Articles & Essays

Genesis of Children's Theater in Panjgur, Balochistan

By Ayub Baloch *

AYub Baloch

"He picked the dates but didn't give "Parenjee". He walked away stealthily. A mouse jumped into his mouth. It choked his throat. He is restlessly jumping up and down. What a pity, he can’t release himself, he is a miser."

The rich intangible cultural heritage of our country is gradually disappearing. Since we are short of mechanisms for assessing the national loss, we are neither alarmed nor eager to adopt appropriate measures for its safeguard. Despite the fact that children are the real stakeholders, they have no say in the matter whatsoever, as if they have no share in the cultural heritage of the country. It is therefore, timely not only to rescue the heritage but also document children’s contribution in this regard, highlighting the stakes from their perspective. This article attempts to focus on children of Panjgur, an area far away from the national mainstream hardly reflected in any discourse of national heritage.

Panjgur is basically an oasis-district of Balochistan situated on Pak-Iran border. With more than hundred types of quality-dates, its economy, polity and society revolve around a "dates-based agriculture". The typical irrigation system known as "Karez" that irrigates the oasis, is based on engaging underground water, channeling it through wells and tunnels, elevating it eventually to the surface, is quite amazing. The District has a rich history and culture. Since time immemorial the oasis of Pajgur, the ancient Kanesbur or Fansbur, has developed a network of traditions revolving around "Hamain", (the dates-ripening season). The Hamain therefore, consists of a blend of festivities including a theatrical attribute to the creativity, wit and wisdom of the children of Panjgur Oasis.

We need to understand at the outset the term "Hamain" as well as the "Pahwal", as they have much to do with the tradition of Parenjee and the genesis of children’s theatre. In Balochi language the term "Hamain" is used for the season of ripening of dates. It includes a variety of colorful celebrations which are traditionally associated to it. Centuries back when the Baloch switched over from pastoral nomadism to formal agriculture, they developed oasis beside the river banks.. The history of "Hamain" is therefore, as old as the history of oasis. Traditionally Baloch divide the year into two parts, "Hamain" and ''Jopag". Hamain" is usually vivid and live, while "Jopag" is dull and slow. Many local folk songs and folk tales based on the social hustle of "Hmain" form a good part of Baloch oral tradition and intangible heritage. But silence is usually maintained about "Jopag", a season which is considered almost an unwelcome gap between two "Hamains".

When the un-ripped dates receive color, the dates trees of Panjgur present a highly picturesque view. A scented fragrance is added to atmosphere by the soothing smells of the ripening dates all around. Groups of beautifully dressed children, with artistic baskets (Kapath) in their hands are found roaming around to collect "rung" (colorful unripe-dates). They make the oasis a fairyland with their songs, screams and naughty shouts. Later these groups of children become the first to bring to the village the "Gawahi" (evidence/news) of the first ripened dates of the oasis.

The first information with regard to arrival of dates is taken very seriously in the Panjgur oasis. It spreads like a wild fire throughout the surroundings. The news gradually reaches everyone, including the nomads (Pahwals) of the nearby mountains. Although everyone in the oasis awaits the first ripped dates, the folklore eulogizes the birds and the ants of the Oasis that eat such dates first as a matter of right. Next are the roaming children who receive it as some of those dates slip out of the grip of the eating birds. With that, children assume the role of harbinger as well as of the watchdog of Hamain. Through their songs sung in chorus, the children register their presence thereby ensuring protection of their prescribed share due from date-pickers to them, as per traditions. They, in fact, inject life in the entire celebrations that continue till the close of Hamain.

A few days later when the initial dates get ripped and become ready to be plucked, much of the population of the oasis is found under the date-palm trees enjoying themselves with the festivities of Hamain. The groups of impressively costumed children, both girls and boys, roam around keeping a constant watch on any one who climbs up a tree to pick early-dates. In such a case the children encircle the tree and sing Hamain songs till the dates-picker comes down with dates. He is traditionally bound to distribute a portion of the "first dates" to all children present, failing which the group starts protesting by chasing the man anywhere he goes, singing songs, scolding the miser date-picker. The traditional share of the children is called "Parenjee" which is mandatorily given to them faithfully. The defaulting date-pickers are usually looked down upon facing humiliating songs such as below:

"He picked the dates but didn't give "Parenjee". He walked away stealthily. A mouse jumped into his mouth. It choked his throat. He is restlessly jumping up and down. What a pity, he can’t release himself, he is a miser."

The tradition of Parenjee is observed strictly and any violations are firmly resisted. In line with the norm, after on-the-spot disbursement of Parenjee to children, the remaining dates are divided into three parts. The first part is taken to the mosque to earn goodwill or "sawab" for the ancestors, the second part is for the owner of the date-palm tree, while the third part is taken away by the picker as his share. When the ripening process gains more momentum, another interesting feature is added to the social spectrum of the oasis. The nomads of the surrounding mountains migrate to the oasis and temporarily camp there till the windup of the Hamain season. The nomads are usually known as "Pahwals". Balochistan has a fascinating nomadic culture which is linked to Hamain as well as with Parenjee, in many ways. While passing through the interior of Balochistan, one can see clusters of black tents with herds of sheep, goats and camels around. Those are encampments of nomads who inhabit mountains and planes throughout Balochistan. Nomads are regarded as the custodian of old Balochi-ways. In their endeavor to adjust to their environment, their day-to-day life is an extraordinary struggle for existence. Straightforward, hardworking and honest, they conform to the traditional Balochi traits of the past without being much affected by sweeping social change. As pointed out, the Balochi term for nomad is Pahwal and their encampment is called Halk. These words mean 'migratory' and the ‘abode', respectively. Ethnically Pahwal belong to the Baloch collectivity and speak the same language. Belonging to a simple society, Pahwal do not keep documentary records of events but depend much on oral tradition.

