The literary world of Indian-administered Kashmir is mourning the death of a beloved poet and champion of the Kashmiri language, which he is largely credited with rescuing from obscurity.
Abdur Rehman Rahi, an acclaimed writer and professor of literature who died earlier this month at age 97, is being hailed as a living testament to Kashmir’s literary prestige who helped establish a unique identity for the once-endangered language.
“With Rahi’s death, we have lost one of the crown jewels from Kashmir’s literary landscape. His death marks an end of an era,” remarked Shad Ramzan, himself a highly regarded writer and Kashmiri-language scholar.
Rahi’s talents were recognized with numerous awards, including India’s leading literary prize, the Jnanpith Award, in 2007 for his poetic collection Siyah Rood Jaeren Manz (In Black Drizzle), and India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri, in 2000.
But his more lasting legacy will stem from his tireless efforts to preserve and popularize the Kashmiri language, which is spoken today by some 6 million people in the Kashmir Valley and surrounding region.
The native tongue had fallen into deep decline in the decades after the end of British rule in 1947, with the federal government discontinuing its teaching in elementary schools in 1955.
The language “has always been given less preference from the rulers of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is no mention from the political parties in their manifestos regarding the planning and development of the Kashmiri language,” says an article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Linguistics, a publication of the University of Kashmir.
Ramzan says a key to Kashmiri’s renewed life was the establishment 1974 of a research cell for the study of the language at the University of Kashmir. Five years later, Rahi oversaw the conversion of the research cell into a full-fledged postgraduate department.
“Rahi introduced critical thinking of East and West poetry in the curriculum of the postgraduate program,” Ramzan said in an interview.
Continued agitation by Rahi and other scholars, social and cultural groups led to the language being taught more broadly, and by 2008, it had become mandatory in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir for students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Outside the classroom, Rahi also worked to introduce the language to a global audience through his poetry. “He shifted the focus from the classical Kashmiri poetry that had previously dominated the literary landscape,” explained Salim Salik, an editor at the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
Muhammad Maroof Shah, another Kashmiri writer, agreed that Rahi’s success lay in his ability to write Kashmiri-language poetry worthy of international attention in the contemporary idiom. He praised Rahi for presenting the Kashmiri tradition in terms that could be understood and appreciated universally.
Despite his unquestioned literary genius, Rahi was criticized at times for not applying his talents to the political tensions that bedevil Kashmir, the focus of a long-running insurgency and repeated wars between India and Pakistan.
“I felt that he observed self-censorship fearing reprisal from both state and non-state actors,” said Bilal A. Jan, an award-winning filmmaker from Srinagar who directed a biographical documentary on Rahi’s life and works titled, “The Poet of Silence.”
“Rahi shared some incidents with me when he was threatened for his work,” added Jan, who told VOA he believes Rahi’s poetry was influenced by Marxist ideology while focused on the human predicament and day-to-day life issues of humans.
One of Rahi’s colleagues at the University of Kashmir, Shafi Shauq, challenged the notion that Rahi avoided the most challenging issues, saying, “One of his best poems is ‘Thyanvi Ros Sadaa’ (A Call without Sound) which speaks of the contemporary situation.”
Rahi was essentially a distinguished poet who tried to create his own style by mixing personally coined words, archaisms, allusions and verbal rhythms, Shauq told VOA.
“Although his popularity is based on a few lyrics sung by our best singers, the serious poetry contained in his three collections is beyond the comprehension of common readers. His two collections of literary essays are in keeping with his individual notion of poetic composition.”
Rahi is survived by three sons, all of whom work in the medical profession, and a daughter who worked for a time at the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
One of the sons, Dildar Ahmad, told VOA his father was a gentle and soft-spoken man who used to treat people equally irrespective of class, caste or age.
The daughter, Rubina Ellahi, said Rahi had been not only a father but also her best friend. “We used to discuss poetry for hours together,” she said in an interview. “He has left some unpublished work, which I will publish at an appropriate time.”