Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh

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When the late Dr Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath wrote her masterful book Chaukhandi Gräber in 1978, one would have thought that was the last word on this most elegant of funerary art forms to be found anywhere in Pakistan. Along came that utterly puerile work History on Tombstones by self-styled historian Ali Ahmed Brohi followed by the more significant work of archaeologist Khurshid Hasan. It was however Zajadacz-Hastenrath’s work that for long lit the Chaukhandi horizon bright, especially after a much abridged English translation of her original German appeared in 2003.

The recent work Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh by anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro of Quaid e Azam University is in the same league as Zajadacz-Hastenrath’s work. The earlier work traces the evolutionary path of the art of stone carving for funerary decoration in Sindh and southern Balochistan from the 14th century until the mid-19th century. It shows how the art spread from a rather simple form in 14th century Gujarat to Sindh where it blossomed into its exquisite fullness. Kalhoro’s work takes our existing knowledge several steps ahead.

Perspectives is a collection of fifteen papers either read at conferences or published in various journals within the country and abroad. Most of these essays, especially in the case of those on Sati and hero stones in Tharparkar, are first-time investigations. Sati, the ultimate trial by fire for a widow on her husband’s pyre, was, we are told, ‘an act of establishing the truth (sat)’. Kalhoro reveals the ancestor worship latent in the reverence accorded mahasati (Great Sati) and satimata (Mother Sati) stelae.

In tandem, hero stones depict the valour of the jhujhar – the warrior who continues to battle even after decapitation. Kalhoro shows that such death was a degrading compromise of the Rajput fighter’s spiritual and physical integrity to be redeemed only by revenge. Jhujhar stones therefore depict the headless warrior in combat.

Sprinkled quite abundantly across the southern quarter of Tharparkar (present day Mithi and Umerkot districts), these priceless monuments had hitherto escaped the notice of investigators. While casual visitors were acquainted with them, their great age (eight hundred years) and significance remained unknown. Not strange that some of these priceless monuments have either been vandalised or stolen.

On the subject of the meaning of ‘Chaukhandi’ used for carved stone graves in Sindh, Kalhoro forwards an astute premise. It has been argued that the term arises from village Chaukhandi just outside Karachi on National Highway-5 home to a large collection of these tombs. Conversely, it is said that it is the name of the pillared canopy above a set of tombs or that the term comes from the rectangular shape of the burial.

Kalhoro shows that the inscription of ‘Chaukhandi’ on the tombstone of Jam Murid Jokhio outside Karachi as well as on that of Murid Kalmati in the Raj Malk cemetery (near Gharo) implies that the term applied to the grave and not to any other structure.

As for the umbrella-shaped canopy atop many Chaukhandi tombs, Kalhoro comes into full form as the anthropologist to link it with the parasol that throughout history shades royalty from the sun. We learn how a necessity of these climes becomes a symbol of power and nobility.

Under the anthropologist’s gaze, the virtually unknown domes of the cemeteries dotting the outback of Shahdadkot, Larkana and Dadu come alive with dance and music. Dating from the Kalhoro period of the mid-17th century through the Talpur rule and later in the late 19th century, these monuments are scarcely known outside their locale. It will be no exaggeration to say that this is the first notice of these beautiful and critically threatened monuments.

Kalhoro shows how his ancestors, spiritual leaders to the people of Sindh, were not averse to representing human forms in their funerary buildings. Along the interior frescoed panels the reader gets a guided tour through tales of Sohni-Mahiwal (Mehar in Sindhi), Sassi-Punnu, Nuri-Jam Tamachi, Leela-Chanesar, Mokhi and her Mataras, Momal-Rano and even the Arab Laila-Majnun.

The esoteric tale of the bold and generous king Rai Dyach and the master musician Beejal Charan of Junagadh also features in a Jamali tomb in Shahdadkot. Having asked the musician what fee was to be paid for his art and told that only the royal head was acceptable, the king did not demur. In one panel, the decapitated torso of the king seated on a charpai, is depicted presenting the head to the musician.

As one travels from monument to monument across the pages of Kalhoro’s work, one cannot but marvel at the vivaciousness of medieval Sindhis. Even in death, they celebrate life in full splendour. The dancing beauties and the musicians whose song and melodies one can almost hear, the gaily caparisoned horses, the nobleman’s hookah-smoking syce, the charpais with ornate frames on which nobility reposes are all part of that celebration of life. Like the fullness of the carved stone Chaukhandi sepulchres that are found nowhere in Pakistan but Sindh and southern Balochistan, so too we see these paintings here alone.

The penultimate paper focuses on depictions of dance and music in a number of Hindu and Sikh worship houses. The last one deals with a number of mosques and one mausoleum in Qambar-Shahdadkot district. More than two centuries old, threatened by repeated flooding and salinity, these monuments are all but unknown outside their precinct.

Zulfiqar Kalhoro has done well to record these monuments on paper. The cri de coeur that rings recurrently throughout Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh is for the urgent need to protect these priceless pieces of Sindh’s built heritage. Some of the images in the book show that the buildings are heavily undermined as subsoil salinity eats away their foundations.

As well as that, locals vandalise the invaluable paintings inside. In 1987, a youngster at the Drigh Bala cemetery (discussed in the work under review) informed this writer that a visiting Punjabi mullah had instructed villagers to take defacement of human figures in the tombs as their religious duty. Seeing that damage is minimal, one can only be grateful for small mercies. The long-established mystic tradition of Sindh may, thankfully, have played a part in staying the vandal’s hand.
But Nature has her own ways and seepage from the ageing domes is also damaging the exquisite miniature-style artwork. It breaks one’s heart to note that within a decade or two, many of the buildings so painstakingly studied and recorded by Kalhoro may no longer be standing. Indeed, some of the images used in the book do show heaps of carved stones and bricks to validate this fear.

But until they last, this book is an important addition to the kit of the serious traveller in Sindh. It is at once a scholarly work and a guide book. Armed with it, one can roam the wild and desolate regions of Sindh to discover the working of medieval society and get a unique glimpse of the daily life of those bygone centuries. And from the pages of Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh glean the unfolding of history.

Perspectives on the Art and Architecture of Sindh
Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
Pages: 280
Price: Not listed
Published by: Endowment Fund Trust
F-66/II, Block, Clifton, Karachi

Excerpt 1:

The Sindhian School of painting is believed to have been fully developed already in the Samma period and reached its pinnacle during the reign of the Kalhoras in the eighteenth century. In the Samma period there were also produced portraits especially for Sultan Hussain Bayaqara who was king of Herat and contemporary to Jam Nizamuddin (1461-1508). The artists of the Kalhora School eventually moved out of their centres in Khudabad and Hyderabad to other parts of Sindh, particularly in Larkana where one finds figural paintings reflecting Kalhora influence.

Excerpt 2:

Apart from the images of musical instruments on the Maganhar graves at Sonda, there is a memorial stone of Kesro Maganhar at Hariyar village in the Mithi taluka, which shows the kamach. The kamach is a smaller version of the long-necked lute danburo, with a small body and long neck.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Epilogue - The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:30,


At 25 December 2014 at 17:29, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Wish to read this book.


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