Rekindling Persian Past

Persian literature contains an immense treasure of Kashmiri culture and history almost totally obliterated from the present realm. But, as Majid Maqbool reports, there is a renewed interest in the language in students at school, college and university levels that is likely to generate an appetite to excavate meanings from the Persian language.

Once the official language of Kashmir, Persian is witnessing a resurgence of sorts in Kashmir as more youth show interest in Persian studies, opting to study the language at college and university levels. This is an attempt to reconnect with Kashmir’s rich but largely ignored literary and cultural history in the Persian language.

The renewed interest in Persian comes at a time when this language and its heritage literature remain neglected at the hands of the successive governments, suffering a slow and quiet death in Kashmir, especially during the past two decades of conflict. Scholars say thousands of Persian manuscripts, which form a wealth of Kashmir’s literary history, remain unpublished and untranslated, thus depriving Kashmiris of their literary and cultural history extensively documented in the Persian language.

The increased interest in the Persian language can be found at the higher secondary and college levels too. The teachers of the Persian language say that the trend among students of taking up Persian as a subject has picked up in the past few years. In Bemina Degree College, for example, more than 150 students are studying Persian at present. “Day by day the interest is increasing among youth as they want to know about their history as chronicled in Persian. They want to read Persian literature and Kashmiri Persian poets like Ghani Kashmiri,” says Prof Abid Gulzar, head of the department of Persian at Bemina Degree College.

This is what the University of Kashmir looks like after the authorities banned the entry of pollution-creating vehicles into the campus. The faculty has supported the ban.

At the university level too, the subject is attracting more students in recent years. In the Persian Department of the University of Kashmir, the total intake capacity is 55 students in open merit, and there are 22 seats available on payment.  Every year the department gets students for all the open merit and the payment seats as well. The department also offers short and part-time courses in Persian studies for outside candidates and professionals interested in the language.

The Persian language is intertwined with the history of Kashmir. It remained the official language in Kashmir from the first quarter of the eighth century right up to 1947.

In the past, Persian was also a part of the school curriculum in Kashmir from the primary level. However, after 1947 Persian was sidelined and Urdu, also prevalent then, replaced Persian as the official language of the state. This proved to be disastrous for the Persian language as it was no longer taught at the school level, and its learning started to decline.

Prof Abid believes the best literature ever produced in Kashmir is in the Persian language.  “We have abundant Persian literature in all the fields, in fields like astronomy, astrology, medicine, engineering and even in industrial knowhow – all written by Kashmiri Persian writers,” says Prof Abid, adding that all these texts are still untouched and no one has translated them for people to know about their rich literary history in Persian. He says the language was the court language in the past and all the official, land and revenue documents were in Persian. “Even till the 1970s and 80s, people here knew Persian. They could read and write in Persian,” he says.

Many Kashmiri Persian scholars and teachers see a deliberate attempt on part of the government to ignore Kashmir’s rich cultural and literary history in Persian by keeping it away from the masses. A scholar says Kashmiri children know about the history of other states but they are kept unaware of their own cultural and literary history.

“In the past, at the school level we used to have Kashmir History and Kashmir Geography as B paper in the social sciences subject,” says Prof Abid. The NCERT syllabus taught in schools in Kashmir has completely ignored Kashmir’s history and geography. “In their texts, they teach kids here that Kashmir is an integral part of Indian union and that Shaivism has emerged from Kashmir and spread to the rest of India,” said a Persian language scholar who wished to remain anonymous.

Iranian delegation in Kashmir

Kashmir was known as Iran-e-sageer and scholars and Persian poets from central Asia and Iran would frequently visit the valley. Some even stayed back and lived in Kashmir and made it their home. There were frequent cultural and economic exchanges through the traditional silk route that was closed after 1947. “The new generation of Kashmiris perhaps doesn’t know that we have cultural and literary proximity to central Asia and countries like Turkistan, Tajikistan, Iran etc,” says Prof Abid. “All these countries were on our trade route and an integral part of our economy as well,” he adds. He says Kashmir was the last part of central Asia and a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia for eight centuries.

There was a lot of Persian literature lying in the homes of many families in the valley. Prof Abid says a lot of those Persian manuscripts were lost in the past two decades of conflict. “In the 1990s when militancy erupted, during crackdowns and search operations, the military would question the presence of such literature in the homes,” he says. “Since people were afraid of keeping these texts at home, it is a fact that hundreds of manuscripts in Persian were consigned to the rivers at the peak of the conflict in the 1990s,” he says.

