Image result for shammi actress images

New York Times obituary of Shammi takes me back to her life that I saw on the silver screen.  Her career began in 1949 when Sheikh Mukhtar offered her a role in Ustad Pedro. Shammi worked in 200 movies, out of these I remember watching only two – Malhar and Sangdil, for me these two are enough to judge her superb acting.

Shammi is known to play supporting roles but she also played a memorable lead role in Malhar. Later on she came to be dubbed funny girl but it was in Malhar she proved she can play a happy innocent girl as well as an anguished woman. Malhar will always be remembered  for its songs by Indiwar and Kaif-Irfani and by its music composed by Roshan,  Hrithik Roshan’s grandfather, but I will also remember it for the pathos created by Shammi’s acting. Later I discovered it was also the first movie produced by the famous playback singer Mukesh .

I saw Sangdil during my teenage days with the school friends at Plaza cinema Karachi. There were various reasons to watch the movie. First, it was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; second, because of the most popular leading pair Dilip Kumar and Madhubala and third because of its songs by Rajendra Krishan and music by Sajjad. Shammi was the least of the reasons, in fact we did not even know that Shammi and another great actress Kuldip Kaur were also in the cast. We were so surprised that Talat Mahmood’s popular song ‘Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandini’ was actually picturized on Shammi and not Madhubala. I still remember Shammi’s style of playing sitar while Dilip rendered the ghazal.

Born in a Parsi family Shammi’s real name was Nargis Rabadi she was 89. Her death coincides with the International Women’s Day and that is a good reason for me to write on a lesser known woman who in her side roles kept a large audience entertained for decades. I congratulate the New York Times for making  ‘Overlooked’ a regular feature.


Unicorn in Poetry

Indus Seals (2600-1900 Bce) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code
During my research at the Cornell University I  would often gaze for hours at the images of unicorn engraved on hundreds of ancient seals discovered from the archaeological sites of Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE). I have written a lot on this fascinating animal whose story is immersed in myths and magic. It has fascinated the poets and many have written poems on it, one of my favorites is by Rainer Maria Rilke.
The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness
the unbelievable: for there before him stood
the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly, pleading with his eyes.

The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a
body wrought of finest ivory. And as
he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign
of his uniqueness: a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.

The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when
opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,
whiter than snow. The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst, to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint’s enclosure,
reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.

I still remember, with great fondness, the evenings of the holy month of Ramazan when the village women will gather in our courtyard to break their fast. Amidst the laughter and hushed gossips they also exchanged interesting stories. Out of the many that I overheard one was about the special blessings of 27th Ramazan, the gist of the story was that on this day even deer observe the fast. As a child I wondered how anyone would even know that a deer is fasting. However, as I grew up and developed a mature attitude I began to understand and appreciate the certitude of those women who never questioned the irrationality of the story.

Last week while browsing through a book on Sultan Bahoo , a seventeenth century Sufi poet of Punjab, I came across another story of a deer appearing in the month of fasting. It provided a few more details such as the deer would bring in food and water for the Sultan and his companion who were travelling in the region of Kallar Kahar in Punjab. The story is even authenticated by two graves in that region which supposedly are of an Ahoo (deer) and Bahoo (the saint).

It was natural for my thoughts to wander to an Indus seal engraved with the image of a deity sitting in a meditative posture and surrounded by animals including deer. I am referring to the well-known proto-Shiva seal as Sir John Marshall associated its deity with Lord Shiva in his avatar of Pashupati. I would like to suggest that this seal can also qualify to be a proto-Buddha seal.

In my book “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code” I have a chapter explaining how the appearance of some of Buddha’s symbols on the seals combined with the recent revised work on the remains of Moen jo Daro’s  stupa architecture can lead to a reinterpretation of the seals and consequently to a greater understanding of the Civilization in general. Bearing this in mind along with the rich folklore and tradition of the Indus region I would like to add here my interpretation of this seal. It will make more sense to those who have already read my chapter “Indus Seals and Buddhism.”

Considering the fact that the Indus region had been a stronghold of Buddhism and that several Buddhist symbols are found on the Indus seals it is possible that Islamic versions of the deer stories associated with fasting have evolved from the Jataka tales wherein deer is portrayed as a compassionate animal and even Buddha appears as a golden deer. Such deer stories would have been more valuable during the period of early archaeological research which began with the quest of an ancient Buddhism and which I have covered in another chapter of my book.

