I have always had an ambivalent approach towards Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani’s scholarship. And this is perhaps due to his prolificacy which, if not properly understood in its different contexts, sometimes seems annoying. Dani has strongly made his presence felt across many disciplines such as history, archaeology, anthropology and sociology and different periods such as ancient, medieval and modern. And all this has turned him into a popular icon.
Professor Dani is undoubtedly a ‘popular icon’. This is what his personal files, full of excessive correspondence and communication, say about him. Colleagues, students, professionals, amateurs and laypersons alike have amply corresponded with Dani on diverse topics. And true to his professional vigour, he used to reply to everyone with characteristic intellectual humility. My focus here — on the occasion of his 9th death anniversary (January 26, 2009) — is on one very apparently amusing letter (dated November 29, 1983) addressed to Dr. Dani by someone named Talat Mehmud, 29-year-old.
The letter is written in Urdu on letterhead of a certain firm (Sethi Fruit Industries, 1-720, Tehli Mohallah, Rawalpindi). I would like, first, to give an English summary of the text. After that some observations would be made about Dr. Dani’s scholarship and personality with the help of his reply.
After formal greetings the sender of the letter says that though being less educated and not known to Dani as well as cognizant of the latter’s precious time, he would like to ask four questions. He also expressed gratitude for the expected reply from Dani. The questions are as follows:
1. Who is your favourite personality having a deep imprint upon you?
2. What is, beside Quran and Hadith, your favourite book which has exercised great influence upon you?
3. Name your favourite periodical which you give preference in your study?
4. Any couplet, either in Arabic, Persian or Urdu, which is often in your mouth?
Office copy of the response letter is not available in Dr Dani’s files at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam University. Nevertheless, his answers to the questions are known from the reverse side of Talat’s letter. Very roughly, he has written with his hands:
1. Sir Mortimer Wheeler
2. Still Digging
3. Antiquity published from England
4. Jis khait se dehqan….
It seems that these constricted answers were meant for Dani’s stenographer in order to prepare a proper reply. Notwithstanding the absence of the reply letter, the available data is important from two standpoints. First, it speaks volumes about Dani’s standing as a public intellectual. Second, it demonstrates his intellectual romance with archaeology and his social philosophy.
Professor Dani’s first three answers entirely attend to his romantic interest in archaeology. The very name of Mortimer Wheeler is worth a thousand words. He is known as an adventurer in archaeology who not only played with new ideas, concepts and methods but also made archaeology visible to the public both in England and India. Wheeler reached India as Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1944 for the period of four years. He trained a number of Indian students in methods and practice of archaeology, in 1944-45, at Taxila, Arikamedu and Harappa. His students, including Dani, served in various important positions after the partition in both India and Pakistan.
That Dani considered Wheeler the most influential and inspirational figure in his career makes sense in many ways. Their master-apprentice relationship undoubtedly involved a life-long association with respect to intellectual ideals. Both believed in the vitality of humanistic approach in archaeological research and simplifications of expert knowledge. All their works stem from these premises to the effect of enjoying great appeal and exercising deep influence not only in academia but in the public sphere at large.
This argument is further strengthened by Dani’s answer to the second question viz. the iconic Still Digging. Still Digging is Mortimer Wheeler’s autobiographical chronicle (first published in 1955) which presents his career in the field of archaeology since 1920s. His works and experiences in England and India have been successfully preserved in the book. Irrespective of being prone to post-colonial critique, Still Digging still assumes literary, academic and historical value. It does not simply record Sir Mortimer’s archaeological activities in a chronological frame, but simultaneously embodies his missionary ideals and methods and archaeological pedagogy. If one carefully correlates Dani’s archaeological texts with pedagogic considerations as are found in Still Digging, it will certainly become obvious that Wheeler had had a profound imprint on him.
Dr. Dani’s third answer is also intertwined to the first two. Antiquity is a very prestigious academic and scholarly journal devoted to circulating empirical and theoretical developments in world archaeology. It was founded by O.G.S. Crawford, British archaeologist, in 1927 and is published by Cambridge University Press from England. Wheeler, like other colleagues, had a close association with the journal. He made regular scholarly contributions, especially with methodological orientations, to it. Having a wider circulation of high quality archaeological researches Antiquity would certainly be desperately awaited by scholars of the level of Dr. Dani who, true to his inquisitive spirit, always kept himself abreast with latest researches in the field of archaeology and ancient history.
Finally, the last answer of Dani is crucial vis-à-vis exploring new aspects of his personality. He replied that he had great passion and love for the following verse:
A field which does not yield livelihood to a farmer/peasant
Set fire to every ear of wheat of that field
This couplet is from a poem of Iqbal in which he vehemently speaks in favour of the alienated and disenfranchised people. But generally, he is known for his poetry in the framework of Muslim nationalism in India and Pan-Islamism at large. Iqbal is also national poet of Pakistan and his kalam is interpreted in such a way as to provide ideological foundations to Pakistan. Interestingly, the above-mentioned couplet represents the other face of Iqbal. It is even more exciting to note the coincidence that the couplet also bring to the fore a new aspect of Prof. Dani’s personality.
The public and formal face of Dani is that his services are largely tinged by a conformist orientation aiming at strengthening the existing socio-political order. As he was not a critical intellectual, his writings sanctify things cultural and political. Strangely enough, the above-mentioned verse and the philosophy to which it is embedded are conspicuous by their absence in his public texts. His last book, History of Pakistan: Pakistan through Ages (2008), assigns a complete chapter to Iqbal. He does not go beyond the official narrative in it. However, this couplet gives us a Dani totally different from the Dani who is known to us. The credence I attach to this single evidence and instance is due to the fact that this was a couplet which was always — every time — in his mouth.
Finally, a question arises here. To what extent Dani’s answers would have satisfied Talat. Nobody can know. However, I speculate that the first three answers would have been like a naïve sort of reply while the fourth one would have fascinated him.
As a whole, the letter of Talat and reply by Dr Dani speak volumes about Dani as an iconic scholar and intellectual. But as the popular Dani is no more with us, do we not need more Danis at a time when we hardly hear custodians of heritage being prudent and articulate?