The Crucible of cultures

Author: Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla  -  Karachi: February 23, 1951

(All Publication Rights Reserved by Abdul Khaliq Chagla)

    It will be admitted that the ultimate background of Western Pakistan goes back at least 5000 years, to the Mohan-jo-Daro and Harrapa civilisations of the Indus Valley of the pre-Aryan epoch.  Nor can it be denied that the territory which is East Pakistan today is nearest to China and to Southeast Asia; and the antiquity of ancient Chinese civilisation cannot be doubted.

    In trying to evaluate the cultural background of the civilisation of a people one needs must delve into the historical, racial and, one might add, the geographical background of the region.  Let us take geography first, for, the effect of geography on cultural values is not generally recognised as much as it ought to be.

    The latest view is expressed by Professor George B. Cressey in his book Asia and Its Land.  He says: "Human factors may reverse the totality of physical environment.  The language, nationality, religion, population, density, and occupation are each of geographic concern".  In fact, these are factors which have a controlling influence on cultural development.  But the professor goes on to add: "The significance of location can change", and he says pointedly that the "geo-politicians have tended to underestimate the influence of the 'serial third dimension' - communications".

    On the other hand, if we try to evaluate culture from the point of view of history, it is a truism to say that "history" goes back only so far as "historical times" - and that is not going back far enough.  During the last four or five decades archeology has come to the aid of history, yielding an immensely rich harvest.  Dr. Galpin wrote in 1937: "The world is growing older at both ends, for, the past ten or fifteen years have seen a wonderful unfolding of its early history through the researches which have been so skillfully and successfully undertaken in Western Asia ..... Thus through many avenues of past history the paths of knowledge have been extended.  A wider outlook stands revealed before the eyes of the potter, the metal worker, the architect, and, I will add, the musician .....".

    Incidentally, Dr. Galpin has been able to decipher the musical notation of an ancient Sumerian hymn "On the Creation of Man" (second millennium B.C.) which has the same scale and a remarkably similiar ethos as the Indo-Pakistani melody type (raga) Eman Kalyan. The scale is the Hypo-Lydic of the ancient Greeks, or the "Lydian Church Mode" of medieval Europe, though it is used more in the Indo-Pakistani manner, rather than in the "European" manner that Beethoven employs when using this ancient scale in one of his string quartets.

    Now take the case of language.  Language - and the fine arts - give an indication of cultural values and cultural affinities as perhaps nothing else does.  Let us take but one example of a written language of the border of West Pakistan - Sindhi.  This language shows clearly how this border region has been a veritable crucible of cultures.  The people of Sindh are the direct inheritors of the culture of Mohan-jo-Daro.  At a later period they were under the sway of Buddhists, then the Brahmins, the Persians, and the Arabs.  Alexander's Greek armies marched through Sindh, and came down by boat to Karachi.  Whatever may have been the ultimate roots of the Sindhi language, during the period of Brahmin occupation this language took root in Sanskrit and Prakrit.  The grammar - and the construction of the folk songs - still remain predominantly Sanskrit in character but during the Muslim period the thought became predominantly Islamic.  And yet it took on a character of its own.  Shah-jo-Rasalo, the poetic works of Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit, is probably the finest "gold" that has emanated from this crucible of cultures.  Shah's poems remind one of Rumi and the interpretation of the Quranic verses by the master-minds of the Middle-East, and yet the expression and the style is unique.  Probably no one else in the world has taken common legends and folklore - such as Sassi-Punnu and Sohini-Mahiwal - and without relating the whole tale in a long poem has yet managed to give the finest psychological, and one might say, esoteric interpretation to the highlights of each tale.  Arabic and Persian words and Quranic verses are used freely, together with words of Sanskrit and Prakrit origin, and the form of Shah's verses remind one of Hindi duhas and Sanskrit shlokas.  But the thought remains absolutely Islamic throughout.  Since Shah's time more and more Persian and Arabic words were introduced in Sindhi, till even "ghazals" and "marsiyas" of unsurpassing beauty - in the true Persian style - came to be written in this language, and ultimately even the Arabic alphabet was adopted, with additional characters to denote sounds not found in the Arabic language.  Incidentally, the Sindhi (Arabic) alphabet contains as many as fifty-two letters.  But words are to be found in old-Sindhi of which the roots cannot still be traced either in Sanskrit or in Prakrit.  Could it be that originally this language is based on some Mohan-jo-Daro dialect?  This question can be answered only when the script of Mohan-jo-Daro has been deciphered.

