Poetry that has emerged from Kashmir spans across mystical baeth, love songs, travel narratives, philosophical studies and dramas written in verse.
Since antiquity, questions of inspiration, poetic truth and the artistic voice have been of importance to human beings and debates on these subjects continue to this day.
Some thinkers have placed inspiration in divinity; Socrates, Hesiod and Homer claim that the poet is a vessel filled by God’s gift. Seneca drifts from this line of thinking by arguing that poetry is a harmonious piece of work that is created from dissonant elements.
Poetry was the primary educational tool in Ancient Greece and continued to enjoy that position well into the medieval era. Sir Philip Sydney, for instance, suggests that poetry can pave the way for virtuous action, and that its universality teaches virtue best.
In Kashmir as well, poetry has carried critical thinking and the political views of the public for centuries. The poetry that has emerged from Kashmir spans across mystical baeth, love songs, travel narratives, philosophical studies and dramas written in verse.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw poetry becoming a means of expressing public discontent with persisting tyranny. This has continued well into the twenty-first century. Poets from Kashmir explore the topographies of oppression, pain and grief in their work.
Not only does it continue to remain a cathartic means, it serves as a source of history for the future generations. The changes or lack thereof in the themes and styles of poetry reflect our society in an accessible manner. To explore the philosophies that some contemporary Kashmiri poets work with, their belief about artistic responsibilities and morality, we joined Ather Zia and Omair Bhat.
Language, Women in Art and Being a Witness
Former journalist and anthropologist Prof Ather Zia’s writing focuses on Kashmir and the ongoing political struggle. She locates her inspiration in “the life of the mind, heart, and soul and their interaction with the physical world and everything in it.”
On the question of creativity being a natural gift, she remarks, “Most of my poetry emerges from my homeland and its travails. As for artistic expression, I think the initial germ, or the first spark must be there. And if one can pin it down, it grows and flourishes with reading, practice, and experience. So, it is not a gift until one captures and chisels it.”
Ather delves into her unique voice and position as both an academic writer and a creative one by saying, “As an anthropologist, straddling the world of academic and creative writing – especially poetry, and expecting myself to stay true to it has been a challenge. To practice both, I draw inspiration from the genre of ethnographic poetry and fiction. This enables me to serve academic as well as literary writing. While not my own innovation, I would like to think that I serve it in my own unique way.”
As readers and writers of poetry, the question of native versus foreign or imposed languages is a persistent one. Ather comments on this complex, “Long back I used to write in Kashmiri and Urdu but steadily English became my main language of expression. This is what the ‘postcolonial’ condition has demanded of all of us. Now I find myself increasingly writing poetry in Kashmiri. I hope to catch up with Kashmiri reading and writing again. Incorporating Kashmiri in my larger projects is a challenge and I hope to find ways to do it.”
Ather describes her artistic process by reflecting on the material conditions under which women produce art. In a Room-Of-One’s-Own-esque way, she explains, “There are poems we receive and there are poems we consciously write. All poems seem to have their own little processes out of which they emerge. For me, it is a good thing to not have a set process. It is always a work in progress. As a woman and a mother, I could never afford to shut myself away from the world to hone any of my crafts. Hence, my writing process is subject to extreme change. And I have learned to adapt to the dynamism and spontaneity of everyday life. We do not talk about it enough, but women writers face unique challenges which can be overwhelming. While we must expect excellence, we need to be mindful of the gendered locations and the impact on writing it has not only in content but the process of it.”
Ather draws on the crucial role of a witness to talk about artistic responsibility, “I feel an innate need to write and record, which in time also becomes cathartic; a means to process and heal from our human experiences. Also, the moment a person writes and decides to share with the wider community, it can become a source of catharsis for other people. It can certainly become instructive and sometimes not all – depends on who reads and what one reads for. In dire times, like we Kashmiris are facing, art is not a luxury. It is always a privilege to practice art, but for us, more importantly, it is a responsible act, if not a responsibility to voice, to provide a witness to shape futures to come.”
Ather hinted at a future project, saying, “Besides academic writing I am working on a book of poetry on Kashmir and if all goes well, on a shorter poetry project based on the events around 5th August 2019 and a set of short stories.” Conclusively, she instructs younger poets to “not sleep till you have at least read two to three pages of a book minimum and more if you like every day – genre and language no bar. Write every day, if it is only a few lines. Keep practicing. Find a community of like-minded people if you are so inclined, interact and learn from peers. Share your art when you feel you are ready.”
