Kashmir’s greatest living poet Rahman Rahi on his poetry and politics
To understand Rehman Rahi’s “silence” is to address the question of an artist’s role in politically charged times. On a warm Sunday afternoon at his house in Vecharnag in Srinagar, the 92-year-old poet launches into a tirade when the allegation is brought up of his perceived silence over the violation of human dignity taking place in Kashmir.
Rahi rises from his chair to fetch a pile of his books, and turns pages to poems and verses about the conflict in this region. “It’s not in the poet’s domain to become a politician,” he argues, “but the political, which is like the air we breathe, has to be conveyed with one’s craft in such a manner so when you can enact the death of a boy on the street, the readers (the rulers) must feel they are reading about their own death.”
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
How does it feel being Kashmir’s greatest living poet?
To say this myself would not be appropriate. Whatever people may think of me, I respect it. I have only ever attempted something feeble and small. It was God’s gift to me, the poetry. All my life, I have campaigned for the Kashmiri language. So when people recognise my work, it obviously makes me happy. I ask myself, ‘is this really true?’ Those who have said this about me are well known literary figures, so one feels they must be speaking the truth (laughs).
My single-minded effort has been to raise the standard of the Kashmiri language so that it achieves a status on a par with the great languages of the world in which literature is written; to bring it to the notice of world’s great writers so that they know what’s happening with this language.
God blessed me, and verses and poems came to me that people appreciate. If people didn’t appreciate my poetry, they wouldn’t have translated it. A lot of my poetry has been translated and it has gotten me recognition. When I meet people in the city and in villages who respect me and my work, I feel I must have done something good (smiles).
Are you disappointed that Kashmiris don’t sufficiently value their poets? As a poet, what do you desire from your community?
I want readers for Kashmiri poetry. See, I write poetry but then someone should read it. Today, a new collection of poetry is published almost every day, but there are few readers. Even if you lend someone a book, it’s not expected she would read it. The new generation of Kashmiris, those in school, colleges and universities, don’t have much inclination towards the Kashmiri language. It’s not really their fault; they have not been taught and trained in this language. In a way, the Kashmiri language and those who speak it are looked down upon now. People feel proud speaking in Urdu and other languages even if they don’t speak those well. I feel sad thinking that our recognition and of the Kashmiri language should have come from these young people.
If there are no readers for Kashmiri poetry, what is the fun of writing it? Although there are people, including youngsters, who are interested in Kashmiri poetry, their number is small. Still, there is hope that maybe in the future the number of such people will increase. A modest movement is underway to promote Kashmiri language, led by organisations such as Adbi Markaz Kamraz. If they succeed in their effort, more people may find interest in the Kashmiri language.
Why don’t influential poets like you participate in Kashmir’s intellectual and political discourse?
Kashmir has no real tradition of what you call political poetry. There are bits and pieces of political poetry in Sheikh ul Alam’s work which speak about the times he lived in. Mostly, it is Sufi poetry that has dominated the Kashmiri literary landscape. And Sufi poetry is metaphysical, it doesn’t have much to do with the affairs of this world. This is one reason why our poets haven’t been part of the political discourse.
But it is not true that we don’t participate at all. Yes, poets don’t usually participate in protest demonstrations and rallies. But whenever we felt it was necessary to do so, we didn’t hesitate. For the cause of the Kashmiri language, many of us, men and women, sat on a dharna in Pratap Park for a week. And that result was that the Kashmiri language was introduced in primary classes. Recently, there was a political rally I participated in. It’s not necessary to mention where. A leader had complained that poets aren’t part of the political discourse, so I read a nazm there. They were surprised to hear the nazm in which I talk about the Azadi movement at length. The nazm is called Khak-e-Karbala.
In fact, there is vast collection of political poetry in Kashmiri. Mehjoor and Abdul Ahad Azad were political poets as was Dina Nath Nadim. Mehjoor and Azad were among the first to represent Kashmir’s political reality in their poems. Mehjoor told the Kashmiri people of our history. He showed that we are not a small people, that we have a rich history and culture. In contemporary times, we have Zareef Ahmad Zareef, almost all whose poetry is political. Others have written a lot of what we call resistance poetry, especially since 1947, like Amil Kamil. I, too, have tried my hand at resistance poetry. But then if people don’t read, what can we do?
It’s said that almost every day a language dies somewhere in the world because there is no speaker left. If the same happens to Kashmiri, then what good is the work of Rehman Rahi, Dina Nath Nadim or Mehjoor?
Are you worried about the future of the Kashmiri language and poetry?
I am worried, but I’m not sad because new writers are emerging and there are still readers who are passionate about Kashmiri literature. Many books have appeared critiquing and appreciating the work of poets like me. They realise that writing in Kashmiri is a serious affair and should be engaged with accordingly. Sadly, our children in schools and colleges don’t consider Kashmiri literature worthy of their interest and attention.
