Kashmiri poets have eulogised the Kashmiri woman through their poetry over the years, be it Mahjoor’s Greesy Koor (The Peasant’s Daughter), Fazil’s Kraala Koor (The Potter’s Daughter), Roshan’s Shaheed Sunz Maij (The Martyr’s Mother) or Nadim’s Dal Haanzni Hond Vatsun (The Song of the Boatwoman). As Trilokinath Raina wrote, “it would seem that each daughter of the soil can now boast of more than one poem composed on her.”
In spite of the fact that I couldn’t find a single poem about a poetess of Kashmir, they hardly need an introduction. Any Kashmiri can count them on finger tips soaked in the rich stories surrounding the lives of the wandering women who created poetry out of their miseries and revived forms every time a poem dropped from their throats.
Kashmiris recognise and remember Lal Ded’s vaakhs through voices rather than words on a paper. I too remember them in the voices of my grandmothers who were brought up during the times of oral traditions. Today Lalla exists twice over, in that same oral tradition, and in honed translations. She also remains a duality in search of a centre point.
Her translator Ranjit Hoskote writes that “she is an absence in the Kashmir of today”. For Kashmiris living outside the state, Kashmir resides in her vaakhs, sung by elders during an idle evening of a power cut in Trikuta Nagar.
The information about Lal Ded’s time and place of birth vary from historian to historian. Born in the fourteenth century in Sempore or possibly Pandrenthan, she was married off at the age of twelve. She lived miserably, thanks to her mother-in-law, and, at the age of twenty-six, renounced her life the way it was. Accounts suggest that the a “householder philosophy” was ingrained in Kashmiri society at that time, and people’s fear of renouncement meant that Lalla was subjected to doubtful glances as well as scrutinisation. Hoskote’s translated vaakh (Poem 123) sums up Lalla’s perspective through this scepticism:
Hermit or householder: same difference.— Poem 123, translated by Ranjit Hoskote
If you’ve dissolved your desires in the river of time,
you will see that the Lord is everywhere and is perfect.
As you know, so shall you be.
She became a disciple of the Saiva saint Siddha Srikanta, who led her towards a spiritual path. Her vaakhs driven by the Kashmir Shavism and, with time, Yogacara Buddhism, subsumed in her personal experiences and her eventual encounters with Sufism, achieved what no other renouncer or mystic poet of that period or after has been able to accomplish. Among her contemporaries, Nund Rishi was in awe of her vaakhs.
The poems acted as a bridge between philosophies at different ends of the spectrum. Indeed, the eventual polarisation among her followers within the Hindu and Muslim communities after the 1990s’ insurgency does nothing but defeat Lalla’s teachings. Hoskote remarks that she represents “a Kashmiri identity” if not “the Kashmiri identity” characterised as an instrument of mobilisation and consolidation (as Benedict Anderson put it). Perhaps she roams in search of the Kashmir that could resonate with the true purpose of her philosophy today. Passed down across generations, her vaakhs remain the proof that no one could claim or own her. In her words:
Wear just enough to keep the cold out,— Poem 80, translated by Ranjit Hoskote
Eat just enough to keep hunger from your door.
Mind, dream yourself beyond Self and Other.
Remember, this body is just picking for jungle crows.
With the dawn of the sixteenth century, the age of mysticism was gradually replaced by the yearning of the lover. It could very well be termed the age of human love. It marked a shift from the vaakh to the vatsun, short musical poems of 6-10 lines.
While Kashmir was caught between “two sunsets”, marking the end of two dynasties – the Shamiri Dynasty in 1554 and the Tsak Dynasty in 1587 – and battled with two languages – Persian and Sanskrit – as the language of the elite, Habba Khatoon, dubbed The Queen of Song by Raina, gave a new lease to Kashmiri through her vatsan. The period is termed The Age of Lyricism or The Vatsun Period in Kashmiri poetry.
Some legends claim that Habba Khatoon was a moderately educated and gifted singer discovered by the last Tsak king, Yusuf Shah, while she was fetching water from a river bank. But the facts as stated by Trilokinath Raina are that she was an accomplished and trained singer who sang in Tsak’s court. Until Shah’s imprisonment in Bihar on Akbar’s orders, Habba Khatoon spent six years performing, honing her knowledge of music and composed a now well-known raag, Rast Kashmiri, at Tsak’s palace. Her compositions were published in Soophiyaana Kalaam, a book of songs by professional court singers.
