Young Kashmiri researcher Abir Bazaz tells Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty what made him go in search of Kashmiri Sufi Nund Rishi
Like many young Kashmiris today, Abir Bazaz too is a product of a society in turmoil. Violence and death became a part of his life, compelling him to make a short film Paradise on a River in Hell in 2002. But with the chaotic present bearing scant hope for any great future, the obvious choice in front of Abir was to turn to the past. He wanted answers. Primarily to the Hindu-Muslim dissonance that has engulfed the Valley.
So, quarrying on the history of Kashmiri life, he asked: were we always like this? Was there any attempt at concord between the two? Can we never have a paradigm bedded on peace and harmony? The past didn’t disappoint Abir. He found his answer in Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani, better known as Nund Rishi who walked on Kashmiri soil in the 14th and 15th centuries and showed his people a workable paradigm for coexistence.
In a language that people understood, Rishi went on to institute Sufism in the Valley by successfully establishing an idiom that coupled Hindu and Buddhist thoughts with the real spirit of Islam. He used local idioms, “For example, the Islamic word for divinity is ‘devo’ in his teachings; Allah is called ‘bhugi’ which is Kashmiri for ‘bhagwan’… Nund Rishi’s was one of the few indigenous Sufi Orders of India because other Orders were not born in India but in Persia. Even though rishis of Kashmir have some thoughts in common with the Chistia Order, Chistis were originally from Afghanistan,” Abir found.
Pulled by this great past of his people, Abir, for the last five years — as a fellow with the University of Minnesota — has been researching the Rishi Order and “increasingly realising what were actually the foundations of Kashmir… One of the fundamental concerns of the Order was to avoid violence between the two communities,” points out Abir during a conversation in Shimla. He was there to present a paper on the poetry of Nund Rishi at the 11th Conference on Early Modern Literatures of North India, which is being held for the first time in India.
Abir revealed that Nund Rishi’s teachings were a serious critique of the society then. “His loyalty was with the Kashmiri peasantry, the poor lot. His shrueks (taken from the Sanskrit word slokas) consistently attacked the caste system. It was on the lines of the Bharti poets though his approach was more cautious because of the times he lived in.”
Unlike Kabir, whose teachings were a criticism of Islam and Hinduism, Nund Rishi affirmed both. “His approach was unique because he affirmed his relations with both the Koran and Hindu-Buddhist thoughts. His structure of thought tried to look at a universal shared language, how one community can live together with another,” said Abir.
Nund Rishi emerged at a time of great political crisis in Kashmir. Trying to draw a parallel with today, the paper Abir has written for the conference — hosted by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies — studies the relations between the negative theology of Nund Rishi and the thinking of death in Sufism
“Here I look at his idea about life and death. Learning to live is also learning to die,” says Abir. Nund Rishi also holds importance in the Valley’s history because he was the first to write in Kashmiri. “Before him, the writings were either in Sanskrit or in Persian.” Today though, he is more or less a forgotten name in Kashmir. “There are contestations now about what Rishism means. Young people don’t really know much about him, some have only heard of him from their parents or grandparents,” says Abir. During his research, he says, “One big problem was that his poetry and texts written about him were in Kashmiri language.” Ironically, Kashmiri is not taught in schools there, so Abir had to teach himself how to read and write his own language. Since some texts about him were in Persian, he learnt that language too.
His research work on Nund Rishi is far from over but he adds hopefully, “At some point I would like to put all of these in book form.”
(Abir Bazaz presented the paper “Die before you Die: Negative Theology, Death and Politics in the Poetry of Nund Rishi (1378-1440)” at the 11th International Conference on Early Modern Literatures in North India that concludes today in Shimla.)