Dance has always been part of the social and religious life of the people of Sindh. The discovery of the dancing girl from Mohenjo-Daro, one of the metropolises of the Indus civilization, is testimony to this fact. It also dominated the social and religious life of the people in Islamic Sindh when Sindhi rulers patronised the art of painting. This art reached its pinnacle during the Kalhora rule (1700–1783) in Sindh. Kalhora rulers were fond of music and art themselves. Some of the miniature paintings of this period show them being entertained by the musicians. During their reign, all the funerary monuments were painted – and these depicted a variety of themes ranging from battle scenes to folk tales. This art of painting tomb also continued during the Talpur and British periods.
A hallmark of the Kalhora, Talpur and British-period mural paintings is the depiction of dancing scenes. Associated with dancing scenes is music-making depicted in the tombs. The earliest dancing and music-making is depicted in the tombs of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro. There are three tombs in the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro which bear dancing scenes. However, the tomb of Bego Faqir Awan depicts more refined and elegant dancing scenes. There are four arched recesses in the tomb. The spandrels of the two arches are decorated with dancing and music-making scenes. A musician is shown playing a drum and four dancers are shown dancing to the beat of the drum. On the other spandrel are also four dancers who are shown dancing and welcoming some royal figure, possibly Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro because on the arch of the next spandrel is the depiction of a rider being escorted by a foot soldier. This representation may be of that of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro and this dancing scene is possibly Shadmana (ceremonial festivity) ritual by his disciples. Whenever Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro visited his disciples, he was always welcomed with dance and music: the Mianwal Faqirs called it the Shadmana ritual. This painting possibly shows the Shadmana ritual being performed by the Mianwal Faqirs on the occasion of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro’s visit to their dairas (communes). Yet another tomb in the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro depicts a ritual of Shadmana. This tomb belongs to Othwal Faqir. It is located south of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro’s shrine. This tomb depicts dancing and cooking activities – pointing again to the ritual of Shadmana. In this painting, the females are shown cooking while the males dance to the tune of music. I do not see great artistry in the figures. It appears that the artist focused more on tale-telling than the figures themselves!
It is interesting to find dancing scenes which are associated with rituals of the Mianwal Tariqa of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro. Later, these dancing scenes were also found in several other tombs of the Kalhora period (1700-1783) in the districts of Dadu, Kamber-Shahdadkot and Sanghar.
The tomb of Sobdar Khan includes a wall painting showing a male dancer in the centre with four females on either side. This possibly represents Leela, from the folk romance of Leela and Chanesar of the Soomra period
Some of the tombs of Kalhora nobles, particularly of the Jamali tribe, are quite prominent. The paintings in the tomb of Sobdar Jamali and Rehan Khan Jamali show scenes of dancing and popular tales, in which the male and female dancers are attired in multi-coloured dresses. Female dancers wear jewellery and colourful bangles. In one of the panels is shown Mehar, the hero of the romance of Suhni-Mehar, playing the flute and grazing his buffaloes on the river bank. His beloved Suhni is shown crossing the river, which is represented by a crocodile and fish. This depiction of Mehar playing the flute is also found in the tombs of Shakal Khan and Sobdar Khan. On one of the panels in the tomb of Mir Sobdar are three stories within the same frame. To the left side are a bear and his handler holding the flute in one hand and the rope of the bear in the other. Next to them are two snake charmers engaged in playing the murli in front of a snake. These are the jogis, a caste of snake charmers. Such images of entertainers are represented in all the three tombs of Sobdar, Shakal Khan and Rehan Khan. The tomb of Rehan Khan includes a depiction of an entertainer with a flute, who appears to be engaged in combat with a snake and mongoose, and snake-charmers are again playing murlis in front of the snake.
The tomb of Sobdar Khan includes a wall painting showing a male dancer in the centre with four females on either side. This possibly represents Leela, from the folk romance of Leela and Chanesar of the Soomra period (1030-1350) – who was disguised as a performer with her friends. Similar dance paintings can be seen in the tombs of Rehan Khan Jamali and Shakal Khan Jamali. The image in Shakal Khan Jamali’s tomb is not particularly striking, except for the additional figure shown on the left side of the dance. This figure appears to be of either a dance leader or minister Jakhro who invited to his marriage ceremony Leela, her friends and King Chanesar.
Apart from Jamali tombs, the tombs of the Chandia tribe also depict dance and music-making. These tombs are located in two tehsils Kamber and Miro Khan in Larkana and Kamber Shahdadkot districts. The tombs of Daud Khan, Sewa Khan and Ghazi Khan, also known as ‘Jangi Qubo’ in the necropolis of Daud Khan near Gebi Dero, are adorned with figural paintings. The tomb of Ghazi Khan displays the most impressive paintings of dance and music-making, along with the images of folk tales and battle scenes. On the western wall are three animated panels. The first panel depicts the dance of Leela with her friends. The dance movements are more attractive and refined than the ones found in Jamali tombs. On either side of the male figure in the centre with a murli hung around his neck, are two female figures. Above the panel a pair of peacocks clutching snakes in their beaks stand out prominently. The dancing Leela is also found in the tombs of Daud Khan and Sewa Khan.
The second panel in the tomb of Ghazi Khan shows two men in a discussion, sitting on a cot, while a third man is entertaining them by playing the surando or danburo.
This is a visualization of the story of Sayf-al-Muluk wa Badhi-al-Jamal, which travelled to Sindh from Egypt
The second panel in the tomb of Ghazi Khan shows two men in a discussion, sitting on a cot, while a third man is entertaining them by playing the surando or danburo. This is a visualization of the story of Sayf-al-Muluk wa Badhi-al-Jamal, which travelled to Sindh from Egypt through Arabic and Persian literature (Kalhoro, 2014). According to Muhammad Idris Siddiqi (1969), who wrote an article “An illustrated Manuscript from Sind” which was published in the edited book Painting from Islamic lands, Sayf-al-Muluk was the son of a King in Egypt who falls in love with Badhi-al-Jamal, a fairy, after seeing her picture. He had to overcome numerous challenges, finally succeeding in marrying her. The story has been told multiple times and is drawn from the Arabian Nights in Persian adaptation.
A similar depiction of two musicians playing surando and entertaining the local chief is also seen in one of the tombs at Rankun, the necropolis of the Mirzani Chandias, located 5 km west of the graveyard of Daud. The northern wall of Ghazi Khan’s tomb depicts a hunting scene and a folk tale about Suhni and Mehar – with Mehar playing the flute and waiting for his beloved Suhni. There is also in the tomb a picture of two jogis or snake charmers. Similar paintings are also found in the tombs of Daud Khan and Sewa Khan. Of all these dance- and music-making scenes, the most fascinating is the dance of Leela. Depictions of the dance of Leela in the Jamali tombs are now only preserved in photographs, which I took during my various visits to the Jamali tombs in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2009. These and many other tombs bearing precious wall paintings collapsed in the floods of 2010.
The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Excerpts have been taken from the author’s new book “Wall Paintings of Sindh, From the Eighteenth to Twentieth Century” published by Silk Road Centre in 2020. All photos are by the author