& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Celebrating Bulleh Shah – A Night of Poetry and Songs

The first time I heard of Baba Bulleh Shah was in a song from Bobby (1973).

The lyrics were simple and effective.

Break mandir and masjid, if you must
Don’t break a heart full of love
That is the lover’s home

Narender Chanchal sang to Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music. The legendary Raj Kapoor filmed the song on the young Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia.

It was a longing look at innocence of young love.

Then, years later, when MTV India and its variants introduced the laity fed on a steady staple diet of Hindi movie songs to non-film music genres, it opened new doors.

For the first time, we in India heard and saw many Pakistani singers (the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) who experimented with their musical forms and genres.

For all of them, Bulleh Shah’s poetry was an effective means to spread the message of love, inclusion and acceptance.  

The Sufi poet captivated us again in Chaiya Chaiya (Dil Se, 1998), a song that has come to epitomize AR Rahman’s mastery.

Coke Studio Pakistan – a youtube favourite for many of us – gave us more of great singers (again mostly from Pakistan) bringing alive Bulleh Shah’s many poems.

Bulleh Shah’s message is simple. Love conquers all. Despite its universal appeal, one associates his poetry and music to  South Asia, and more specifically to the Punjab.

Then, last evening, I went to a show that changed my perception forever.

The show proved that the message of love knows no boundaries. 

The awesome Azalea Ray who lifted the show to an altogether different dimension by her rapturous performance encapsulated what every one of the nearly 200 people at the show felt in one word – Wah!

Sheniz Janmohamed’s Ignite Poets organized Celebrating Bulleh Shah – A Night of Poetry and Songs at Beit Zatoun.

Quite simply, it’s a show Toronto won’t forget in a hurry.

In her introduction, Sheniz said her interest in Bulleh Shah’s poetry began during her first trip to India a decade ago when she heard Rabbi Shergill sing Bulla ki jana mein kaun. 

A fan of Coke Studio Pakistan, she had long wanted to do a program in Toronto that’d match the original verve, zest, creativity and chutzpah.

The show had spoken word artists recite their pithy political as well as love poems, and the kind of music that would’ve done Coke Studio Pakistan proud.

The poets included Ali Abbas, Ikhwan Allani, Ali Alikhani, Patrick Connors, Lishai. Sheniz, herself a spoken word artist, surprisingly didn’t perform. Each poet had a different style but the same message.

All the poets had different styles but they had one thing in common – originality, belief in humanity, and a fervent urge to preach love.

I found Lishai’s poem on Mumbai and India particularly interesting because of the interlocking ideas of alienation and belonging. Being different and yet wanting to be the same.

Musicians included Sassan Irani (daf and vocals), Mehdi Rezania (santoor), Ravi Naimpally (tabla), Azalea Ray (vocals), Samer Shahid Khan (vocals & guitar), Ernie Tollar (bansuri/flute), Demetri Petsalakis (oud).

Haris Sheikh’s sufi paintings of the whirling dervishes added to make the ambiance right.

Ravi Naimpally on table was an absolute delight. It’s been a while since I heard the table played with such dexterity.

Of course, the evening belonged to Azalea Ray. This is the first time I heard her perform live, and she more than lived up to her astounding reputation. 

She’s a master performer, which is infinitely more than being a maestro (which she undoubtedly is).

Sheniz is a young woman to watch. Within six months, she has mounted two absolutely stunning shows.

In October 2012 she was the force behind the success of International Festival of Authors (IFOA) – Markham.

And now in March 2013 she out did her previous achievement with a show that will become a benchmark for similar shows in the future.

Images: From Facebook

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Age of Consent

Age of Consent is generating serious debate in India. The new anti-rape legislation passed earlier in March raised the age of consent for women to 18. Political conservatism in Indian political system prevented a proper debate on the subject. 

This is unsurprising. 

The Indian mindset hasn’t changed in over a century. More than a hundred years ago, when the British changed the law and raised the age of consent from 10 to 12, there was similar opposition. Among those who opposed the bill that Sir Andrew Scoble introduced in 1891 was Lokmanya Tilak. 

M.G.Ranade had - long before the Bill was moved - called upon the people of Pune to voluntarily pledge them to raise the minimum age at which they would get their children married. 

Tilak approved of Ranade's voluntary prescription but was vehemently against any state intervention. "We would not like that the government should have anything to do with regulating our social customs or ways of living, even supposing that the act of government will be a very beneficial and suitable measure," Tilak vigorously protested. 

Babasaheb Ambedkar has famously called Tilak “politically liberal and socially Tory.”

