Mirza Sahiban: A Punjabi Folktale

I have a post up on the Non Stop Bhangra site, about the famous Punjabi folktale, Mirza Sahiban. It’s a love story about a woman, Sahiban, who elopes with her “milk cousin” Mirza and sets off a feud between his family and hers.

ForLoveFor Love, by Marcus Murray, acrylic on canvas
Photo courtesy of Non Stop Bhangra

Sahiban, they say, grew up to be so beautiful that when she went to market the grocer would get too confused and distracted to weigh her produce correctly. When she walked by the fields all the farmers would stop their plowing just to stare. Mirza grew up strong and handsome, and was the best shot with a bow and arrow in the region. It’s not too surprising that these two, growing up together so closely, eventually fell in love.

As you might guess, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. You can read my retelling of the tale here.

If you’re wondering about the term “milk cousin”: according to the story, Sahiban’s paternal grandmother died in childbirth, so Sahiban’s father was nursed by another woman, who already had a daughter (also nursing). Because the two children were nursed by the same woman, by tradition they would be considered siblings — “milk siblings”. The nursemaid’s daughter grew up to be — you guessed it — Mirza’s mother. So Sahiban and Mirza were first milk cousins.

At least, this is what all the English language renditions of the story that I found say. Knowing as I do how folktales can get sanitized as they propagate, I can’t help wondering if originally the two lovers were really first cousins by blood, just like in early versions of the tale, Snow White’s jealous, murderous “stepmother” was actually Snow’s biological mother.

Most English language versions of Mirza Sahiban are fairly vague about how Sahiban dies at the end. In my retelling, I had her pierced by arrows as she tried to shield her lover’s body. According to R. C. Temple, in his 1884 Tales of the Panjab, Vol 3, Sahiban’s brothers strangled her for dishonoring the family. This does not show up in modern versions of the story.

Temple goes on to say that the feud that resulted from Sahiban’s elopement was an actual historical thing, and that female children were considered such bad luck because of this story, that female infanticide in the region was done “in memory” of Sahiban. Ick. I take this with a grain of salt — when folklore is collected by the occupiers of a country (Temple was an British army officer who served in India), you have to be extra careful to filter out the colonial attitudes and paternalism that can sneak in, no matter how well meaning the folklorist is. This is as true of Indian folklore collected during the British colonial period as it is of Philippine folklore collected by the Spanish priests or by Americans during the commonwealth period.

But I’ll buy the strangulation version of the folktale. It’s ugly, but not implausible. At any rate, Temple provides an untranslated Punjabi version of the folktale in his book, so if you happen to read Romanized Punjabi, you can find out the ending direct from the source.

A Silent Film Frankenstein

Just a quick one today. The Durmoose Movie Musings blog is running a 31 Days of Halloween mini-blog-film-fest, which I plan to follow as much as I have time to (luckily, it looks like he’s going mostly for shorts). Since his second offering was The Golem (which I recently posted about), obviously he’s got good taste….

His first offering was the 100 year old silent version of Frankenstein, produced by Edison Studios. Those of us who are familiar with Frankenstein mostly through film or television versions tend to define the monster by Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, stitched-together interpretation. And we think of the monster’s creation in terms of James Whale’s Tesla (and Der Golem) inspired electric lab. So it’s interesting to see the Edison version, where Dr. Frankenstein creates the monster by mixing together a bunch of herbs (well, probably chemicals, but I like to think that they’re herbs) and tossing them into a cauldron that I assume holds the body to be animated, and then letting it simmer. It’s like Macbeth’s witches.

The “come-to-life” scene is pretty cool, and there are some cute 1910-era special effects at the end involving mirrors. Mirrors are a big motif in this movie. And best of all — for the busy — it’s only fifteen minutes long.

So enjoy.

If perchance you’d like to enjoy this on your own device, rather than youtube, the movie is public domain and available at archive.org. Also, if you have more than fifteen minutes, please do also enjoy James Whale’s definitive 1931 version of movie Frankenstein. There’s a version (with Spanish subtitles), on Vimeo.

Der Golem

Rabbi Yehuda Loew, known to the pious as the “Maharal” came to Prague from Nikolsburg, Posen, in the year 5332 of the Creation (1572 A.D.) in order to become rabbi of the community there. The whole world resounded with his fame because he was deeply learned in all branches of knowledge and knew many languages. Is it any wonder then that he was revered by the wise men among the Gentiles? Even King Rudolf of Bohemia esteemed him highly.

