Art & Culture

The 'demise' of Kashmiri

Shonaleeka Kaul
Shonaleeka KaulApr 21, 2018 | 10:18

The 'demise' of Kashmiri

Even as the Rājataraṅgiṇī composes Kashmir as a regional entity, it does so through a medium that is generally not understood to have served vernacular expression, namely the "cosmopolitan" Sanskrit kāvya. This is significant. It questions much of what we have recently learnt about the relationship between language and space in premodern South Asia. I refer to Sheldon Pollock’s cosmopolitan and vernacular paradigms: this is a binary that has proved most instructive in inducing many new aspects to the sociology of language use in early India, especially for Sanskrit, a language otherwise misunderstood to be confined to ritual. This binary, however, needs to be revisited in the light of the exception that early Kashmir provides to both the phenomena involved.

The Rājataraṅgiṇī defies any formulaic understanding of literary cultures and how they relate to the spaces they represent. For one, here is a self-consciously regional account rendered in and through a quintessentially trans-regional language, Sanskrit.

What is more, this happens in the absence of "literarisation", or beginnings of the composition of literature, in the vernacular tongue, Kashmiri. Pollock spoke of a process of vernacularisation wherein, from the turn of the 2nd millennium CE, the emergence of regional kingdoms or "vernacular polities" all over the subcontinent was accompanied by the rise of their local languages as literary or poetic languages, imitating yet displacing Sanskrit kāvya everywhere. The point is that this did not quite happen in Kashmir.

ss-lallavakhs_042018102525.jpgLalla Vakhs

To explain briefly, the beginnings of literature in Kashmiri are somewhat hazy, that is, literature understood in a formal written, creative – narrative and aesthetic sense, such as kāvya, as different from scripture or treatise. To begin with, extant compositions in Kashmiri from the premodern period are sparse. Moreover, the earliest ones are two philosophical expressions of mysticism: the Mahānaya Prakāśa, a treatise on Śākta worship from the 13th or 15th centuries CE, and the celebrated saint Lal Ded’s Śaiva vākhs or "sayings" of the 14th century, which were purely oral. Neither, therefore, qualifies as literature in the sense in which Pollock spoke.

According to BN Kachru, Avatāra Bhaṭṭa’s Bāṇāsura Kathā from the 15th century is perhaps the earliest specimen of an aesthetic kāvya in Kashmiri. However, it remained a solitary affair hardly followed by other such works. We do not see therefore the emergence of a full-fledged literary culture in Kashmiri taking over from Sanskrit kāvya as we see happen, for instance, in Kannada, Bengali, or Awadhi in the early medieval period.

making-kashmir_042018103517.jpgThe Making of Early Kashmir; Shonaleeka Kaul; Oxford University Press

Among the historical reasons for this could be the fact that in Kashmir one cosmopolitan literary culture, Sanskrit, was followed by another, Persian, which took over as the language of the Kashmiri court, administration, education, and elitism, sometime after the tumultuous Central Asian and then West Asian incursions, and subsequently the Mughal conquest of Kashmir, between the 13th and 17th centuries. Scholars report that Kashmiri remained low in prestige and did not enjoy any professional or aesthetic status all through the very centuries of the medieval period that vernaculars in other parts of India were born and flourished. Sample the sentiment as late as the 19th century in this verse by a Kashmiri poet, Lachman Raina, writing in Persian:

Writing verse in Kashmiri is groping in the dark.

If you would shine as a candle flame, write in Persian verse;

You would merely waste your talent if you write in Kashmiri.

For you would not the jasmine hide in a nettle bush,

Nor edible oil and spices waste

on a dish of mallow wild.

But times have changed and Persian is no longer read;

and radish and sugar loaf are relished alike.

What is intriguing, however, is that even after Independence in 1947, it is Urdu, and not Kashmiri, that was adopted as the state language of Jammu and Kashmir, continuing a long history of the state’s dissociation from the vernacular. The most recent linguistic scholarship suggests that today we are witnessing a move towards "the demise of the distinct symbol and roots of the Kashmiri linguistic-cultural identity in favour of the non-native code, Urdu, which could emerge as the primary linguistic identity in the near future".

Be that as it may, though it definitely is one of the two earliest extant articulations of a Kashmiri territorial self-awareness and identity, the Rājataraṅgiṇī was not vernacular literature emerging in imitation of the universal Sanskrit literary culture, a phenomenon Pollock labelled as the "cosmopolitan vernacular"; instead, it was a case of the cosmopolitan as the vernacular. This dual nature and function of Sanskrit in the Rājataraṅgiṇī — local yet universal — is important to emphasise since the text does not see them as mutually exclusive identities to sport.

In fact, the cosmopolitan seems to have been constitutive of the local in Kashmir rather than sharply demarcated from it. Indeed, Kalhaṇa may also have espoused a regional consciousness that aspired to transcend the narrow limits of a "vernacular polity".

(Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press)

Last updated: April 22, 2018 | 23:23
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