Kashmiri Society as Reflected in Folk Songs: Mirrors on the Wall of Time

Kashmiri Society as Reflected in Folk Songs:  Mirrors on the Wall of Time

R L Talashi

Kashmiri folk literature is a treasure trove of unwritten socio-cultural history spanning centuries. It is particularly true of our folk songs. These songs depict life in various hues and moods as well as the dark and colourful aspects of the traditional Kashmiri society. Rich in depicting emotions, dreams and miseries, these folk songs bring to light various shades and values of Kashmiri society.

Kashmir has been an abode of many religions and religious philosophies and they have shaped Kashmiri society and the collective psyche. In ancient period, naga and siva cult and Buddhist religion flourished in Kashmir. Thus the behavioural patterns of Kashmiri society were mostly derived from God-centered beliefs.

After the 14th century, Kashmir was dominated by Islam under Muslim rule. But this transition to Islam did not alter the basic foundations of Kashmiri culture and behavioural patterns of the people. Instead, this transition enriched and refreshed it.  We can say that Kashmir under Muslim rule was same as in the period preceding it. Islamic mysticism and influences from Persia did not change the basic outlook of the people as the new Islamic belief also emphasised Godliness and the world beyond.

The cultural influences both in the ancient and the medieval times made Kashmiris to absorb new values but they never eliminated the past. It became an assimilatory process where the old seamlessly blended with the new.

Kashmir in ancient as well as medieval times cared more for spiritual ends and the world beyond. It has taught tyaga or self-sacrifice and purity of soul to achieve union with truth. This has become a permanent trait of Kashmiri culture and is reflected in many varieties of folk songs of the language.

Take the example of a narrative poem Aknandun, which exists in Kashmiri language in folktale form as well as folk narrative form.  It has also been written by some poets in verse. This folk narrative exemplifies meta-ethical transcendence. This narrative is a concrete application of the philosophy of mysticism as enshrined in Gita. This narrative can be also explained as an allegorical expression of conquering senses to know thyself as is taught by prtibijhna shastra of Kashmir trika philosophy. In Muslim representation of the poem, its narrative signifies control over the nafs or the worldly pleasures and thus inculcates submission to God. For some Aknandun can be the representation of scapegoat archetype that is common to most religions and cultures.

Kashmiris inclination for spirituality can be identified in many folk songs. Kalhana has said in his Rajtarngni that this country (Kashmir)  may be conquered through spiritual merits but not by the might of soldiers. Hence its inhabitants are always in awe of the world beyond. We can find ample evidence of this character trait of the common folk of the Valley.

FOLK SONGS: Entertainment and life lessons in one Photos: Faisal Khan

Kashmiri people have always loved and revered saints, rishis and sufis. Kashmir in ancient times was known as rishi vaaer (the garden of rishis) and during Muslim period this was known as pir waaer (the garden of pirs). Our folk songs of various types are full of references to such spiritual personalities. In cradle songs, here and there, blessings are sought for the well being of children. In marriage songs, these spiritual personalities are invoked to bless the new couple. Even in love songs saints and sufis are called upon to lessen the pain and pangs of separation from the beloved.

Different genres of our folk poetry bring to light Kahsmiris’ intense urge to celebrate different fairs and festivals to commemorate the birth and death days of various spiritual personalities. This is conditioned by love and reverence for these great souls. Kashmiris find themselves in an atmosphere of security and solace in these shrine environs and place their grievances and supplications to assuage them on the pedestals of these dead Sufis and saints. They invoke their aid and help through these folk songs. It is why that there are many folk songs in Kashmiri related to different Sufis and saints. Reciting these folk songs on the occasion of fairs and festivals related to different spiritual personalities provide the commoners with an opportunity to find relaxation from miseries and exacting toil.

Kashmiri folk songs bear testimony to the Kashmiri folk’s general perception of the power of fate. A folk song goes like this “The lightening of fortune,…crane of glory,…. the thunder of courage ….and rainbow of fame ….. they all followed the cloud of fate.” Even in love songs, it is fate that is seen as the cause of separation of the beloved from the lover and it is only fate which is invoked to unite them again.

