Persian was the basis of administrations all over western Asia and the highly prestigious language at the courts. Hence, Persian learning radiated into Kashmir and found a fertile soil after the initial impulse.
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The History of Kashmiri Literature by Mir Shabir Ahmad
When I came across this title online a few days back, I was thrilled at the first sight for I thought there was another attempt made to write a history of “Kashmiri literature” which in many respects is still not written properly. But to my surprise I found that there was nothing related to the “Kashmiri literature” in the book. This book is about the literature (particularly Sanskrit) produced in Kashmir as is clear from its blurb note. I am yet to see the book, but one thing I am sure about is its title is surely misleading.
Translated from the Persian by Mufti Mudasir Farooqi and Nusrat Bazaz.
Penguin Books India, New Delhi, Lxiii+ 216 Pages. Rs.399.
Let me say at the outset that I am no scholar of Persian, but have imbibed some of its flavour by listening to my father, a school teacher modestly conversant with the language, recite the Abul Fazal translation of the Bhagvat Gita as well as the hymn to the Hindu goddess Sharika by an unknown Sufi singer (shab shahe ki man deedam…). I must confess that I was only vaguely aware of the contribution made to Persian literature by Kashmiri poets like Ghani until I read the learned, well-mannered and extremely readable introduction to the present volume by Mufti Mudasir Farooqi.That Kashmir is heir to not only the highly ratiocinative tradition of Sanskrit but also to the riches of Persian writing further corroborates the already recognised catholicity of Kashmir’s religious and aesthetic thought.
With my very miniscule knowledge of the original, I have to be content with what comes through the translation. ‘To translate”, says George Steiner in After Babel “is to descend beneath the exterior disparities of two languages to bring into vital play …common principles of being”. This statement assumes a basic commonality between languages as well as a universal underlying structure. But in actual practice this is not so. The statement ignores the differences in typologies of cultures of which languages are a fair reflection. The central difficulty for any translator lies in conveying words and concepts that have no analogues in the target language.
Here the difficulty gets further compounded when we realize that the Persian ghazal embodies a whole panoply of allusions, nuances and indirections that may not be carried over into the target language(in this case English). Besides, the mandarin sophistication that characterizes the conventional ghazal can never be captured in English or any other European language for that matter. That is why the attempts of Merwin and Agha Shaid Ali to write a ghazal in English come a cropper.
On the surface the translations of Ghani’s ghazals, quatrains and other works in this volume are straight, low-pitched and laced with irony. A typical Ghani ghazal or quatrain makes do with spare diction, and a meticulously orchestrated word pattern to investigate ethical as well as aesthetic concerns (the recurrent presence of the sun image in many a piece is one good instance to which Farooqi draws our attention). Indeed the aesthetic and the ethical usually emerge on blurred borders and make the reading exercise that much more exacting. Here is an example of what I wish to convey.
All partake of His sea of bounty
With gold coins the fish is decked
and the oyster holds a pearl.
Though the sea harbours
Meanings in plenty,
Mine is a pearl
theirs a bubble.
Of course, we shall miss here the rhyme, the rhythm and the sonority of the original. But there are compensations, nevertheless. We are struck by a coolness of perception and a quietness of utterance in the above lines that gently nudge us towards a meaning or, more usefully, towards a hardy exercise in search of more than one meaning. The words on the page may appear plain, even to the point of self-effacement. Yet what we see through them is a gesture, a process of thought and feeling even though indirectly expressed, a way ‘of a voice to a receptive you’ as the Romanian poet Paul Celan would put it. I think one of the principal successes of this translation is that we are never baulked of meanings by the indulgences of stock poeticisms or the hyperbole of the self-dramatization of the poet’s persona, a bane in the conventional ghazal when handled by untalented writers. As Farooqi reminds us, Ghani is not a derivative blind practitioner of the conventional the conventional imagery of the ghazal for his own non-conventional purposes, even to subvert them at times. In the above lines the imagery of the sea, the pearl and the oyster unfold meanings that go beyond the merely literal. “Meanings in plenty” might as well be said of poetry in general and Ghani’s poetry in particular. Here we shall be on less shaky ground if we understand the context provided by the introduction as well as commentary in end-notes. Then there is the pearl in the shell—does it signify ultimate wisdom earned by delving into the watery expanse? And, finally what do we make of the juxtaposition of the ‘bubble’ and the ‘pearl’? Also the associations evoked by the imagery of the pearl diver in other poets-as the mention of ‘gawase-muhabat ka Allah hi nigahbaan ho’ in the famous poem by Iqbal or ‘those were the pearls’ song in The Tempest– broaden as well as deepen the significance of the imagery.
