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Archive for February, 2013

Many were thrown as the city buzzed with entertainment, games and gambling before turning into a mound of dead.  Dice were discovered almost on every level of Moen jo Daro. This was noted by Sir John Marshall, the Director General of the Archeological Survey of India, under whose supervision the site was excavated. Moen jo Daro (translated: Mound of Dead) was the capital of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE).  Known for its non-violence, its citizens tested their strengths only on board games.  The stakes can be surmised from mythology and folklore wherein kingdoms were lost on a throw of dice. What was the nature of that game played in Moen jo Daro?

Much before the discovery of Indus Civilization it was speculated that chess had its origins in India.  Sir William Jones was more specific and suggested West India as the place and chaturanga as the predecessor of chess. Chaturanga, meaning four limbs, denoting the four divisions of the Indian army do not befit well with the ancient Indus way of life.  Nonetheless, a few game pieces showcased in the Moen jo Daro Museum are labeled “Chessmen” and placed on a modern chess board suggesting the possibility of the existence of chess in Moen jo Daro. Things change, concepts evolve, and sometimes they are even capable of representing just the opposite of the original concept. The four limbs of chaturanga may have denoted non-martial ideas in its earlier versions. The existence of dice in Moen jo Daro brings to mind other board games and chaturanga may have evolved from these.

This week I saw ‘’A Throw of Dice,” a vintage Bombay film belonging to the silent era and was made in 1929. However, it has been digitally restored and is available on Netflix.  You can watch a trailer here. The film, inspired by the Mahabharata, included a scene where King Ranjit gambled away his wife and his kingdom.  The superb restored picture quality allows a clear view of the four armed board game, the game pieces, and the dice which is not cube shaped but a set of three rectangular sticks etched with simple designs. Moen jo Daro site museum has few specimens of the stick dice. Archaeologists may be interested in knowing that these are still used by the Sindhi snake charmers, for fortune telling. As for the four-armed board in the movie, perhaps it was pachisi and who knows Arjun too may have lost his wife over such a board.

Pachisi, meaning twenty five, has survived in India and it has an older version known as chaupan. It is played by four players and until recent times, was a favorite ladies’ game in rural Sindh. Chaupan set consists of 16 game pieces, seven cowrie shells and a board, which is actually not a board but just a four-armed cloth piece marked with squares, the same as the one shown in the movie. Logically, chaupan should be the closest to the version played in Moen jo Daro. The use of cowrie shells instead of a cube dice is interesting. Perhaps this throws some light on the urban and rural divide of the Indus Civilization. Whereas the urban centers used dice since the days of Moen jo Daro, the use of cowrie shells, which is much ancient, continues in the remote villages of Sindh. So dice too has taken various forms.

What Marshall discovered in abundance are the cube shaped dice which have survived to present times and are widespread, found in almost all the countries and cultures of today’s world. In Moen jo Daro these were made of terra-cotta, one of these was inscribed with numbers on opposite sides adding up to seven another had made its way to Ur in Mesopotamia confirming the trade links between the two civilizations. The connection between dice and chess is however not yet established.

In a game of chance coincidences abound. The co-producer of ‘A Throw of Dice’, Himanshu Roy, played the role of the villain and won King Ranjit’s wife. In real life however, he had lost his wife, not on a throw of dice, but to the charms of one of the actors he had hired. This is a story better told by Sadaat Hasan Manto, captured here is an English translation.

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A recent article by Shah Rukh Khan describes what it is to be a Muslim in India.

It was published on January 29 in Outlook Turning Points 2013 (Published by the New York Times).  In a prompt reaction, the Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik urged the Indian government to provide security to its well-known Muslim actor. Malik’s statement is laughable and what followed is embarrassing. The Indian spokesman responded by advising Malik to take care of his own citizens. Shah Rukh’s response was even stronger “I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy,” said the actor.  “We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life.”  When Jyoti Malhotra, a senior Indian journalist, was invited to comment on the situation on Hamid Mir’s talk show she was surprised that a high official would give such an irresponsible statement. She even doubted if Malik had read Khan’s article. The Telegraph summed up the controversy as “a senseless diplomatic row between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan.”

