst, longing, and greed. Whether physical or mental, taṇhā is an important Buddhist concept found in early texts. Out of the four ‘Noble Truths’, the Buddha identified taṇhā as a principal cause in the arising of dukkha (suffering, pain, dissatisfaction).

Take no notice of what ancient Indian texts said about desire; look at this stupendous book that portrays the notion of desire whilst bringing out its myriad colors. Part of queer theory, it travels across the subcontinent in the hunt for diverse manifestations of desire.

Madhavi Menon’s Infinite Variety – A History of Desire in India is a rebellious account of desire and is full of astonishing analyses and insights. Menon – professor of English at Ashoka University – writes on desire and queer theory with panache. She has authored a number of books resembling the subject: Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama; Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film; and Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism.

Pleasant and edifying, the book, as the blurb says, “reveals not purity but impurity as a way of life. Not one answer, but many. Not a single history, but multiple tales cutting across laws and boundaries.”

In Bhakti poetry, Radha and Krishna disregard marital fidelity, age, time, and gender for erotic love. In Sufi dargahs, pirs (spiritual guides) who were married to women are buried alongside their male disciples, as lovers are. Vatsyayana, the author of the world’s most famous manual of sex, insists that he did not compose it for the sake of passion, and remained celibate through the writing of it. Long hair is widely seen as a symbol of sexuality; and yet, shaved off in a temple, it is a sacred offering. Even as the country has a draconian law to punish homosexuality, heterosexual men share the same bed without comment. Hijras are increasingly marginalized; yet gender has historically been understood as fluid rather than fixed” – the book says it all in splendid details.

Written in an impeccable style, the approach is spanking new and commonsensical. What enhances the beauty of the book is that the author plots a route through centuries, geographies, personal and public histories, schools of philosophy, literary and cinematic works. It meanders through contemporary studies on sexology, dissects Bollywood films based on the subject, depicts symbols, and even juxtaposes the object of desire with yoga, philosophy, and commonplace events.

While Menon examines the numerous faces of desire in the Indian subcontinent, for the most part, we are exposed to amazing tales and factoids dug out from enormous archival material and public spheres. The study ranges from the erotic sculptures of the Khajuraho temple to the shrine of the celibate god Ayyappan; from army barracks to public parks; from Empress Nur Jahan’s paan to home-made kohl; from cross-dressing mystics to asexual gods. It shows us the connections between syntax and sexual characteristics, between mane and warfare, between self-restraint and gratification, between love and death.

Loaded with factoids and figures and with a spiky introduction, the book is neatly divided into twenty long chapters –- desire in education, desire in suicide; law and psychoanalysis, desires among bhabhis (sisters-in laws) to grandparents, desire in celibacy, desire while dating and make-up et al.

The work is phenomenal –- both because of the subject and the approach. That an entire book could be written on ‘desire’ is inspiring. But more important is the way it has been conceived. There is an element of gracefulness, lucidity, and enchantment as one flips through the pages. No one who has a desire can afford to fail to notice this meticulously-researched book.

Together with germane photos to buttress her argument, Menon’s book pivots around   texts, oral traditions, schools of philosophy to exhibit   the sub-continent’s nebulous, many-sided, and rich tradition of desire. Her deft handling of the theme and narrowing it down into a single book is truly commendable.

Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India is deeply insightful, across-the-board, and stimulating.


Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 




Slices from Life

Unbowed, She Stayed

By Bhaskar Parichha

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Muta Maathai

Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, she died in Nairobi in 2011. Wangari Muta Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has  — through networks of rural women — has planted over 30million trees.

Africa’s future has been the subject of fierce debate with the international media: full of warnings about environmental and economic collapse.

True, development workers continue to create hypothetical solutions to the problems they see, yet with little effect and much controversy. While these outsiders haggle over projections and prophecies, Africans had been working on a variety of small, grassroots projects, which they believe, might change the course of their future.

The Green Belt movement is one such project which has been creating and recreating history. It is so easy, in the modern world, to feel disconnected from the physical Earth!

Despite dire warnings and escalating concern over the state of our planet, many feel out of touch with the natural world. But, the Green Belt organization — which has planted millions of trees throughout East Africa in order to provide sources of fuel, food, and a way to stop soil erosion and environmental degradation — is one example of an indigenous movement working to influence Africa’s ecology.

When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women that soon spread across Africa.

She spent decades working with the Movement to help women in rural Kenya plant—and sustain—millions of trees. With their hands in the dirt, these women found themselves empowered and “at home” in a way they never did before.

Maathai wanted to impart that feeling to everyone and believed that the key lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service.

While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai drew inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate ‘tikkun olam‘ (repair the world) and renewing the Japanese ‘termmottainai‘ (don’t waste).

Through rededication to these values, she believed Kenyan women could finally bring about healing for themselves and the Earth. Unrelenting through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country.

