Expanding the guftugu — or conversation — about South Asia

Leaders of the University of California, Berkeley’s new Urdu and Pakistan Initiatives will welcome visitors to the Berkeley Art Museum this Sunday (Oct. 16) from 2-5 p.m. for a special program on South Asian art, the second in a series on the often untold stories of the Pakistan region. 

At the “guftugu,” an Urdu word for conversation, event organizers from UC Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies first will host oral and multimedia presentations about South Asian art and culture by a panel of speakers that includes Google’s Director of Product Management Anjali Joshi, UC Berkeley art historian Joanna Williams, South Asian art collector Dipti Mathur, UC Berkeley Sanskrit scholar Robert Goldman, and San Francisco editor and writer Zahid Sardar. In the last hour, Mathur will talk with Karachi-based artist Naiza Khan. More details are online.

The event is the second in a series of twice-a-semester explorations with leading scholars, artists, journalists and others into important issues involving the Urdu language and contemporary Pakistan. The series was launched this fall by the Center for South Asia Studies as part of new initiatives to expand Urdu and Pakistan studies on campus and to foster a broader awareness of them in the larger community.

At another campus event on Monday (Oct. 17), Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and a former leading Pakistani journalist, will talk about the challenges and opportunities facing the United States and Pakistan.  Details about the lecture are online.

UC Berkeley is a global leader in the study of South Asia, and one of the few institutions in the country to offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs focusing on South Asia, of which Urdu- and Pakistan-related studies are critical elements. Urdu is offered at all levels, from beginning to advanced, and UC Berkeley’s Urdu program is one of the largest and considered one of the best in the nation.

“Both our initiatives have met with a tremendous response so far from the broader community and student body,” said Saba Mahmood, UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and a leader of the center’s initiatives.

The inuagural Guftugu program, Guftugu – Celebrating Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in September at the Bancroft Hotel drew a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty and members of the South Asian community throughout the Bay Area. The three-hour centennial celebration of the works of the late, famed Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz also was attended  by Consul General Riffat Masood of the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Poet Tashie Zaheer recited a tribute to Faiz.

It featured an interview and question-and-answer session with Faiz’s daughter, artist-scholar Salima Hashimi, readings of Faiz’s poetry by various scholars, songs or “ghazals,” and discussion of the poet’s influence on art and poetry.

“The presence of so many South Asian area faculty and the large numbers of supporters from the local community could leave no doubt about the strength of the Urdu and Pakistan Initiatives,” said Anthony Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters & Science. “Berkeley has made a deep commitment to Urdu, and this event reinforced  the beauty and the political importance of poetry written and sung in the language.” 

These Urdu and Pakistan Initiatives’ events, following on the heels of the Arab Spring, provide an important connection “to who I am and where I come from” as well as for the South Asian diaspora in the Bay Area, said Umair Khan, chief executive officer of Secretbuilding.com and a co-founder of Open Silicon Valley, an organization focused on the promotion of entrepreneurship and business leadership in the Pakistani-American community.

Mahmood said the Center for South Asia Studies’ new initiatives are both important and timely. 

“South Asian Studies often focuses on India at the expense of other countries in the region like Pakistan,” she said. “The Urdu and Pakistan Initiatives are an attempt to rectify this by strengthening the study and teaching of Urdu language and literature on campus, and by enlisting faculty and students to pursue research on Pakistan.”

To help achieve these goals on campus, she said, the center is engaging and generating support from the Pakistanis and South Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Many campus programs involving Pakistan tend to hinge on topics  such as international security or language, said Sanchita Saxena, associate director of the Center for South Asia Studies.

Expanding center programs to include Pakistani culture, history, religion and other topics will help portray to academia and the public a more complete picture of the Pakistani people and their contributions, she added.

More details about Sunday’s programs are online.

Also there is a A YouTube video online of Naiza Khan discussing a 2008 exhibit in London of her work using steel and armour-like shapes. To watch a video recording or view media coverage of the Guftugu – Celebrating Faiz Ahmed Faiz, visit the event website here.