A few folk songs including some satirical songs in Kashmiri deal with the nature of crime and punishment. It mostly indicates divinity, spiritual content, retribution, superstition and fate. It is thereby didactic in nature. These folk songs show that Kashmiris believed in the religious concept of crime and punishment.

Kashmiris practice atithi-deva-bhava in letter and spirit. They find enjoyment in serving the guest with delicious foods. In marriages, Kashmiris care relatively less about ornaments for bride, dowry or the pomp and show that goes with such occasions. But there is one thing Kashmiris across all sections of the society will not compromise upon. And that is the feast served on wedding occasions. They will leave no stone unturned to make it a splendid one. There can be many causes for this, but the main cause seems that common Kashmiri had to face food scarcity at many stages of history caused often by poverty or natural calamities such as floods, drought, famines, etc. Landlordism under foreign rulers also made the condition of commoners worse. The cultivators were deprived by the landlords and rulers of their produce under one official pretext or the other. The craving for food is reflected in our folk songs. So serving of good food has sub-consciously become a status symbol in the social life of Kashmir.

In our folk songs, we find abundant references about the sumptuous dishes, prepared generally on auspicious occasions like marriage and other feasts. In Kashmiri marriage songs (Wanvun), an intense desire is expressed by women folk to have an opportunity to enjoy sumptuous dishes of Kashmiri wazwan collectively.

In our  folk lullabies, we find not only the mother’s love and affection in them but also her prayer for the well-being of newly-born child. The lullabies also express the mother’s high hopes for the future. At times we find a piece of advice in these lullabies. The child is brought up with the hope that one will have support in old age and the trouble taken in rearing him will not go waste. But if it does not happen what is the way out then? The only way taught by some of our folk songs is to trust in God and do the right thing and always rely on His mercy.

Our folk songs have advocated trust in God and demanded righteousness from the people by doing the right things. For instance, marriage is kind of bond between two souls and two families. Who knows whether it shall prove successful or not. The marriage takes place with a sense of belief and trust in God. The value of this type of God-reliance is depicted in our folk songs too. For example, take this couplet:

My daughter, we have given you to the wind… At high altitudes, only in the name of God ……Don’t shed tears. Handover your life to God…We started to sing in the name of God….He brought our plan to culmination.

The relation between bride and mother-in-law is a popular subject of folk songs of different languages of the sub-continent. This is true of Kashmiri language too.  In such folk songs, the bride usually complains against her mother-in-law to her father. But the father would rather advise her to have patience. He teaches her to sincerely perform her duties towards her in-laws and bear it all. For example these few lines of a folk song bear testimony to such moral and ethical values:

Shedding bigger drops of tears… I disclosed my secret gently…

Father advised me affectionately… O, my daughter, endure, have patience… Take a pitcher of water and wash…the feet of mother-in-law and father-in-law daily… Go on keeping at in-laws home.

Kashmiri folk poetry exhibits a wide range of topics touching every aspect of traditional life including secular and religious aspects. Though unknowingly or knowingly, this treasure is preserved or told for entertainment, but at the same time it imparts cultural, moral and ethical values to its participants and the society in general. This treasure of oral literature has taught generations of Kashmiris good lessons of endurance, forbearance, piety, bravery, and patience.

Folk poetry is often poetry by the women-folk for the women-folk and of the women-folk as most of the oral poetry is sung by women, in particular, the marginalised women. Same is true about the oral poetry of Kashmiri. The marginalised Kashmiri women expressed themselves in different varieties of popular poetry. The ancient historical literature bears evidence to the fact that women in Kashmir enjoyed the maximum degree of freedom and liberty. No socio-religious activity was deemed complete without the active participation of women. But the situation didn’t remain same during the medieval period. During this period Kashmiri woman, who once occupied a prominent position in the social milieu of Kashmir, went into the deep oblivion of obscurity, ignorance, illiteracy, disease and dependence. Her response, reaction and the protest against the injustice to which she was subjected to found expression in folk song varieties of rof and wanvun (wedding songs).Unlike written as well as historical literature we do not find a stereotypical picture of Kashmiri woman in these rich folk melodies. But we come across a Kashmiri woman who is full of virtues and failings and with all beauty and ugliness. We find her in the form of a sincere wife helping her husband, discharging her multiple domestic and commercial duties. We see her as a compassionate daughter providing every sort of relief and consolation to her parents. At the same time, we find her engaged in a number of anti- familial exercises as a daughter-in–law in her husband’s house causing rupture and disturbance in the otherwise peaceful and cordial atmosphere. Her image of bad woman in the form mother-in–law finding faults in her daughter-in-law’s activities every now and then is no different from the image of a mother-in-law we observe in folk songs of the sub-continental culture.