The Green Belt Movement became the inspiring story of people working at the grassroots level to improve their environment and their country. Their story offered ideas about a new and hopeful future for Africa and the rest of the world. Besides being a native writer, Wangari Maathai was also a parliamentarian.

In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in the first free elections in a generation. In2003, she was appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment and natural resources.

However, worldwide recognition came her way when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004. In 2009; she was appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace. This Nobel Peace Prize laureate recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage in her autobiography Unbowed: A Memoir.

 Her trailblazing story illustrates how African women are striding out.

Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.


Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 




‘The Cultural Ambassdor of India’

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Critical Lives: Rabindranath Tagore

Author: Bashabi Fraser

Publisher: Reaktion Books Ltd- /Speaking Tiger, 2020

Almost even eighty years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore continues to be written about. Any biographical account of Tagore’s life and works — whether it is in Bengali, English or any other language — is attention-grabbing and is received with awe and admiration. Indeed, for the bard whose immortal lines echo even today – Jodi tor daak shune keyo na ashe, tobe aakla cholo re (If no one answers to your call, walk alone) — no number of books is enough to have another look at his great mind, make another study of his brilliance.

Emeritus Professor, co-founder, and Director of the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies (ScoTs) at Edinburgh- Napier University, Bashabi Fraser’s newest book on Tagore ( Reaktion Books, London/Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi) is a brilliant account of the Kobiguru simply for the reason that it is both enlightening and at the same time perceptive. This discerning and sophisticatedly brought out a book of 250 pages gives a unique insight to Tagore’s life, his experiences in India, Europe, China, and Japan and cites numerous incidents from his life that directly influenced some of his great works.

Says Fraser in the introduction of her book: “this biographical study reassesses the Renaissance man, a polymath, who embodies the modern consciousness of India, engaged as he was in nation-building and contributing to the narrative of a nation.”

Part of the series ‘Critical Lives’ of leading cultural figures of the world in the the modern period, this biography explores the life of the great artist, writer philosopher in relation to his creations.

As the blurb says, “polymath Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. But Tagore was much more than a writer. Through his poems, novels, short stories, poetic songs, dance-dramas, and paintings, he transformed Bengali literature and Indian art. He was instrumental in bringing Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and strove to create a less divided society through mutual respect and understanding, like his great contemporary and close friend, Mahatma Gandhi.”

Even though Annie Besant was the first to call Gandhi a ‘Mahatma’, Tagore made the name popular. In the author’s view, “both Tagore and Gandhi, who were and still remain India’s greatest intellectual and political minds, respectively, continued to depend on each other for mutual support until Tagore’s death in 1941. Both believed that man needed to rely on his inner resources, on truth, love, and compassion to find full freedom to realize himself and fellow human beings as brethren.”

But, then, she sees a difference between the two great men: “While Gandhi was against technological advancement and science, Tagore, as a modernist believed that science and humanities were needed for holistic education and social advancement.”

Divided into a dozen chapters (‘The Tagores of Jorasonko’, ‘Growing up in the Tagore Household’, ‘English Interlude’, ‘Journey to the Banks of Padma’, ‘The Abode of Peace’, ‘From Shantiniketan to the world Stage’, ‘The renouncement of Knighthood’, ‘Where the World Meets in a Nest’, ‘The call of truth’, ‘Waves of Nationalism’, ‘Tagores’ Modernity and The legacy: At Home and the World’) the book has more than thirty illustrations — culled out from various albums.

Besides making a timely re-evaluation of the poet’s life and work, Fraser weighs up Tagore’s “many activities and shows how he embodies the modern the consciousness of India”. She examines in great detail Tagore’s ties with his childhood in Bengal, his role in Indian politics and his interests in international relationships, as well as addressing some of the misreading of his life and work through a holistic standpoint.

Fraser says, “India’s debt to Tagore is immense, and together with Mahatma Gandhi, he remains one of the architects of modern India and India’s primary soft power. Tagore’s liberal humanism and modernity make him relevant today and his place in world literature can be endorsed by a close study of his life, times, and work.”

This intuitive and charmingly written biography of a man who transcended all sorts of borders is a must-read. For someone who is interested in knowing the events which shaped Tagore’s literary career, this concise and yet critical book will be of immense help. More than anything else, the present volume is an indispensable and resourceful guide to know all that Viswakobi Rabindranath Tagore stood for. 

Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 


Sita Under the Crescent Moon: A Travelogue in Syncretism

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Sita Under the Crescent Moon

Author: Annie Ali Khan

Publisher: Simon & Schuster India, 2019

There is a poignant tale to this book. Before the manuscript could see the light of the day, its author Annie Ali Khan died in an accident in Karachi. Annie was merely thirty years at the time of death. A brilliant journalist with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, she was a writer, a photographer with works published in Caravan, Marie Claire and The Herald. She had won Pakistan’s national photojournalist award for her story on truck art.

