Some poets become brand names during their youth. They are too powerful, and charming to resist for lesser mortals. Under their shade many lesser trees fail to find their individual bloom. Their devotion to perfecting the art – at least in its formal aspect – earns them both respect and awe. They dominate their age. They lure goddess of poetry with all her beauty and grace. Amongst such poets is Rafiq Raaz.
Rafiq Raaz's Naiy chhay Nalaan (The Flute is Complaining) is one of the most influential volumes of contemporary poetry in Kashmir that helped shape Kashmiri ghazal written after it. With its publication its poet has established himself as a Master of younger generation of poets in lyricism through deep attention to form and metrical innovations.
Raaz's language is neither elitist nor arcane, unlike some parts of his illustrious contemporary, Rahi. It doesn't get needlessly ambiguous that constitutes dubious virtue of much of modernist poetry. Like Nasir Kazmi, he bridges the gap between passion and imagination. Raaz takes ample care to chisel words and sounds and part of his success lies in this superlative attention to the universe of rhyme and rhythm that constitutes the secret of beauty of the palace of art to which artists have special access and take lesser mortals or more earthly people.
The poet generally speaks in first person and of first person's pain and exile somehow mitigated through turn to art. Words – the magic of words that poetry is – somehow allows the poet – Raaz says – to say yes to life and partake of immortality in what otherwise appears a world full of sound and fury not signifying anything. With the help of certain stunning and "unforgettable" images that could resonate across cultures, Raaz invites or commands our attention. The poet gathers or summons "the shade of dew" "green peace of the dawn," "radiance of the sunny day" "inflamed snowy night" courtesy " the bath of imagination" (just a few images in a couple of couplets from one ghazal only showing the power of the poet) "love's radiance" that illuminating "the forest of thoughts" and is able, in some blessed moments that poetry steals from heaven, to fly high over the Divine Throne where "angels are singing." Raaz has been, insightfully, compared by Majrooh Rashid, a prominent critic of Kashmiri poetry, to Munir Niazi. However he also reminds us of many a modern poet writing in Urdu. And himself he has grown into a considerable presence in the Urdu camp as well. He is the only poet from Kashmiri who has grandly succeeded in both Kashmiri and Urdu languages. There is a secret in Raaz that makes him a good recipient of the Muse. However, the Muse dictates and is playing the flute on its own terms that our poet, true to his modernist individualism and subjectivism, doesn't seem to be accepting in good faith. His flute is complaining – this is distinct from the kind of complaint with which Rumi opens up his Masnavi. And this constitutes distinction of Raaz though it is hard to grant him an epistemic or artistic superiority on that ground and that might well constitute his Achilles' heal if we approach him from his avowed Oriental and traditional framework.
What distinguishes Raaz is a conscious engagement with and brilliant appropriation of Sufi poetry – one can read many of his verses and some ghazals in their entirety as modern mystical ghazals. Raaz evokes the transcendent both through his craft as an artist who carves words in such a way as to let Being manifest its riches and by invoking, forcefully, Love and Beauty.
Oriental in sensibility, he has not given up individualism that modernity has bequeathed with all its legacy of grandeur and misery. He holds fast to the myth of authenticity or subjectivity that wants to have his own as if art isn't imitation or acting and witnessing or vision but something in service of the self. (Opening verses of his famous ghazal that calls on God to visit him in the midnight is susceptible to both readings – a modernist promethean one that frames transcendence in its own terms and traditional mystical one that expresses an impossible desire for wasl or union by a devotee in a world of dualities.)
A poet of passion and love and memory can't afford taking note of "discordant" notes in the strange raga in which the scripture of the cosmos and life is composed. His life's odyssey (travelled with twin treasures of soz-i daroon (inward passion) and ishq-i laey (tune of love) isn't untouched by the feeling of the absurd even in the most metaphysical and mystical moments – again we see his modernity asserting. He remains oriental in his love for form, especially ghazal with all its traditional "paraphernalia."
His great attention to form isn't occasionally matched by attention to theme or content; he, here and there, overturns both traditional imagery and symbolism or meaning spaces and one wonders if this is consciously done by him or he is somewhat casual in his handling of the same. To quote an example:
"Meon wajood sarbisar gardi gubaar haertuk
rozi kout taam darbider phaeriyi wav ta bi kaey."
"My being is wholly the dust of wonder
How long will the wayward wind keeps marching"
The state of wonderment (aalam-i-hairat) is, in traditional Sufi understanding, the greatest achievement, but here it is a pejorative term.
For Raaz, art or creative process itself, not unlike many modern and most postmodern poets, is his refuge and salvation and forms chief subject and object of his work. However he is not ready to concede inherent limitations of the artistic and the necessarily tragic dimension of all aesthetic projects.
Chae iztirab daemages chae intishar husnes
mae dilfaraeb kalames panin nazakahraaev"
And: "Lafzen ander waepekh ti kadi kaad zindagi/sharen ander achekh ti labekh dayimi hayat"
"Fitting into the sanctuary of words, life will bloom/Drawn into the verses, life will be immortalized"
Raaz is able to deploy striking images and irony to express life's little and great jokes. Somewhat hackneyed theme of existential alienation and stock images conveying it is handled with a freshness and conviction that compels attention:
"Taaphchu shames taam diwan insanes braem/douri cha sekh tam basaan sabzar"
"Sunshine keeps man deluding till the dusk / From a distance, even sand appears as greenery."
Steering clear of dominant ideological frames in both form and content, Raaz stamps his unique nostalgic vision in an environment that distrusts poets' claim to access the sacred or transcendent world in a language and idiom that is appealing on both sensuous and intellectual planes. The poet of the Spirit who struggles with the claims of centrifugal psyche that our technologized urbanized world impinges on us with increasing and ruthless force, Raaz recalls the poet to his original vacation of which great German and English Romantics reminded the secularizing world. Nostalgia for what is gone – Tradition symbolized by all kinds of rustic and primeval images including those of innocence or children – is what gives haunting pathos to Raaz. Raaz seems to avoid dualistic theological and occultist mystical flights.
Raaz is too reflexive, too self-conscious a modern subject – the first person speaker with all its psychological and self-oriented paraphernalia occasionally bordering on Faustian and Promethean streaks is evidenced on almost every page – to unqualifyingly court an oriental aesthetic and metaphysic that is otherwise so dear to him and this results in more or less discordant and heterogenous work of art from perspective that upholds the sovereignty and relative autonomy of art in a hierarchical cosmos oriented towards the Good or moved by Love – the world of Tradition the poet situates himself in. One could argue the case for a postmodern Rafiq Raaz who both participates in and gives voice to a world of experience that resists traditional frames. The individual who writes poetry, seeks consolation or meaning is always in in the background while getting written off by the Other
Kashmir's "preeminent modern poet," Raaz sings songs that are no longer heard – he is late – and that explains power of his heart rending poetry at once romantic and thus tragic, mystical and thus eternally interrogating and radically open to rhythms of experience.