Poets have emerged in Kashmir throughout the centuries, shaped by the turmoil and zeitgeist of their time, writing poetry in Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, but also their mother tongue Kashmiri.
In the twelfth century Kashmir was under the spell of the mystic poetry of the reshis, Sheikh-ul-Aalam, and Lal Ded–who gave the distinct style to mystic poetry, known as vakhs.
Adding romanticism to mysticism, the peasant-queen Habba Khatoon longing for her beloved husband, the emperor Yusuf Shah Chak, reflected the sixteenth century’s major event: the emperor’s exile.
Kashmiri poetry has been dominated by mysticism, politics, love, and nature, among other topics, rooted in the love for their homeland. As evident from the poetry of the nineteenth century revolutionary poet Mahjoor and the romantic Rasul Mir.
In recent times, Kashmiri artists have been inclined towards writing poetry in other languages like English and Urdu, other than just Kashmiri. Although these artists still derive inspiration from the poetic treasures left behind by the old Kashmiri poets, following their style and topics of poetry to evolve the musical style of Kashmir.
More recently, Kashmiri poets have not only written in the English language, reaching a larger audience, but have also drawn inspiration from the essence of Kashmir as described by the old poets to produce contemporary music.
The Nightingale of Kashmir
Habba Khatoon was born to a family of peasants in 1554. At the time, her fascination with learning and writing poetry was unthinkable but fighting against the odds, Habba Khatoon’s poetry–that added romanticism to Kashmir’s mystic culture of poetry, dwelling on love and longing anchored by the affection for Kashmir–resonated with the people.
It was her poetry that made the emperor Yusuf Shah Chak seek her out, with the two eventually falling in love and getting married. After the Mughal Emperor Akbar tricked her husband into exile, Habba Khatoon’s poetry reflected sorrow and love for her husband. Today, Habba Khatoon came to be known as the nightingale of Kashmir—in recognition of her fabled melodious voice.
More than five centuries later, Habba Khatoon’s poetry still resonates with the people of Kashmir. “Poetry is our meeras (heritage),” said Srinagar based singer and songwriter, Ali Saffuddin, some of whose songs draw heavily on Habba Khatoon’s poetry.
Having been introduced to Habba Khatoon’s poetry by his grandmother grew his affinity towards Kashmiri poetry in general, said Mr. Saffuddin. “I haven’t explored Western poetry as much as I have Urdu and Kashmiri poetry,” he said. “It has been available in my home and upbringing. I never had to go out and search for it. I just had to pick up my guitar and sing.”
Mr. Saffudin had sung Habba Khatoon’s Roshay—a Kashmiri folk song about love—for the first time in 2016, a song that he feels defines the pro-freedom political movement in Kashmir. “I feel that this poem isn’t just a vailing of a lover for a beloved but I think that it is a vailing of Kashmir for its true ruler,” he said, adding that “Kashmir has been devoid of it for decades, it has been under foreign occupation. I see those things. There are many facets to this poem.”
Habba Khatoon in Roshay speaks about the eternal longing in losing a person but at the same time—referring to a line from the poem, walai wees gaswayi aabas (Friend, let us go fetch water)—the poetry was escapist, said Mr. Saffuddin.
Interpreting the line in the current context, he said that it could be related to Kashmiris driving around the Dal Lake to blow steam off. “That is the most positive escape one has in Kashmir”, he said. “There is so much wrong going in Kashmir but we still have the back of our mother nature and we can lean on that. This line is an escape.”
Roshay is not the only poetry of Habba Khatoon that has been sung by artists from Kashmir but other songs including Rah Bakhshtam–sung by Ali Saiffuddin as well as others–a prayer to god.
Poet of Kashmir
Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor was known as Shayar-e-Kashmir, the poet of Kashmir. His early poetry was about love—prompting the Pulitzer-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the title of “Wordsworth of Kashmir”—but soon shifted to social reforms and the plight of Kashmiris under the Dogra oppression.