In love songs, we often witness the image of a youthful lady, separated from her husband yearning to see the end of this separation. She is seen in constant wait for her husband. Many Kashmiri men, leaving behind their families would usually leave valley during winter months and travel to the plains of northern India to earn their livelihood. Many social evils like early marriage badly affected  Kashmiri women. The miseries of early marriages find expression in many folk songs. Early marriage of girls made the position of women wretched. There were social as well as religious causes for early marriage. From some written sources we come to know that during Afgan rule women witnessed appalling heights of sexual exploitation. The parents were thus forced to get their daughters married as early as possible to save them from the vices of the Afghans. In addition to this, poverty and illiteracy were other factors that deeply affected the social well-being of Kashmiri women in those times.

As revealed from Hindu folk devotional songs, Kashmiri Hindus considered it irreligious to marry their daughters at an advanced age. It was believed to be a grave sin. This is evidenced by some folk songs sung on the occasion of ‘thread ceremony’ performed by Hindus.

Due to the practice of early marriage, many girls would become widows even at very tender age. To quote the author of Daughters of Vitasta the magnitude of cruelty in enforced widowhood can be estimated by the fact that in 1920 CE, during Pratap Singh’s days, there were thirteen per cent Hindu girls who had lost husbands in early childhood when they were totally ignorant of the significance of the marriage or consequences of widowhood. There are many folk songs which highlight the gloomy picture of such a widow. Though there is no restriction on the re-marriage of a widow among Muslims, yet in Kashmiri society we find that ladies whose husbands died during young age preferred to live lonely for their children than to go for second marriage.

Again so often we get the image of a Kashmiri girl in these folk songs who has been given in marriage without knowing her choice or taking her consent. Ignoring altogether the opinion of the girl, marriages often resulted in miss-matches. Many a time young girls were married off to men much older to them. A number of folk songs contain ample information regarding the disastrous effects of such uncongenial marriages. In many folk songs, such aged bridegrooms are made a subject of ridicule and abuse.

Our folk songs show barrenness is the greatest misfortune for a common Kashmiri lady. In a joint family structure, barren lady was so often subjected to taunts by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. She was sometimes forced to leave the house. Under such circumstances, the only spot for such maltreated ladies was the shrine of any saintly soul.

But the image of Kashmiri women is not always dark in our folk songs. The destitute image of Kashmiri women altogether changes into a damsel with physical charms and enchanting beauty, professional gifts and enthusiastic workmanship when we see her in some folk poems in which she is shown as a working woman. Poems like Kral kur ( Potter’s Daughter), Pahael kur (Shepherd’s daughter). Doeb baay ( Washerwoman), Kandr kur (Baker’s daughter), Grees kur (Farmer’s daughter) and other poems spotlight the brighter side of women and womanhood. These folk poems bear ample evidence to the fact that women discharged their professional talent very skillfully and thereby she would contribute in the overall happiness and well being of her family.

Any study of folk literature always reveals fascinating details of the social, cultural, political, economic and religious life of the people and their land. It is also a rich repository of the trials and tribulations of the people. In many ways, it is the people’s version of history. Kashmir’s rich folk literature is a repository of socio-cultural and other histories of Kashmiris. By decoding the underlying meanings and their contexts contained in our folk literature, it can be a very good tool for understanding the psyche of the people and the factors that shape it.   

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    By: KN Web Desk

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