THE SPIRITUAL BARD AND THE TRADITION OF CULTURE WEAVERS
Kashmiri women should become a greater focal point of investment not only for promoting the much-needed cultural renaissance that empowers them and gives them a voice, but further enables them to be part of the narrative for healing and reconciliation.
Shiva chhuy thali thali rav zaan
Mov zaan Heund ta Musalman
Trukay chhukh ta panun paan prazanaav
Soy chhay Sahebas suti zainezaan.
Siva is everywhere, know Him as the sun
Know the Hindu no different to the Muslim
If you are wise, know yourself
That’s the way to know the saheb.¹
“A Muslim and a Hindu identity was thrust upon her by the names given to her, Lalla Arifa or Lalleshwari, respectively, to suit a particular religious inclination, as though she were a trophy of conquest or resistance. But for the common men and women of Kashmir, she was just their mother.”²
Kashmir’s very own spiritual bard, Lal Ded, (1320-92) is an interesting character from the pages of the locally documented history in the valley. She was the innovator who is known to have “brought the difficult Saiva philosophy out from the cubicles of the Sanskrit-knowing scholars into the wide, open spaces of the Kashmiri knowing people.”³
The revered poetess was at once the “universal mother”, and a “recognized saint” respected by Hindus and Muslims alike as a pioneering contributor to the canon of Kashmiri literature. She represented the lived essence of mystical wisdom in a “domesticated” form that could be understood even by the unlettered commoner. As is common with mystical lyrics that emerged in many local regional languages as a product of the Bhakti-Sufi movement in the subcontinent, Lal Ded’s vaakhs encapsulate the love and longing for the Beloved (Siva) while delineating in striking detail the journey of the seeker.
Her unique genius is in her method of localizing the wisdom and experience through a depiction of common sights observed in the valley. In doing so, she gifts to the local language the most oft-quoted idioms that have become part and parcel of the use of language in the valley down to present times. Many women have been known to follow in Lal Ded’s footsteps over the centuries, from poetess Rupa Bhawani in the 17th century, Arnimal in the 18th century, and the poetess and Sufi singer Bimla Raina in the 21st century. These women have served over the years as media for creative dissemination of the experiences of love in life, and religious practice, integrating them through the lens of culture to carve out a space for reflecting on identity in a more inclusive way.
As I listened to a young Kashmiri girl, who at 17 is herself an aspiring poetess, recite her own verses of love and longing for her beloved on a rainy evening, it seemed to me that the promise of a culturally prominent tradition of poetry and oral narratives has not been given its due importance over the decades of conflict. Women still write in the valley, but their voices remain largely unheard of.
This article seeks to outline the historical role of women in Kashmir as part of the larger historical trends in the Indian subcontinent. I attempt to portray women in a re-imagined role as creative culture-weavers, actively contributing to community and culture through the literary tradition and oral narratives. My purpose in this article is also to further outline the scope of new creative and adaptive roles that could be supported to empower women in the valley and enable them to be instrumental in the revival and sustenance of a culture of coexistence, collaboration and sustainable peace as they operate at the nexus of faith, literature, and culture.
Lal Ded and the tradition of Culture Weavers
Lal Ded, as a culturally transcendent figure, is believed to have deeply influenced her younger contemporary from the Sufi tradition, Sheikh Nuruddin Wali, famously called Nund Rishi, who is revered as the founder of the Kashmiri Rishi tradition. Camille Adams Helminski in her seminal work Women of Sufism, highlights the central role of women as authority figures in the Sufi tradition and in that context, suggests the potential of older women from other traditions to influence Sufi saints. Helminski explains that Sufi masters were known to have been influenced by older women; pious mothers or even at times a “mystical aunt”. In Kashmir, Nund Rishi’s acknowledgment of Lalleshwari’s spiritual power and role as a saint in inspiring his own aspirations to acquire such grace further demonstrates deep respect and a mutual learning process that was encouraged as a major part of the dialogue of traditions in the valley.
Women of faith in the Indian subcontinent were not uncommon across history though they do not feature as major figures in popular hagiographic literature nearly as often as their male counterparts. During the medieval times, there have been many instances of pious women, educated in classical literature and religious texts, acting as bridge builders and facilitators of dialogue for the dissemination of traditional teachings to the larger community. They served as the patrons of religious leaders, teachers, and community matriarchs in certain cases across the subcontinent too. Helminski expands on the role of the bridge-builder and writes about the larger community exchanges that women from less privileged classes participated in to access and integrate religious wisdom in their lives; “the women” she observes, “were also the addressees of mystical folk poets who were able, particularly in the Subcontinent, to explain the mystical path in simple, easy verses which the women could sing while spinning or grinding grain so that their household chores were transformed into symbols of spiritual activities.”ˆ¹
As is evident from the contribution of Lal Ded in Kashmir, the bardic poetess model was a figure who brought in the likes of these women of faith with their philosophical discourse and the lyricism and common orally transmitted wisdom of the folk poets to embody a unique mother-saint role with her special skill of imparting wisdom to not only teach through folk poetry but also to enrich cultural understanding and expression through her linguistic innovations.