On the basis of the Farooqi-Bazaz translation, I think Ghani Kashmiri can be better understood as an aphoristic poet, one who speaks in gnomic utterances without elaborating on them, one who garners experience in a weighty economy of earned wisdom. An aphoristic poet concentrates experiences in austere words and depends upon the quality of surprise generated by a combination of scene, situation and affect. In such poetry there is much in the lines and much between the lines. They may not have the roughage of familiar speech; they do not deviate too far from it, for their force depends on how the familiar is presented in an unfamiliar and, therefore, a new light. Here is a random selection.
Slight not, O ascetic, my
blotted record of deeds.
rains of mercy pour forth
from these black clouds.
Why grieve if wine’s
water bird is slow to take off?
In capturing the colour that has fled
It becomes a royal falcon.
At dawn a glimpse of bread
makes me forget my soul.
I am distressed by a life
So hinged on sustenance.
Like Pascal’s Pensees these poems yield meanings through a dialogical see-saw with the reader who in turn, needs to be equally versed in the intricacies of the poetic devices used by the poet. But once we grasp the devices, the metaphors and similes that become the poet’s signature, we shall surely get at his meaning/meanings. Here Farooqi helps us considerably by highlighting the devices that Ghani inherits from the conventional ghazal and telling us how these devices were harnessed to a non-conventional purpose. In the event he also states the fact that Ghani is neither a Sufi poet nor a mystic one per se. “The two main trends of poetry, the courtly and the mystical, remained dominant though Sufi poetry took precedence in terms of the sheer corpus produced…Alongside these two trends, there were poets like Ghani who were neither court poets nor Sufis…” This accounts for the muted presence of the Sufi’s ardour and the mystic’s other-worldliness in Ghani’s work. A combination of a lyrical longing and going beyond worldly concerns marks these ghazals out. Muted presence, not total absence, for Ghani is too much of a poet not to occasionally let himself yield to sensuous savours and mundane involvements.
Parted from you, my heart
desires not the garden.
Without your rosy cheek,
the rosebush is a prison.
Longing has curled your
tresses into round lips.
Permit them to cascade
and kiss your feet once.
The truth of retributions
in the world is this alone:
‘The life of the moth’s killer
does not extend beyond dawn’.
Unearthed by the farmer,
can the sapling bear fruit?
Let me, O Heavens,
There are numerous examples here that show Ghani using plain homespun idiom to convey his thoughts. Such down-to-earth sensibility, such mastery over daily experience (not always mystical), are marks of a major voice that speaks across generations, particularly when contexts of grief and sorrow assume varied shapes but remain ubiquitous. Ghani was no stranger to social and political repression, as many a poem makes clear.
Nothing but remorse
does the world yield.
Turning the millstone
only chafes our hands.
Grief outlasts joy in this world.
The candle cries the whole night
for a moment’s laugh at dawn.
Ghani Kashmiri’s stoic acceptance of the tyranny of his times is in itself an indictment of the social and political order. It is all the more telling for being understated.
The Captured Gazelle fits Italo Calvino’s designation of a classic as something that lasts past its immediate context. At least for one reader the collection opens up an entirely new perspective on Kashmiri poetry. For that I must thank Mudasir Farooqi and Nusrat Bazaz for their zestful effort.
“I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.”
(In Memoriam V)
My paternal grandfather stood as a great inspiration for me when I was a teenager. I lost him when I was in high school. Like they are for all of us teenage years were an important stage of my life where I craved inspiration from a role model. The death of my grandfather had created a sort of void for me; I sought guidance from someone outside my family. I made an unaccustomed choice of studying humanities and joined the Gandhi Memorial College (GMC) that used to offer courses for eleventh and twelfth classes of high school. Both the teachers and authorities in the GMC were helpful and inspiring for students. But I was to discover a rare personality in this college that would eventually inspire me throughout my life. I would eventually rediscover the inspiring personality of my grandfather in him.
