The Modern Period
The early twentieth century has been significant for Kashmiri literature. This had much to do with the arrival of the printing press in Kashmir in the late nineteenth century and also the growth of a print culture in the neighboring Punjab. Over the first few decades of the twentieth century, many literary organizations and movements flourished. But one of the most important influence on Kashmiri literature in the twentieth century was the Progressive Writers Movement in India.
The other strong influence has been the influence of existentialism and Marxism. The three most important figures of the earlier part of the twentieth century are Ghulam Muhammad Mahjoor (‘the national poet of Kashmir’), Master Zinda Kaul and Abdul Ahad Azad. Kashmiriness (often invoked in the term ‘Kashmiriyat’) often emerges in this poetry as a question of the relation of Kashmiris to Kashmir’s historical and cultural pasts. Mahjoor’s poetry used local idioms and became especially popular in rural Kashmir. But it is Mahjoor who opened the path for literary modernism in Kashmir. Master Zinda Kaul returned to the earlier mystical themes and remained an exception to the dominant moods and themes of the modern period of Kashmiri poetry. Azad was a different poet as he brought nationalistic and Marxist themes into Kashmiri poetry. Much of the later trajectory of Kashmiri poetry begins with Azad and Dina Nath Nadim is a true heir of Azad’s legacy. Poets like Rahman Rahi and Amin Kamil appear to draw upon all these different strands of thought in Kashmiri poetry.
The history of the modern period of Kashmiri literature can be traced back to the beginnings of a political struggle for self-rule in Kashmir from the 1930s and 1940s. Twentieth century Kashmiri literature thus remained dominated by progressive political thought and gave rise to such modernist poets as Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil and short story writers like Hari Krishan Kaul and Akhtar Mohiudeen. Even though this movement might appear as a radical break from the literature of the past, there is a deep continuity with the literature which remains inseparable from themes and moods of Kashmiri Sufism and Kashmir Saivism.
An existential concern with violence dominates even this modern period of Kashmiri literature which often avowed a commitment to socialism. But many of the older themes appear now in an explicitly political setting. For instance, the arrest of the Kashmiri leader, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1953 and the long agitation for plebiscite from 1953 to 1975 finds expression in poems and short stories by Rehman Rahi, Amin Kamil and Akhtar Mohiudeen. For Kamil, for instance, Kashmir is not the bridge of peace between India and Pakistan envisioned by Sheikh Abdullah but a “Zero Bridge.” Kashmiri literature entered a period of crisis with the beginnings of an armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir in the 1990s. Even though there has been an explosion of writing on the political dispute over Kashmir, the events of the 1990s and the literature that it produced remains inaccessible outside Kashmir. The only attempt in this direction so far has been Neerja Mattoo’s collection of Kashmiri short stories, The Stranger Beside Me. Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters, New Delhi) has also published a collection of Kashmiri short stories edited by Hridya Kaul Bharti. But only the canonical works of modern Kashmiri literature receive attention in these anthologies. Most Kashmiri writers did not publish in the worst years of violence from 1990 to 1995. Some Kashmiri writers such as Abdul Sattar Ranjoor and Sarvanand Kaul Premi were assassinated. The Kashmiri writing from the 1990s is finally emerging now after more than a decade and should give us deeper insights into Kashmir of the early 1990s. The rise of a feminist critique of nationalism in the writings of Naseem Shifai and Bimla Raina is in particular quite striking. Yet many discovered the address and ruins of the violence that devastated Kashmir first in the poetry of the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali who wrote in English (which is discussed here under the section on Kashmiri Literature in English).
The 1990s gave a new thematic to Kashmiri literature and opened up an opportunity for Kashmiri writers to move out of an aesthetics that owed its origins to and was dominated by writers in the Leftist cultural movement and those dissenting (often existentialist) voices which were in dialogue with it. A new body of Kashmiri literature began to emerge in the 1990s not just in the Kashmiri language but in Urdu, Hindi and English. Not all of the new writers were living in Kashmir. Many had been forced into exile in early 1990s and there were others who had voluntarily left Kashmir. Kashmiri literature was now being produced not just in Kashmir and Jammu but also in Faridabad and Boston.
A very good place to begin are the anthologies of short fiction collected in Neerja Mattoo’s The Stranger Beside Me and Hriday Kaul Bharati’s Contemporary Kashmiri Short Stories. The Journal Indian Literature also has special issue dedicated to contemporary Kashmiri literature. One can also find Kashmiri literature in translation in journals such as Shiraza.
For histories of modern Kashmiri Literature, Shafi Shauq and Naji Munawwar’s History of Kashmiri Literature is a masterful survey. Braj N Kachru’s History of Kashmiri Literature (Vol. VIII in the series on A History of Indian Literature) also presents a good overview of modern Kashmiri Literature. Most of the texts, however, are not easily available. T N Raina’s A History of Kashmiri Literature is also a good place to begin. But it is not easy to find the works themselves. If the Jnanpith-winner Rahman Rahi had to self-publish his Siyah rude jaren manz (Under the Dark Downpour), it is easy to imagine the fate of most published writing in Kashmir. Yet most of the writers published limited editions which are often found easily in libraries or private collection.