Briefly, it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who became the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 and who initiated the idea of the existence of an ancient Buddhism. He also believed that ancient Buddhism was more widespread than what is described in history.  In his quest he followed the footsteps of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim and a scholar who wandered in the Indian subcontinent for many years (between 630-645) to search the original Buddhist scriptures. To cut the story short of that long journey, Cunningham reached the Shahbazgarhi Rock near Peshawar where he examined the edicts of Asoka the Maurya king (304-232 BCE) who had converted to Buddhism. When he realized that the script used on Shahbazgarhi is different from the script used in Asokan edicts carved elsewhere in the subcontinent, he became curios about the origins and earlier versions of that script.

Cunningham’s journey took him to Harappa which until then was known through the writings of two earlier travelers – an absconder and a spy- Charles Mason and Sir Alexander Burnes. But while those travelogues reported mostly the architectural features, Cunningham’s report also published smaller objects, most intriguing was the image of a tiny seal he had chanced to see. The seal was inscribed with six symbols and the image of an animal below. On his first observations Cunningham had rejected the seal as a foreign object but  later on he realized that the symbols engraved on it might be the precursors of the Shahbazgarhi script.

With this background in mind we can only imagine Cunningham’s enthusiasm , had he journeyed another 400 miles and spotted in the flatland of upper Sindh a mound about 80 feet high and crowned with a Buddhist stupa. It could have led him to his Eureka moment had he spotted the seals engraved with Buddha’s symbols in the ruins of a city unearthed below the foundations of that stupa.

Dear reader, on page 103 of my book I have reprinted the symbols of Buddha that Cunningham published seventy years before the discovery of Moen jo Daro. Out of these symbols I have pointed to two which also appear on a number of Indus seals and which appear together on an object discovered from Moen jo Daro. Today, as I am looking back to Cunningham’s list of symbols I also notice a deer image along with those two symbols. This leads me to say that the appearance of deer on Indus seals might also be telling us a long lost story of a fasting Buddha, and the proto-Shiva image might be representing a fasting proto-Buddha.

I must add here that although, Sir John Marshall labeled the deity on the seal as proto-Shiva but the deer image below the throne of Shiva reminded him of the deer motif in Buddhist iconography. In fact he has recognized several other seal symbols and architectural features as Buddhist.

Changing a label leads to different consequences. The book on Sultan Bahoo while referring to the two graves also informs us that, “Till 2001, this place was famous by the name of Aahoo and Bahoo but in 2002 its name was changed to ‘Hoo-b-Hoo.” This is the case, which the writer rightly observes can lead to “altering the actual history.” The case of Indus seals is unique as I explained in my book “Had Cunningham lived long enough to witness the unearthing of Indus Civilization he might have identified its cities as citadels of  ‘ancient Buddhism.’ But the fact is that Buddhism, Jainism, Hindusm, Bhaktism, Gandhism and Sufism are all deeply rooted in the Indus Civilization, which being far removed in time was not branded with one of these ‘isms’ but which is reflected in all these through its imagery and through its most prominent trait, the nonviolence. To call this trait a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be wrong, for the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together.” Hence, the seal under discussion might be representing earlier avatars of Shiva, Buddha and even of Mahavir Jain all kneaded together.



I will be missing some of my favorite movies screened at the Film Forum in New York City. Beginning from October 27 through November 16, I am particularly interested in the vintage movies of Henry Fonda and James Stewart. New York Times rightly describes these as  “a companion series’ to the book “Hank and Jim” by Scot Eyman.  the book is about the friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart which  began during the Depression era and lasted for the rest of their lives.  Apart from enjoying the comforts of watching their movies in a theater, the audience will also have a chance to buy the book. What a novel way to present the movies of the two giants of Hollywood.

The first day started with the screening of back-to-back Hitchcock movies: The “Rope”starring James Stewart and the “Wrong Man” Henry Fonda. It is always hard to compare Hitchcock’s thrillers and that is the case here, both the movies are excellent, and both, Hank and Jim have done justice to their roles.

Another favorite that I will be missing is the “12 Angry Men” showing today. Being a fan of court room dramas, last week I incidentally watched on Netflix “Tokyo Trial.” For those who have watched the “Judgement at Nuremberg” must watch this to complete the story of the second World War trials. “12 Angry Men,” however, is about a young man suspected of murder. His fate is in the hands of a jury comprised of  “twelve angry men” Henry Fonda, comes to rescue him in the role of the most sane member of that jury.

Who’s Kazuo Ishiguro?  It’s not only the Japanese but many others around the world who might be asking this question. In the early 1990’s even I had no idea who he was; I just picked the book because of its beguiling title “The Remains of the Day.” It was an engaging story of a British butler told by a Japanese author. Apart from several praiseworthy aspects of the book , the best that I liked were the  well-researched details of the duties  of a butler who takes pride in his perfection of setting the table. Through such details Ishiguro builds the story to bring in smoothly a piece of history; an important dinner where the butler too plays ‘his role’ along with the international dignitaries including Herr von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister.  There is much more in the book that gives an insight of Britain’s social and political life in the second quarter of the twentieth century and the change that comes with the Americanization. Ishiguro shows all this through the little World of the Darlington Hall where change comes through the change of masters-from British to an American.