The Golem of Prague, posted by Dr. Leila Leah Bronner on her Bible and Jewish Studies website (source not given).

In 1913 German actor and filmmaker Paul Wegener was in Prague filming a Faustian tale called The Student of Prague, which he both starred in and produced. While he was there, he learned the legend of the Golem of Prague, a great clay being that was created and brought to life by the Rabbi Loew to protect Prague’s Jewish community. The legend caught his imagination.

The Golem: How He Came into The World (1920) was Wegener’s third Golem movie; unfortunately, the two earlier movies have been lost. The first two times, Wegener placed the Golem in a contemporary time period; with his third attempt, he tried something closer to a straight retelling of the legend as he had heard it.

Golem skyline

Wegener was not Jewish [1]; and while Der Golem is a beautiful movie, it’s not terribly authentic. Given the atmosphere in Germany at the time, some see Der Golem as an expression of anti-Semitism. It certainly takes a lot of liberties with the source material, but I didn’t think it was a hostile or derogatory portrayal of the Jewish people as a whole.

There are many versions of the legend of the Golem of Prague; the one on Dr. Bronner’s website, which I quoted above, is my favorite. The general idea is that Rabbi Loew created the Golem to guard the Ghetto of Prague against enemies of the Jewish people. In Bronner’s version, those enemies would plant the bodies of dead children in the home of a Jew, then level a “blood accusation”: the charge that Jews used the blood of Christian children in Jewish ritual (in this case, to make Passover matzos). Loew brought the Golem to life from a clay figure with cabalistic ritual; in some versions, he does this by writing the word emet (truth) on the Golem’s forehead, in other versions, by writing God’s secret name on a piece of parchment and putting it into the Golem’s mouth. Continue reading

The Hands of Orlac

Inspired by the comments section from my last post, I’m continuing the “murderous hands” theme with Robert Wiene’s 1924 silent film, The Hands of Orlac, the story of a concert pianist whose hands are destroyed in a terrible train accident. He receives the transplanted hands of an executed murderer as replacements, but rather than play the piano, these hands apparently want to continue the bad habits of their previous owner… .

NewImage Image: Wikipedia

I liked it — a lot. I liked it even better than Wiene’s more famous film, the 1920 Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which I also watched the same evening that I watched Orlac).

Caligari, in addition to its Expressionist credentials, is considered by many to be the first horror movie. Orlac, despite its plot, is not a horror movie, but proto-noir. The German Expressionist filmmakers had a big influence on the style of what became film noir (and also on the content of noir, with movies like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse); you can really see this in Orlac‘s play of light and shadow.

Cafescene

Expressionist film (the Expressionist movement in general) focused on subjective, emotional reality rather than physical reality; to convey this inner reality, Expressionist filmmakers and actors borrowed technique from dance, theater, and the visual arts. Caligari, for instance, is famous for its weird, surreal sets, with their crooked perspectives and their painted-on splashes of light and shadow, as well as for its fantastical costuming and makeup. Orlac relied more on lighting, on artful scene arrangements and framing, and on sets that were more theatrical than naturalistic (though not surreal).  It reminded me of Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa played with techniques from Noh and Kabuki theater, most famously in his stylized 1957 version of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, but also in his early (1945) film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, which is based on the Kabuki play Kanjinchō, which is in turn based on the Noh play Ataka, about the twelfth century warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In Tiger’s Tail you can already see the hallmarks of the Kurosawa style: the posed tableaus and geometrical arrangements of actors, as well as the digressions into folk or classical song and dance so common in his Samurai pictures. The sets in those two movies were fairly theatrical, too — probably for budget reasons, with Tiger’s Tail. Think, also, of the bare white sands of the courtyard where witnesses gave testimony in Rashomon (I think he used that same courtyard for the penultimate scene of Hidden Fortress, too), and the Gondos’ wide, clean living room in High and Low.

AsajiLady Macbeth, I mean Asaji, tries to wash the blood off her hands, in Throne of Blood. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
Note actress Isuzu Yamada’s facial expression and exaggerated makeup, which together are meant to suggest a classic Noh mask.
You can watch the entire clip here; it’s tremendous.