Being the custodian of traditions, Pahwal are an artistic people, rich in art and craft as well as, in music and poetry. Children are taught not only the oral traditions but also playing of a number of musical instruments including flute, suroz, dambura, rabab, chung and nar-o-sur, a typical duo, played by a singer and a flute player.

Beside the fascinating traditions of nomads, it is pertinent to mention that Pahwal lack modern amenities of life and depend on herbal medicines for treatment of the ailing and the sick. In each camp one can find an elderly lady, expert in diagnosis and treatment, who keeps a considerable stock of herbal medicines of day to day use. The basic knowledge of herbs is commonplace among other members too. Even children can recognize the useful medicinal herbs and bushes found in the vicinity.

The genesis of theatre among nomadic children, relate to their health problems too. Mostly exposed to harsh weather conditions, the nomadic children often encounter sickness. Their common illness is the prolonged fever coupled with cough that bothers them the most. In the absence of modern medical facilities, they entirely rely on herbal medicines. Should it prove ineffective, the next step would be "theatrical". The suffering child, male or female, is taken by an elderly lady to a bush or a tree found slightly away from the camp, where an interesting ritual is performed. It is in fact a "dialogue" with the fever. The small finger of the sick child is tied by a thread to a bush or plant. Then, stones are arrayed one by one naming them as utensils, bread, meat, water bag etc. telling the fever that a little kitchen (Mubda) is being set up for it wherein there is enough for it to eat and drink. The elderly lady guides the child to speak to the fever, by repeating her words. This simple discourse is like a persuasive talk encouraging the fever to leave the child for sometime and stay with the tree, till they return from visiting a neighboring camp. At this point, the child is required to breakaway from the tree and run with the lady from the scene without looking back. This is an interesting ordeal and almost all the nomadic children experience it many times. In case of continuation of the sickness, the location and the dialogues are often changed.

Let us freeze it here for a while and move on to the oasis. By now we are familiar with Hamain, the season of dates, and Pahwal, the nomads. We also know about Parenjee, that is the children’s mandatory share of fresh dates. Given the above, it is important to keep in mind that right of Parenjee to the children of the oasis is guaranteed by the traditions. Traditions also assign to children the responsibility of safeguarding this particular privilege. Let us see what mechanism do the children of oasis employ should there be any violations?

Children, sometimes, are denied Parenjee in case of lesser quantity of fresh dates or when a stubborn and naïve date-picker neglects them deliberately, refusing them their due traditional share. In any case, if the violation takes place, the children form a chain and get charged by singing the traditional song of Parenjee nada…….... As the violator walks on, the drama unfolds further. The singing children follow him to anywhere. Hearing the chorus, more children join the protest procession. It offers an interesting scene to onlookers who get amused and enjoy the song and scuffles between the so-called culprit and the children. In case of the defaulter getting into a house, the children give a set-in at the gate and keep on singing Parenjee till he comes out and the chase resumes.

The Parenjee procession comprises boys and girls, locals and nomadic children. The nomadic component with the experience of performing at Thup-Bundag (tying the fever) and the children of the oasis with the background of puppetry and doll-work, bring in additional skills to reinforce the protest, giving it theatrical affects. The space in front of the entry door of defaulter’s house is aptly converted into an open-air theatre and singing goes on. It takes place when the defaulter is either in or manages to disappear. At that point children start performing by assuming roles such as the defaulter, his wife, children, the Mulla etc. The onlookers gather to watch and enjoy. With interludes of performance they continue singing louder and louder. They also introduce puppetry using wajuk and Duthuk, male and female dolls and act also. It is satirical performance, full of jokes and loaded with laughter of amusing but angry oasis children. They also take to task the owner of the trees and the Mulla for not questioning the culprit date-picker whether he gave Parenjee to children. It is interesting to see the children performing the role of Mulla and Malik (owner), offering apologies to the children on behalf of the defaulter. Or the doll personifying defaulter’s wife shown mockingly distributing Parenjee to children, scolding her husband calling him a useless miser. As the drama approaches the climax, it becomes noisier and extremely cheerful attracting more and more spectaculars. By then, children are found more concerned about enjoying themselves rather than being interested in Parenjee, their denied share of first ripped dates.

The theatrical performance of oasis children usually concludes by throwing the Wajuk (puppet, personifying the deviant dates-picker) into fire. It is pertinent to note that while the miniature female dolls used in this theatrical performance have faces and properly combed hair, the puppet representing the deviant, who denied Parenjee to children, is always made flat-faced with bushy disturbed hair, depicting him as wild and thuggish. As the children disperse they virtually establish that they won’t keep calm if cheated, particularly in matters of traditions.

While returning to mountains, the nomadic caravans carry with them varieties of juicy dates loaded on camel backs, as well as, sweet memories of Hamain. But the nomadic children would always miss their oasis-counterparts, with whom they performed Parenjee theatre. They would wait for the next Hamain. Meanwhile, they take the parenjee-theme to their pastoral camps and perform it there, particularly, around campfire or in moonlight, pretending that they had been denied Parenjee. They amuse the camp with their superb performance. Need not to say that Parenjee, if given to children, is tangible as share of fresh early dates. But if denied, it becomes intangible i.e an interesting trait of Baloch culture. In any case, the children of Panjgur Oasis, both sedentary as well as nomadic, uphold that they too are stakeholders in the discourse of culture and heritage, be it tangible or intangible.

*. The writer is an anthropologist and the Founder of The Institute of Balochistan Studies, Quetta