Comments on Omer Tarin Poem by Shahid Ali

25 Jan

Given below are some excerpts from a review on the poem ”Gandhara, at the Taxila Museum” by noted Pakistani poet Omer Tarin. This review was made in 1996 by the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001). It expresses very well the essential and basic elements of this fine poem.

A very significant recent poem …[is] Omer Tarin’s ”Gandhara, at the Taxila Museum”…
Taxila was the historical center of the ancient Gandhara Civilization that once staddled much of North-West Pakistan and neighbouring areas of both Kashmir and Afghanistan. It was a richly complex and elaborate civilization, especially in its later half (circa 185 to 100 BC) after the influx of Greco-Bactrian influences enriched it further…
For a very long, long time, after the Islamic conquest of North-Western India, the signs of this ancient civilization were mostly lost; only to be rediscovered amidst great fanfare and public wonderment, by Sir John Marshall, the British historian and archaeologist, in around 1913-1923 . The British government in (then) India, established a fine little museum near modern Taxila, in fact close to the Sirkap and Sirsukh excavations that were part of ‘old Gandharan Taxila’, which still exists in Pakistan, today. And it is this fine museum, containing wondrous relics of the Gandharan Civilization…[that] Omer Tarin writes about in this rather melancholic poem, teeming with plentiful historical-cultural allusions hearkening back to ancient Gandhara and the Greco-Bactrian heritage in particular: we are reminded of the earlier phase of Gandhara, first of all, in the ‘terracotta soul/of ochre and bronze’ and old, old fertility rites symbolized by the statuette of the ‘mother-godess/with her ample bosom’; and then we move on to the images…[of] the Greeks…[and] the Buddhist sculpture of the time which thus evolved with Alexandrine features transplanted unto the Buddha, or Siddharata’s face…an example of cross-cultural ‘fertilization’.
Yet, as Tarin abruptly reminds us, this wonderful treasure trove to be seen at Taxila, has lost much of its splendour in contemporary Pakistan–it has been all destroyed, and belittled, at various levels. Firstly, by the defacement of much of this cultural heritage by the ultra-religious mullahs which have crept out of their little rat-holes and literally taken over the supposedly ‘Islamic’ and ‘Pakistani’ national-cultural discourse under the Zia military regime and which have thence entrenched themselves, along with their narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy, unto the Pakistani national psyche. . . one elemental and basic omen of this is how {symbolically) women have been generally relegated to a lower sphere of existance in ‘theocratic Pakistan’, as evinced by the ‘hiding away’ of their very femininity…a challenge to the mullahs, who would ‘doom’ the ample-bosomed mother-goddess to a forced ‘chastity’ behind small display windows that hide and cover, rather than reveal her many charms. Ironically, whilst the mullahs on the one hand suffocate the goddess in this manner, at the same time they also brutalze and abuse her, or encourage her abuse, by ‘hirsute’ (brutish) men who come to visit the museum and this sorry ‘exhibit’ , ‘dirty old men’ who ‘rent and ravish/with lecherous looks,/probably pious’. The so-called ‘moral brigade’ is at once revealed in all its shocking pseudo-piety and true and ugly hypocrisy, for they have, significantly, ‘little pig’s eyes’, in stark contrast to their ostensibly Islamic moral role, they are deemed to be themselves haram (illicit/unlawful) creatures beyond the pale of the Din (Faith/Islam).
Another ironic and even pathetic dimension, is when we are shown the victory of a shallow materialisam over all that Gandhara, at its very best, represented; and ‘insult is added to injury/as hawkers sell postcards and Pepsi,/under the Siddharta tree’ , outside the Taxila Museum. The reference here is to an ancient banyan tree there, which many scholars and historians believe was one of the locations or places where Siddharta/Buddha once meditated. This was a divine and truly sincere meditation that unmasked the ‘immaterial’ nature of all ‘material existence’. or being. The tree itself symbolises the anti-material philosophy that the Buddha taught and which once flourished in this land, this soil– but sadly, tragically, it seems to have lost out, has been ultimately defeated by the ‘hawkers’ hawking their cheap wares, their crass, materialistic goods.
On a basic level, the poem says a great deal that informs us about the present state of such ancient heritage in a negative environment that detracts from and in a sense ‘reduces’ the cultural value of the relics at Taxila, those that in effect ‘represent’ Ghandaran Buddhism…[but at the same time] the poem is also an indictment of the whole Pakistani system and society in the post-Zia era, with its extremism, narrowness and sheer hypocrtical materialiam, that cheapens both people (women, for example) and all work of art.

(Agha Shahid Ali, 1996)

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