Helminski writes, “in the folk poetry of the Western part of Indo-Pakistan as well as in Bengal and partly in the songs of the Ismaili community, women appear as the true depositories of mystical love and yearning. This idea was taken over from Hindu literature but elaborated in a perfect way by the Muslim mystical poets who finally identified themselves with the suffering heroines of their songs. The wisdom which the illiterate women thus learned and memorized thanks to the activities of the folk poets constituted a major source of inspiration for the population of the rural areas and brought the ideas of mystical Islam to the masses, women being generally the most devout representatives of this current.”ˆ²
It is thus observed that as much as the teachings of Islam were known to have reached the masses through displays of personal piety and moral authority from male Sufi saints in the valley, women served to take the teachings one step further by creatively integrating them in the applied practices of daily lives. They infused the spirit of coexistence into their communities. This led to the creation of a shared community of culture-weavers amongst the women who upheld the connecting contours of human relationships through reflections on the common yet personal devotional relationship with the Almighty as the Beloved in their individual traditions and the projection of mystical experience in community relationships.
As much as the mystical traditions were known within the mainstream of their religious movements to be all about the ascetic seeker who would abandon the material world to immerse himself in the journey to unite with the divine, the women of faith as mothers, patrons, possesses, and bards emerged as key innovators who deserve attention and credit for their contribution to strengthen the role of mysticism at the core of communitarian wellbeing.
The Way Forward to Support the Culture Weavers and Women of Faith
Creative application of spiritual knowledge geared to support connection, relationship-building, and a sense of developing an inclusive identity could go a long way to arrest the perpetuation of an environment of mistrust, divisive politics, and hatred in the valley. A few recommendations in the light of this discussion to support the culture-weavers and creative activities of women of faith are as follows:
1)Women have a major role in shaping the early childhood of future generations. A case study in this context on using Sufi teachings for early childhood development could serve to explore the prospects of such an approach.
Helminski highlights the creative application of the Sufi heritage bequeathed to Murshida Vera Corda, a disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the founder of the North American Chishti order in the United States. Khan’s teachings emphasized “spiritual principles in the raising and educating of children” and “Murshida’s whole life was devoted to service” through the foundation of Sufi Seed schools. Vera Corda “developed curricula for children from infancy through elementary school as well as training programs for parents and teachers. She also practiced psychiatric nursing, taught principles of Sufi healing, and was an artist and author.”ˆ³
The administration in Jammu and Kashmir could consider supporting Anganwadi centres in different districts to help foster practices such as those developed in terms of pre-school and early childhood development activities which creatively assist mother-child bonding, health, and well-being process derived from Sufi teachings and healing practices. There needs to be more research and literature published to support these efforts.
2) Women’s co-operatives and self-help groups could be supported to encourage more women to self-publish their literary works and conduct activities and workshops to raise awareness and preserve the oral traditions of the valley. Community funded Women’s magazines could promote the local knowledge and literature produced.
The establishment of literary camps organized to bring in mentorship and Bhakti-Sufi academic expertise to offer young women creative insights and support their re-imagination of the value that their literary traditions can add to present and future generations. This could also be further promoted by bringing in investors, sponsors, and mainstream publishers for literary fairs aimed with the aim of promoting talent from the valley and showcasing the culture of syncretism through literature that is not well known outside Kashmir.
3) More research could be supported through state grants to Universities on the topic of exploring the community processes geared to support the Bhakti-Sufi tradition and their implications on inter-faith and inter-community relations in the valley like the bardic poetry of Lal Ded or literature on the teachings of the Kashmiri Rishi tradition, especially on culture and customs embraced across communities.
History testifies to the importance of cultural renaissance as a new mode of revival to bring back the context that could support the ushering in of progressive social reform. This outcome is often seen as a direct product of nurturing creative expressions of value-based ideals. Narrativization of community history through literature holds great promise in this context as local knowledge systems could be produced to aid peace processes in conflict zones.
It is important to consider mainstreaming community-oriented creative approaches while rethinking policy to better enfranchise multiple stakeholders in society. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, women should become a greater focal point of investment not only for promoting the much-needed cultural renaissance that empowers them and gives them a voice, but further enables them to be part of the narrative for healing and reconciliation in the valley with respect to inter-community relations and shared cultural practices for the future.
¹Neerja Mattoo, The Mystic and The Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir (New Deli: Zubaan Publishers, 2019) Kindle Edition. 41
ˆ¹Camille Adams Helminski, Women of Sufism: a Hidden Treasure: Writings and Stories of Mystic Poets, Scholars & Saints (Boston: Shambhala, 2003) Kindle Edition.