As a romantic poet, she first followed the traditional style of the vatsan, and then created a departure which breathed new life into the form. The intensity of emotions reflected in her verses was as universal as it was personal. She didn’t simply sing the ordeal of separation from the lover or their unfaithfulness, she was also simultaneously telling the listener’s story back to them. She also brought forth vivid images through the such as these:
He bared me to mid-winter frost,
Let the summer sun scorch me dry,
Made me wander like a wayward stream
He makes me languish night and day
I was a happy greenwood pine,— Translated by Trilokinath Raina
Till this callous woodsman chopped me down
And burnt each piece to ashes,
He makes me languish night and day
After Habba Khatoon’s death in 1605, it would be two centuries before Arnimaal would take her place as the worthy successor in romantic poetry in Kashmir. But the period in between, 1625-1721, marked the return of mysticism in Rupa Bhavani’s poetry. She came to be known as a saint poetess, with mastery over different languages, such as Kashmiri, Sanskrit, Persian and Hindustani. Her life ran similar to Lal Ded’s, in terms of an agonising early marriage but her family’s support and her father Madhav Joo Dhar’s spiritual guidance allowed her to grow as a poet.
Bhavani, too, renounced a life at home and came to be known as Alkeshwari. Her vaakhs weren’t published until later, travelling through the oral tradition instead. They received the influence of both Kashmir Shaivism and Sufism, and yet remain highly mystical because of their language.
They lack the simplicity of Lalla’s poetry and sometimes include obscure expressions which, according to Prem Nath Bazaz, “the devotees, afraid to incur the saint’s displeasure”, refuse to decipher or explain. Still, the themes of detachment and dissolutions of “self” stay true to the mystic tradition:
Selflessness is the sign of Selfless;— Translated by Trilokinath Raina
Bow down at the door of the Selfless.
The Selfless are the highest authority—
The Kings of the time and wearers of the crest and crown.
In the sixth decade of the eighteenth century, Arnimaal was born in a Kashmiri Pandit family belonging to the village Pala Haalan. She was married in childhood to Bhawani Das and grew up with him. But he drifted away from her after becoming a successful aristocrat. She found solace in poetry and revived the themes of love and longing in the vatsun tradition immortalised by Habba Khatoon.
Since Kashmiri poetry relied on the oral tradition, there have been questions of authorship over certain verses of every poet. Some of Lal Ded’s vaakhs are attributed to Nund Rishi and vice versa. In the case of vatsan as well, some of Arnimaal’s verses are sometimes credited to Habba Khatoon, but Trilokinath Raina creates a distinction between the two by highlighting the differences in styles, themes and tone of the verses.
He says that Arnimaal’s poetry largely remained melancholy while Habba Khatoon’s poems shuffled between the light and shade. Arnimaal’s vatsan are solely marked by unrequited love:
The pallor of fading flowers has fallen.— Translated by Trilokinath Raina
On the midsummer, jasmine bloom in me.
O when will these eyes see him again?
Modern Kashmiri poetry thrived in the twentieth century, but the voice of a poetess was absent in the crowd. She returned in the form of Retsh Ded, a saint poetess who was discovered in 1966, twelve years after her death. Born as Saenpat Devi, she wrote vaakhs that were recorded on paper by her daughter-in-law and later discovered by her son.
Ded was a widow who composed and recited her vaakhs while spinning yarn. Her poetry follows the traditional style of mystic poetry, and TN Kaul has attempted translations of a few vaakhs, but her work remains in need of further translations.
Books on Kashmiri modern poetry are filled with the names of poets like Zinda Kaul and Mahjoor, but I finally found a poetess among them as well. In 2011, Naseem Shafaie became the first Kashmiri woman to win the Sahitya Akademi award for Kashmiri literature. Her first collection of poems was published in 1999, and has since been translated into different regional languages as well as English, German, Italian and Korean.
As I read her poems and translated a few verses, I felt hopeful of one of the voids in Kashmiri poetry being filled. The poems that fearlessly speak for the women of the valley, their trials and tribulations, also present the devastation of Kashmir as the devastation of its women. Her style is remarkable for the simple reason that she combines a nostalgic tone with brutal honesty, leaving the reader with a metaphorical stab wound that can only be healed by reading another one of her poems.
Here are verses from two of her poems (for a single verse would be fatal).
When the neck is grabbed,— “I Could Never Understand”, translated by Neerja Mattoo
The throat must be offered,
When the questions are asked,
No answers must you give.
If a thought arises,
Crush it within –
I could never understand,
Is it right to laugh?
Is weeping forbidden?
Was a crime committed?
Is punishment due?
What might they not inscribe
On my fateline, when or where?
I could never understand,
I asked the rose, where is your scent?— 'The Garden', translated by Niyati Bhat
It said, “The autumn took it away.”
I asked the spring, why the lines on your forehead?
It said, “For my wounds have been salted.”
So I left the garden that once bloomed
And since then,
I wander, aimless.