Even though Mr. Mahjoor was called the Wordsworth of Kashmir, his “work went beyond the romanticism of the landscape and sentimentality of everyday life,” Onaiza Drabu, a Kashmiri anthropologist, who has worked on Kashmiri folklore, wrote of Mr. Mahjoor. “He was perhaps the first poet to play with themes of patriotism, love of the land, freedom and solidarity across religious lines, even in the face of oppression. His verse praising his homeland, watan, Kashmir, draws from metaphors of nature.”
Mr. Mahjoor’s noted poems include Roz Roz, Gul Gulshan, and Tamanna—all of which have been featured as songs by several artists including the Indian band Parvaaz, whose lead vocalist is a Kashmiri, as well as Kashmiri artists Irfan Bukhari.
Parvaaz, a four-member indie-rock band, came out with the album Baran in 2014 that included Roz Roz and Gul Gulshan, both songs are already known to Kashmiris as “Kalam-e-Mahjoor” or the works of Mahjoor, but accompanied with modern sounds, they became popular with young Kashmiris who had little idea about Mr. Mahjoor’s poetry.
Khalid Ahmed, the band’s lead vocalist, believes that these songs were supposed to happen as they were stuck in his mind since childhood. “I used to listen to both of these melodies on the radio while I was a kid but the poetry actually started making sense to me when I started making music professionally,” he said.
For Mr. Ahmed Roz Roz is more of “a lullaby to a beloved”, “like a lover speaking to his beloved” and that is how he connects with the poetry but Gul Gulshan, on the other hand, is about “how the younger generation can make the world a beautiful place to live for coming generations. That is the essence I get from it”.
Mr. Ahamed says that he has created both of these songs because of his love for his mother tongue, Kashur. “It will have relevance in future as well,” he said. “Poetry wasn’t just made for those times. It will have more relevance in the times to come because these are some really great poems.”
In 2019, Irfan Bukhari, an upcoming singer from Kashmir’s Baramulla district, sung Mr. Mahjoor’s Tamanna. Although Yawar Abdal, another singer had done the same two years before him, the song lyrics were based on not only Mr. Mahjoor’s poetry but also that of Mirza Galib and Ameer Khusro as well.
To Mr. Bukhari, the poem Tamanna reminds of his late mother. He still remembers her working in the kitchen and gently humming the verses. “I don’t know what Mehjoor had on his mind and I never tried to understand his context,” he said. “What I understood from this poetry is just a longing for someone.”
For the love of Kashur
Apart from the old poets, many in recent times like Bashir Dada, Rehman Rahi, Abdul Ahad Azad, Mahmud Gami, and Ghulam Nabi Firaq have had their poetry turned into songs by young Kashmiri artists.
The Kashmiri youth has once again started to take more interest in Kashur language and literature. “The meaning of poetry can change according to the understanding of a reader,” said Bashir Dada, an acclaimed poet, who wrote the widely appreciated “Duaey Khaier Karus Pot Aalaw Dis”, that loosely translates to “pray for them and then call him back”–a poem written in the backdrops of deaths and disappearances owing to the conflict. “Poetry feels like a person’s own. That is what poetry is meant for, people can interpret it in their own ways.”
Mr. Dada believes that Kashmiris, who had lost their loved ones to the conflict of Kashmir, found relevance in his poetry. He added that artists of Kashmir should not limit themselves in interpreting poetry. “Singers should be mindful of the correct [religious] context of Sufi poetry when using them in songs,” said Mr. Dada, adding that artists should take liberties with the rest of poetic works. “They should be allowed to have their own interpretations of poetry.”
Young artists also have chosen their styles to nurture and preserve the Kashmiri literature and mother tongue. Through his songs, Mr. Bukhari wants to reinvigorate the love for Kashur language among Kashmiri youth. “I only want people to understand and develop a love for literature of Kashmir,” he said. “The way it was spoken and the flavor that it had, it should remain with people. People are sometimes even ashamed to speak in Kashur. Lately, people have again started listening and speaking Kashur.”
The story originally appeared in our 13-19 July 2020 print edition.