Ishiguro has written several books but my favorite will always be “The Remains of the Day” and, as he receives the Nobel Prize, I am planning to reread it. Those who do not have the patience of reading can see its film version, a beautiful Merchant Ivory Production starring appropriately the British actors Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins along with the all-American Christopher Reeve.

A new battlefront has been created in Pakistan.

This war finds its roots in the plight of the ailing music industry in Pakistan. An article by Madeeha Syed published in Dawn on February 16, 2017 talks about an overcrowded internet where artists are struggling to be heard and it suggests that a better revenue model for musicians lies in live performances.

The rebooted first season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, therefore, presents an opportunity for hope, not just for Pakistani rock bands, but for music and its powerful ability to engage, connect and enthrall. Whereas, in the past popular rock and pop bands – Vital Signs,  Strings , Junoon and Noori – had emerged one after the other over a long period of time, in Pepsi’s battle it was uplifting to see the performance of  a larger number of fresh bands in a single season.  Each band had its individual style and there was diversity within the members of the bands, from women vocalists to minorities, many wer represented.  It was encouraging to see this vibrant and modernized face of Pakistan, which we do not get to see much of in western media.

Kashmir Band

The Band Kashmir

I’m sure it was difficult for the judges to choose a winner out of a batch in which each band was outstanding. Nonetheless, the show was becoming exciting after each episode. The competition between the finalists, Badnaam and Kashmir delivered several heights of melodic excellence.  For me, personally it was hard to judge who performed better than the other. I was more involved in discovering two diverse approaches to  music –  a Sufi musical message by Badnaam, and a more westernized (I think judge Fawad Khan called it “atmospheric”) tone by Kashmir – and realizing that both are equally popular in Pakistan.

The Sufi tradition of music started with the ancient bards who popularized the songs of their beloved saints by performing at the shrines and festive occasions. This is how this rich tradition passed from one generation to the next and reaches us through Pathanay Khan, Allan Faqir,  Nusrat Fateh Ali,  Abida Parveen and several others.  Some twenty years ago, as judged by the popularity of Sufi lyrics and music by Junoon, it became apparent that Sufi  music engages the younger audience as well.

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The rise of Badnaam (check out their rendition of “Khwaja ki Deewani“) as runners up confirms the continued demand for devotional and inspirational music. But more than that what might have appealed to many in the Battle of Bands was a fusion of the eastern and western traditions, something Pakistani musicians are especially good at.

For me the best specimen was Kashmir’s version of Pathanay Khan’s signature song which shows how a classic can be reinterpreted with modern instrumentation and still be as mesmerizing.  Atif Aslam deserves recognition for requesting the audience and judges to stand up for a moment in the memory of that great Pathanay Khan, who was truly an avatar of our ancient bards.

I am eager to see how this new group of musicians enriches audiences not only in Pakistan, but the world over. And may all our battles be as musical and inspirational as this one.



Below is just an excerpt from my book Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE), for a detailed history and chronology of the seals you may refer to my book Indus Seals Beyond Geometry.

“Much before the discovery of Moen jo Daro, a seal depicting a humpless bull was unearthed and the story of the Indus seals typically begins with this discovery. The seal was rectangular in shape and engraved with a row of six signs or symbols above the image of the bull and ‘under its neck were two stars’ one of these is already faded. It was discovered in the last quarter of the nineteenth century from Harappa and its sketch and description was published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1875. Alexander Cunningham the director general of the Survey while reporting the seal had also rejected it ‘They (symbols) are certainly not Indian letters; and as the bull which accompanies them is without a hump, I conclude that the seal is foreign to India.’ In 1877, however, he changed his opinion and suggested that the seal signs were possibly precursors of the Brahmi script inscribed on the pillars of King Asoka Maurya (304-232 BCE). This is yet another enthralling part of the seal story as it pushes the history of writing two thousand years beyond Brahmi, the oldest known script of India. The history of seals can even go beyond as occasionally seals keep appearing from fresh excavations, and some of these are dated to an earlier pre-Harappan phase. In fact, as early as in 1960s when Walter Fairservis scooped heaps of potsherds from Balochistan sites, he found among them a few button seals engraved with geometric patterns. Button seals are the earliest known seals in Indus civilization. A decade later more seals and some of them even older than Fairservis’ discovery were unearthed by Jean-Francois Jarrige from the site of Mehrgarh in Balochistan.”