In the epilogue, Annie’s friend Manan Ahmed Asif writes equally touchingly about the events leading to the final publication of the book. Asif calls her a ‘fearless reporter of Pakistan’ and no journalist before had dared to do a newspaper story on a Hindu Pilgrimage in Pakistan. In reality, it is from this article that the book has originated.

Sita Under the Crescent Moon – A Woman’s Search for Faith in Pakistan is a dazzling account of a tradition purely for the reason that it combines spirituality with travel. The blurb says it all: “In present-day Pakistan, in the far corners of Lyari in Karachi, or Hingol in Balochistan, or Thatta in Sindh, tightly knit groups of women keep alive the folklore, songs, and legends of Sati—their name for Sita in the Ramayana.”

Annie traveled with women devotees on pilgrimages to retrace the way they worship the goddess. She followed “healers, heretics, seekers, wives, mothers, sisters, grandmothers and believers”. These journeys intensely throw light on a veiled and obscure world. With loads of empathy, love, and self-sacrifice, the author listens to the stories of these women. She writes them down — word for word in some cases — capturing their dilemmas, the violence and the outfits they belong to.

Her exploration doesn’t stop there. She eats, rests, sleeps, prays, and lives with them. She was adopted by some as their daughter. Some even relied on her knowledge of the world to help show them the way of the government and the benefits therein.

The book lays bare, meaningfully, how worship has changed mind-sets and altered many of the mores of the land. While the sacral sites, made up of clay and thread grant a woman power and autonomy to fight her wretched conditions, the narrative demonstrates the pliability of women and depicts how, under the shadow of militant majoritarianism, women are keeping alive the memories of Sita’s exile, and her ultimate sacrifice.

The travelogue also tells Annie Ali Khan’s own journey. From her memories of Durga in the house of her grandfather’s friend to her own experience before Durga Mata in Hinglaj, the book is a chronicle of a woman in search of healing power. Hinglaj is a Hindu Pilgrimage in Balochistan which is the quiescent place of Hingula Devi, locally called Nani Pir. This is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas*of Sati, wife of Shiva. Meeting Durga at Hinglaj ‘inspires her to explore the way of the Satiyan, the seven sacred sisters, and also to look for Sita.’

Take a look at the narrative: “At Hub Chowki, a historic-city-turned-transit-town is now the gateway between Sindh and Balochistan. Those traveling through are greeted by a road sign that reads ‘Mundra’ – a Sanskrit word meaning temple or place of worship or chasm – overshadowed by a larger sign with a new name, proclaiming, in bold Arabic script, ‘Seerat’, meaning inner beauty, heavenly light hidden from view, veiled. These are the many paths to the sacred and the beautiful that abound in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. May the goddess protect us!

Next, she delves into the geography of the sub-continent: “Hinglaj, in the heart of the province, is as sacred as it is remote. The ancient temple is located along an endless terrain following a coastal route that reaches beyond the Malabar region in south India and extends further up north, past Rajasthan, then the coastal cities of Iran. I read somewhere that the road between the sea-facing shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the port city of Karachi and the shrine of Haji Ali, half-submerged in the sea in Bombay, was once a route well-traveled by pilgrims of the Sufi order – before the borders got in the way.

The book is replete with a wide range of socio-political events — the uprising in Balochistan, clashes between Shia and Sunni sects, activities of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam.

There are also cultural references and quaint factoids: about the Odh people specializing in building homes of mud and straw; descriptions of the traditional quilt, rally; Makli being the city of a hundred thousand graves; women smoking chillum and Capstan cigarettes at shrines; use of “bird water” for healing; hierarchical relationships between the Sindhi and Baloch communities; the Chaaran community; the Meghwars being denied cocaine on grounds of their low caste status; the “Hanging Mela”; the “Ram Bagh” metamorphosing into “Aaram Bagh”; the Benazir Fund and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, being known as “Mr. Ten Percent” for demanding a cut in all governmental deals, and so on.

Annie’s exploration of faith is once more syncretic: “I was accompanying a family of yatris on a pilgrimage to the temple, entering the heavily patrolled and policed borders of the province with them. It was also the last night of Navratri, the festival celebrating the victory in the battle of the goddess Durga over a demon buffalo to restore dharma, the order of the cosmos. Sati’s suffering and sacrifice and the joy of her victory were remembered like Moharram, like Mohabbat; love in the heart, eternal and ever-flowing like the suffering that was life on earth.”

The three-hundred-page travelogue Sita under the Crescent Moon is a remarkable tribute to Pakistani women who have always been the custodians of small traditions. It is their songs, folktales, and legends that become powerful mediums of transmission of traditions and faith in the absence of higher psychical goals.

