Fading songs from the hills

Zubair Torwali describes efforts to conserve the acutely endangered Torwali language from Swat in northern Pakistan

Fading songs from the hills
UNESCO categorises 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment: ‘Vulnerable’ – not spoken by children outside the home; ‘Definitely Endangered’  – children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home; ‘Severely Endangered’ – the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves; ‘Critically Endangered’ – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently; and ‘Extinct’.

Among these endangered languages, 28 are in Pakistan. Most of them are spoken in northern Pakistan and in Sindh.
Last year was perhaps the best year for the Torwali language

One of the 28 highly endangered languages of Pakistan - listed in the UNESCO Atlas of the World - is the language called Torwali. Owing to a lack of literacy and the fast “language shift” towards the predominant languages in the region (i.e. Pashto and Urdu) Torwali is rated as definitely endangered.

Torwali is a Dardic language of the Indo-Aryan family, mainly spoken in the Bahrain and Chail areas of district Swat in northern Pakistan. The level of its endangerment can also be assessed by the small community of speakers, which is approximately 100,000 - 120,000. More than one third of its speakers have migrated permanently to the bigger cities of Pakistan where their language is either being replaced by the national language Urdu, or by other languages of wider communication such as Pashto or Punjabi.

Similar is the case with its music, which is fast being replaced by Pashto and Urdu. Dwelling in an area famous for its natural beauty, the Torwali community has been overwhelmingly influenced by the visitors’ culture(s); and being unable to afford modern technology and outlets the music of Torwali is very prone to extinction. The main instruments played here are sitaar and pitcher. The musicians and singers are not trained, nor is there any studio or band for the Torwali language.

Its unique poetic genre ?o - that is in the form of independent couplets - is no longer liked by the generation influenced by Bollywood, Lollywood and Hollywood. Another popular genre is phal, which is like the ?o but with a high pitch and short structure. The main difference between the two, however, lies in the method of singing and the occasions on which they are sung. A number of singers have recently been trying to ‘modernise’ the poetry and music, but that seems like an imitation of Pashto or Urdu music. Interestingly, all such new songs and poems are known as ‘phal’ among the people.

Bahrain, Swat
Bahrain, Swat

But the good news about this ancient language of Swat is that some robust and aggressive work has been carried out in the Torwali language and community. This is mainly done by a group of young scholars and activists organized in the form of a local nonprofit known as the Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT). It has set up pre-schools in Torwali language, implemented Torwali and Urdu literacy programs for the women and promoted Torwali literacy by producing many books in the language.

Last year was perhaps the best year for the Torwali language, as during this year, three books and a DVD of Torwali music were prepared by the IBT. The books and DVDs were presented as New Year gifts on the last day of 2015 in Bahrain, Swat, during a launching ceremony.

The books and DVD were prepared by IBT under its one-year initiative ‘Preservation and promotion of Torwali language & culture’. This project was financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  It is well known that the bigger donors usually do not fund projects on the lesser-known languages in Pakistan. USAID does so under its Ambassador Fund program; and this was mainly due to the past and present initiatives of the IBT.

Under this lately completed project, IBT has prepared a trilingual dictionary (Torwali—Urdu—English); a book of Torwali folktales, a third book of daily usage conversation in three languages - Torwali, Urdu and English; and six tracks on the music DVD of Torwali melodies.

The dictionary contains about ten thousand headwords in Torwali with their multiple equivalents in both Urdu and English. It is researched and compiled by a young emerging scholar and author, Aftab Ahmad, who has been associated with IBT since its inception. Linguists suggest that a dictionary usually requires more than five years but Aftab did that job in just twelve months.

Fifteen folktales of Torwali were researched, recorded, transcribed and translated by Rahim Sabir who worked with IBT for the last six years. He is himself a poet, singer and artist. Folktales play a critical role in the oral traditions of a community. These stories tell of the past of the community; its desires, how it deals with natural phenomena, and of course the social dialectics. They can also be good starting-points for further anthropological and linguistic research.

The third book is based on the conversations one comes across in daily life. It also contains riddles and some idioms of Torwali with translations. This book is researched and compiled by Mujahid Torwali, another young activist and writer associated with IBT.

The music DVD named ‘Manjoora’ (gift) contains six tracks: two of ?o classified as ‘classic’ and ‘improvised’; a ‘dhuba’ - the unique Torwali duet; and three songs called ‘phal’.

Manjoora is the first ever attempt to compose Torwali music with modern instruments retaining the original tone and beat. The visuals are filmed in the scenic beauty of the hills, rivers and villages in Bahrain and Kalam.

For the composition, and audio-video recordings, the services of the well-known actor, director, sculptor and artist Jamal Shah, were engaged. Since its unofficial release a month ago Manjoora was enjoyed by over 90 percent of the Torwali population, whether in the region or outside it. It has virtually revolutionised and rejuvenated the endangered Torwali music.

The books, along with the music DVD, were distributed among the community free of cost. The books and DVD are being sent to people and institutions in Pakistan. A national launch of the books and Manjoora is due on February 21 - the International Mother Language Day - in Islamabad.

Torwali will live on.

Zubair Torwali is Executive Director at the Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) and a freelance columnist