“Allama Iqbal(RA) says about Hazrat Amir-e- Kabeer(RA) that he was a multi-dimensional person and a visionary who created the [Persian] culture in Kashmir,” says Prof Abid. “When he came to Kashmir, he brought with him not only Ulemas, but a whole package of artisans, carpet weavers, paper machie and wood carving artisans, who spread their skills and created an economic base in the valley,” he says. “He knew that Kashmir has a long and harsh winter. So he brought with him skilled carpet weavers who could work inside their homes during winter months and pass on the craft to other people in the valley.”

Prof Abid says the destruction of Persian was particularly seen in the valley because it has been the centre of political activity in the past two decades of conflict. “I was posted in Doda and Kishtwar for two years and believe me hundreds of students there take up Persian subject and they would come to me to learn Persian because there the Persian legacy has continued,” he says.“Being a mountainous region and not of political importance, unlike the valley, the government was not worried about people there learning Persian,” Prof Abid points out.

Persian scholars and teachers say the ruling governments in the state knew that if Kashmiris learn Persian and have access to the wealth of their Persian literature, they will know their rich literary and cultural history, and then strongly assert their identity and question the powers that try to suppress their history.

“In schools here, Persian was taught from 6th to 10th standard and also at higher secondary level till as recently as the late 80s,” says Prof Abid. He says in the last 20 years Persian was taken out of the schools and kids were deprived of learning this language.  “Today most of the posts for Persian at school and higher secondary level are defunct or vacant. There are Sanskrit teachers working on Persian posts in some government schools,” he adds.

The need to return to Kashmir’s rich literary history in Persian, in order to seek answers about Kashmir’s present and future, is echoed by many others scholars. “Azaadi is a Persian word. This is something for which we must own responsibility. We first learn of azaadi as azaadi in Firdausi and Rumi. We must search for azaadi, our own Kashmiri future, in our abandoned pasts…and the only paths left for us to our pasts are Persian Kashmiri, Arabic and Sanskrit,” says Abir Bashir Bazaz, a doctoral student in Asian Literatures, Cultures and Media at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US. He is working on his dissertation on the intellectual history of mysticism in Kashmir. “The history of spirituality (and the struggle for freedom) is a history of hopes…in our region, these are bound up with Persian, Kashmiri, Arabic and Sanskrit,” says Abir.

As more and more Kashmiris hear the call of freedom, Abir says, we will see many turning to the study of Persian. “The movement and the call to return to the Kashmiri language must also be a movement to return to languages beyond nationalism…to return to Persian and Sanskrit,” he says.

Abir says Kashmir’s most famous Persian language poet, Ghani Kashmiri, is fundamental to an understanding of the relations between self and politics which has guided Kashmiri thinking for centuries. “The only reason such a powerful thinking on the question of self, sovereignty and politics is inaccessible to us is because we do not know Persian,” says Abir. “The only reason Iqbal’s thinking on Kashmir remains only vaguely understood is because we do not know Persian. There is a whole history of Persian literature in Kashmir – by the Hindus and the Muslims – which is fast disappearing from our cultural memory,” he cautions.

Abir believes that the destruction of languages which has been at work in approaching them as a ‘means of communication’ is the fundamental problem in Kashmir. “We cannot hear the Saying in azaadi because we have already taken it to merely mean a word. To learn or know a language is something other than merely gathering information about it (as linguists do): it is to be claimed by the claim language makes on us,” he explains. “I would go as far as to say that if we must hear the saying in azaadi, we can no longer avoid Persian.”

Prashant Keshavmurthy, an Assistant Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies in the   Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal, visited Kashmir this year and interacted with many Persian scholars. He found that Persian (once the language of the state and one of the privileged languages for literature in Kashmir) is little understood in Kashmir today if remembered with distant admiration. “Even more than in India where, too, Persian was similarly cultivated until the mid 19th century, Kashmir has been doubly estranged from its Persian literary heritage,” he pointed out in a recent article on Ghani Kashmiri.

Prashant says putting together a team of scholars and translators who would seek funding for and prepare Kashmiri, English, Urdu and Hindi translations of major Persian works from Kashmir would be a good beginning to reviving the Persian language and literature in Kashmir. “This might allow such translations to be studied and taught in schools and universities besides allowing illiterate and semi-literate people to enjoy listening to them being read from on radio and elsewhere,” he says.

Prashant believes any political struggle (think of intellectuals writing in Urdu after 1857 for example) risks claiming a textual past in polemical, chauvinistic falsifying ways. “The translation project constantly vetted by a team of scholars might be a good guard against this tendency,” he says. “The resulting editions and translations would, I think, help Kashmiri and other readers grasp that a critical intellectual and aesthetic response to the violence of Indian nationalism is not a re-assertion of one’s own nationalism in reaction but a retrieval of literary identities that were pre-nationalistic and that imagined Kashmir as part of a cosmopolitan, multi-lingual and multi-religious Islamicategeographical continuum that stretched from Iran through Afghanistan to Kashmir with a constant openness to intellectual traffic from India,” explains Prashant.

