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The other America

Austin is one of the most civilised places in the US of A

The other America

The intellectual and social accomplishment of Texas is symbolised in the grand tower that stands as a guardian in the centre of its University in Austin. There may be another Austin where affairs of the state are conducted but the Austin I know is the campus of the university which is a town and half in itself. This university town is one of the most civilised places in the US of A. Its South Asia Institute, which hosted me last month, is now spread over ten schools and twenty three departments.

In the thirteen years since it was established, there has been a tremendous growth in its expertise not only in the study of pre-modern texts, religious studies and philosophy but on contemporary South Asia as well.

Kamran Asdar Ali, the moving spirit behind SAI, is a professor of Anthropology at UT. He is well-known in America for his splendid academic work. His interests include Performing Arts, Urdu Literature and Pakistani cinema. His study of Saadat Hassan Manto is a penetrating work. His book, “Performance Art, Politics and Gender” was published last year. It was entirely due to his persistent efforts that UT Austin set up an exchange programme between UT and the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Pakistan. It was at his initiative that I was invited to Austin to meet some of the faculty, and deliver a lecture.

Asdar Ali organised a lunch for me to meet five of the Professors who run the Butler School of Music at Austin. All of them had mentored, individually, the first batch of NAPA students who had spent a whole semester at Butler’s and had returned to Karachi much enriched by their experience.

I was keen to learn what the professors thought of our students. It was pleasing to hear that each one of them praised the NAPA students and the enthusiasm they had shown in learning orchestration and instrumentation. Ahsan Shabbir, one of NAPA’s junior faculty members, was singled out for having conducted a Raga (Rageshwari) he had harmonised, at the UT’s Recital Hall. Later on, I read an article in SAI’s fall issue that Lee Redfield, a well-known saxophonist, who had visited NAPA, had written about his experience. I quote from it:

“It may be a cliché to say that music transcends borders, but being part of a musical performance that defies both artistic and political boundaries is probably a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for most musicians. I had this unique opportunity this year when I, an American national, was invited to participate in Pakistan’s Independence Day celebrations.

I was keen to learn what the professors thought of our students. It was pleasing to hear that each one of them praised the NAPA students and the enthusiasm they had shown in learning orchestration and instrumentation.

It all happened because of a three-year partnership initiated between UT’s Butler School of Music, where I teach, and the NAPA in Karachi. We work with a group of young musicians from NAPA every semester and NAPA hosts some UT’s faculty members afterwards. I was fortunate to be one of them this year.

During my visit to NAPA in August this year I held workshops for its faculty and students I lectured on quartal harmony and triad pairs and I think all students found the lectures useful and helpful. I also enjoyed practising on the NAPA roof in the mornings.

In between these lectures I participated with the saxophone in an enthralling musical concert at NAPA to mark the “Jashn ka Din”.

I felt it was an honour and privilege for me to be a part of the exchange programme. If I had one complaint, it was that I couldn’t spend more time than I did working with NAPA’s faculty and students. I can only hope that I shall visit again someday…”

* * * * *

One of the most erudite scholars I had the good fortune to meet, and dine with, was Dr Azfar Moin, a professor of Religious Studies whose research has explored the interrelations between politics and religion in early modern and modern South Asia, especially the practices and performances of sovereignty in Islam. His work won him many prestigious awards from esteemed academic institutions in America. Dr Moin told me that he was now working on the rituals of Muslim kingships in the early modern era specifically on the role of Sufi shrines as sources of sovereignty.

Professor Azfar Moin took a remarkably circuitous route to his present profession. He went to UT Austin as an undergraduate to study electrical and computer engineering. The transition to studying history and religion after working as an engineer was not easy. After he had graduated he felt that “we couldn’t understand the world and our place in it without critical engagement with the humanities”. He then took a degree in history and, one day, after seven years into a good career, he returned to his alma mater, this time as a Professor of religion.

* * * * *

The kind of research work on South Asia which is being conducted in Austin — and some other universities — is astounding. The recent publication of the Rigveda, the earliest poetry of ancient India, in three volumes, is a massive scholarly work, which has taken Professor Jamison of UCLA and Professor Joel Brereton of the University of Texas fifteen years to complete. It is perhaps for the first time that the poetic composition from well over three thousand years ago has been translated in readable language, so that contemporary readers can appreciate the poetry of Rigveda.

Nobody really knows exactly how Rigveda poetry was composed. Professor Joel Bereton does not think that the poems were composed on the spot. Most of the hymns of Rigveda were deliberate rather than spontaneous. The poets drew on poetic turns and familiar conventions, but rarely recapitulated them as you might find in Homer. He reckons that they rearranged the order for changing one word for another so the educated listener would appreciate the clever way that the poet had altered it.

What amazes Professor Brereton is “how in heaven’s name did a semi-nomadic people who, engaged in animal husbandry and agricultural, develop such a sophisticated and linguistic and poetic culture?” His view is that the poets had to have been trained. “You just couldn’t have been a Rigvedic poet in your spare time.”

Syed Akbar Hyder, Associate Professor in the Department of Asian studies, and a scholar of Urdu, was so inspired by Ghalib’s verse:

An roz ke dar seena nihan ast, na vaaz ast

Bar daar tawan guft na minbar na tawan guft

(The secret that lies hidden in the breast is not a sermon; it can be divulged from the gallows, not from the pulpit) that he initiated a series of seminars in Austin to explore spatial and ideological relationships between the daar (gallows) implying ‘margins’ and minbar (pulpit) implying ‘centre’. The seminars have offered a healthy discussion towards an interdisciplinary understanding of South Asian Islam.

Austin is the other America.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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