Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Remembering Pakistan’s intellectual wanderer

Daud Rahbar, who died last month in the US in his late-80s, was the sort of man Pakistan has stopped producing. He was a product of a Lahore that was mixed in terms of religion. This meant it was mixed also in terms of castes, even though like all cities of that time its neighbourhoods were segregated by faith.

The Punjabi urban elite of the cities that are now in Pakistan was always Hindu and Sikh because it remained Khatri and Arora and to some extent Brahmin in caste. It was the peasantry of Punjab that was attracted to Islam.

To this day, many of the better parts of Lahore retain aspects of their pre-independence identity. This is startling to visitors, who are confronted with areas like Gowalmandi, which is now the famous food street of the city and which has statues of Hindu gods carved on its walls, and by names like Laxmi Mansion, which is the building where Saadat Hasan Manto was given a flat as refugee property.

But these are places and names from the past. In just a few months in 1947, Lahore went from being a city of Hindus and Sikhs with some Muslim areas to being a city of Muslims alone, most of whom came from outside the city.

A friend of mine from Karachi, Rehan Ansari, made the observation that Lahore “looks like a city overrun by villagers."

Rahbar was a product of the earlier Lahore and of the mingled cultures. His father was from the mercantile community of Chawlas (rice-sellers). Rahbar’s area of scholarship was inside Islam, and he was an exceptionally penetrating student of some of its aspects. He taught at Boston University, US, for a quarter century, and there is a YouTube video, about which more later, in which he returns to the university for a talk.

Outside his scholarship, it was his work in cultural speculation that made him special. This is available in two books, both available only in Urdu unfortunately, called Culture kay Roohani Anasir (The Spiritual Elements of Culture), which was originally a series in the monthly literary magazine Naya Daur, and Baatein Kuch Surili Si (On music), published from India.

Pakistan’s greatest living novelist, Intizar Husain wrote this about the first book in his column on Rahbar:

“The subject of religions and cultures allied to them was close to Rahbar’s heart. In his book, he has discussed this subject at length with particular reference to four cultures: Hindu, Chinese, Christian and Islamic. Each has been discussed in a separate chapter. The fifth chapter has been reserved for a discussion on Buddha’s place in India and China. In the concluding chapter, Rahbar discusses cultures in general, comparing one with the other. How aptly he distinguishes Chinese culture from Hindu culture. The sacred folktales of Hindus are dominated, according to Rahbar, by the element of entertainment. The distinctive feature of Hindu culture, as he explains, is noise: dhol, tamasha and baja, with their loud sounds, form part of their festivals. In comparison, the Chinese behave in a serene and serious manner. “In China," Rahbar says, “silence stands as a symbol of wisdom. And so taciturnity and brevity are virtues in their eyes."

I was utterly blown away when I read the book, which was published a couple of decades ago. Rahbar looks at the cadence of the Vedic chants and tells us it is set in a militant meter. Then he says that this is because it is the product of a meat-eating and aggressively acquisitive culture. This is why, he speculates, the militancy of the cadence sounds out of place in today’s more vegetarian and other-worldly faith.

In the book on Hindustani music, which he understood as well as a competent vocalist himself, he writes descriptions of the great Indian singers of the time and what made them special. The quality of Amir Khan, for instance, he attributes to his “taiyyari" (preparation and practice) rather than his talents as an improviser.

In chapters like “Sangeet aur Mahadev" (Music and Lord Shiva), he effortlessly and unselfconsciously writes about a culture that he sees as his own. He says that to understand the essence of Shiva one needs to listen to Dhrupad in Marwa. He writes about Krishna (in “Krishanji") with great affection.

This openness to the other’s faith got him into trouble in Pakistan. This came after a controversy over whether he had converted to Christianity.

The reaction against this was entirely predictable, and it was vicious. In his monumental work Pakistan: Behind the Ideological Mask, Khaled Ahmed wrote that after 1958, when Rahbar’s work was attacked at a seminar, he “is supposed to have gone to Lebanon and embraced Methodism…"

Ahmed adds: “Daud Rahbar describes himself as paraganda-taba, an epithet applied to himself by Mir Taqi Mir in a couplet. He is indeed an intellectual ‘wanderer’ who doesn’t care to be famous but wants to be understood by ‘no more than ten people’."

It is a shame that this has been more or less true. To see and understand the qualities of this very great man, have a look at the YouTube video titled “An evening with Daud Rahbar".

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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