By building this blog on Shah Rukh Khan’s article I am not trying to say that India has not committed any crime.  In fact more sectarian violence is recorded in India than in Pakistan. But that is in the political arena in which I do not wish to venture. Mine is an observation of the cultural front where Pakistan has repeatedly failed to make its mark. If history can be a teacher it is about time that Pakistani officials should learn to discover and nourish their own stars. For this is what the founder of the Pakistani nation would have advised as evidenced from his recently discovered letter, published in the Tribune.

It will be fair to begin with the history of Pakistan and see how the authorities treated talent who migrated from India’s film industry?  To begin with only a handful had migrated during Partition, whereas the list of those who remained behind is too long. Most of them not only flourished but dominated the Indian cinema. Mughal-e-Azam, considered to be the greatest Indian film, was made by a team that consisted mostly of Muslims – K.Asif, Yusaf Khan (Dilip Kumar),  Madhubala, Nigar Sultana, Shakeel Badayuni, Naushad,  Mohammad Rafi  and even  Ustad Bare Ghulam Ali Khan who rendered a raag. To judge the outcome you can watch the 3 hour long film condensed to 15 minutes here. Such magnum opus is not possible to create under dangerous conditions at least they were not around film industry.

Mirza Ghalib, a biopic on the great Urdu poet, made by another team of Muslims – Suraiya, Talat Mahmood, Nigar Sultana, Iftikhar Khan, Murad, Mukri, Ghulam Mohammad and Saadat Hasan Manto who wrote the story and screenplay and who migrated to Pakistan.  Out of all his writings Mirza Ghalib seems to be most dear to Manto, he had taken several years to complete this masterpiece. There were moments of frustration – and inspiration – during the scripting process.  Manto had complained about the dearth of material on the poet’s life and he had enjoyed walking through the streets of Delhi, the beloved city of Ghalib. Manto even named his son after Ghalib’s adopted son Arif and finally convinced Sohrab Modi to produce a film on a slice of Ghalib’s life.

In 1954 Mirza Ghalib was finally released in India. The film was a huge success and won the prestigious National Film Award in India.  Unfortunately by that time Manto was rotting in Pakistan. He was writing short stories for pulp magazines and selling them for Rs. 30 each.  The Pakistani bureaucracy, instead of lending patronage, charged him with writing obscene material. Yes, Manto also had a passion to write on the sub-culture of the sub-continent.  Prostitutes, pimps, tongawalas, and street urchins were some of his most memorable characters but he used them not for any sensual reasons but to highlight the ‘disease’ of society. People loved his short stories and Faiz Ahmed Faiz defended him in a courtroom.  A year after the release of Mirza Ghalib Manto died at the age of 42.

Mirza Ghalib was never released in Pakistan but Pakistanis enjoyed its songs on the radio. It must be admitted that many Pakistanis and Indians came to know Ghalib’s poetry through the ghazals of this film sang by Talat Mahmood, Suraiya and Mohammad Rafi.

Another irony.  The Pakistani government did not even allow the exhibition of its own film on Ghalib. I also came across this piece of information on Wikipedia: “The Pakistan government in 1969 commissioned Khaliq Ibrahim (died 2006) to make a documentary on Mirza Ghalib. The movie was completed in 1971-72. It is said, that the movie, a docudrama, was historically more correct than what the official Pakistan government point of view was. Thus, it was never released. Till this date, barring a few private viewing, the movie is lying with the Department of Films and Publication, Government of Pakistan.”

For most countries film has been a powerful medium to portray culture.  Hong Kong, at the tail end of British era, was marketing its culture of martial arts through films.  The French Ministry of Culture under the Socialists (1981-86, 1988-93) made films to highlight sensitive issues; India is known to the World mostly through Bollywood films; Venezuela makes four films a year, Pakistan can do at least half of this number to correct its distorted image. But film is at the lowest priority in Pakistan’s cultural policy and culture in general is ruthlessly neglected by policy makers. The only effective cultural policy, it is said, was authored in 1970s by Faiz Ahmad Faiz.  Perhaps he saw some hope in the new democratic government. I came to know the fate of his policy in one of his interviews. “It was neither accepted nor rejected by any regime,” Faiz revealed. “They accepted the parts which suited them and rejected the rest.”

Once again a new government is in sight. We can hope to have a sane cultural policy that is capable of creating an environment where quality films can be made and a profound culture can flourish.

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