Dedicated to Quratulain Ali Hyder, Sita under the Crescent Moon is not only a breathtaking documentation of a spiritual journey, but it is also a gender- gaze. Conspicuously, so many entities come up for closer investigation in the book – nationality, community, ethnicity et al.

Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 

*Shakti Peeth are shrines and pilgrimage destinations in Shaktism, a school of Hinduism which worships the mother goddess.


Begum Akhtar: The ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’

By Bhaskar Parichha

‘When I decided to be a singer, my mother warned me I’d be alone a lot. Basically we all are. Loneliness comes with life.’

-Whitney Houston

For Begum Akhtar loneliness came rather belatedly — after her marriage to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi. With marriage came the ban — no music, no concert. How can a Begum sing publicly?

However, Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was known before marriage, couldn’t have lived a day without a recital because she was born for it.

Her first guru was Ustad Imdad Khan, a great sarangi exponent. She was also trained under Ata Mohammed Khan. But it was in Kolkata in the early thirties that her musical career took a big twirl. She began learning music from such classical stalwarts like Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan and Ustad Jhande Khan. There was no going back after that.

Begum Akhtar gave her first public performance at a very early age — fifteen to be precise and she took the music world by storm.  Sarojini Naidu — the nightingale of India — was so moved   by Begum Akhtar’s singing during a concert organised in the aid of victims of Bihar earthquake that she prophesied the materialisation of a great singer in the young Akhtaribai.

Ghazal singing was Begum’s forte. She cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company in the mid-thirties followed by a number of gramophone records carrying her ghazalsdadrasthumris.  What is little known about the ‘Queen of Ghazals’ is that she was a feminist to the core.  Begum lived her life like no other woman till her death in 1974. She had dared to play around with the freedom to make choices in life, revealing a true feminist soul.

With the advent of the talkie era in India, Begum Akhtar acted in a few Hindi movies. In fact, she was the leading lady in films of those times. Ek Din Ka Badshah (An Emperor for a Day) was her first film produced by the East India Film Company of Calcutta. Then came Nala Damayanti (1933).  Like others of her genre, she herself sang her songs. She continued acting and there were a couple of memorable films to her credit: Ameena (1934), Mumtaz Begum (1934), Jawaani Ka Nasha (The Drunkenness of Youth, 1935), Naseeb Ka Chakkar (The Circle of Destiny, 1935). She acted in Roti (1942) — produced and directed by Mehboob Khan — for which she sang six ghazals. The music was composed by melody maestro Anil Biswas.

Begum Akhtar’s association with films continued even after a face-off with Mehboob Khan. Music Director Madan Mohan gave her a chance to sing in two of his films– Daana Paani (Food-Water,1953) and Ehsaan (Favour,1954). Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) was her very last role where she played the role of a classical singer. Begum Akhtar alternated between Bombay and Lucknow in pursuit of her career. She had a stint in theatre too. But her voice needed to be regularly hoisted up. So, she gave up acting in theatre.

Begum Akhtar’s voice matured with time, adding richness and depth. She sang ghazals and light classical pieces in her inimitable style. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit — an incredible inventory for someone who grew up amid harsh conditions.

A regular performer on All India Radio, she invariably composed her own ghazals and most of her compositions were raga– based. Begum Akhtar had a deep, husky and richly-timbered voice with nasal intonations. In her thumris she blended the Purab and Punjabi styles. She did not resort to taan patterns in a fast tempo. Her dadras were infused with a sprightly mood; her ghazals were thumri-oriented with much scope for improvisation.

The peculiar charm of her voice was easier felt than described. Hers was an extraordinary voice — not ‘round or petal-soft but angular and pincer-like.’ She was known to use a momentary split in her voice, called ‘patti’, which appeared like a crack in the upper register. It is said that her admirers waited for the ‘patti’ to come out when she sang.
Begum Akhtar was a scholar of Urdu poetry too. Her favorite poets were Ghalib, Dadh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jigar Moradabadi, Shakeel Badayuni, and Kaifi Azmi. Many small poets rose to prominence when she selected their lyrics. It speaks highly of her music that she had an impressive following even in regions where Urdu or Hindi was not properly understood. In later years she sang in Bengali and Gujarati too. She taught for a trice at the Bhatkhande College of Music in Lucknow. Her disciples included Shanti Hiranand, Rita Ganguly, Vasundhara Pandit, and Rekha Surya.

The singing sensation’s last concert was held in Ahmedabad. It was here that she fell ill and had to be rushed to a hospital. Death came her way on the 30th of October, 1974 leaving a big void in ghazal singing. She was posthumously awarded the Padmabhushan, the third highest civilian award in India.

Begum Akhtar’s name is synonymous with the notion of ghazal gaayaki*. She immortalized her own definitive style of singing — a style that few have been able to be equivalent. She is fittingly called — Mallika-e-Ghazal.

*The mode of rendition

Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books.