Thursday, April 28, 2011

Historically Correct, Literary Riveting

“To write a novel or a short story is not as difficult as writing about cultural heritage. I have to create within the given limitations of this genre. The facts have to be correct and presented well and yet, I still have to tell a story,” says Ihsan H. Nadiem, author and poet. Keen to procure a place in literature for his distinctive brand of creativity, Nadiem reminisces at his career in archaeology that took him to archaeological places all over Pakistan. Which adds up to thirty-two years before he came to be recognized as a published author in his own right. Ghost- writing for his bosses for nearly twenty years and often under duress to lend his pen to works published under other people’s names, Nadiem allowed his creativity to be taken credit of by others. The pretext being; his position as a serving government servant and then not wanting to leave the “thrill” that comes with exploration as a state department archaeologist. Ironically enough, the first book published under his name, Moenjodaro – Heritage of Mankind, came after much exploitation which is so typical of the bureaucratic line of operation in the country.

“One day a manuscript was sent to me for whetting purposes. I found each chapter incoherent and completely copied from other books without giving credit to the original source. I gave my honest opinion about it and sent it to my senior who in turn sent it to the head office. The then Chief Secretary, who had wanted to oblige the family of a deceased colleague by publishing a book under his daughter’s name, ordered me to come over to Islamabad. It finally dawned that this young lady did not have a clue about conservation or Moenjodaro. Nevertheless I was now ordered to write a book on Moenjodaro in forty-five days. And I did exactly that.” However, as fate would have it, bureaucratic reshuffling saved Nadiem’s work and he finally published it under his name in 1994 with a private publishing house. Moenjodaro – Heritage of Mankind was his premiere into creative historical writing. It opened the way to a long list of publications later in his life.     

 Nadiem has been to the remotest of areas of Pakistan. His positions in the Government department of Archaeology allowed him privileges of traveling under armed escort, official transport fit to explore the rugged sites no sane person would have dared to go. “The past is so interesting,” exclaims Nadiem, though his entree into the field of archaeology was a matter of luck as he puts in. With a Masters’ degree in geography, he was all set for teaching the subject when, the Dean of Arts at the Punjab University, (where he had been a student) was asked to recommend a post-graduate student capable of doing research work. Short-listed for the assignment, Nadiem was thus literally forced to study the collection at the Lahore Museum. At this time in history, Pakistan was in dire need of trained archaeologists. In 1961 he trained as an archaeologist on scholarship by the Government of Pakistan. Trained in excavation, conservation, pottery drawing, site drawing and even vehicle driving as part of the course, Nadiem’s sojourn into the ancient world knew no boundaries. Later, he also specialized in Museology on a French Government Fellowship.  All this, plus his personal inclination to find new things about old places made up the background for his writings. With a natural talent for writing in English, his skill developed as he wrote regular reports and books while in service.

Nadiem focused on writing about the cultural heritage of Pakistan because he found that what had been written on some of the sites were simply published reports by professional archaeologists. Loaded with facts and lot of technical jargon that were certainly least attractive to an ordinary tourist or the general public, Nadiem felt disappointed with the literature published so far. Also amazed at the ignorance of the people who visited the museums and the historical sites, this lone crusader felt a dire need to make public, information about the country’s cultural heritage. “I wanted to write books that were not voluminous, that were not burdened with technical jargon and in which facts and figures did not dominate the writing. I simply wanted to popularize the information I had gathered and learnt to respect as an archaeologist,” says Ihsan Nadiem.    

Ihsan H. Nadiem is the first author to ever have touched on Rohtas. A formidable undertaking in itself, his second publication, Rohtas – Formidable Fort of Sher Shah, was actually begun as a research paper to be published in an international journal. Later the author modified it into a book. It took a whole year to complete this work of creativity. The book introduced Rohtas Fort to the world. In 1997, after eight years of deferrement by UNESCO, Rohtas finally made it to the World Heritage List. Nadiem had pursued the cause by bringing out international standard posters, publications and slides required for the purpose while working at the site. By now he had learnt the ropes of the trade very well.

