The Lockdown – Day Fifty-Two

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The writer today opens a discussion on a topic, which could be unique, at least for the people of this country in general and Sindh in particular. This is about honoring the philosophers, intellectuals, writers, poets and scientists etc. by printing their images on banknotes of Pakistan. Cites examples of several countries, he says this practice exists in more than 100 countries of the world.

Zaffar Junejo

What would be your reaction, if the Federal Government of Pakistan takes unimaginable decision and the State Bank issues currency notes with the images of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Sami, Baba Farid, Waris Shah, Kushhall Khan Khatack, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Mir Gul Khan Naseer, Madam Noor Jehan, Shaikh Ayaz, Mirza Qaleech Baig, Ahmed Faraz, Mai Bhagi, Reshma, Asma Jehangir, Film Star Shabnam, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Abida Parveen, and Abdus Salam? Not all, but some of them. Yes, I know it is unimaginable in our part of the world. But being a normal person initially I think you would be shocked rather than surprised, and finally happy. But it is neither so simple, nor it could be expected. This happens where either state or society or both value their philosophers, intellectuals, writers, scientists and artists. Presently, there are three types of traditions to affix persons’ portraits on banknotes. Most of the countries feature former politicians, founding fathers, freedom fighters, and prominent landmarks, along with novelists, poets, writers, and artists on their banknotes. Some countries only portray politicians. The affixation of writers and artists’ portraits is based on their popularity or how the state values their contributions. Therefore, you would find some portraits on the front, and others on the back of the notes. The banknotes’ denomination value also communicates how much important those persons or landmarks are in that country.

One common tradition in all countries, who have presented their writers, novelists, and artists on their banknotes also swap these portraits with other images. Now allow me to talk about the banknotes, which are showing the writers and artists’ portraits. However some of the banknotes, which had shown the portraits, have become dysfunctional. It happens due to the change in regimes or replacing with other images.

My desk research revealed that there are more than a hundred countries that affix portraits of their writers and artists on their banknotes. Some countries gave importance to poets, and some have maintained professional diversity. For instance, Israel’s currency named Shekel, also known as New Shekel, shows four authors affixed on the front of their notes, and out of it, three are poets – these are Rachel Bluwstein, Shaul Techernichovsky, Leah Goldberg, Nathan Alterman, and their banknotes denomination value shows 20, 50, 100, and 200 respectively. I explored further and found that from 1998 to 2017 Israel has issued eight banknotes showing portraits of individuals. Out of it, five were authors, and four were poets – except writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who had won Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. The remaining, three were politicians. Interestingly, banknotes, which had shown Shmuel Yosef Agnon and politicians’ photos, are not in circulation. There are possibilities that these banknotes might have been swapped over with other notes/portraits. But banknotes having poets’ portraits are still in circulation.

Some of the countries affix different persons’ portraits on their banknotes. The case in point is of Japan. Its banknotes show portraits of diversified persons. Look at Yen, and you would find the portraits of bacteriologists, virologists, teachers, writers, and industrialists.

The subject-matter of this write up is to discuss writers and artists, who are affixed on their country’s banknotes. Therefore, let me start with the Danish Government, which in 1952, issued 10 Kroner note with a portrait of Hans Christian Andersen, who is famous around the world for his classic fairytales. Most popular, even in our English Medium schools are ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Thumbelina,’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ The note with Han’s portrait remained in circulation till 1975. Again, in 2005, the Danish Government issued 10 Kroner special coins to celebrate Hans Christian Andersen’s bicentennial birth year. Likewise, in 1966, the Australian Government honored, author Henry Lawson, and he was portrayed on the Dollar 10 Australian Bill.

One may say that the 1990s was a decade in which different countries affixed their writers and artists on their banknotes. If you follow the timeline then in 1992, the Bank of England printed 10 Sterling Pounds banknotes showing celebrated novelist Charles Dickens on its backside. Likewise, in 1993, Ireland issued £10 banknotes portraying famous novelist James Joyce. In the same spirit, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued commemorative banknotes on the one-hundredth anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson. The author is globally famous for ‘Treasure Island,’ ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and the ‘Kidnapped’.

