Thursday, May 31, 2012

Songs of Layla and Simorgh

Layla and Simorgh may be regarded as the two most significant metaphors for the collective ego in the history of Muslim literature. While Layla emphasizes the beauty of the collective ego, Simorgh illustrates its power. These two aspects came together in the short story 'Time Bygone' (گزرا ہوا زمانہ) published by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1873. The celestial bride presented in that story was obviously modelled after Layla but her dialogue was reminiscent of Simorgh: "I am the soul of all human beings."

Symbols of love and power, such as Layla and Simorgh, had come to be seen as metaphors of the Ultimate Ego (i.e. God) during the centuries of our intellectual and political decadence (and I am inclined to believe that this was not the meaning ascribed by the writers Nezami Ganjavi and Sheikh Fariduddin Attar). A lasting contribution of Sir Syed to our literature and culture is that in very subtle manners he shifted the focus on the collective ego. The concept was elaborated most clearly by Allama Iqbal in the next generation, and thus an intellectual revolution was completed.

It is true that the intelligentsia since 1936 have tried to undo this intellectual revolution by shifting the focus again on the individual self and God, and by taking out the collective ego from the equation, but it seems that they have not succeeded so far. Practically all the national songs that became phenomenally popular in Pakistan represent the nation either as Layla or as Simorgh, but usually in a manner reminiscent of the inferences drawn by Sir Syed in his short story.

I often play 'Sohni Dharti' in my workshops and ask the participants to note the lines that may be regarded as addressed to the celestial bride of Sir Syed's short story. Usually the participants end up observing that the song by Masroor Anwar, which has become a collective identity for Pakistan, can also be addressed in its entirety to the celestial bride of Sir Syed. In other words, the song 'Sohni Dharti' presents Pakistan as that celestial bride and thus emphasizes the beauty of the collective ego.
The other national song which has come to define the identity of Pakistan in the same phenomenal manner is 'Jeevay Pakistan' by Jamiluddin Aali. When I play this song and ask the listeners to note the lines that may be regarded as allusions to Simorgh as described by Sheikh Fariduddin Attar, they end up saying that the entire song may be described as a song about Simorgh. Same is the case with 'Mien Bhi Pakistan Hoon' written by Sehba Akhtar. To this may be added the official national anthem of OIC, 'Hum Mustafavi Hain' by Jamiluddin Aali.
Then there is that didactic song which is usually regarded as the most philosophical and profound of all national songs written in Pakistan: 'Yeh Watan Tumhara Hai' by Kaleem Usmani. Listening to it carefully, we may find it to be a straight forward listing of "do's" and "don'ts" from the perspective of the same collective ego - Layla and Simorgh. So is the national anthem written by Hafeez Jallundhri.

In my humble opinion, these national songs and anthems form the backbone of Pakistani literature, culture and art. Our explorations in this field cannot be seen as fulfilling their purpose until we recognize these national songs in this capacity, explore their deeper meanings and understand their connections with the centuries of our literary heritage. I have attempted this in Topline Social Studies Programme, a series of textbooks for secondary schools published in a revised edition last year.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,

    Thank you very much for this.

    As I read this today, and reflect on what you share about the intelligentsia's attempt to remove a focus on the collective ego, shifting it back to the individual and God, it occurred to me that this could be seen as almost tantamount to minimizing Divinity's manifestation in the world (i.e., an utter dismissing of people-coming-together-in-love, in nations). Certainly, one could argue that the world's deplorable conditions might be attributable to bad poets not pointing toward love of others...keeping the focus half-sightedly on individual salvation.

    Just some thoughts.

    All good wishes,