On February 16 and17, 2018, the Gurmani Center for Languages and Literature and the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences hosted an international Punjabi conference on the theme “Punjab’s Cultural Identity: Past and Present.” This was the first time that a Punjabi conference was held at LUMS and the hosts, Moeen Nizami, the Director of the Gurmani Centre, and Kamran Asdar Ali, the Dean of the Gurmani School of HSS, expressed their hope that it would become an annual event and would stimulate scholarship on Punjabi language, literature, and politics. The conference was conducted almost entirely in Punjabi, rather than English, which was a pathbreaking development for LUMS. In his concluding remarks, Syed Babar Ali, the guest of honor, exclaimed that never before had this much Punjabi been spoken inside a LUMS auditorium!
The conference began with a keynote speech by Mushtaq Soofi, an eminent writer and President of the Punjabi Adab Board, followed by five panels, one on Friday and the remaining four on Saturday.
The first panel was on “Socio-economic and cultural transformations of the Punjab” (“Punjab vich samaji, maali tay rehtali kayapalti”) with Tahir Kamran (GCU, Lahore), Manzur Ejaz (USA), and Mahmood Awan (Ireland), and was moderated by Sarwat Mohiuddin (Islamabad). Tahir Kamran analyzed the changes in the Punjabi oral tradition produced by the adoption of print technology and the use of Urdu as a symbol of Muslim nationalism. Mahmood Awan recalled that the British army recruited primarily from the Punjab, making it a foremost beneficiary of military spending on salaries; he used Punjabi folk literature to demonstrate that the army was perceived as a benefactor and army jobs as a path for social mobility. Manzur Ejaz explained that urbanization and the adoption of modern technology had transformed villages in Pakistani Punjab and had displaced many of the activities traditionally associated with village life.
On Friday night, the conference concluded with a Punjabi Qawwali performance, which drew on the poetry of Waris Shah, Bullhe Shah, Baba Farid and Amir Khusro.
The second panel, “Punjab: Language and Identity” [“Boli tay Shanakht”], featured Tariq Rahman (BNU, Lahore), Amarjit Chandan (England) and Gurmeet Kaur (USA), and was moderated by Ali Usman Qasmi (LUMS). Tariq Rahman compared the Punjabi language movement with movements in other countries, and noted that it was a deviant case because it entailed a dominant ethnic group conceding the right to have its language serve as the basis for government and education, in the interest of nationalism. Amarjit Chandan asked conference participants why no one spoke of the Punjabi nation; he tried to uncover the reasons why Punjabis had been unsuccessful at organizing a movement for their linguistic rights. Gurmeet Kaur spoke about the need to acquaint children, in the Punjab and the diaspora, with Punjabi folk tales because they were based on a spirituality grounded in oneness with nature, which not only united people across religions and national borders but also countered the materialism of modern consumerist societies.
The third panel, “Classical Literature: Gender Question” [“Classical adab tay nar naari da sawaal”], analyzed the representation of women in Punjabi folk literature and in plays by (and about) the Punjabi diaspora in Canada. Anne Murphy, who heads the Punjabi Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, narrated the story of Komagata Maru. In 1914, a group of 376 passengers from the Punjab attempted to emigrate to Canada on board the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru; all but 24 were denied entry because of an immigration law that allowed exclusion on the basis of race. Murphy argued that “the past is still present” and that though Canadians have come to recognize the Komagata Maru incident as a dark period in their history, discrimination persists in other forms, against immigrants but also against women. She analyzed three plays on the Komagata Maru incident and compared two which showed the perspective of the sole woman aboard the ship (her perspective was excluded from earlier productions). The other two panelists, Saeed Bhutta (GCU, Lahore) and Jamil Pal, analyzed the representation of women in Punjabi folk stories, and described how characters such as Heer in Heer Ranjha celebrated women as strong, feisty, courageous and bold. Zubair Ahmad moderated the panel and there was a lively discussion after the presentations. Audience members debated whether the “daadi” woman of Punjabi folk tales was a creature of the past and suggested that in future panels on the gender question, Punjabi women activists and artists should be invited to share their perspective.
The fourth panel, “Partition: The killers and the killed” [“Wandd: kaun qatil, kaun maqtul”] with Pervaiz Vandal (UCA, Lahore), Mazhar Tirmizi (UK) and Nadhra Naeem Khan (LUMS), was moderated by Kamran Asdar Ali (LUMS), and the fifth panel, “History owned fully or selectively” [“Tarikh de wirasat, puri ya adhuri?”] with Mushtaq Soofi, Qazi Javaid and Iqbal Qaiser, was moderated by Nadhra Naeem Khan (LUMS). Both panels discussed how colonial, communal and nationalist biases were present in historiography and considered whether it was possible to have an “objective” representation of historical events or if it was inevitable that history would be distorted to serve the needs of ideological movements. The discussion was impassioned, and sometimes combative, but it demonstrated that the conference had successfully inspired participants to reflect deeply on difficult and controversial issues related to Punjabi historiography, linguistic rights and communal divisions (particularly the division between Muslim and Sikh Punjabis over the choice of Shahmukhi or Gurmakhi as the script for Punjabi scholarship).
A recurring question throughout the conference was how Punjabis could preserve and celebrate their shared language, history and culture, while the territory of the Punjab was divided between two nation-states, and while the community structures of Punjabi diasporas often reproduced these national and communal divisions. It was perhaps fitting that the conference concluded with the launch of Gurmeet Kaur’s children book for children, Fascinating Folktales of Punjab, at the Gurmani Foundation in Gulberg. In this beautifully illustrated book, Kaur presents Punjabi folk tales, in side-by-side Shahmukhi and Gurmakhi scripts with an English translation, and also provides a conversion table that can help children learn both scripts. By introducing children to the sights, sounds and tales of pre-partition Punjab in this linguistically pluralistic way, she demonstrated that it was possible for Punjabis to celebrate their shared cultural heritage without losing their distinctive identities.