But maybe I’m only reminded of  Kurosawa because I watch so much of him. Anyway. Back to Orlac. Continue reading

Silly Sun Gets Married

This is a retelling of the story “Miss Abao; or Perseverance Rewarded” from Pu Songling’s 1740 collection of supernatural tales, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, as translated by Herbert Giles in 1880.

I love everything I’ve read so far. I’m not sure why this particular story got my attention, but it did. Enjoy.


In Guangxi Province there lived a poor but knowledgable scholar named Sun Zichu, who was born with a sixth finger on one of his hands. Like many academically or scholarly-minded people, Sun was a bit naive and bubble-headed about real life matters: he would believe any outrageous story that he heard. He was also very shy around women. Generally, he would run away when he encountered them, and if he couldn’t, he would blush like a pomegranate and beads of sweat would drip off him like he had fallen into a river. His friends found all this hilarious, and they nicknamed him “Silly Sun” behind his back.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

Continue reading

The Wearing of the Green (or not)

March is here: St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, when everyone (here in the States, at least) can pretend to be a little bit Irish… .

In honor of the occasion, here are some fun Ireland folklore facts to share with your friends over that pint of Guinness.

NewImageSt. Patrick and Shamrock. St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Image: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikipedia

St. Patrick is as Irish as the Potato.

That is to say: by adoption only. Potatoes are a New World vegetable, originating in South America and not introduced into Ireland until the late 1500s or early 1600s (some say by Sir Walter Raleigh). By the 1700s they had become a staple food in the country. Likewise, the man known today as St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain. The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in 387. Biography.com says he was born in England to “a Roman family of high social standing” in 385. Either way, according to his own writings, he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning home. He eventually entered the priesthood and was sent back to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached and converted much of the country to Christianity. By the seventh century, he was thought of as the patron saint of Ireland.

There’s a theory that some of the legends associated with St. Patrick were originally associated with another cleric, Palladius, who was the first Christian bishop to Ireland, in 431 (a year before Patrick arrived). Palladius wasn’t Irish, either; he was Gaul (French).

Incidentally, there’s a famous folktale that links St. Patrick to the shamrock: supposedly, Patrick was preaching to the locals, and meeting with hostility and incredulity. To make his point, the saint plucked a clover from the earth and said to them

‘Is it not as feasible for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as for these three leaves thus to grow upon a single stalk?’ Then the Irish were immediately convinced of their error, and were solemnly baptized by St. Patrick.

As simple as that. The quote is from Edward Jones, “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1794, as quoted by Nathaniel Colgan in “The Shamrock in Literature,” 1896. The folktale can’t actually be dated any earlier than the early 18th century; it’s not in Patrick’s writings, nor in any early Lives of the Saints.

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Interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Welcome to all my new followers. I hope you enjoy the blog.

I hope to get another post up soon, but in the meantime I’d like to share this 1927 interview (monologue, really) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He speaks about his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and about his interest in spiritualism.

The sound quality isn’t that great, but it’s very cool to hear the voice of Conan Doyle coming to us across the years. The video is housed at the Internet Archive, but I found it at the Public Domain Review. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow embeds from archive.org — thank goodness it’s also on YouTube.

If you click through on the Public Domain Review link, be sure to scroll down to see their other featured public domain films, including an early Alfred Hitchcock (The Lodger), and the 1952 Academy award winning The Snows of Kilimanjaro (with Gregory Peck).

Enjoy.

Saltair and the Carnival of Souls

Saltair
Saltair III on an overcast March evening.
Photo: Nina Zumel

I was in Salt Lake City all this past week, on business. It’s a beautiful area, the Salt Lake Basin, and the weather was fantastic. It’s too bad I had to spend most of my time indoors, in meetings and working sessions. Being able to see the snow-frosted peaks of the Rockies in every direction whenever I did step outside almost made up for that — but only almost. One of these days, I’m going to take an extra weekend after visiting our Salt Lake client, to hike and really see the Great Salt Lake, but this trip I had to make do with a quick trip to the Saltair Pavilion, on the shore of the lake, before heading to the airport for home.

It was after hours (and off season, of course), so the gates to the pavilion were closed. The clouds had thickened, and a chill settled in after a week of unseasonably warm weather. The lake stank of sulfur. I didn’t want to scramble through the fence in my business clothes, so I contented myself with a few snapshots from the road while a few curious roadies (Saltair is a concert venue now) looked on.

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