It was my first day in the GMC and I was eagerly looking forward to see someone who, I was told, used to be a very good friend and junior colleague of my grandfather in the D.A.V. High School (Jawahar Nagar) in Srinagar and also a teacher of my father. I had heard of his magnetic and charismatic personality both as a teacher and humanist. It was these traits I sought of professors I encountered. While looking forward and waiting for my Sanskrit class in the main corridor of the college, I saw a tall man approaching in a stately gait walking towards principal’s office with a cheerful smile on his face. His hair was coal-black and he had grey moustache. Neatly dressed, holding a small black leather pouch in his underarm, he would give a charming smile to everyone whom he would have an eye contact with. There was something about his smile that I find difficult to express in words; it was the smile of an innocent intellectual. I would realise it much later in life that the vacuum created by my grandfather’s death was filled by gentle and scholarly personalities like him and a few others like Pandit Dinanath Yacch, Prof A.N. Dhar, Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Dr Bettina Bäumer, Prof N.B. Patil and Prof Nilkanth Gurtu.
I was never an outstanding student, but that was not what mattered for him since unlike many other professors who usually liked only the most meritorious students and ignored the back-benchers, he treated the most notorious and the most brilliant students alike. And he was the only professor who was respected equally well by both extremes of the student groups. As a teacher he hardly cared about students being good or bad. Even the most notorious student would come and touch his feet, and listen carefully to his noble and touchy advice. We have often heard the stories like that of the notorious dacoit Angulimal who came chasing Buddha to kill him and when he saw him (Buddha), he turned his devotee. During the troubled times in Kashmir valley, both the armed forces and militants would want to protect him. Such was the charisma of his unfathomed innocence. According to him there was nothing like a “bad boy”. We created ‘good’ and ‘bad’ boys. He viewed a ruffian and the most decent student alike. He used to offer equal treatment to a duffer and a brilliant student. He regarded his students like his own children and would share most intimate episodes of his life with them while, for instance, trying to make them understand literary subtleties of a certain poem.
But that was not all. I would often see him talking to the peons of the college sharing some intimacies with them. He would say that he enjoyed speaking to them. They never manipulated whatever he spoke to them about. How many teachers care about the plight or the joy of a peon in a college? I never ever saw him sitting in a group of professors enjoying some free time in the sunshine of winters in the college compound. He would arrive on time for his classes and leave just after finishing off his classes. He would never be a part of any gossip groups. For me this was the most inspiring characteristic of a professor that I learnt from him – and since then I have never wasted my time unnecessarily gossiping around either with my colleagues or students. We always forget the main purpose of an educational establishment, he would think. The GMC or such other educational institutions are primarily established for the students and the first priority of such institutions should be always to be ready to serve students in whatever way possible. He strongly believed in social service through education. He would always think how GMC could serve as a better institution for young Kashmiri students who might use it as a launching pad for taking off their future flights. On the first day of college he would introduce the fresh batch of his students to Gandhi’s life and philosophy after whom the GMC was named. He would make it a point that all his students in the GMC should know the favourite song of Gandhi – “vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je peera parayi jaane re. para dukhe upakara kare toye mana abhimana na ane re”. Even though he did seem to be deeply influenced by Gandhi as most of his generation would be, but in my opinion deep down his heart it did not matter for him whether these lines were the favourite of Gandhi or were written by Narasinh Mehta. The moving idea expressed in these lines was what was pulling him towards it – to feel the pain of ‘Other’ and serve them without generating conceit about the selfless service whether that was through the word of mouth, or an altruistic act. This altruistic professor was unaware of his own altruism. Had he been aware of it he would not have spent all his life in the GMC considering the heights of literary achievements he had accomplished as a self-made scholar.
He was a teacher par excellence. His style of making English literature understandable in Kashmiri language was not only amusing, but also revealing the critical method of translation. Once teaching me a line from Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe he asked me how we could translate the expression like “Fie on thee” into Kashmiri. He translated it as “hay oyi vobah”. When I said that I was still unable to understand the character of Doctor Faustus, he replied that it was the story of every human being – me and you and everyone else is a Doctor Faustus. We are all Doctor Faustus, and all of us come across such stages in life and we have to learnt to face it. His loud voice still echoes into my ears as I write these lines:
“Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess:
Having commenc’d, be a divine in shew,
Yet level at the end of every art,
And live and die in Aristotle’s works.
Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou hast ravish’d me!
Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is, to dispute well, logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more; thou hast attain’d that end:
A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit:
Bid Economy farewell, and Galen come,
Seeing, Ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus:
Be a physician, Faustus; heap up gold,
And be eterniz’d for some wondrous cure:
Summum bonum medicinae sanitas,
The end of physic is our body’s health.
Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain’d that end?
Is not thy common talk found aphorisms?