As he travels from the known to the unknown, Nadiem explores and conjures images of people that are no more. He adds “flesh and blood” to the bones of the ancient. All of his books talk about the glorious heritage of Pakistan. Mohenjedaro or the glorious Rohtas Fort, the spread of Mughal gardens in Lahore or the sand dunes of Thar, Nadiem has an eye for detail as he puts forward the facts in an almost musical note. As he talks of the historical perspective of the sites, he digs into the earth for new stories. “With each brick excavated at a site, I explore and imagine a story,” says Nadiem. Blessed with a vivid imagination and the technical creativity to put it all into written expression has helped the archaeologist in him to write of the past and simply set the people in their settings.

Loaded with information and facts, his books are a treat for all his readers, though he does not necessarily have a specific audience in mind while writing. To him what matters is that each of his reader, no matter what segment of society he belongs to, should find his work as if it were written for him. “If an archaeologist reads my books, he should get some new information from them. If an English reader reads them, he should find pleasure from my writings. And if a research scholar reads them, he should feel that my books have refreshed his past knowledge,” says Nadiem. Rightly so, because all of his near one dozen books have the said ingredients which make up for compendium of information and entertainment. As his words paint landscapes from religion, history, lifestyles, food or town planning, vivid images are created in the most exciting manner. Readers are delighted to find information spread between the two covers of a Nadiem publication. Equally exciting for researchers as well as coffee room conversation pieces, Nadiem’s books are also delightful visual treats. Since he has always had his camera with him whenever he visited the excavation sites, his books carry original photographs taken by him. “Photography has always been a passion with me. My university hostel room was a kind of dark room where I exposed negatives taken from my camera,” says Nadiem. When he took up archaeology, he always found taking pictures and making drawings of the sites a very thrilling experience. As, along the way he trained in archaeological photography, it further enhanced his creative faculties.

Nadiem’s service with the Department of Archaeology, Pakistan has taken him to excavate at Bambhore, Swat, Moenjodaro and Tulamba. He has held the charge of curator of museums at Harappa, Umerkot, Moenjodaro, Lahore Fort and Taxila. He has also commanded the Regional Archaeological Offices at Peshawar and Quetta and the department’s Publication Branch, which he successfully reactivated after it had remained dormant for over thirteen years. He has also served as Director in both Northern and Southern Circles of Archaeology, covering the whole of Pakistan. With such vast exposure to sites and people, Nadiem has been able to objectively process information which he ultimately impressively compressed in his books. 

The author, also has under his belt, two hundred and fifty published newspaper articles, over twenty-five research papers in various international journals and an Excavation Report on Panr (Swat). He has also translated into English the first of the three volumes of Al-Amin, a much read book by Rafiq Doger on the Seerat of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). However, right now he has no wish to focus his creativity on translations.            

While living in the present, Nadiem essentially breathes in the past. His indulgence is such that he also enjoys penning down poetry about the sites he has visited and the civilizations he has unearthed. He also has to his credit, two collections of poetry, Illusory Trance and Golden Rays, both essential reflections of his archaeological experiences. Spending time at the sites, digging under the earth, sleeping at the gates of a long deserted fort, enjoying the sunset in the desert, has all led him to express himself in one of the finest forms of creativity. “When I see a site, I see people living. I see them in flesh and bone. I imagine the monks praying, the bells ringing, children playing with the clay toy carts,” says Nadiem. Putting flesh onto the bones of the story, the poet in Nadiem explores his ideas, working from the abstract to the concrete. “I like to develop a theme in the beginning and conclude it in the end. I never like my poetry to be a mere descriptive piece of writing and it never is,” adds Nadiem.

For the future, the author has his hands full with two more books; one on Balochistan and another on NWFP. The first two in the series, Portrait of Sindh and Punjab - Plan, History and People have already been published. Ihsan Nadiem’s works are a compendium of our collective architectural legacy in which he artistically intermingles history, places, people, traditions and cultures. He is a person who thinks about the past, lives in the present and writes for the future in a bit to preserve this area’s archeological history for future generations.              

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