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Will that Bird Sing Ever Again?

By Shameer KS

We gathered around his frail figure, gathering memories. ‘The ninety year old man was dying,’ I had heard people say when I had gone to a textile shop with my uncle to purchase kafan cloth, foreseeing his imminent departure. For us, his grandchildren, he was always the wielder of dulfqar-sword of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam. He enacted the Caliph’s role, standing, walking, riding, and fighting, while he had sung the lines of Pakshippattu (Bird Song), which narrates how Ali and his legendary sword killed Ifrith, the emperor of evil jinns, to release a bird from his custody and to take her to her lover, Akbar Sadaqa, on whose plaints the Caliph had set out on the mission of crossing seven seas to reach Ifrith’s fort.

After the funeral, one of the children said: ‘Ali is gone.’ My uncle corrected: ‘It is as if Ali is gone.’ ‘As if’, thus, bridged the gap between a narrator and his narration. I have never heard thereafter anyone singing the sonorous Bird Song. None thereafter assumed that magnificent poise, striding up and down, enlarging his chest, and carrying an imaginary dulfqar in his hand.

Years later, a friend of mine questioned the moral utility of the Bird song. He belonged to a moderate Salafi group in Kerala and, though he did not agree with the rant of his organization about the interference of non-Islamic elements in the Islamic societies, he was skeptical of expressions like Bird Song and the Prophetic Maulid, merely because they transmit stories not tested as authentic by the Traditionalists. Semi-authentic or even unauthentic stories are preserved and transmitted in all traditions, because they help people instill ethical and moral  values  through these stories and impart them to people in such a lucid and easy way that they  never forget them. If morality is thus imparted, the original narrators of these stories might  have thought, one  hardly needs to police it.

But what moral utility does the Bird Song have? The Salafi friend asked, as if, he felt, the story of Imam Ali’s fight with Ifrith was nothing more than the plot of a Bollywood film. ‘One needs to go back to the medieval era and the chivalric romances to understand its moral content’, was my answer. A knight-at-arms with heroic qualities goes on errand for his lady and risks his very life to preserve her honor from adversaries. The tradition of courtly love rendered each aspect of the chivalric narratives, including Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, more erotic. Imam Ali and Dulfuqar were not trying to save the former’s lady love. Akbar Sadaqa is a bird and one of the weakest creatures whose honor a knight-at-arms is not obliged to preserve. The two elementary morals that one can derive from the tale are  the relationship of human and animal lives and the duty of the strongest to protect the weakest (Mustad’afin), besides the relevance of varied flora and fauna in our lives (many of which are elegantly listed in the course of the song).

In fact, the skeptics of morality songs in the Islamic tradition in Kerala (not entirely different from the morality and allegorical plays developed in Christendom in the 15th century) were inspired by the early twentieth century reform movement called Kerala Aikya Sangham. Many leaders of the movement were inheritors of the reform process ignited by Egyptian scholars like Rashid Rida and Muhammad Abdu. But, interestingly, the Egyptian forbearers were not averse to such artistic and literary forms; they simply wanted to reform their style and content. However, in the process of waging crusade against the superstitious practices like polygamy and priesthood, many leaders of this movement swept away everything that did not satisfy the ‘modern’ and ‘refined’ cultural tastes. In Kerala, as part of religious and community carnivals in churches and temples, we can see the performance of local variants of the medieval morality plays. Interestingly, I spent my adolescence feeding myself on ‘the Church Plays’ (David and Goliath, Charlemagne etc).  One can conduct an elaborate study on how literary and cultural expressions were elided in the Muslim tradition, though there are extant manuscripts proving the rich heritage dating back to many centuries. I would not like to belittle the contribution of reformers, including those from the fraternity of Kerala Muslim Aikya Sangham. In fact, they played a crucial role in rewriting the social and religious power equations for the middle class and in teaching ways to question the hitherto-unquestioned religious power. In the very same process, however, they transformed themselves into an alternative religious power centre.  Since they aimed to effect sweeping changes, they caused many valuable heritages to be swept away.

In the drive for modernization, spearheaded by reformers who are western educated and are motivated by a tradition of orthodox criticism, which goes back to Ibn Taimiyya, the indigenous language developed by the people of Malabar was also forgotten or neglected. Arabi-Malayalam was a hybrid language synthesizing Arabic, Malayalam (and, also, Sanskrit), Tamil, and Persian in its rich vocabulary and using the Arabic script. One of the extant and most popular works in Arabi-Malayalam was the corpus of songs penned by Moin Kutty Vaidyar (1852-1892). His works, sung in olden times in specially evolved rhythmic and metrical schemes, which were not dissimilar to the metrical schemes in Arabic,  had been adapted to popular meters and rhymes for the fast evolving Mappila popular culture. In fact, philosophical treatises, mystical poetry, erotica, romantic songs, lyrics were all written in Arabi-Malayalam. These works are more authentic sources of the tradition of Islamic thought in Kerala as well as  of the verdant Mappila culture than even the Arabic texts written by Muslim scholars born in the region.  But, there was a time when learning Arabi-Malayalam was frowned upon.  This happened when there was stronger focus on learning Malayalam than the languages, which the reformers considered as superfluous. Sanaulla Makthi Tangal, who is described as the first Muslim to write books in Malayalam, considered learning Malayalam as a religious duty binding on all Muslims, the negligence of which is  much detested (Makhrooh).

But, considering that the educational backwardness of Muslims was a very serious problem then as it is even now, the clamour by reformers for the Muslim masses to join the mainstream by learning the mainstream language and imbibing the mainstream culture was, in retrospect, a well-thought out move. But the aim of this acculturation was to develop a medium through which a particular Islamic weltanschauung is transmitted  in Kerala. So the literature of the past, including the one written in Arabi-Malayalam, was considered as unfit for this weltanschauung. It was much like a frightened house, where the ghosts of superstitions roamed freely.

In fact, with Malayalam achieving the classical status – which is given to Indian languages that are ancient and having a literary tradition of its own – many noted critics have opined that the mainstream literary Malayalam, which is closely linked to Sanskrit in vocabulary and syntax, is foregrounded  by excluding  the variants spoken by tribal people and those whose diction has not yet been standardized. What will happen to the process of archiving, preserving, translating and promoting the literature written in Arabi-Malayalam is anybody’s guess.

However, in its post-modern resurrection, themes and works written in Arabi-Malayalam are the staple of a pop culture, which exists in the realm of the synergic, free, and easily accessible media, especially the Youtube. Works like Cherur Chnithu (made by a 15 year old boy named Abdul Vajid) and Mappila Lahala are appreciated, as they deserve to be.

Like Tuhfat al Mujahiddin, the first historical prose treatise in Arabic  focusing on the Portuguese invasion of Malabar and Fatahul Mubin, an Arabic ballad on the similar theme, these video ballads convey a belligerent mood which existed in the 15th century Malabar and spills over to the present time, when Mappila youths are arrested and  are objects  of suspicion post-9/11. When we appreciate these ventures for reflecting on our time and for linking it with a past, which is fast forgotten, we wish for the post-modern revival of many works that have something else to  offer other than war.

It is in this context that I dream about the rebirth of the Bird Song, before many of those rare people, who  memorized it and, in a way, captured its essence in their psyche, are  buried in their graves.

[Shameer KS is Executive Editor of IslamInteractive.info. He also has worked with the Other Books, Calicut.]

[This piece on Cafe Dissensus is protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus, we will retain the exclusive copyright for a period of 30 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus. Re-publishing articles from Cafe Dissensus in other magazines and newspapers without permission will amount to copyright violation and the publisher is liable to prosecution.] 

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