Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the June 2017 issue

Simurgh: Seeding a New Generation of Literary Translators

The translations of Kashmiri poetry presented here grew out of a project at Sangam House, a writers residency program in the Indian countryside about forty-five minutes west of Bangalore. Every year, Sangam House invites writers and translators working in languages across India—and, indeed, the world—to live and work among their peers in a safe, supportive, and nurturing space. As an outgrowth of our core residency program, Sangam House began organizing workshops to facilitate exchanges between writers and translators from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In the winter of 2014, we began work on a special project called Simurgh. Supported by the Aditi Foundation for the Arts, and named after the mythical bird born from the combined energies of those who sought it, the project was designed to seed a new generation of translators from Indian languages—who could come together as a community, enriching not just their own work, but bringing the treasury of Indian writing to a wider audience.

Simurgh’s first translation program focused on Kashmir and the Kashmiri language. The aim was to place young Kashmiri writers and translators in the presence of their literary past, and to get them to create their work within the larger context of history, genres, themes, and concerns of their own larger literary traditions. An intensive nine-day workshop, held in Srinagar and Pahalgam, brought the young translators together with scholars, poets, and writers who guided them through the classical texts as well as through the translation process. In the course of these discussions and readings, the translators confronted such critical issues as unstable texts from the oral tradition, meanings and interpretations from esoteric mystical traditions that lay behind the use of everyday language, and how form and structure might be carried across in translation.

By all accounts, it was the first time that the diverse and dispersed writers and scholars of the Kashmiri literary tradition were brought to work together under one roof. And it would seem that a small community was indeed seeded: the translators and mentors established a working, supportive relationship with each other, and broke through barriers of language, community, religion and politics in personal as well as professional conversations.

Perhaps the most critical realization of the workshop was that the texts we were working with were profoundly unstable. Vociferous arguments and discussions arose about the words, their meanings, the order of verses, and the verses themselves. It became clear that as important as it was to translate these classical works, it was even more urgent to record and document their multiple versions, all laying claim to be the poets’ "authentic" and "complete" oeuvre. Our intention was not to stabilize the texts, but to represent the oral tradition as it is—contested, known, recited, beloved. As a result, the second round of Simurgh in Kashmir focused on making oral recordings of these classical works. We asked scholars and poets to read and recite the poems that they believed were the authentic works of the poets, thereby generating an aural sense of the unstable texts. We also hoped that these multiple versions of a poet’s oeuvre would enable conversations about the meaning and significance of "canon" both in the world of scholarship and in the popular imagination. The translations presented here represent not only a portion of the work that came out of Simurgh in Kashmir, but a historical overview of Kashmiri poetry written in four centuries: the seventeenth-century Roop Bhawani; the eighteenth-century Arinimal; the nineteenth-century Rasul Mīr; and the twentieth-century Dina Nath Nādim.

Kashmiri is one of the oldest languages of South Asia, with a rich vocabulary. While its grammatic base is Sanskrit, it has happily absorbed words from other languages such as Farsi and Arabic. Its literature can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Among the first mature poetic compositions in the language are the vaakhs of Lal Ded, who laid down a strong foundation of mystic poetry which continues today.

The first practitioner of the other prominent form of poetry in Kashmiri, romantic verse, was also a woman, Habba Khatun. In the selection here, Roop Bhawani (1625–1721) represents the mystic stream, and Arinimal (eighteenth Century), the stream of love.

Roop Bhawani was a practicing mystic who left her husband’s home and renounced domestic life. She had philosophical dialogues with prominent Sufis of the time in Kashmir, among them Shah Sadiq, also known in Kashmir as Shah Qalandar. Her poetry, also in the form of vaakhs, is steeped in the beliefs and practices of Kashmir Shaivism.  The vaakh consists of four lines, each a trochaic tetrameter, and does not adhere to a strict rhyme scheme. In fact, more often than not, there is no rhyme, but a solemn rhythm, which suits the generally grave tone of religious poetry. Of course such poetry is often ecstatic, too, and her work includes varying rhythms to suit mystic exclamations.

Arinimal celebrates the world of the senses. In her poems, we find an acknowledgment of a woman’s sexuality, a frank desire for a union that is not at all platonic.  Arinimal's poetry is invested with the romance of loneliness, a brooding reproach to the absent lover, her husband, with whom she was deeply in love, and for whom the wait never seems to end. Arinimal’s husband, Bhawanidass Kachru, was a scholar, poet, and linguist, a sophisticated member of the courtly circle of the Afghan Governor of the time, Jumma Khan, who himself was interested in music and poetry. Kachru had no use for the sensibilities of his wife and did not appreciate her poetic skills; perhaps the unpretentious lyricism of her songs did not appeal to his serious, purposeful, even moral view of poetry. Ironically, it is Arinimal’s verses that are sung today, while Kachru's Persian magnum opus Behr-I-taveel lies forgotten in some archive. Women’s voices have a way of escaping the stifling silences they are forced to maintain.

Rasul Mīr flourished in the nineteenth century. His friend and fellow poet, Mahmud Gāmi, allegedly said about Mīr: “He will die young.” The comment has been widely viewed both as prophetic and as censure of a dissolute lifestyle. It could also be considered a comment on Mīr’s body of lyrics, endowed with irrepressible personality, and swerving away from the kind of mysticism that came all too easily to Kashmiri poets between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.  Mīr’s ear for detail is unparalleled in Kashmiri poetry. As are the moments of sudden transformation, where sound and meaning coalesce. Note, for example, "grāyi mārān kot gachhakh kan dūriye," where the beloved, whose distinctive gait at the beginning of the lyric was enough to identify her from a distance, is now transformed by her possibly retreating motion into a last glimpse of her own pendant earrings, ornaments which shake with every turn of the head: a moment of affection even in the acknowledgment of diminution, and a metamorphosis that is impossible to translate.

Dina Nath Nādim’s poems are distinguished for their experiments in form as well as for their vocabulary, pitch, and tone. What is distinctive is not simply the quality of his attention to life but his way of focusing that attention through the use of “hard, ordinary words” (as John Hollander said of Whitman). Kashmiri, itself, is both the subject and the site of his verse. Every word in his poetry requires its own commentary, each indicating a choice of attention, each bearing the burden, through idiom or etymology, of a way of life.

Nādim was a genius with images, as in “day’s white-seething pan of light,” or “the mountains recoil / back onto their haunches” in "I Will Not Sing." But it is in the hard, ordinary words and the phonetic texture of this poem that you will find the event the poem was: free-verse in distinctively Kashmiri idioms, the meter a matter of stride and breath. Such a poem you translate with your body; if the English cannot be chanted, if the lines no longer train your breath, it will not be Nādim’s poem. Even the phonetic details matter; entirely appropriately, the only break in the richly worked alliterative and assonant surface of the Kashmiri texture of this poem, as Professor Braj Kachru once noted, consist in those two words, jangbāz, jālsāz, which Sonam Kachru has translated as “warlord” and “bureaucrat”:  this is auditory intelligence of the highest caliber.

The brief selection presented here is but a glimpse into the mystical, lyric, and political poetry that forms a part of the long tradition of Kashmiri literature. At this point in time, as Kashmir burns and religious and national identities are contested on a daily basis, these poems from the past remind us that a happier, more peaceful time of syncretism and harmony once existed in this troubled land.


© 2017 by Sonam Kachru, Neerja Mattoo, and Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2017 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.