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Remembering Abdul Ghafoor Darshan — The Legendary Folk Research Scholar

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Zaman Khan writes about the life of Darshan, who was a lower middle class Pakistani and a man of the people. He was also a research scholar par excellence who had single-handedly accomplished the task of preserving important folk history of Punjab and Balochistan.

It is very difficult to write about a friend with whom you had made plans for an interview sometime in the future, but one morning you found out that he had left us all forever. Abdul Ghafoor Darshan (August 6, 1945 to September 20, 2003), known as Darshan among his friends, was the person whom I tried to pursue a number of times for an interview about his life and work, but without much success.

He was a man of principles who honoured his word and kept his commitments throughout his life, but he did not fulfill his promise to me and left us quietly for good on September 20, 2003, in Faisalabad.

Darshan was a research scholar par excellence. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that he was a pioneer of folklore research in Pakistan. He was a self-taught folklorist and he always took his research work very seriously. In addition, he was known as a no-nonsense man in the research field.

Someone once wrote the following lines about Darshan: “He was a new kind of researcher who would go into the roots and history of folklore and traditions to dig out the truth. His intellectual work is intertwined with his practice. He would sit on the working table when he had already collected a treasure cove of oral folklore and traditions from the remote areas and people of Pakistan, and wanted to translate them into written words.”

According to the writer, most researchers would take credit for the work of others, but Darshan was the kind of person who would like to go into the field himself without caring for the taxing weather.

And he did so to meet the common folk living in every nook and cranny of Pakistan to know their folk heritage, record it and make it a part of the cultural folk history of Pakistan.

According to late Adam Nayyar of Lok Virsa, Darshan has done the best research on Baloch tribes and their customs. He interviewed all the leading tribal chiefs, including Bugti, Mari and Mengal, to know more about their folk heritage. He is the only folk researcher in the world who wrote about the Mazari Baloch tribe and how they wore handwoven straw sandals. For this reason, they were known as the Bishbor, which means straw makers.

The contributions of Darshan towards the promotion of folk traditions of Pakistan were unique. He was a straightforward person who aggressively pursued his goals. Oftentimes, he would use full-blooded vulgarity and a colourful language to interact with his friends. He knew how to swear and had once compiled a collection of Punjabi swear words for Dr Ajmal.

He would jealously guard his work and would always keep a personal copy of each research paper he compiled. He also kept with him some research material which he never submitted to the Lok Virsa Museum’s library because he believed that research scholars in Pakistan used the work of others without giving any acknowledgement to the original authors.

Although Darshan was not a first rate poet, he still wrote political poetry. He was a keen reader and had read all the Urdu translations of district gazetteers. He had also collected knowledge of indigenous wine making methods from across the country. He would keep a kind of a scroll with him and immediately note down anything important that crossed his eyes or ears.

He was so much respected by his colleagues that they would request him to deliver in-house lectures about his work. There is no doubt that he was a god-gifted man.

Darshan was born to a poor family on August 6, 1945, at Amirtsar, East Punjab. His family migrated to Pakistan in 1947 when he was just about two years of age. He was sent to school and did his matric, but unfortunately, he could not continue further education due to economic constraints. So at a very young age he opted to become a salesman at a departmental store. He soon found out that this job was not his cup of tea and that he was meant to do other things in life.

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Darshan had a natural knack for oral Punjabi folklore and his biggest desire was to compile the traditions and print them so that common people could benefit from his work. He was indeed a true friend of the commoners.

Faisalabad, then known as Lyallpur, was a small city where one could not hide his political views. As luck would have it, he came into contact with the workers of Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party (PMKP) who took him to the party’s head Major Ishaq Mohammed.

Major Ishaq himself was a Punjabi writer besides being a political leader. His maiden play, titled “Musali”, was a trendsetter for Punjabi dramas. Pakistan had just lost a major portion of its territory and Major Ishaq and many other Punjabi intellectuals had started looking at the Punjabi and Pakistani identity afresh.

Ishaq had a keen eye for identifying talent. He soon realised that Darshan was a man of commitment and a friend of the people, apart from being a really outstanding intellectual. He reached the conclusion that the best way in which Darshan could serve the cause was to work in the field of folklore.

Luckily Faiz Ahmed Faiz was heading Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) in the early 70s and there was a Folk Heritage Wing under it which was headed by Uxi Mufti. The two intellectual giants, namely Faiz and Ishaq, were although known for their pro-Soviet and pro-China ideologies respectively, but in spite of their differences they had established a lifelong friendship while serving time in jail in the ‘Hyderabad Conspiracy’ case.

Major Ishaq always claimed to be a student of Faiz. When Ishaq was a student at MAO College, Amritsar, Faiz was a teacher there. Ishaq always traced his progressive roots to his young college days.

One day, while Faiz was sitting with other senior intellectuals of Pakistan, he asked the young Ishaq to write a foreword to his book ‘Zinda Nama’. Ishaq was the man who sent Darshan to meet Faiz in Islamabad after putting a letter of introduction in his hands. Faiz knew Ishaq well and at once gave the job to Darshan without asking for his qualification.