Scoble after having pondered over the merits of the arguments of both the sides, was convinced "that the balance of argument and authority is in favour of the Bill – even if it were not so, were I a Hindu, I would prefer to be wrong with Professor Bhandarkar, Mr. Justice Telang and Dewan Bahadur Raghunath Rao, than to be right with Pundit Sadadhur Turachuramani (Pandit Sasdhar Tarakachudamani) and Mr. Tilak." 

Despite countrywide protests, the Bill was enacted.

Incidentally, women weren’t consulted, even though the issue of consent became public when a woman – Rukhmabai – refused to recognize her marriage to her husband as she was married as a child and had lived separately for more than a decade. 

In 1888, Pandita Ramabai had argued that “marital laws favoured men whether under the ancient Hindu codes of Manusmitri, or under Christian British rule in India.”

Another pertinent legislation that was passed during that period was the Factories Act (originally passed in 1881). The term ‘child’ was defined for the first time as a person below the age of eight and was prohibited from employment. In 1891, this was amended and the minimum age was raised to nine, with maximum working hours for them reduced to seven. Women were to work for the same hours.
Image from: http://news.in.msn.com/national/anti-rape-bill-no-consensus-at-all-party-meet

Friday, March 22, 2013


One of my fondest memories of the night shifts as a security guard in Toronto was to listen to the Canada Reads debates on CBC radio that Jian Gomeshi anchors. 

Canada Reads is an annual “battle of books” where five Canadian books compete and a winner emerges by process of elimination. The competition started in 2001 and in 2013, the winner is Lisa Moore’s February, originally published in 2009. 

I picked up the novel from Walmart (!) at a discount.

I’d have missed a masterpiece but for Canada Reads.

Here are some impressions about the book.

Pain, loneliness and quiet suffering are difficult to describe because it’s easy to get sentimental describing them and go overboard; or conversely, understate their enormity in trying to maintain objectivity.

Lisa Moore
Lisa Moore’s February is a novel about pain, loneliness and quiet suffering. It describes Helen O’Mara’s desolation after she is suddenly left to pick up the pieces of her life when her husband Cal dies; it does so without overt sentimentality but with an accurate certitude.

Helen is used to the emptiness of being alone. She has learnt to ignore her own needs bringing up three children on her own. She’s lived a life on memories of the small things that has stayed with her when life had a meaning. But she doesn’t want to get used to the emptiness of being alone.

Even a lifetime of loneliness doesn’t help you adjust to a lifetime of loneliness and you seek escape in children, siblings, trips down south and to Europe.

Lisa Moore tells us about Helen’s life in short episodes. The present doesn’t follow the past in the narrative; often they’re jostling for space in the same paragraph. The non-linear narrative accentuates Helen’s transparent (and futile) attempts to keep a cloud of opacity on her inner turmoil.

Helen O’Mara will stay with you for a long time after you turn the last page of the novel.

Here’s an exquisite passage from the novel:

We have grown apart, she thought. She’d gone on without him. She would have sat next to him and peeled the apple and she would have felt like his mother. The dead are not individuals, she thought. They are all the same. 

That’s what made it so hard to stay in love with them. Like men who enter prison and are stripped of their worldly possessions, clothes, jewellery, the dead were stripped of who they were. Nothing ever happened to them, they do not change or grow, but they didn’t stay the same either. They are not the same as they were when they were alive, Helen thought.

The act of being dead, if you could call it an act, made them very hard to love. They’d lost the capacity to surprise. You needed a strong memory to love the dead, and it was not her fault that she was failing. She was trying. But no memory was that strong. This was what she knew now: no memory was that strong.

Listen to Lisa Moore and Trent McClellan talk to Jian Gomeshi:


Saturday, March 09, 2013

Azän on a Toronto Streetcar

Bänoo Zan

Azän[1] on a Toronto Streetcar
Bänoo Zan

My heart hears it
before I do

I start to vozoo[2]
in tears

to stop praying—

the ritual
of the tree of speech

falling like leaves

Years back
in the land of Azäns

my disbelieving body
shook at the gropings
of the lecherous call to

In the land of now
this call to freedom
by a slave[3]
frees me
from separations

shackling questions
released by love

shaking roots
to the falling


[1] The Muslim call to prayer, sung from mosque minarets
[2] Muslim ritual ablution before prayer
[3] Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi, an emancipated slave and the companion to prophet Mohammad, the first muezzin in Islam

Bänoo Zan landed in Canada in 2010. In her country of origin, Iran, she used to teach English Literature at universities.  She has published more than 80 poems, translations, biographies, and articles. Her poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies in Iran, Canada, U.K., U. S., Israel, etc.  She hosts Queen Gallery Poetry Night in Toronto and is a member of TOPS (The Ontario Poetry Society) Executive.  She believes that her politics is her poetry.