Are not thy bills hung up as monuments,
Whereby whole cities have escap’d the plague,
And thousand desperate maladies been eas’d?
Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.
Couldst thou make men to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteem’d.
Before teaching me “Good Morrow” of John Donne I was obviously offered three lectures on metaphysics. But his style of teaching metaphysics was not making it sound like a jargon to a high school student. He said “say for instance if we are travelling from one place to another in a bus. You are bing metaphysical if you are not sure whether you will reach the destination or not. If you say you ’will’ reach your destination, you are not being metaphysical”. All my class mates still remember when he taught us Shakespeare’s sonnet titled “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”. I wish I could infuse life into this piece of paper and make you listen to the following words in his majestic loud melodious voice those he would recite like a minstrel of balmy life:
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” (Sonnet-18)
His eloquent and flowery English sounded very professorial to all of us. Shakespeare was a metaphysician, he used to say. A million times have I quoted his words in Urdu – “Shakespeare ko zindagi ki napaydari ka bahut gehra ehsaas tha”. This deep ephemerality (nāpāydārī) was the crux of the Shakespearean metaphysics according to him. Reading and re-reading the dramas of Shakespeare, he had developed a profound understanding of his (Shakespeare’s) philosophy of life. I learnt more about Philosophy from him than in my philosophy classes, both oriental and occidental, and I learnt more about History from him than I could have learnt from any historian. What academic branch did he not specialise in? In his free time at home he used to tutor students in Mathematics and Economics.
Wordsworth was a mystic for him and so was Coleridge. I deeply remember him when even today I open my high school books and read Wordsworth’s “An Ode to the Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Early Childhood” or Coleridge’s reply to the former in the “Dejection: An Ode”.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,” (Ode to Immortality)
My genial spirits did fail when I heard that this paragon of virtue and cheerfulness is no more, but is he no more? This is what I asked myself immediately. His living is the immortal living and his death is the mortal death.
“My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze forever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.” (Dejection: An Ode)
I still recall that brilliant day of my life when I studied the “Ode to Skylark” by P.B. Shelly with him. I was literally feeling like flying in the deep depths of the endless blue firmament like a Skylark. Was it the power of Shelly or Shelly’s Skylark or my teacher who was guiding me through this flight of Skylark ?
“What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see,
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody: –
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” (Ode to Skylark)
I wish I could have recorded his explanations of John Keat’s pangs of separation from his fiancée Fanny Brawne or how such love-miseries were being reflected in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” or “The Eve of St Agnes”. He made me fall in love with Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge. His explanations of Alfred Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” in the light of Arthurian legends and his (Tennyson’s) intimate relation with his friend Arthur Henry Hallam revealed in the “In Memoriam”, one of the three great English elegies, created in me an everlasting passion for English literature.
“That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.” (VI, In Memoriam)
“The lesser griefs that may be said,
That breathe a thousand tender vows,
Are but as servants in a house
Where lies the master newly dead;” (XX, In Memoriam)
It was least the charm of the English literature itself, I think, and mostly his way of teaching that let me to truly appreciate the literature of England. He could make you feel English and England while sitting in Jammu & Kashmir. Those who have been his students will know how well he knew England just because he was so intimately associated with the literature of that land and its people. So he would tell you where a particular street was in a particular area in medieval London, for instance. The man who had hardly been outside the State of Jammu & Kashmir would know most streets of medieval England simply because he was astonishingly familiar with the literature of that country. Such is the potent power of dedicated study and such is the alluring charm of a worthy scholar.
He always regretted that he did not know enough Sanskrit to read the texts in original and he would have liked to read this ancient classical literature because it had inspired so many domains of knowledge. If fact, he said to me once, that he considered marrying a woman with traditional degree in Sanskrit because he wanted to learn from her about this ancient knowledge system. Does it not reflect his passion for literary traditions? How can I not mention his contributions to Kashmiri literature in the form of his critical essays published in various journals in past couple of decades? He believed that the insignificant corpus of existent criticism in Kashmiri language is dominated by age-old and backyard historical and sociological concerns. He was attempting to evolve a new critical idiom in Kashmiri language in the light of the opinions of Sir Percy Lubbock (Craft of Fiction) and Northrope Frye (Anatomy of Criticism).
