On Kashmiri language, literature and script

By Dr. K.N. Pandita

Last month I was invited to a couple of book releasing functions at the Cultural Academy, Jammu. The books, both prose and poetry, were authored by Kashmiri men of letters. I was even bestowed upon the honour of chairing two such functions.

I do not write in Kashmiri, and I am not one among contemporary Kashmiri writers, poets or critics. As such, I thought I was least qualified to function either as the chairperson of these functions or as chief guest. But my age must have prompted the organizers to show me respect and I am beholden to them. 

Incidentally, I was also invited to be a member of and participate in the Board of Studies in Kashmiri for the Post Graduate Department of Kashmiri language and literature which the University of Jammu intends to open in Government Degree College Kishtwar. The Committee was supposed to frame the syllabus for M.A. Kashmiri. We found it sensible to recommend adoption of the existing syllabus for M.A. course in Kashmir at the department of Kashmiri, University of Kashmir.

All these events coming in succession were strong enough to prompt me to do some serious thinking on the position of Kashmiri literature and language as the new emerging medium of expression for the Kashmir intellectuals and literati. To be honest, I have never given any serious thought to this branch of study just because I was very much pre-occupied with Central Asian history and civilization besides my deep interest in Iranian Studies. Since in the later part of my life I took to two more engaging pursuits, namely human rights and journalism, Kashmir literature and language totally slipped out of my mind. It was not a good thing.

Once upon a time when I was still in active service at the University of Kashmir, I used to hear from some of my colleagues about the step-motherly treatment meted out to Kashmiri language in the State, and especially in the valley. It was said that the government was not encouraging Kashmiri language once Urdu had been adopted as the state language. I thought it was unfortunate and justice ought to have been done to Kashmiri.

Then suddenly it was announced that the University of Kashmir would open Post Graduate Department of Kashmir which convinced me that there was not much truth in the accusation that the government was hindering promotion of Kashmiri. So the teaching of Kashmiri language and literature to valley students started not from bottom but from top. The pre-requisite for admission to M.A. in Kashmiri was that a candidate needed Urdu/Persian/Arabic/Hindi or English as a compulsory subject at graduation level and below. The course extended to two semesters over a period of two years with each Semester having a number of courses. History of literature, theories of literary criticism, phonetics, rhetoric etc formed the courses of study. The syllabus finally framed and approved for M.A. in Kashmiri gave an impression that Kashmiri was as big and mighty a literature as English or French or Russian and merited treatment at par.

To me it appeared somewhat amusing. I had never heard of a comprehensive history of Kashmir written in Kashmiri leave aside a literary history of Kashmir produced in Kashmiri. I asked myself whether a handful of aphorisms of Laleshwari and Nund Rishi, or some ghazals of Rosul Mir or Mahmud Gami and Mahjoor and others were quantitatively and qualitatively determinable literary output to which the theories of literary criticism of great masters like Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Eliot and others could be applied. I asked myself if the classical works of these outstanding literary critics on the principles of literary criticism had been translated into Kashmiri, and whether these were comprehensible to Kashmiri language scholars?

I also asked myself that since most of the scholars opting for Master’s degree in Kashmiri were well versed with Urdu and Farsi, why should not the classics of literary criticism in these languages, and perhaps also in Hindi, Sanskrit and Arabic be prescribed for study of the course on literary criticism. I know that most of the contemporary Urdu criticism is borrowed, and rather very awkwardly, from English criticism, and thought it may not do much good to the scholars of Kashmiri.

Apart from this, I know that almost all big languages and literatures have spent good energy in translating outstanding works of history, fiction, poetry, criticism, philosophy, travelogues etc. into their respective language, enriched it immensely, and widened the canvas of future littérateurs to write with ease and flow in their own language. Farsi language, an eastern language rich in syntax, grammar and vocabulary has borrowed from French and English to a large extent and assimilated those phrases and words into their own. But this could be done only when English or French classics were translated into their language. This has not been the case with Kashmiri language.  How can one expect a scholar of Kashmir to be handling a comprehensive language without allowing free flow of current and usable words, phrases and idioms of other world class languages into it?

Here crops us the question of Kashmiri script. The script adopted by the valley writers is the Arabic script with some diacritical marks to Arabic alphabet to represent Kashmiri phonemes. This is an unscientific attempt and has not produced satisfactory results. The original script found most suited to Kashmiri expression is of Sharada. It was in vogue till later period of the Sultans of Kashmir. After the conversion of Kashmir nobility and plebeians as well to Islam after 15th century A.D. Sharada script remained confined to Hindu priestly community only. Fortunately a small fund of the writings of our ancestors in Sharada script has survived the vagaries of human mind and we have been able to locate them. Even the manuscript of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, which Stein made the archetypes for his translation into English, was also written in Sharada script.

Abandonment of Sharada script – a time tested and more scientific script for Kashmiri – in post independent period despite tall claims of preserving cultural manifestations of the Kashmirian society, and its replacement by Arabic script, to which some diacritical marks have been appended, remains the most unscientific and unjustifiable script for Kashmiri language. The worse is that no professional with vast expertise in phonetics was inducted into the project of adapting the Arabic script to Kashmiri language. Thos who did it out of their originality did it out of total ignorance and disregard of the basic principles of phonetics. Alas, a purely scientific and literary issue was turned into a political issue without caring for its consequences.

It is true that some Hindu writers and poets in post independence era wrote in Devnagri script adapting some peculiar Kashmiri half vowel or broken sounds by putting diacritical marks on the alphabet. But even that too is terribly unscientific. This complicacy can be overcome by adopting the example of modern Turkish which is written in Roman script but with some diacritical marks appended to some of the letters both vowel and consonant. The Turkish scientist rose above narrow religious prejudices and advised the authorities to adopt the newly devised script which is Roman together with necessary diacritical marks.

I think that those of Kashmiri writers, poets and commentators who are able to wriggle out of prejudicial trappings could and should form a Writers’ Forum and take up the reformation of Kashmiri script in right earnest. It is their right to ask for the promotion of an important regional language and its script along scientific lines. This Forum should initiate a widespread campaign for transforming the Kashmiri script to Roman script with necessary diacritical marks to represent all vowel and consonant coordinate phonemes. They should requisition the advice of world famous linguists and the Sahitya Akademy should be able to provide budgetary facilities to give shape to the proposal. It is the right of Kashmiri writers, poets, critics, historians and lovers of literature to ask for this change and to see that it is brought about. The Roman script for Kashmiri thus evolved with diacritical marks should become the standard script of Kashmiri language. If this is done, we will find a big flow of literary output in Kashmiri by genuine scholars. Printing and publication of that stuff would become easier and its marketing will also be facilitated. It would open a window of world literature on our scholars and writers.

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