Memory, Collective History and the Inevitable Responsibility in Art
Omair Bhat, a Kashmiri writing in English, defines his poems as “Mostly impatient inquiries into the noise and bustle of the life we live or the lack of it; or the reflections on the sickening predicament of having to live in an occupied territory, without the freedom to write or think.”
He responds to the question of inspiration by alluding to a people’s collective reality and history, “In the circumstances we live in Kashmir, we are more overwhelmed and aggrieved by the urgency and desperation of our predicament than inspired by people, events and clumsy emotions to write. There’s a powerful realization prevalent in the literary circles in Kashmir that if we don’t write about ourselves at this crucial juncture in human history we’ll be misrepresented, trampled upon, erased and eventually forgotten both as people and individuals. That collective realization serves as a fuel to our literary as well as non-literary endeavours.”
On the importance of innovation in craft, Omair deems it natural, saying: “We are always experimenting – with verse, with prose, even when we’re not conscious of it.” He also adds that his priority isn’t innovation but honesty, “As such I don’t dote so much upon the craft and the aesthetics of craft as much as the subjective as well as objective truthfulness of the narrative in my poems. It remains a priority. It always remains a priority.” On the question of having a ‘unique’ voice versus emulating the works he admires, Omair says that he does try to emulate the work he admires when the form and structure of a poem fascinates him, however, he adds, “Only that. Your voice, your imagination, however, remains your own. It’s irreplaceable and, importantly, incorruptible as long as you have not succumbed to the lure of power and are still writing the truth.”
The artistic process is quite simple for Omair, he speaks of it in a mellow way, “Nothing fancy. A pen, stout pencils and sheets of paper strewn around in my room. A stoical setting. Haphazard mess that often invites rebuke(s) from mother. And there I am: trying to make sense of all that I confront, on a daily basis. Most of the time, though, I am reading, skimming through literary magazines, discovering new writers, poets, and new voices from across the world. It has been a mundane routine. I don’t recall traveling out of the valley in a very long time.”
On being asked about his process and whether it was how his audience and society expect it to be, he gives a clear no, meditating on the somnambulistic effect of social media and advertising, “The audience, the least that my poetry has been able to garner, does not hold sway on me. Ideally, should not in any case whatsoever but then look at the havoc mass media has wrecked upon us all. It dictates the behaviour of people, of poetry, of creative artistic processes, of what you wear, what you eat and so on. The extent is such that it is also dangerously refiguring our understanding of history. Each sinew of our lives has been commercialised. We are precariously living inside a nightmarish realm of advertisement and its leap into the future is indeed a very scary thought that makes me shudder in fear.”
He believes that no art exists in cold cathartic isolation, stating, “It comes with a social, political function and, thus, so do artists. It’s an inevitable responsibility neither art nor an artist can run away from, try as we might. It requires you to have a clear conscience, though, to ‘make the world a more human dwelling place,’ as Baldwin once wrote. Otherwise, without owing up to the responsibility entrusted upon you, you are a happy-go-lucky (in actuality: abject loser) art machine writing banal melodrama. Time is lost on you, sincerity of the emotion is lost on you.”
Speaking of his contemporaries and how they’ve inspired him and helped him grow, Omair comments, “A small number of poets, friends, comrades have given me abundant confidence to write. And have occasionally critiqued my works as well. That’s how I have grown more aware of the shortcomings in my language. They tell me I am improving. I still think I have a long way to go. Or the improvement I seek is unattainable.”
In terms of his current projects, he explains “I have been languishing over a collection of poems, editing it, polishing it, here and there, for as long as I can remember. The language is still rusty. I am not so sure I have matured as a poet yet. It is one amongst my current preoccupations. There are newer poems as well – pensive reflections on reality – still in the drafts. Their fate is to be decided upon by my willingness to return to them. Whenever that is.”
Closing with a message for younger writers and people who’ve just started delving into poetry, Omair says, “Storm the public libraries in troves and read voraciously, erratically but, importantly, stay aware of the morbid realities that surround you. Poetry is not merely writing a verse, a hymn. It is an extensive to and fro activity between books and all that you are immersed into in the daily violent performance of reality.”
In an era where neoliberalism and capitalism have rotted not only our brains but entire societies, poetry creates a space to speak truth in its bare form. The burden of being the oppressed has constantly placed Kashmiris in a vigilant position, be it out of a survival instinct or the inability to close one’s eyes to the horrors staring from every corner.
Poetry is cathartic to people living through such material conditions; it not only pervades domestic life and resistance movements but also carries history when more institutionalised forms can’t.
In thinking about, writing and reading poetry, we trace not only where we came from and the horrors we’ve witnessed but are made more aware of our own responsibilities as spectators and survivors.