Rehman Rahi: end of an era

Rahi is the name of an ever-unfolding evolution.
Rehman Rahi in this file photo
Rehman Rahi in this file photo Facebook

BY ABID AHMAD

Rehman Rahi is no more but his legacy will live on. He has proved to be the most formidable and defining poet and litterateur in contemporary Kashmir who steered the Kashmiri language towards the heights it has attained among the languages in the country. He is the only recipient from Jammu & Kashmir of the Jnanpith Award, in addition to other awards and felicitations. 

Rahi was a versatile writer in the Kashmiri language dealing with diverse themes in poetry and prose. Acknowledged for his loaded vocabulary, multi-cultural allusions, and density of meaning, Rahi remains an original poet with an unparalleled complexity of thought. 

In the mid-twentieth century Kashmir, cultural fundamentals were in a flux, leading to structural changes in its aesthetic and cultural imperatives. In such a scenario, the Progressive Writers’ movement helped to save Kashmiri identity, culture and literature from disintegration. 

Rahi, original name Abdur Rehman Mir, was born in Srinagar in 1925. After passing his secondary education from Islamia High School, Srinagar, he did his Masters first in Persian and then in English Literature from the University of Kashmir, and was appointed a lecturer in a college. After some years, he joined the Department of Persian at the University of Kashmir, and in 1977 he joined the newly-established Department of Kashmiri in the university, where he taught till his retirement. 

Though he was drawn to poetry from his childhood, he started writing poems when he came under the influence of the Progressive Writers movement. In these early poems, he comes off as an idealist romantic, aspiring for a perfect world where all his young passions would find fulfillment.

His poetic collection Nouroz-i Saba bears the imprint of this mix of the progressive ideology and romantic aspirations. However, unlike other poets who wrote under the influence of this movement, he was also aware of the importance of art as such.

This is quite visible in his poetry of this period which not only helps in tracing the evolution of Rahi as a poet but also in understanding his everlasting engagement with the pursuit of art in its purest sense.

This compounding of the romantic with his passion for pure art is visible in many of his poems including Sheayir (The poet), Husn-e lazawal (The immortal beauty) and above all in fann baraye fann (Art for art’s sake). The last one celebrates art as an attitude which in itself is sufficient to survive in life.

His collection Siyah Roode Jaren Manz established Rahi as the most creative force in contemporary Kashmiri. It also illustrates his imaginative canvas and his individual approach to universal themes and the human condition in general. Prof G R Malik rightly calls it the key with which we should unlock the treasure trove of his poetry. The poem is a sort of paean to Kashmiri culture and language, and his tribute to his vibrant imagination. 

As Rahi matured, he shed off the borrowed idiom and instead started expressing his own sense of felt life. He embarked on the pursuit of creating his own idiom commensurate with his individual experiences.

This language was independent of his immediate background and had its own rhythm and music, harmoniously integrated with the structural existence of his poetry, unique experiences and thematic engagements. This was the approach that Rahi adopted for his latter poetry and which distinguishes him from his contemporaries, predecessors and successors. 

Qa’ri darya Salsabeel, Sada, Aawlun, etc., are some of the poems that were totally novel experiences in the Kashmiri aesthetic realm, setting it off on a path that was recognized for its classical and contemporary genius. 

In his search for his own diction, Rahi fundamentally changed the idiom of Kashmiri poetry, thereby changing the traditional perceptions in Kashmir’s cultural constructs.

Through his creative expressions, he literally created a fresh worldview that was more suitable for and more accommodative of the contemporary sensibility and contemporary realities. The result was a poetry that has enriched the Kashmiri imagination, expression and idiom in an unparalleled way. 

Rahi’s poetry mirrors contemporary sensibility that reflects life’s tragic sense, its vulnerability, its awareness of the sense of fragmentation as experienced in contemporary times due to higher level of consciousness, latest research in sciences, both abstract and material, the historical evolution and the changed meanings of basic human emotions like love. 

Rahi is also known for his multicultural consciousness reflected in the choice of his themes and diction. His vast reading and awareness about the symbols of diverse cultural identities from Greco-Roman to Middle Eastern, Central Asian and the Indian sub-continent provided him with a global perspective, enabling him to deftly integrate these symbols in his poetic world, and creating a diction of his own that stands apart for its complexity, originality and concreteness. 

