Symbols are just that

Symbols created by historic, religious or cultural perceptions, events or experiences exist in every culture.  Traditions and language play an important role in developing, maintaining and over a period of time even transforming cultural symbolism.  These days it is not unusual to witness hard-hitting debates about cultural appropriation through the expropriation of “cultural symbols”.  The recent Met Gala in New York offers an example of the discourse around religious symbolism and the appropriation, possibly of “papal culture”.  Symbolism is coming under increased scrutiny now, be it a sari, cheongsam, kimono, indigenous or other traditional dresses and headgear, dreadlocks, yoga, R&B, hip hop, jazz or possibly even tulsi and basmati rice.

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of “Who Owns Culture” defined cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”  She goes on to add that “one of the most significant differences between recognizable and invisible cultural groups … is the degree to which a particular group has been commodified.”  In other words, when symbols are viewed as commodities.

But, I digress.  In this blog, I explore the impact that changing societal habits have on a cultural symbol causing its transformation and sometimes, a reinterpretation.

In Punjabi literature and folk music, the common crow had for centuries remained a symbol of a trustworthy ally and interlocutor until recently, when it started to be vilified.  Traditional poetry extolled the welcome sighting of a crow on the parapet of the village dwelling for it symbolized the arrival of a guest (or, for dreamy maidens, their beloved).  Today it is viewed as a scavenger and an ill-omen if sighted around the homestead.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz, a respected Pakistani columnist with an insightful understanding of Punjabi poets and folk literature offers an interesting perspective of the Crow.  It is believed that as early as the third millennium BCE maritime trade flourished between the Indus civilization, Dilmun (modern Bahrain) and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, Syria and some other neighboring countries).  Dhows (traditional sailing vessels made of timber and coconut ropes) would navigate the seas, sailing close to the coastline as there were no compasses or other navigational tools to guide them.  However, occasionally a storm would pull these vessels deeper into the sea and they would not be able to plot their course or determine where the shore lay.  Crows were an integral part of a dhow’s cargo and when lost at sea, the crew would release a crow.  The bird would instinctively fly towards land enabling the crew to chart their vessel’s course.  The expression “as the crow flies” was perhaps coined as a result of such excursions, albeit much later when the West started to emerge as seafaring nations.  In local folklore across the East, a crow remained a powerful symbol.

Traditionally, villages in the Punjab were independent, largely insular and self-reliant communities.  The arrival of vanjaaraas (traders) was therefore an exciting change from the monotonous drudgery of village life.  The village belles dreamily romanticized these “mysterious” adventurous, hardy men who traveled through hostile terrain to ply their trade, bringing with them news of the “outside” world.  Just like sailors on the open seas, so too these vanjaaraas traveling between far-flung villages separated by vast, treacherous and inhospitable forests had to rely on the crow to guide them onwards.  The bird, when released would fly towards habitation and act as the caravan’s guide.  The sighting of the crow in a village heralded the imminent arrival of outsiders, causing much anticipation and excitement.  Many a song have been sung by maidens expecting the arrival of the romantic stranger or indeed the successful return of their beloved from his travels across foreign seas or land.  The crow was in equal measure also frequently chastised by the petulant lass for raising false hopes if the beau did not show up when expected.  The song below from a 1969 movie Chirag exemplifies this emotional plaint by a maiden roused from her sleep by the cawing of the crow:

Bhor hote kaaga pukaare kaahe Ram

Kaun pardesi aayegaa mere gaam

[O’ Lord, why do you call out at dawn crow

Which stranger is going to arrive at my village/doorstep]


Societies evolved over time and as better navigational resources came into being, travel became easier and safer.  No longer needed, the once benign crow lost its symbolic importance and came to be reviled as a cunning, despicable good-for-nothing, flesh-eating filthy bird.  Still, culture and tradition change slowly over long periods of time.  Folklore has not yet completely cast the crow out of its symbolic role of an intermediary between pining lovers.  The following lines from a composition by the famous twelfth century Sufi poet, Baba Farid are emblematic of the supplicant seeking union with the Master, pleading thus to the symbolic crow:

Kaagaa sabh tan khaayeeiyo, meraa chun-chun khaayiyo maas

Doh nainaan mat khaayiyo, jinhen piyaa milan ki aas

[O’ crow devour my entire body, pick at my flesh and eat it

Only do not eat my two eyes, that look expectantly for union with my Beloved]

Jaana jogi de naal

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