If we have more mortals like him surviving the mundane existence, the earth will be a heaven, but it is not. Men like him are like gold dust. Even though they are thin on the ground, they exist but rarely exceptionally, but when they do, they live for ever. I would like this earth to be full of such people who make this world a loving and charming place to live in, but I am asking for too much. Let such people be rare and let many of us learn from their occasional existence. Like a tiny earthen lamp attempting to illuminate every corner of a dark room. Let us not miss him, but live him following his unique philosophy – the philosophy of humanity.
“He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.” (In Memoriam, VII)
My teacher wanted me either to be a judge or join the Indian Administrative service. Unfortunately, I could do neither and ended up being a teacher like him. I recall his emphatic eloquent voice – “Mrinal ! I want you to be a judge.” He even made me write the entrance examination of the bachelors programme for law in the University of Delhi. He infused and invigorated his students with passion for learning. And this passion for learning was not simply reading as many books as one could. This learning was the true learning of life. What do we learn when we study the subjects like history, philosophy and literature? We learn how to live – how to live the life of a ‘human being’ – live for ourselves and others. I am sure even the so called ‘bad boy’ or the most notorious student will also be able to tell you something about the ‘way of life’ that he/she might have learnt from him.
“Then fancy shapes, as fancy can,
The grief my loss in him had wrought,
A grief as deep as life or thought,
But stay’d in peace with God and man.” (In Memoriam, LXXX)
Why should I not think that his personal life was not less than the life of an ascetic? He once told me that he neither allowed his wife to clean the dishes in the kitchen nor did he allow her to clean their house. He made it sure that he would do it himself and he justified this unusual act by saying that The Prophet in the Holy Quran has said that he does not like people with smooth hands. He likes only people with rough hands because smooth hands belong to people who do not do hard work and he always attempted to keep his hands rough. We think men in robes are more powerful than men in the usual dress. We imagine mystics with long braided hair wearing flowing robes instead of men common in outlook. We are mistaken. Men like my teacher are far more powerful than any men on the earth. They don’t say what they are, they be what they are. They are innocent intellectuals. “Moza Sir” (Professor Kanhaya Lal Moza) was one such rare personality who will continue to live with me in my life and in my death. Even if I let him die, he will only die with me when I find my own grave. I am neither mourning his death nor elegising his memory as I did of my grandfather. This remarkable literary craftsman matured me into what I am and his humanitarian philosophy will inspire me what I will continue to be.
“My Arthur, whom I shall not see
Till all my widow’d race be run;
Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me.” (In Memoriam, IX)
The British Library’s Kashmiri collections contain 7 manuscripts, principally vocabularies and poetry in the Perso-Arabic script; approximately 300 printed books dating from the early 19th century to the present day; and various issues from 1967 to 1996 of Son Adab, the literary annual published by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
The collections are particularly strong in the fields of Kashmiri language, literature, history, politics and religion, and offer a wealth of information for the study of Kashmir, India and Pakistan.
Earlier this year Hamsa Stainton who is now the assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas completed his doctoral research on the topic “Poetry and Prayer: Stotras in the Religious and Literary History of Kashmir” from Columbia University. With the permission of Dr Stainton I am herewith reproducing the abstract of his dissertation which, I am sure, will interest many of us. He has been kind enough to allow me to do so and would be very happy if someone has any questions, comments or thoughts. He can be contacted at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
This dissertation investigates the close connection between poetry and prayer in South Asia by studying the history of Sanskrit hymns of praise (stotras) in Kashmir. It offers a broad introduction to the history and general features of the stotra genre, and it charts the course of these literary hymns in Kashmir from the ninth century to the present. Historically, Kashmir was one of the most dynamic and influential centers of Sanskrit learning and literary production in South Asia. This dissertation focuses on a number of innovative texts from this region, such as Kṣemarāja’s eleventh-century commentaries and Sāhib Kaul’s seventeenth-century hymns, which have received little scholarly attention. In particular, it offers the first study in any European language of the Stutikusumāñjali, a major work of religious literature dedicated to the god Śiva and one of the only extant witnesses to the trajectory of Sanskrit literary culture in fourteenth-century Kashmir. This dissertation also contributes to the study of Śaivism by examining the ways that Śaiva poets have integrated the traditions of Sanskrit literature (kāvya) and poetics (alaṅkāraśāstra), theology (especially non-dualism), and Śaiva worship and devotion. It argues for the diverse configurations of Śaiva bhakti expressed and explored in these literary hymns and the challenges they present for standard interpretations of Hindu bhakti. More broadly, this study of stotras from Kashmir offers new perspectives on the history and vitality of prayer in South Asia and its complex relationships to poetry and poetics.