If only Kashmiris realised how rich our language is, we would work for its promotion day and night. The best thing is that Kashmiri isn’t a restrictive language. At times, there was no word available in Kashmiri to convey what I wanted to, and there wasn’t one to borrow from Persian, Sanskrit or Urdu. But such is the nature of our language that I could made new words, and they were not only accepted but appreciated.
For the Kashmiri nation to survive in the true sense, the Kashmiri language has to survive. Otherwise we will be a soulless nation.
Is there anyone among the younger crop of Kashmiri poets who you think holds promise?
There are many. They aren’t young poets, but they are my younger contemporaries. Rafiq Saaz is an excellent poet. There are limitations with his oeuvre, of course, but he is a genuine poet who will contribute a great deal to Kashmiri literature. There is Shafi Shauq, who has been a professor at the University of Kashmir. Shad Ramzan is another fine poet. Shahnaz Rashid is another promising poet.
I have, in fact, written a verse about Rafiq Raaz in one of my books.
Rafiq Raaz chu muchraan tilismii khanan barr
Sarood khan chiss sormi nazar ti khamosh hi
There are limitations to his poetry because he got too concerned about the technicalities of it. He, thus, restricted himself.
Shahnaz Rashid writes both ghazals and nazms. He didn’t write nazms but I pushed him a bit and he wrote some brilliant nazms. Ghulam Rasool Josh from Charar-e-Sharief is another excellent poet.
There are excellent poetesses as well. Ruksana Jabeen writes in both Kashmiri and Urdu while Naseem Shafaie writes in Kashmiri alone. Shafaie has received an award from the Sahitya Academy.
Kashmiris have produced great poetry because they have faced such oppression. Sufi poetry, in fact, was a response to the deplorable conditions of our people. Today, though, there are few genuine Sufi poets in Kashmir.
How do you see the rise of Narendra Modi in India and now Yogi Adityanath? What does it portend for Kashmir?
There is always reason to worry when men of narrow thought come to power. They might think they are right in themselves, but they are not. Take Modi, he is a Hindutva man and he might think Hindutva is a great philosophy. To an extent that is fine if he or other Indians feel Hindutva gives them some historical identity, they have some sort of past to live up to. But it becomes problematic when it adopts a narrow-vision of politics. If we don’t accept the narrow politics of some Muslim leaders who believe that Muslims are the only great community, how can I accept Hindutva?
Another problem with the current polity is the notion that our party should win by hook or crook. In my younger days, the youth used to look up to the parties as philosophical bastions; they were attracted to them mainly because they the party had some philosophical ideas to offer. I, for one, was attracted to the communist ideology and became a member of the Communist Party in Kashmir. I really thought they had something new to offer, some new idea. I was disillusioned later and today I can’t call myself a follower of Marx. But then, it did seem that Marx was saying something that no one before had articulated.
With the coming to power of these people, if the Kashmiri identity is attacked, I will oppose it. The Kashmiri identity has some peculiar characteristics which should be protected.
We often hear of the killings in Kashmir, that someone was shot on the roadside or someone was shot while buying essentials. We also hear of men entering homes and killing people. I just remembered a verse. There is a word in this couplet, “mogjaar”, which means freedom.
Parwardigar’e saane ti mogjaar mekh karam
Kath poshe waare baaghe barikh boale badle bamm
Wech aasi daare lyie, ti pellet gun aechen pharrem
Shah taan kruuth pyom pepper krath seene dam
This was written during last year’s uprising, on 28 September. I saw a picture of a young girl who had been blinded and it moved me, made me cry. There is tremendous oppression here and we must raise our voice against it. As a poet, this is my protest against it. I can’t do anything else.
Did you ever think of returning your award when artists across India were doing so to protest curbs on artistic and intellectual freedom? If not, why?
Had I been given any awards by the government, I would have returned them. But the awards I have received are from literary organisations like Sahitya Academy, Jnanpith or Kabeer Samaan. These are not awards from politicians. Why should I return them?
When I got the Jnanpith, journalists asked me how I felt. I told them frankly that with this award, the Kashmiri language has moved forward. Whether I, as a poet, have moved forward or not, the Kashmiri language definitely has. This was recognition of Kashmiri language. Why should I reject it? How can I reject it?
Kashmir witnessed a bloody summer in 2016 during which nearly a hundred people were killed by government forces and hundreds lost eyesight. But there was no word from Kashmir’s greatest living poet? What was the reason for your silence?
It is totally wrong to say that I have been silent. I have written many poems in protest, not just last year but also in the 1990s. I have written many poems about the oppression in Kashmir and the resistance as well. Not just me, many poets have been actively writing.
