Of poet, passage and Persian—How Kashmir influenced Central Asia
A cohort of connoisseurs met in Srinagar’s iconic Amar Singh Club on the cold morning of November 13, 2022 for a literary event. The mood was buoyant, as some familiar faces were out to celebrate a couplet-maker whose literary obscurity followed the forgotten script of Kashmir’s Persian literature.
The six-day-long exhibition saw who’s who in town discussing the personal archive of Kashmir’s 20th century Persianate poet, Khwaja Mohammad Amin Darab.
Apart from deliberating the poet’s life and times, the discussion started on Kashmir’s Central Asian influence and the untapped Persian treasure of Kashmir.
The man—Saleem Beg—who played an instrumental role in organizing the event talks about the lost connection and treasure in an interview with Free Press Kashmir.
Mr. Saleem Beg, how significant is Central Asian Influence in Kashmir?
Kashmir’s cultural landscape at one point in time used to be part of the Central Asian landscape. And the main reason was our trade with the outside world through Central Asia.
The mystics came as Sufis to Srinagar through this route. Amongst them were spiritualists of Naqshbandia silsila. They settled in Srinagar, but continued their relationships with their Central Asian cities.
This regional connection, however, goes back in time when scholars and monks would visit the valley to get education in Religious Philosophy from Buddhist institutions of Kashmir.
So, in a way, we’ve a lot of connections with Central Asia especially during the pre-Islamic period. Then during the Islamic period, the artisans brought technological and industrial connections with them in terms of textile and metal crafts.
There used to be proper trade with Central Asia. A thriving relationship would also bind the two regions together. A British resident has beautifully drawn this connection in his 1820-circa travelogue on his Central Asian odyssey.
Talking about the influence, we lately saw a Kashmiri Persianate poet rising like a phoenix under your watch. What was the relevance of the event?
Well, we organized the event because Persian was a language of Art, Administration and Trade for 500 years in Kashmir.
But then, in 1890, the official language shifted to Urdu. With that, the Persian influence and outpouring waned in the valley. And now, we’ve these poets and scholars writing in Persian but living in oblivion.
The poet whose personal archives we exhibited lately died about 60 years back. But we never thought that there is poetry in his name.
But eventually, we brought his personal archive before the public platform. The attempt was to revive our interest in the persianate culture.
In think, this is the better way of projecting Persian influence.
But do such events assert that Kashmir’s Central Asian cults need a review and revival?
See, Persian is not persisted directly as a Central Asian link to us. Persian came to Kashmir from Iran, just like it went to the Central Asia as a lingua franca for the whole of the orient.
We’re now identifying the roots through which we interacted in scholarly terms with the rest of the world. Central Asia is one of the very important links. In past, we were having linkages and it is good to talk about it. But will that linkage be revived or not, I don’t know that. I just know these linkages have to be understood. We’ve to talk and thought about it.
But how rich is Kashmir’s Persian literary treasure and how can we explore and make it relevant to the young generation?
Persian literature is not very well known in the valley. But yes, Kashmiri poets had a very prominent role in projecting Persian and practicing the language. One of the important poets was Mullah Tahir Gani.
There was this miniature painting of the Mughal era unveiled in the recent exhibition of Kashmir’s last Persian poet, Mohammad Amin Darab. The painting displayed a love for Persian poetry. The language in that painting is of the 17th century by Zaffar Khan — the only Mughal governor in Kashmir who was a Persian poet.
The painting depicts a durbar of poets led by Zaffar Khan. Kashmiri poets are shown much bigger and with big turbans. This shows they’re prominently seated. Persian poets of Kashmir were much more important than Persian poets of Central Asia in that gathering.
But having said that, Persians were there in India throughout its history. They even ran and ruled kingdoms. Kashmir was called Iran-e-Sagheer or little Iran because of the Persian language. And that gives us a fair impression of how important Kashmir or its poets and writers were in Persian landscapes.
But while reviving a native Persian poet is fine, don’t you think that Persian literature produced by Kashmir over the time need translations to become relevant?
We met these Persian scholars in the recent exhibition and they said that 80 per cent of literature written in Persian by Kashmiris is unpublished. One prominent professor even said that around 90 per cent of such literature is unpublished.
This gives us a clear idea about the work that needs to be done. Our scholars have their hands full if they work on it. It’ll take them decades to identify, translate and publish Persian literature. It needs a lot of devotion and dedication.
We should make efforts and bring archives in front of the current generation. Such initiatives will make them well-versed with Persian literature.
Srinagar is often described as the second the oldest city in South Asia, but its culture and crafts only highlight its Central Asian influence. Don’t you think the South Asian link is a misplaced identity?
We’re considered an old city because we’re having written history. There’re more old cities as compared to us in India and I think serially we’ll be down in the list. But if we’ve to take the name of the old city according to history, then we’re among the first few.
About culture and craft, it’s how you look at geography. Also, Central Asian links have not been exclusive to Kashmir. The influence like Lodhis came from Afghanistan, Ghori and Gaznawi. Those rulers all came from Central Asia and the culture which was made in South Asia at that time especially the Muslim culture was a blend of South Asian, Central Asia, and local influences.
Culture is not developed in blocks or compartments. It’s a kind of mix. And when it comes to influences, we get them from both south as well as central parts. We were having links with South Asia during the Hindu period, but we were having trade relations in Central Asia.
Mr. Beg, months before organizing an event on the personal archive of the Persianate poet, we saw you fiercely lobbying for Srinagar’s UNESCO distinction under the creative cities tag. Tell us something about it.
Creative Cities Network is a UNESCO programme in which different cities are awarded, nominated or inscribed in different categories, like music, films, creative arts and crafts.
We prepared a dossier for the nomination of Srinagar city as a craft city which went through various procedures, selections, and deliberations. Srinagar was eventually awarded and nominated as a craft city.
The lobbying spirit was driven by the rich legacy and history of living craft in Kashmir.
But then, hasn’t the UNESCO recognition only vindicated Kashmir’s rich Central Asian influence?
No, we didn’t mention in the dossier that our crafts are because of Central Asia. What we did mention was how Kashmir influenced Central Asia. We’ve a lot of Central Asian influence but we also have a local craft which absorbs these influences.
But despite such a global distinction, we’re witnessing a gradual fading of Kashmir’s heritage structures. Why is it happening?
Well, traditional architecture is fading, as no control can be exercised over that. Some of these structures are living habitations. Preferences and requirements have also been changed.
But these preferences have to be accommodated within the traditional architecture. We’ve not to build the way we built 100 years back, but then we’ve to build sympathy with our past, and that is important.
Lastly, Mr. Beg, can we hope for the heritage revival in Srinagar which is losing much of its heritage grace to the shopping complexes and north-Indian-style residences?
I always have hope for a revival of our heritage. We’ve laws that say heritage should be revived. It’s the question of law enforcement. We’re losing because we’ve to strengthen our methods of governance. We’ve to put trials and regulations in place.