Illustration Suhail Naqshbandi/KI
Why is our great poetic tradition facing such neglect?
In 2014, my father Ajaz Ahmad Banday was posted to Zoohama Higher Secondary School. That is how I was introduced to the historical richness of this place, and the people who had contributed to it. This town in district is nearly a thousand years old and is sandwiched between a series of streams flowing down the Pir Panjal mountain range. Hence the name – ‘Zohi’ means island, ‘hom’ is place.
A story goes that one day in 1893, the Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh was returning from Yusmarg and had to spend the night in this village. He was so touched by the hospitality and generosity of the people he decided to reward them. A wise villager named Rama Chand asked for a school. The request was granted and the school was set up in Chand’s house and he was paid three rupees a month as rent.
It was this school that came to be associated with one of Kashmir’s finest poets, Abdul Ahad Azad. Azad lived in nearby Ranger and spent many years teaching at the school, where he also wrote some of his poetry.
His poetry helped light a revolutionary fire among Kashmiris suffering under the brutal Dogra regime. Influenced by Marxist thought, Azad gave a call for ‘Inquilaab’, obliging his people to rise from the darkness and take command of their life. Indeed, it was the reason he was transferred to Tral in 1931.
In Zoohama, Azad was a model teacher as well. In one telling that has been orally transmitted down the generations, he always carries a knife with him to sharpen the qalm of his students; he even washes their hair. He died at the young age of 48, of appendicitis.
A few lines from Kuliyat Azad:
Awlad badshuhun hue rochmut cho yem kochay manz
Boch sait maran watan peth tem sund ayaal aasa
Khalhan Gani Te Sarfi Serab kor yem aaban
Soi aab sani bapath zahar hilal aasa
Zoohama is also associated with another major poet of Kashmir, Maqbool Shah. He was born in Kralwar, barely a kilometre from Zoohama. His work is relatively less known compared to Azad, but no less significant. I became aware of him after chancing upon Gulrez, his dastaan broadcast on Radio Kashmir every Saturday morning. Gulrez is considered one of the greatest pieces of Kashmiri literature. Apart from its skillful use of the intricate techniques of ‘Manzar Nigari’ and ‘Jazbaat Nigari’, it stands out for its interesting characters, subjects and subplots.
Here’s Noshlab venting her feelings when separated from her lover Ajab Malik:
Subuh fol bulbulo tul shor-e-goga
Gayes bedar muchram chashem shehla
Nazar traum na duethum bagh nai gul
Na buzum az chaman awazi bulbul
It’s a misfortune of Kashmiri nation that not many people are so much as aware of these great poets and their contributions. My father tells me the graves are both in ruin. In Kralwer, Maqbool Shah would often compose his poetry under a Chinar. The tree still stands, only now surrounded by the stink of a dry latrine.
As for the state, it couldn’t care less. The Cultural Academy organises some small event every now and then, but more as a formality than anything else. What does it say about the Kashmiri nation that we are oblivious to the linguistic and cultural heritage that defines us as a people, and gives us a common identity and collective memory? Should we only ever define ourselves in opposition?