    It is now generally admitted that there is a racial affinity in languages.  One need not be disturbed by the terms "race" or "racial" if these are correctly interpreted, as Max Muller did.  Speaking of the "Arya", Max Muller wrote: "Aryas are those who speak the Aryan languages, whatever their colour, whatever their blood.  In calling them Aryas we predict nothing of them except that the grammar of their language is Aryan".  Thus, to Max Muller, the "Aryas", or as we might say today, the "Aryans", were a cultural group, in addition to being a racial group as well.  Or, we might say that a racial group is predominantly a cultural group.

    That is so, even though two similiar "Aryan" words, belonging to the opposite sections of the same group, may have opposite meanings, because of some unknown - but vital - quarrel that may have broken out between two or more rival sections before the original "Aryans" separated and migrated from their ancient common homelands, which are said to have been somewhere to the North or North West of modern Afghanistan.   Thus dev (angel) of the Sanskrit-speaking Hindu Aryans became deev (giant; devil) of the ancient Iranians, and, it is now suggested that the Assyrians - who inherited the ancient Sumerian culture - are probably the Asuras (devils) of classical Sanskrit literature.

    Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that there was inter-communication between the ancient civilisations of the Middle East (Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians) and those of the Indus Valley (Mohan-jo-Daro and Harrapa) and that this pre-historic inter-communication continued down to the historical "Aryan" period.  It is even claimed that the Brauhis of the present Baluchistan show a close affinity with the pre-Aryan Dravidians of South India.  Similiarly contact between China and South East Asia on the one hand, and what is East Pakistan, on he other hand, can hardly be denied.  To prove the point to the hilt we shall have to wait till archeological research has progressed further.

    Meanwhile let us examine some corroborative psychological evidence.  This may be regarded more or less in the nature of "internal evidence" as revealed in the spontaneous expression of human emotion, in manners, customs, behaviour, costumes, arts and crafts, and especially in the fundamentals of music, which is undoubtedly the most spontaneous expression of what lies hidden within the human soul.  All this evidence cannot be found in written books.  One has to seek for it - as the present writer has tried to do - in living fact

    It is only in emotional expression that what "lies within" comes out spontaneously.  And the term emotion may be interpreted feeling coloured - if not controlled by thought.  It is not only what one consciously feels, but what is the result of one's cultural - one may even say "intellectual" - inhibitions that come out in emotional expression. For an example, eroticism, as a simple feeling or urge, does not find expression necessarily in the sex act if one has even a grain of cultural background;  it rather tends to find emotional expression, in the cultured individual, as a beautiful song, or a beautiful picture, or a beautiful dress, or a beautiful fairy tale, and so on.  The primitive feeling is transmuted by the play of thought on it.  One has but to read the works of a poet like Shah Latif of Sindh, to know what can be done with a simple erotic tale when the mind and the "heart" of a true master deal with it.

    And this is the point:  The probability of any connection between spontaneous emotional expression - especially through music and racial affinity may at first appear to be slight; but it is a subject which is now receiving marked attention stimulated by the ethnographical researches of scholars like the late Dr. Curt Sachs, Dr. E. von Hornbostel, and others.  It should be remembered that the term "race" is used in the sense Max Muller spoke of the "Aryas", in no other sense.

    Now let us examine the evidence of the fundamentals of music from this standpoint.  The basic facts of system of music are contained mainly in its scales and a "scale is the tabulation of the facts of song".  An eminent scholar states: "An enquiry into the ethos and structure of the oldest music of which there is any record is not a piece of antiquarianism".  In fact it throws that sort of light on expression through music which the knowledge of the geology of a country throws upon its scenery.

    Looked at thus, all the musical scales of the world can be tabulated under three broad-based "racial" cultural groups: heptatonic (seven-tone) scales are predominantly "Aryan", in the cultural sense; hexatonic scales are predominantly "Erythrean"; pentatonic scales are predominantly "Mongolian".  It is besides the point that there are "pockets" in each cultural group where the scales of another group are found.  Thus, the five-tone scale is in use by the Erse, Gaels, and Scots, and the seven-tone scale has been grafted on to the music of South East Asia.  This only proves, as has been already stated, that the "geo-politicians" have tended to under-estimate the importance of the "third serial dimension" - communications.  Incidentally, all the racial groups named above are of sea-faring people and their early history is lost in antiquity.

