When 22-year-old Touqeer Ashraf arrived in Srinagar for his education, he was struck by the way people spoke.
“Not only young people, I saw even the elderly talking to the young in Urdu,” said Ashraf, a postgraduate student of geology at the University of Kashmir.
In his native village of Goosu Pulwama, in Pulwama district, the medium of conversation was Kashmiri. “But in the city, I saw people who speak in the language being derisively called ‘gaamik’ [rustic],” said Ashraf, who has been living in Srinagar since last year.
This lack of respect for his native language bothered Ashraf.
To draw more people to the language, Ashraf turned to the pioneers of Kashmiri literature. In early 2021, he started a YouTube channel Keashur Praw, the shimmering light of Kashmiri, which posts short videos of Kashmiri poetry. They are slickly shot, usually not longer than 30 seconds, overlaid with Ashraf’s voice and some background music.
Ashraf started with the poetry of Kashmir’s 14th century Sufi mystic, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani. Then, the works of other stalwarts of Kashmiri literature and mysticism like Mahmood Gami, Rasul Mir, Lal Ded and Mehjoor followed.
He was taken aback by the response. His YouTube channel has more than 16,000 subscribers with a collective viewership of all his videos touching nearly 2 million views. On Instagram, ‘Keashur Praw’ has more than 1 lakh subscribers.
“The response is extremely good,” said Ashraf. “Kashmiris based outside India and even non-Kashmiris reach out to me.”
For Ashraf, the emphasis is on introducing an older, “purer” form of Kashmiri to the new generation. “The Kashmiri we speak is not pure but a mixture,” he said. “There are Kashmiri words used by our older generation which our generation doesn’t understand. I want to introduce people to that pure Kashmiri.”
Like Ashraf, a handful of language enthusiasts is using social media to draw the younger generation towards Kashmiri language and culture and to connect them to their roots.
Archive for the future
In 2021, Muneer Ahmad Dar, a school teacher from Kashmir’s Budgam district, posted a series of videos on the ox-driven mills of Kashmir and their process of oil extraction. Four or five decades ago, the mills were the main source of high-quality cooking oil in Kashmir.
“The video was shared by more than 40,000 people,” said Dar. Till date, the videos have been viewed more than 4.4 million views on Facebook.
Another video, which was widely viewed on YouTube, is a tour de history of a seven-storied traditional Kashmiri house in Srinagar.
All of his content, Dar says, is in chaste Kashmiri and aims to shed light on the traditional and cultural objects and artefacts of the Valley – from the rich variety of furnishings used in Kashmir in the past or the origins of certain Kashmiri idioms.
“I am not doing this for short-term purposes,” said Dar. He said he wishes to build a visual archive of Kashmir’s traditional culture for the future generations. “I want my content to be a source of information for the future generations of Kashmir so that when these things no longer exist, they are able to have a glimpse of the past.”
Dar’s Facebook page Muneer Speaks has more than 3.25 lakh followers. On YouTube, his content goes under the banner of a channel, “Mr Koshur”, which has more than 39,000 followers. “I am on Instagram, too, but I use that platform only to post short teasers about my videos,” he said.
His focus on cultural aspects of Kashmir in his native language has won Dar fans from across the globe. One section which has ardently praised his work is the diaspora of Kashmiris. “I recently received an email from a Kashmiri based in the United States, who said they show my videos on Saturdays to their kids to help them connect with their roots.”
A dying language?
Anxiety about the future of the Kashmiri language is not new.
More than 7 million people in Jammu and Kashmir speak Kashmiri, according to the 2011 census.
However, not many can read or write the language even though its script is similar to that of Urdu and Arabic – the other two languages almost every Kashmiri is familiar with owing to his religious and school education.
Ashraf, for example, studied Kashmiri as an additional subject till Class VIII. “After that, I sort of lost contact with the language,” he said.
Young people are more eager to learn non-native languages like English and Urdu, and the inability to read the language is a barrier to engage with Kashmiri culture first hand.
Many blame the governments lack of seriousness in promoting the language. Even though Kashmiri has for long been among the 22 official languages of India under the Eighth Schedule of Indian Constitution, the language was declared one of the five official languages of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir only in 2020.
A few years ago, when 25-year-old Asif Tariq Bhat approached some publishers with the draft of his maiden Kashmiri novel, every publisher turned him down. One local publisher’s retort was shocking. “They told me they don’t publish Kashmiri books as nobody is interested in reading them,” said Bhat, a student of Kashmiri language at Central University of Kashmir.
For someone who has consciously chosen Kashmiri as a medium of expression, the struggle to find a publisher for his work was a telling sign of the place of the Kashmiri language in society.
Bhat’s persistence was rewarded eventually, especially after the draft was praised by several well-known Kashmiri language writers. “I submitted a synopsis of my novel along with the critical appreciation of my novel with a publisher. He agreed to publish my work on a condition that I bear some cost of publication myself,” he added.
Even though only around 450 copies of his maiden novel, Khwaban Khayalan Manz, were published, Bhat’s work was well-received.
‘Language is essentially speech’
But there are those who say the Kashmiri language is not endangered as long as people speak it, and it keeps on updating itself with time.
“Languages are essentially speech,” said Shafi Shauq, an authority on Kashmiri language, who has authored more than 100 books in English, Kashmiri, Urdu and Hindi. “There are thousands of languages in the world which don’t have scripts. But I wish every Kashmiri could read and write the Kashmiri language.”
He said Kashmiri will continue to be a living language as long as it continues to accommodate new words. “Every language changes with time in response to the cultural contact of the people who speak it,” he said. “That speaks of the growth and health of the Kashmiri language.”
Bhat, for example, is willing to experiment even as he remains adamant about producing literature in his native language.
His second novel is almost complete, pending some editing. “I know people don’t read these days. And when it comes to Kashmiri, not many can,” he said.
That is why Bhat has decided to take his novel to a wider audience in a different form. “I am in talks with some social media platforms where I can publish an audiobook of my novel so that Kashmiris who are unable to read the script, can grasp it,” he said. “I feel if you listen to something in your native language, it seeps into your heart.”