Darshan dedicated his book ‘Nakhas’ to Major Ishaq, which was a research paper on slave hunting and horse trading. ‘Nakhas’ is probably one of the few books written in Punjabi which has a bibliography and index.

Although, Darshan looked uncouth and peasant-like, he was a modern man in thought and practice. He probably was the only Punjabi writer who revealed the names of his father, mother, wife, sons and daughters in Nakhas. Late Abeer Abu Zari, a popular public poet, had also written a poem on Darshan, titled “Aaa Darshan Day Mahayia”.

Look Tamashay (1978), another book written by Darshan, includes a thorough study about street performances of monkeys, snakes, monkey and dog, and bears while also including information on puppet shows. His other book written in 1980, titled ‘Boolian’, is a collection of folk poetry about all kinds of jewellery.

Meanwhile, a joint study was also conducted by Darshan, Adam Nayyar and Iqbal Jatoi, which was written and edited by Ahmed Bashir, about Odde tribe in 1982. Odde is an indigenous tribe of the subcontinent and they are among the oldest inhabitants of this region who spend their lives as gypsies due to which they do not remain at one place for a long time.

When I tried to find out more about the above-mentioned book, he came to know about two different versions during his visit to the Lok Virsa. One source told him that this book was banned by the government, while the second source said that this book contained so many mistakes that the institute had to withdraw it in the end.

Other books written by Darshan included ‘Lahhot LaMakan’ (1985), ‘Tappay’ (1993) and ‘Sakhi Sarwar Ki Lorian’ (1996). His research papers included ‘Lorian’ poems, which are sung by mothers to their children at night to get them to sleep. His additional works included ‘Lok Theater No-1’, ‘Mirza Sahibaan’, ‘Geet Aur Rawayaat’, ‘Makraan Kay Sheedi’, ‘Sakhi Sarwar Day Sang’, ‘Shaadi Biyaan Kay Geet’, ‘Punjabi Lok Kahaniyan’, ‘Baloch Aur Un Ke Saqafat’, ‘Balochi Rasm-o-Rawaj Aur Un Ke Saqafat Aur Lok Adab’, among others.

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Faiz left PNCA and became advisor on culture to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. On July 4, 1977, General Ziaul Haq toppled Bhutto’s government and imposed martial law in the country. Darshan being a political man was very disturbed and unhappy with this development, although, he did not leave his government job but he did express his anger through poetry, which he would recite to his colleagues.

During his stay at the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritages (which was later named Lok Virsa Research Centre), he played the role of a bridge between PMKP and Sindhi Hari Tehrik of Rasool Bux Palejo. Darshan was also the founder of Lok Virsa Heritage Library.

He was regarded as one of Pakistan’s most outstanding Punjabi folklore researcher and authored a number of books. Darshan had a special knack for Punjabi folk poetry. He remembered by heart thousands of ‘tappas’, and ‘bolian’. In the introduction of his book on tappas, he wrote about ‘Kothay Taponi,’ which only true Punjabi speakers can understand.

Darshan was an active man and he kept himself busy by going on tours throughout the year. He did not require any special favour from his department except for a recording gadget.

Due to his extensive travelling, the director general of Pakistan Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa) sacked him from his job, after which Darshan had filed a case against his dismissal in the Service Tribunal.

Darshan remained in Islamabad for more than two decades but never owned a house there. The doors of his government allotted quarter were always open for all the intellectuals and writers of Pakistan, particularly those belonging to Faisalabad. He never reconciled with the change of name of Lyallpur to Faisalabad and always used the former in his writings and speech.

Darshan was evasive and shy. This is why his original works were never officially recognised because he did not engage in any public relations events to promote his writings.

His high intellectual status can be gauged from the fact that his books are also taught in Guru Nanak University, Amritsar, while his works have also been translated into Gurmukhi.

Though, he is an internationally recognised research scholar of folklore but the government in Pakistan never recognised him for his achievements. It is also true that he never aspired and desired for any official recognition. This may be the reason why he was living in a small quarter located in a lower middles class area in Faisalabad at the end of his life.

Every other day, one reads about the big achievements of Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) and their services for the well-being of writers and intellectuals.

But believe it or not, when Darshan suffered from Hepatitis C, no senior official of PAL or any of the cultural czars ever inquired about his health, what to talk about providing financial support to him.

His eldest son Zulifqar told this scribe that his father was on the path of recovery when on the night of September 19, he suddenly started vomiting blood. They took him to the hospital where he breathed his last on September 20.

One fails to understand why there were no condolence messages from any quarters concerned after Darshan passed away and left behind two sons, two daughters and a wife.

Even the champions of ‘Punjabiat’ and Punjabi language failed to notice his death. A condolence message from Lok Virsa or PAL wouldn’t have cost anything at all.

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