Zabarwan bale thangi (The Zabarwan Peak) and Zanti akh nazm (As if it’s a poem) are some such poems integrating multi-cultural allusions to cause a dramatic effect while revisiting some traditional motifs in light of changed realities in modern times. 

Rahi does not observe life from a distance but experiences it at an intensely personal level, relives it in his imagination and then converts it into a metaphor. What Rahi aims at in his poetry especially in his nazm is precision and spontaneity with a terminology which is exclusively his own and which he has fully mastered. 

Rahi believes in pursuing life’s fleeting moments and its swinging consolations, by using metaphors in novel ways to make them mean more than they traditionally meant.

For example, Zabarwan Bale thangi (The Zabarwan peak) is a poem in which the poet addresses the Zabarwan peak in a dramatic manner revisiting its mythical, historical and geographical importance in modern times.  Zabarwan and Deep River of Paradise are two examples of such poetic behavior of Rahi. 

A polyglot and eclectic reader, Rahi uses Kashmir’s rich cultural identity and its mythical topography for structuring his poems. So much is he engrossed in Kashmir’s cultural landscape that he structures much of his poetry by liberally borrowing from Kashmir’s past and present.

Kashmir’s antiquarian character, its mythical lore and cultural signposts remain his handy reference. Most of his poetry is his journey towards self-discovery and his cultural affinity with Kashmir’s civilisational mores. He sees Kashmir as an imaginary, not as a locale.

He abhors losing the cultural idiom of Kashmir. That’s why he seems to be engaged in catching the dying cultural expressions, words and idioms to revive them and preserve them for posterity. He then uses these cultural expressions as a window to Kashmir’s iconic past that is on the verge of death. 

From the 1970’s, Rahi wrote poems in a plain idiom to convey the complexities of contemporary life, thereby introducing the postmodern aesthetics in Kashmiri literature in his unique way. He radically changed the idea of love in his poems like Creation (Takhleeq). 

Rahi’s poetry is also known for its serious engagement with deeper questions of life. This poetry is also characterized by a liberal recourse to myths and images that are global in their reach.

At this stage, Rahi seems to have realized the essence of humanity, of how it is tied not only to its past but also to its destiny. This poetry is characterized by “an intellectualization of style,” freely using “symbols from Greek, Islamic and Indian mythology.” 

Creating an idiom of his own with a distinct set of metaphors, Rahi finally arrived at his own poetic diction, more compatible with his emotional impulse. 

Its structure is more harmonious and subservient to the poet’s experience, granting him the freedom he aspired for while being tied to a reasonable measure of discipline.

His adoption of nazm, as against gazal, as a medium of cultural expression was the result of his realisation that the latter was more suited to his impulses and more fit for conveying the subtleties of emotions and impulses than the traditional metrical patterns. 

His poetry enriched the Kashmiri language in an unprecedented way on an unparalleled level at an extraordinary pace. His poetry “helps man to brave the angst and makes life livable on its own terms.”

Apart from his poetry, Rahi was also a critic and prose writer. He enriched Kashmiri prose through his inimitable style, and his critical writings have proved path-breaking. He introduced universal standards of literary creativity and appreciation, proposing tested and reliable touchstones of literary criticism to assess the true worth and merit of Kashmiri writings.

That in itself led to the growth of poetry, prose and criticism, further enriching the language in genres other than poetry. His essays like ‘Shaarut te Tamik Tarkeebee Ajza’ have been hailed as milestones in Kashmiri critical prose.

His collection of essays, Kahwet, published in 1979, remains the only evaluation of its kind of Kashmiri language and literature. It sheds light on unexplored dimensions of classical and modern Kashmiri poetry, explicating the definition and explanation of creative literature in changing times.  

Another book of his, titled Shaar Shineasi, is a pioneering work on Kashmir’s mystic ethos. It explains how the Sufi and mystic poetry of Kashmir has humanistic roots and how it is relevant even now. 

Rahi is the name of an ever-unfolding evolution. He is always open and receptive to changes outside and of growing maturity inside. From being a celebrated poet to a trend-setting critic and literary theorist, Rehman Rahi remains one of the most formidable influences on Kashmiri culture and literature.

His distinct approach to Kashmiri language and its adoption to convey universal themes remains unique. His legacy of having created his own idiom for his expression sets him apart from his contemporaries. His artistic accomplishments have expanded the imaginative and poetic world of Kashmir language in an unprecedented way. 

Abid Ahmad, Jammu Kashmir Cultural Academy

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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