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#Bookmarked: Nund Rishi’s Poetry and the Quest for Answers to Modern Dilemmas

Abir Bazaz's book Nund Rishi: Poetry and Politics in Medieval Kashmir, published by Cambridge University Press explores the cryptic world of Nund Rishi’s poetry

Saman Waheed

16 November, 2023 | 6m read

Abir Bazaz is an Assistant Professor of English at Ashoka University. His research interests include Kashmiri literature, Urdu literature, South Asian literature in English, Asian Cinemas, Religion and Cinema, Intellectual History of Islam in South Asia, Sufism, Faith and Literature, Existentialism, Negative Theology, Comparative Mysticism, and Violence Studies.

His recent book, Nund Rishi: Poetry and Politics in Medieval Kashmir, embodies Bazaz’s enduring engagement with the poetic corpus of Nund Rishi. Nund Rishi (1378–1440) is considered one of the most important Sufi poets from Kashmir. He is revered as the ‘flag-bearer of Kashmir’ (‘Alamdār-e Kashmir), and his poems draw upon the hyperlocal imagery of the Kashmiri literary universe. Despite his popular status as a spiritual successor of Lal Ded, Nund Rishi’s poetry has received next to no attention in modern scholarship. By unpacking the cryptic philosophical and philological riddles in the poems, Bazaz unearths a negative theology in Nund Rishi’s mystical poetry.

We spoke to him about his book and his motivations behind writing it. Here is what he had to say:

What first drew you to work on Nund Rishi’s poetry and consequently on this book?

In May of 1995, the shrine of Nund Rishi at Chrar-i-Sharif was destroyed in a gun battle between insurgents and the army. I observed that it left many Kashmiris in a deep state of shock. People across communities and regions in Kashmir were deeply anguished by the destruction of this shrine. That is when I first started thinking about what Nund Rishi meant to the Kashmiri people and why the shrine mattered so much. Gradually, I discovered that Kashmiris would often turn to either the mystical poetry of Lal Ded or Nund Rishi in times of despair, even before the 1990s. It was then that I decided to explore this history and the significance of Nund Rishi to Kashmiri culture, literature and people. Since Lal Ded and Nund Rishi essentially inaugurate Kashmiri literary culture, I also wanted to attempt to look at the beginnings of this literary culture and try to make sense of that history.

How did the lack of modern scholarship in the field affect your research process?

It was a very difficult task.

Nund Rishi’s poetry is carved out from different manuscripts spread across multiple repositories, libraries and private collections. Interestingly, some of the sifting through manuscripts had already been done by two Kashmiri scholars—Amin Kamil and Moti Lal Saqi. They had already prepared two edited collections of Nund Rishi’s poetry under the aegis of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. For my research, I relied on these editions as well as some prepared by other independent scholars.

My biggest challenge was that there was almost little to no secondary literature or scholarly commentary on Nund Rishi— except for a few seminal essays by two Kashmiri critics, Rahman Rahi and Amin Kamil. However, there was no sustained engagement with the writing itself. There was one book of history published by Mohammad Ishaq Khan, about the Rishis, titled Kashmir’s Transition to Islam: The Role of Muslim Rishis. But, as far as studying the poetry itself is concerned, there was not much work that had been done. So, it was a little daunting and difficult to study medieval Kashmiri because there were not many philological resources available, which were adequate for the task. So, it was a laborious process to retrieve much of the material that was lost in obscurity.

I also observed that many translations of Nund Rishi’s poetry, which had happened locally, had not paid attention to deciphering every single word. If they could not understand something, it was simply glossed over. It was an arduous task to relate to and situate this style of poetry with other styles of poetry in Kashmiri and other regional traditions.

However, the primary difficulty that remained was that there was not enough material available and even the material that was available did not engage with the complexity of Nund Rishi’s style—the form and the philosophical ideas that Nund Rishi engaged in.

Has there been more work done concerning Nund Rishi’s poetry since the time of your initial interest?

Unfortunately, not yet. I hope that the book sparks more interest in Nund Rishi. As I say, towards the conclusion of the book, much more work needs to be done. I have barely scratched the surface. I have only looked at the ideas of death, nothing, faith and apocalypse. I think there is great scope in the ideas of Sahaj and Ishq which occur often in Nund Rishi’s poetry. He does very interesting things with not only traditional Sufi and Bhakti ideas but also evolving new ideas of his own using the lexicon of everyday life in Kashmir.

What are some of the recurring themes in Nund Rishi’s poetry and what do they signify?

The single most important theme in Nund Rishi’s poetry as has been pointed out by the Kashmiri poet and scholar Rahman Rahi is death. Like other Sufi poets of North India at the time, he was very interested in the idea of death as a way of rethinking life. So, at stake in this, is the idea of the human. I personally feel that Nund Rishi engaged with the ideas of death that he found available in the Islamic tradition but also other traditions in Kashmir. He then repurposed it to come up with a new thinking about death which can give us a new idea of the human and potentially transform collective life.

Why do you think Nund Rishi’s poetry is relevant in the contemporary world?

We live in difficult times. The ideas that we found inspiring in the past, no longer seem to inspire us in the same way. There seems to be a crisis of thinking which has partly been precipitated by historical and political questions. We sometimes do not look at the resources that are available in our traditions to think through these questions. While other traditions are equally important and we cannot compartmentalise traditions, as they constantly borrow from each other; I feel it is integral for us to look at the thinking that has taken place in our traditions.

When I started thinking about Nund Rishi, I did not simply think of him as a poet. I also thought of him as a thinker who had answers to questions not just in the past, but also in the present. So, it is significant to read these people as thinkers who may have answers to perplexing problems that have lingered on in our history.

I feel that people often turn to Lal Ded and Nund Rishi for hope. I also believe that studying and engaging with Nund Rishi does give us hope for a different future—a future that was imagined by him with the same passion that we find in our own hopes for a better tomorrow.

Anything else you would like the readers to know?

I would like to say to the readers that here is an attempt to retrieve a certain lost intellectual history. If they engage with this material, they might find some answers because, for me, Nund Rishi is dealing with very contemporary questions that concern caste, political equality and justice. As such, I would like the reader to not only look at the resources and thinkers they are already looking at in their attempts to grapple with these questions but also urge them to take a look at thinkers like Nund Rishi, Kabir and Guru Nanak more closely to find answers to the question that we are all collectively struggling with.

(Interview by Saman Waheed, Assistant Manager, Office of PR and Communications, Ashoka University)

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