Jan Ali: A Subaltern Voice

Ustad Jan Ali, as he is famously known in the region, has been equally popular among different age groups.

By Aziz Ali Dad

The condition of subalternity is a product of social, class, political and economic configuration, which allows a certain class to maintain its hegemony over society and groups who are denied access to power. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his magnum-opus ‘Notes from Prison Book’ adopted the word subaltern to refer to those groups in society who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. Subaltern classes may include peasants, workers and other groups that were denied access to hegemonic power. Therefore, their existential situation is intertwined with the power relations of a particular society.

Subaltern classes are neither unified, nor do they have state and political power. Therefore, they remain on the peripheries of economic development and political system. Subalterns remain underrepresented because the economic, political and constitutional spheres and history work to perpetuate the vested interest of dominant groups. The region of Gilgit-Baltistan is in subaltern position, for it has been in constitutional limbo of Pakistan for last 60 years and kept outside the power dispensation of Pakistan. At the local level its culture has been pushed to the margins of society by sectarian elements who aim at destroying the semiological universe of Gilgiti society to establish hegemony of their parochial world view.

The sectarian forces gained prominence after the abolishment of traditional structure of governance and society. With the rupture in the historical continuity of Gilgit-Baltistan meaning has fled from the lives of people, and traditional social institutions and setup lost its raison de’tre. It was the traditional setup and praxis that provided meaning to social and cultural activities. Robed of the old certainties, the current society of Gilgit-Baltistan is living with an existential hole in its consciousness. Bereft of alternative world view or framework the society has become an easy prey for obscurantist forces that filled the gap in society with their ideology. These forces are antithetical to indigenous culture and syncretic traditions within Islam. To acquire more space they have to reduce syncretic cultural space.

In order to resist essentialist and puritan ideologies it is imperative for intellectuals to dissect the dialectics and modus operandi of ideologies that could prove detrimental to indigenous culture in the long term. Unfortunately, despite the subalternity of culture by obscurantist forces and society by the political setup, the intelligentsia of the region has failed to diagnose the pathology of power and religion vis-à-vis culture of Gilgit.

Ironically, a diagnostician of the modern society of Gilgit has been provided by indigenous tradition in the shape of Jan Ali in Shina language. Jan Ali is steeped in the oral culture of the region. He expresses modern sensibilities and experiences in traditional genres of Shina poetry. The meeting of horizons of traditional medium and modern sensibilities yields deep insights into society, values, culture, psyche, economy and politics of Gilgit. Jan Ali himself hails from artisan class, which has historically been the most marginalized caste in Gilgit. Despite social taboos on artistic endeavours in Gilgit, this caste has kept indigenous music, oral tradition, artists, technology and knowledge alive for centuries.

The subaltern status of Gilgit-Baltistan in the political and economic setup of Pakistan and dialectics of power between culture, state and religion reveals in the popular songs of Jan Ali. He unravels the complexities of social, religious, political turmoil and psychological anguish and ‘translate them into theoretical language and the elements of historical life’ to search out signs of subaltern initiative and incipient class identity that could be nurtured and educated into true class consciousness and effective political action. It is this approach which is declared as the task of the intellectual by renowned Italian Marxist Antonio Gramci. Commenting on political powerlessness of his people in the following words:

Shong thaey mor tha zamana hushiyar bilin

Gilgitaech gileeto karay ikhtiyar bilin

Maey sargin gileet thaey khachi hal bilin

Tu thak dareeno nomach intiqal bilin.

Beware of speaking loudly; the time is spying on you

O people of Gilgit you never have the power

To determine the path of your destiny.

Alas! My beloved Gilgit

You have been given to alien hands.

Jan Ali thinks ‘his poetry is a voice to bring forth the hidden agonies of society to fore through his poetry’ which is the true vocation of the poet. His poetical strictures lays bares the hypocritical values of the society where the uneven development has enabled certain people to grow rich overnight by hook and crook. The nouveaux riches flaunt their religious dedication by observing apparent signs – rituals and practices – from which the essence of religion has leached out and only its husk has become an object of the worship. Jan Ali rejects the outward sings of religion as a sham to hide ugly the soul disfigured by corruption. He dares to reject the rituals and signs that are devoid of meaning. Jan Ali says:

Mas ik glassak mo pee namaz nay bain

To tus riswatay yo gee khay roza gina

Ik kanal laye naqal li day soqa gina

Qayamat ga phat thay doonya taey faida gina

Lo! A glass of wine nullifies my prayer

And your fasting becomes valid

By eating butter of bribe

For a cloak, you sell your here after

By illegally transferring a piece of land.

Jan Ali also refuses to accept the religious interpretations manufactured by the managers of sacred. He rejects every religious divisions, positions, institution, hierarchy and worldview, however sacred, because the managers of sacred have reduced religion into fetish and make even sacred institutions and noble ideals to play second fiddle to their personal interest.

Thaey masjid ga ya

Thaey hamam ga ya

Janat taey horaneey maey ghulam ga ya

Fasad gir alim tu maey imam ga ya

Fasad dot tak tharain o Islam ga ya

Neither I need your mosque, nor seek your hamam,

O querulous cleric, I reject you as my Imam.

Thereby, I reject your bribe of houris of paradise,

I am also fed up of an Islam that foments discord.

