The ‘Sacred’ Seminar

Thirteen years after poet Agha Shahid Ali’s death Kashmir University finally dedicated a seminar to the ‘national poet’. But as things unfolded Bilal Handoo found out that Shahid’s presence was nothing more than a tagline in the promotional banners

Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali

It was unlike any other seminar organised by University of Kashmir (KU). On March 17, roughly 13 years after the death of Kashmiri English poet, Agha Shahid Ali, the varsity had “dedicated” three day seminar to him. The organisers had propagated the event by calling it “international” in the memory of “beloved national poet”. But as the seminar ended three days after, many things were left unexplained. Especially, when out of total 31 papers presented in the seminar; only one analyzed Shahid’s collection!

It was a cloudy day when the seminar started. The campus was looking dull. But it had not affected the enthusiasm of those who had assembled to witness the day when valley’s highest seat of learning was about to ‘own’ what they had skipped so far.

But soon many eyebrows were raised when instead of “international”, the seminar turned out to be “national”. And, the “beloved poet” was given a small mention at the bottom-line of the banner. The seminar titled ‘Literature and the Sacred: Legacies, Issues and the Path Ahead’ didn’t offer a glimpse of what was highlighted earlier: “the beloved national poet”.

But perhaps, the next three days had more to offer than what met the eye!

At about 11 am, the seminar began. The auditorium which bears the name of M K Gandhi was about to house the discourse on the ‘resistance poet’ of the valley. It was altogether a different feeling among the audience—mostly comprising of students, scholars, civil society members, paper presenters and a bulk chunk of those who were fuelled by Shahid’s verses. Most of them had set their eyes on the portrait of their beloved poet placed at the bottom of the dais.

The inaugural speech was delivered. The speech reflected the essence of Rumi, Ghalib, Jürgen Habermas and Karl Marx. But the only missing link in the speech—spanned over 10 minutes, was Shahid!

And then, the director of the seminar and the head of English department stood up to speak. In her fiery address, which made students to burst into frequent applause, Prof Hameedah Nayeem didn’t miss to mention Shahid.

“I welcome you all in the land of blood,” the very line set the adrenalin rush among the audience. And then, she hit the target. Shahid was heard for the first time in the seminar. “Shahid was in continuous search of sacred,” Prof Hameedah said. The very next moment, she detailed the influence of Ghalib and Faiz on Shahid’s poetry.

The exit of Prof Hameedah from the dais cleared the entry of Prof GR Malik, a former head of the English department that hosted the seminar. In his key note address, he kept explaining: what is sacred? To trace the same, he touched works of literary giants like HL Gates, TS Elliott—whom he termed as “conscious rebels”. Prof Malik, however, left many upset in the audience by skipping Shahid. “It is fine to mention anybody, but why to exclude Shahid?” One among the many in audience asked. “Aren’t Shahid’s works sacred enough to find a mention in the seminar which aims to highlight the sacred legacies of literature?”

Hameeda-Nayeem
Prof Hameedah Nayeem

And then, a guest of honour of the seminar, Prof ML Raina replaced Prof Malik at the dais. A former faculty member at department of English KU, Prof Raina made an apparent impact on audience with his brief speech. But this “grandson of the soil” too left the dais without speaking any word about Shahid!

Kashmiri poets Rehman Rahi and Zareef Ahmad Zareef shortly recited their poems in Kashmiri, which created an instant awe among the audience. At the end of inaugural session, KU’s vice chancellor, Prof Talat Ahmad delivered a small talk. But even, he too steered clear from Shahid!

As the lunch break was announced, many students with placards in their hands had assembled outside the venue. “Don’t play with our future,” read one of the placards. But pleas of protesting students got drowned into the soared literary tempers!

When the second session started, the venue got shifted from auditorium to the conference room. The space constraint inside the conference room left many on their toes, besides compelling some to leave the venue. Paper presentations started. Some five papers were presented in that session. Each paper attempted to explain ‘sacred’ in different ways. The first day ended without any more mention of Shahid.

The second day began in the conference room. The eminent art critic, Keshav Malik presented the first paper of the day. Apart from detailing the essence of sacred, he pointed out: “Ignorance about yourself is the worst.”

Behind him Shahid’s portrait was hung on the wall. Donned in black gown, Shahid was quietly witnessing the proceedings in the room where everyone was discussing ‘sacred’ threadbare. He kept gazing the sea of faces in the room by placing his right hand on left hand.

Prof Nishat Zaidi of Jamia Millia Islamia’s department of English mentioned Shahid first time on the second day. She presented her paper on the late poet, attempting to analyse his poetry. “Shahid paves way for a new vocabulary of the sacred,” she said. And then, she was asserting: “Whether sacred becomes a secular!”

Later when the stage was thrown open for the discussion, one paper presenter from Aligarh Muslim University quizzed: How much Shahid is Indian, American and something else? Another one chipped in: Position of marginalisation becomes position of resistance! It was her way to sum up the poetry of Shahid. But then, she was soon informed that the late poet’s position is the position of empowerment. “Shahid was in search of identity,” Prof Malik eased out some confusion in the room. “The poet himself didn’t know that he had an identity!”

After momentarily debate, the focus on ‘sacred’ resumed. One of the paper presenters left many intrigued by saying, “I need to understand the sacred. And sacred need to dance before me!” Perhaps, he was asking for too much. Nobody heeded. Mere looks of astonishment followed.

And then, another paper presenter was searching ‘sacred’ in Hindu scriptures. The paper talked about Draupati (wife of five Pandavas) by quoting the Hindu scripture, Mahabharta. One more paper was presented before the day ended.

The third and the last day began with a paper ‘I want my God back and they send me a Girl’. It was presented by Dr Ashu Vashisht of Jammu University. Apart from everything else, she said: “I was too good and that is why, they hated me!” The very assertion lifted many eyes towards Shahid’s portrait in the room. And soon, the end of the seminar was announced.

At last, the director of the seminar, Prof Hameedah recited Shahid’s poem ‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’:

“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning…

While walking out of the seminar room, one faculty member of the varsity summed up the seminar something like this: “Look, Shahid was the resistance poet who is loved by all—as he sided with oppressed, and not with the oppressor! He was true to peoples’ movement. In fact, the Indian government tried to engage him, but they never met any success. But now, when you are terming him ‘beloved national poet’ then you should substantiate the same claim. Shahid must be smiling in his grave if it is true! But I guess, it is too much to ask. He has been called so in the heat of the moment. It is akin to say that Dr Mohammad Iqbal has been finally accepted as the national poet of India which is next to impossible! Because India believes Pakistan is Iqbal’s brainchild.”

However, Prof Hameedah candidly asserted that her department did break the ice on Shahid. “Now, many might ask why there was the least mention about Shahid in the seminar and many questions like that,” she said. “But let me tell them, that the seminar was just a dedication and not about Shahid! We are coming up with an exclusive seminar on the poet in September. And yes, I can’t shut up naysayers!”

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