    But it is important to note that it is only in the Indo-Pakistan region that all three types of scales are freely used.  As may be expected, five-tone scales are more frequent in East Pakistan, which is so very near China, and seven-tone scales are more frequent in West Pakistan.  In fact the "Aryan" cultural group extends from West Pakistan to the furthest westerly end of the Asia-Europe land-mass.  Thus, West Pakistan may be taken as one end of the cultural bridge which extends across the Middle East to Europe.

    The present writer has had the opportunity to travel from the shores of the Baltic to Karachi, by land, and has had time to observe at leisure the progressive continuity of cultural expression throughout this "Aryan" region.  Would it be surprising to say that the Sindhi-Punjabi word "shāl" (the English "shawl") is used in far-off Poland as "shālik", in the same sense, or that the bright red tight-fitting costumes of the villagers of the Carpathians remind one of village costumes of Sindh and Punjab?  There is also a similarity in the folk-dances of these widely separated "Aryan" regions and the peculiar Magyar "Hungarian" scale is the same as the Poorbi of Indo-Pakistan, though it is used differently.  Certain melodies and rhythms of Russian music are the same as ours.  For an example, the opening violin solo, with harp accompaniment, in Rimsky-Korsokoff's Scheherazade is nothing but a tān in the mode Bhairavi, and the rhythm of the dance in the same symphonic-poem is the rhythm of a West Pakistani village dance. Even the fairy tales the villagers tell on a winter's eve in the far-off Carpathians are akin to our own folk-lore.

    Let us come to the other end of this cultural bridge - the Pakistan border region of Sindh.  If you see a Sindhi village maiden in the border region, carrying a pitcher of water at sunset, you will be reminded of a classical Greek painting.  The shape and the size of the pitcher are the same; the mode of carrying it, across the shoulder, is the same.  You will find that in East Iran as well.  Again, if you listen to an unsophisticated villager of Sindh (alas! how many are left!) singing a lyric of Shah Latif in the mode Bhairavi, and if you have some knowledge of ancient Greek music and medieval Iranian and Arab music, you cannot help recognising the affinity, not only in the scale, but also in the ethos and expression.  In the Dadu and Larkana districts of Sindh, even the grain is stored in huge urns of classic Greek design.


Of course, all this argues the influence of Alexander's army.  But it also argues very much more than that.  It argues the continuity of cultural expression in the entire culturally "Aryan" region, and that West Pakistan is one side of the cultural bridge that truly links the East and the West.  Thus, we who live in the valleys of the Indus have more in common with those to our westwards, than with the ancient classic culture of the Gangetic basin.  True, we have contacts with that region as well, but that is more by virtue of centuries of domicile and intermingling of blood.

    Let us look at East Pakistan.  There we find predominance of pentatonic musical scales, school of painting, with a character of its own, which shows definite traces of Chinese and South East Asian influence.  That is as it ought to be.

    But - and this is a very important "but" - whether in East Pakistan or in West Pakistan, you cannot help noticing the predominance of the essentially Islamic cultural influence.  Islamic culture was the crucible of ancient cultures, and we have inherited this characteristic from our past.  Pakistan - to be true to its cultural inheritance - has to remain a crucible of cultures and to form a bridge between the East and the West on the one hand and between the East and the Far East and South East Asia on the other hand.  this is the onerous responsibility that our geographical position has thrust on our shoulders - whether we relish it or not.  But it is a responsibility which will be cheerfully and well borne if we do not forget the true basis of Islamic knowledge and culture as testified to by the Prophet (PBUH) in his sayings: "The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr", and "Seek knowledge, even unto China!"

    What does this signify?  It signifies tolerance - and yet more tolerance; broad-based tolerance; sympathetic tolerance of that which is beyond the ken of our immediate understanding.  That was the secret of success of our forefathers, which we have all but lost and which we have to regain.  This can only come from our strict adherence to what Iqbal calls "the principle of movement in the structure of Islam".  What is that?  It is nothing but ijtihād, meaning endeavor and exertion to understand and to assimilate and then to transmute the knowledge gained into all that is true, good and beautiful.  And, in the eloquent words of the Prophet (PBUH), to endevour to create within oneself the attributes of God.

    Who knows, in Pakistan, the Crucible of Cultures, a new world culture may evolve which, taking root, may spread faster than ever in the past - because the "serial third dimension - communications" have developed to a degree today that distances have been annihilated.  This may again truly link the East with the West, in friendship and understanding, and lead this much shattered and battered old world to a world-peace "that passeth all understanding".

May that be our Destiny!