Portraying writers and artists also continued in 2000 when Japan Government affixed poet Murasaki Shikibu on its currency note. And in 2004, the novelist Ichiyo Higuchi’s photo was printed on Yen 5,000 Bill. She died young, but she is still popular in Japan. The themes and characters of some of her stories depict the lives of the women of red-light district of Tokyo. While in 2009, Turkey issued Turkish Lira of 50 with an image of Turkish women rights activist and novelist Fatma Aliye Topuz on the reverse side of the note. She was one of the first female novelists, and has authored six novels.

Later in 2013, the UK’s Central Bank printed Jane Austen’s portrait on 10 Pound note. She is world famous for her works like ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ and ‘Emma.’ The trend to respect the writers and artists continued and it is still in practice. Sweden’s Opera singer Jenny Lind decorated the 50 Krona note. And its first Nobel Prize Winner in Literature Selma Lagerlof portraits also featured on the 20 Krona note. Likewise, in 2015 Astrid Lindgren, who was famous children’s writer was honored with having her portrait on 20 Krona, and in 2016 singer Birgit Nilsson’s portrait was affixed on 500 Krona. She was vocal and operatic artists, and in the same year, Greta Garbo’s portrait, a famous film star, was decorated on 100 Krona note.

In Mexico, artist Frida Kahlo is shown on a 500 Peso note. Similarly, Ukraine’s banknote of value 200 Hryvnia adorned the image of Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka, who was a famous poet, writer, and women rights activist. Till now, perhaps Australian banknotes are relatively ‘gender-equal’ in the world’s paper currency. It is so because Australian women’s portraits are affixed on the flip side of every banknote.

In terms of denomination, South Korea’s highest denomination – 50,000 Won Bill – shows a portrait of Shin Samdang. She was a poet, writer, artist, calligraphist of the 16th century. The South Korea has also honored its several other philosophers by printing their images on its currency notes.

If we analyze the banknotes showing artists and writers, we would see that most of the countries have portrayed their 19th-century writers, while another set of portraits belongs to children’s writers from various eras. However, Australia and Sweden have become more gender-sensitive countries, and Israel’s case is quite different, where banknotes have poets’ portraits.

Another important factor of respecting authors and iconic landmarks is the denomination of banknotes which are attributed to them. For instance, South Korean Won Bill 5000 (US Dollar 4.07992 ~ PKR 651.278) has the highest denomination value in Korea, and it is attributed to a writer. Likewise, in Sweden 500 Krona (US Dollars 51.6434 ~ PKR 8,243.84) note shows image of a singer.  But, here in Pakistan, one of the great civilizations’ icons – Mohen-jo-Daro’s image is affixed on Pakistan’s twenty rupees note. So, its value in US Dollars is approximately US$ 0.12447.

I think we should follow Sir Walter Scott’s way. Do you know what he did? It is an old story attributed to Sir Walter Scott how he had saved the Scottish banknote. The story goes like this that in 1826, the parliament planned to end printing the banknotes under value £5. At that time, Sir Walter Scott with a pseudonym ‘Malachi Malagrowther’ wrote a series of letters to Edinburgh Weekly Journal demanding from the parliament to resume the printing of banknotes. The citizens’ followed the trend, and finally under the Bank Notes Act, 1826, banknotes were printed.

I told this story to give you an idea that citizens of Sindh and other provinces could also opt for various democratic methods to exert the pressure on government that it must honor artists, writers, and scientists. Now, allow me to end today’s lockdown note.

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Zaffar Junejo is Ph.D. Scholar at Department of History, University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur – The areas of interest: Peasants’ Studies, Social History, Cultural History, Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods.
For author’s previous blog click on Sindh Courier

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