It is a strange coincidence that soon after this song was sung by Jan Ali, the magistrate office in the city, which contained records of land allocations, was torched by an angry mob and main mosques of Gilgit were shut down on the charges of fomenting violence. Nevertheless, Jan Ali respects the essence of sacred. He urges people to get rid of the managers of sacred who diminish the status of God into hangman. The clerical class is misfit to assume the charges of defining an entity like God and not worthy to sit on the pulpit because they preach hatred which is diametrically opposite to the injunctions of religion. On the other hand, he castigates politicians whose sole purpose is to fill their personal coffers at the expense of the greatest good of the wretched of the earth.

Bays vote thay khada thaygas cho gadayay

Memberey biganait kha funo rupayay

Our votes elevated you to become members,

Now gobble up the funds, you paupers.

His poetry brutally attacks the divisive role of clerics in the following words:

Kay kalima ram saa han kalimayee

Fasad tha rayt ta zamanayeay ulmayay

Minbaroch kay bashanayt la wa shooween ga kayay

Tell me! Which kalima among six kalimas of yours I recite

You clerics have sown the seed of strife,

Why crows and dogs are speaking from the pulpit.

During the last three decades the society of Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed shift from culture based identity to sectarian based identity. Indigenous culture cuts across the sectarian, racial and linguistic divide. Jan Ali sees culture as a powerful instrument to unify diverse elements of society. The sectarian based identity poses great threat to local culture, because it tends to reject everything that does not fit within its frame. The sectarian forces’ strive to introduce an exotic version of Islam in Gilgit. Jan Ali perceives the sectarian killing in Gilgit as a proxy war fought on the cultural and political turf of Gilgit. The sectarian divide was capitalized by the dominant class to promulgate the colonial policy of rule and divide. Jan Ali says:

Maey sargin Gileet gi jaik ko jaik tharay

Dareenay waeye areenuch chos attack tharey

Lo! What they have done to my beloved Gilgit,

Outsider elements get the peoples’ throat slit,

By pelting indigenous populace against each other.

By driving sectarian wedge among local populace, the obscurantist forces try to capture the semiotic universe of indigenous people. Since the semiotic universe is mainly informed by oral culture, folk tales, shamanism, mythology and oral histories, the religious elements find it difficult to make Shina language to play second fiddle to sectarian agenda. The sectarian strife directly affected the areas that are inhabited by Shina speakers. The local wisdom expresses itself through vernaculars. Sectarian parties rely on written word. In the suffocating sectarian environment of Gilgit, Shina played an instrumental role in voicing dissent against the hegemony of a particular worldview and system that sanctifies and foment violence respectively.

In his poetry Jan Ali employs Shina genres as a medium to resist radical forces and corrupt elements in society by employing the symbols and metaphors from collective memory. On the other hand, he explicates existential throes of the society of Gilgit, which is caught between tradition and modernity. By doing so, Jan Ali gets the credit of keeping semiotic universe of Shina language secular, which is engulfed in the battle launched by puritan forces against pluralistic culture of Gilgit. This contribution makes him immortal in annals of Shina literature and language.

The writer hails from Gilgit, and currently associated with a rights based organisation in Islamabad. Email:

Source: Express Tribune. December 16, 2010.

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  1. Veeery Nice Ali Bai
    we R Proud of Our Great Poet of Shina Language.
    We praying for him GOD Give him Long Live…
    U have Done a Great Job ALI Bai,,,,,,
    some Poeople were asking me to Translate his Kalams..
    That’s U done Al ready,,,,,,,,, Khush Raho Hameesha..

  2. Dear Aziz,
    Thanks first for sharing the meaning of this SHINA, pharases and telling the ever green JAN ALI. We all, who love our area GB, languages and culture SALAM to this Son of the Soil of GB.
    How he explained the current situation and all the game players who are playing their bad aim and objective on the life of the life, property of the innocent people of GB.
    We salute YOU JAN-YOU are really our JAN if any one try to understand.
    In conclusion I want to quate the saying of Queen Alzebet approving the parlement of Scotland:

  3. It is amazing to read such a beatiful translation of Shina Poetry into English by Mr.Ali Dad. The writer has done a great job in analyzing such a great poetry of Jan Ali. I knew that Jan Ali used to sing Shina songs but never knew that he is a great Philosophical poet of Shina language who high lights the religious hypocritical fault lines of our society. As a matter of fact, we have learnt these habits from our counterparts in Pakistan . I congratulate Mr.Ali Dad for writing such useful article to read.

  4. Well worked glimps into the vision of the poet of rocks. but this is not enough for the light that he wants to exhibit. Mr. Aziz as he has the time and ability to get the meaning and desire of the poet to the world , he should take it more to the world not to stop here at the article with great applause.
    Next to the strong community and numbered community of the Shain to be the pioners in saving and spreding your unique gift of language. so rest the minorities should follow if this article waits some thing.
    just idea

  5. Jan Ali’s poetry and voice remained in the hearts and mind of people for decades. Most people in the villages ( me too) in GB , even in Non Shina speaking vallayes used to listen the radio and would enjoy Jan Ali in the afternoon Radio programs. But mountain soldiers used to listen to his songes religiously.
    Aziz Ali Dad has done geart work to highlight Jan Ali’s work which had tremandious influance on the mountain society irrepective of the language people speak. There is great need to continue work on the contribution of those individuals who have had influance on the mountain society in fostering enabaling environement for coexisting. The need is also to reward such individuals for life time acheivement.

    Thank you Aziz Ali Dad for this great peace of work.

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