I will recite a poem I wrote in 1990 and you tell me whether the accusations against me hold any truth. I once recited this poem at a political rally. I told the gathering they weren’t truly aware of what was happening, that they might be in politics but they didn’t know much. The poem is titled Khak-e-Karbala, or the dust of Karbala, which is used by the faithful to heal the wounds inflicted as part of marsiya during Moharram. I sent the poem to many prominent newspapers at that time but none published it. In my recent collection Kadla Thatis Peth (On a Bridge Pier), there are a few poems that expressly talk about the present political situation. It’s not my fault that people don’t read. What can I do about it?
I will recite some lines from Khak-e-Karbala:
Agar ni saanen chokken zabaan kanh
Magar yi rath gassi ni raaiygan zanh
Phezaar dyitan beshoar keatil
Yi daage laanath yi yas ni challnai
Yi rath mushuk saar boambran hyund
Yi rath haya mand yemburzal’an hyund
Yi rath talatum jawaan johdun
Yi rath tafazul qayaam ohad’uk
Yi rath ba faize Hussain khoda joo
Yi rath ba fazle khoda sorakh ruu
Yi rath chu baarav divan buuziv
Shaheed qoamuk bayaan boeziv
Setha setha kaal annigaetis manz preyn gulami
Lalluv bye sakh zuv zante zahar heattis manz
Setha setha kaal chaangi dod rath
Na aayi kanh ath na draayi kanh wath
Zamaan woth nindri aes wathav na
Cztaan chi zanjeer aes chattav na
Bedaar ehsaas prazznatte gov
Choppyear Azadi hyund talab pyov
Dua mongukh aes ti gash sarrhev
Chu kya lyeakith laani, pane parhev
Shurren muqabal sippah treavikh
Machine gun kotran chalevikh
Su foaj koachan ti angnan manz
Mahali jang zan ti bazran manz
Jawaan thod woth ti gueel siinas
Buzargh broah poak ti prathh jabeenas
Aennis dopukh woth kuthen muchar barr
Kaellis dopukh raam naam sathe parr
Saleem maerikh Salaam moarukh
Habib moarukh Hishaam moarukh
Hu beang balai baam moarukh
Yi muktidu ko imam moarukh
Yi shahar moaruk yi gaam moarukh
Kasheere hund subah sham moarukh
Agar ni sannen chokken zabaan kanh
Magar yi rath gassi ni raiy ganh zanh
Yi rath amanat chu Karbala huk
Yi rath tas ni tehreer inqilab’uk
Zamaan hargah pricchev haqeeqat
Dapyus reashe maale ker bagawat
I have recited this poem at many places, even in the presence of resistance leaders. There are five-six collections of my poetry that have poems about the present conditions, and about my fundamental concern, which is of a man in this universe.
Let me also share some of the verses from Kadla Thatis Peth.
Moarukh ti moar keym ti matte ma chu kanh hyevaan
Aaa yedd karaan chus bitti magar bithi ross nikaab hyoth
These verses are for a Mujahid:
Temis thippi kaane manz nazar gov nabb
Temis thippi kaane rath chavan kota math
Yeymi khanjar korrum paiwass jigras
Mye teas doikhear karnavan kota math
This depicts the mass graves in Kashmir:
Allarwin koh mallar manzar samandar
Khatith kabran watith thavan kotamath
Yi myen aatyel zyev pataal baavyekh
Dillas manz chum ye dyev savan kotameth
Do you think an artist, poet or writer should be distanced from the political life of the place he belongs to?
One cannot stay aloof at all. Politics is like air, it reaches everywhere. In Kashmir, if a man goes to a baker’s and finds that the size of the bread is not what he expected, politics over it will start: ‘Yi ha kor hindustaanan (This is India’s handiwork)’ (laughs). What happens in Kashmir on a day to day basis can make an artist politically conscious. But the artist or the poet doesn’t have to become a politician. He has to remain a poet. What does being a poet mean? It shouldn’t be only translating experience into verse but to present it in such a way so that the reader sees himself/herself through that experience.
Poets can’t remain distanced from the politics of their place but they shouldn’t become victims of the politics. It’s one thing to do poetry and another to do sloganeering. Mehjoor and Azad did some bit of sloganeering, but they wrote wonderful poetry. Mehjoor’s most popular poem Wala Ha Bagwano is more a slogan than poetry. Azad was an avowed Marxist; he used to agitate for farmer’s rights. They were great poets, yet political.
What do you think is the role of a writer or intellectual in a place like Kashmir, where large-scale violations of human rights are the order of the day?
The primary role of a writer or poet is to agitate and protest through his craft alone. His role is to move the reader, to make him feel the agony. The poet doesn’t report -- that is the journalist’s job. The journalist explains that this person was killed in these circumstances; the poet’s job is to depict the killing as if it happened in front of the reader, as if the reader himself was being killed. The living reality of a poem should move the soul of the reader.
To accomplish, the craft and imagination of the poet or writer is the key. The role of the poet is creation, or takhleeq – he should make the written word a living reality.