“Persian language is in our blood. In the past, people would inscribe Ghani’s verses on graves. Even today some people write tareehk-e-wafat on graves in farsi,” says Prof Abid. In Tehran University, he says, the most learned Persian scholar is given the honour to teach Ghani Kashmiri’s poetry. “And here we don’t know about his poetry and can’t read it because we are deprived of this language that was once part of our self,” he says. “Today you will find a heap of dirt on Ghani Kashmiri’s grave here,” he laments.

Prof Abid says that when Aurangzeb called Ghani Kashmir to Agra, offering to honour him as his court poet, Ghani sent back a message: Tell him that Ghani has turned mad.  Days after he declined the invitation, it is believed that Ghani passed away. “He would see them as occupation forces and he never went to the darbar of any ruler. He didn’t want to be honoured by the occupiers. He is perhaps the only Kashmiri poet who never wrote a Qaseeda for any government officer or ruler,” says Prof Abid. “He was a resistance poet and a true Kashmiri nationalist,” he says.

“Whenever Ghani would leave home, he would keep the door and windows open,” says Prof Abid. Ghani is also known to have thrown his works into the river. “He was like that, he was bayniyaaz,” says Prof Abid. “One of his students, Muslim, then collected his verses and compiled them into what we know as Deewan-e-Ghani,” he says.

Dr Mufti Mudasir, who teaches English in Kashmir University’s English Department, is translating the Persian poetry of Ghani Kashmiri for the first time into English for Penguin India. Part of the Penguin classics, the book will be published next year by Penguin.

“We have a very long history of Persian in Kashmir,” says Dr Mudasir. “Kashmir produced countless scholars of Persian. Persian was the official language even in the first few years of the twentieth century,” he says. “In fact, Kashmir was known as Iran-e-sageer because of its cultural, linguistic ad religious affinity with Persia.”

Mufti Mudasir got interested in Persian when he found that although the Kashmiri language has found some kind of resurgence in the past few years, but that is not the case with Persian literature. He believes the language barrier is the greatest obstacle for us to read our Persian literature. “Because we don’t know the language, we can’t read our Persian literature,” he says. “Old people will tell you that they used to be taught Persian in School during their times.”

Mudasir got interested in GhaniKashmiri primarily through Allama Iqbal. “The dewaan of Ghani that we have today can easily be ranked as the best with any other indo-Persian poet,” he says.“In fact, Ghani’s dewaan was published more than eleven times in India by Naval Kishore,” he points out.

A seventeenth-century poet who lived during the time of rulers like Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, Dr Mudasir says Ghani Kashmiri was a very famous poet of his times and his poetry was read throughout India, and even outside India. “Ghani talked about his personal poverty and the poverty of people. And he talked about the repressive regimes, of course in a figurative and metaphorical language,” says Mudasir. “Like at one point, Ghani says: “The falcons are picking up the feathers of the pigeons…” “It’s very possibly a veiled reference to the oppression people were facing in Kashmir at that time,” explains Dr Mudasir.

In his book, Dr Mudasir has touched upon Ghani’s life and poetry in a 45-page introduction, followed by a translation of some of his selected Ghazals. “Ghani was primarily a creator of meanings,” he says. “His ability to condense complex and rich meanings in a verse is something remarkable about his poetry,” he says, adding that Ghani is primarily a mazmoonnigar (Essayist) with a marvellous ability to create fresh meanings.  “In my introduction, I talk about how Ghani uses a single image of a bubble, and he can create at least ten different meanings out of it,” says Mudasir.

Mufti Mudasir says what is important for him is how Ghani has been received by a poet like Allama Iqbal. For Iqbal, he says, Ghani is a symbol of the Islamic concept of faqr or poverty which was a characteristic feature of Ghani. Iqbal says Ghani eulogized poverty. Iqbal very interestingly uses Ghani’s voice as a voice of resistance in Javiadnama. “Iqbal puts these words in the mouth of Ghani in his dramatic poem, and says that he finds Ghani as a representative for the sufferings of Kashmiris,” says DrMudasir.

Mufti Mudasir says there is a need to publish the rich deewans of Kashmir’s Persian poets. Besides Ghani, he says, there are many other Persian poets like Mullah MohsinFani and MullaBadakshietc, whose works should be brought in the public domain. “Fani’s four masnavees have been published by the cultural academy in the past, but where is his dewaan of ghazals?” he asks. “We need these works so that we can have access to this rich Persian literature that is forgotten,” says Mudasir. “Some scholars need to work and combine the authentic works of these Persian poets and then get them translated,” he says. “We should make the works of our Persian poets available to our people.”

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