“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any“–Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, June 1, 1921
Our Kashmir is a living, breathing example of a society that has, traditionally taken the best from various cultures and infused those elements into its own best traditions. One such tradition is the noble, spiritual and humane Sufi tradition that is Islamic at its core and, while retaining the God-fearing attributes of piousness, has melded these attributes with the mercy and the all-encompassing compassion of the Almighty.
Unfortunately, our Sufi traditions have tended to suffer at the versions of Wahabi rigidity steadily exported from Pakistan and disguised as a vehicle for Azadi. It is against such impositions that Kashmir is gradually responding by declaring that “I refuse to be blown off my feet”. The campaign to preserve Sufi traditions, being an inseparable part of Kashmiriyat, has fortunately found a response among the Valley youth and is slowly, but surely, gathering momentum.
One aspect of Sufism is the expression of devotion to our maker by way of pious and soulful dance, poetry and music (remember the dances of the dervishes?) often at the dargahs and mazars of men who, by their piety and virtue, attained the status of Pirs. Sufi devotional poetry and music were composed in the Kashmiri and Persian languages and their lilting sound, so full of devotion and immersion in the greatness and goodness of God came to distinguish Kashmiri Sufi traditions.
Although Sufi singers and dancers in the past have invariably been men; the women of today are taking an equal interest in the Sufi art forms. Shabnam Bashir, a bright and spirited Kashmiri teenager, took to learning classical Sufi music three years ago. She practised her singing in low profile at first, being diffident about opposition by her family but the family, upon seeing her talent and her application, relented subject to her commitment to Sufi music not affecting her regular studies. Today, Shabnam Bashir is a proud member of what her teacher, Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh proudly mentions as the first Sufi singing ensemble in Kashmir. Shabnam Bashir says her interest in Sufi music was primarily inspired by the desire to save ‘Sufiyana’ that symbolises the cultural ethos of Kashmir. In the wake of the trail blazed by Shabnam Bashir, her teacher has trained nearly 50 other Kashmiri girls and women in Sufi music, a cultural heritage that they shall proudly pass on to future generations.
The austere harshness of life was mellowed by the softness of Sufi painting. In March 2016, a solo Sufi painting exhibition, titled “Rhythm of Life”, by Shafique Farooqi was placed on display at the Alhambra Art Gallery on The Mall in Lahore, Pakistan.A book featuring the artist’s work was also launched with the same title to mark his 10,000 art pieces, 100 exhibitions and 50 years of working as an artist. The exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Lahore Sufi Festival.
Tragically, while Sufi culture receives so much attention in Pakistan, it is sought to be stifled and subdued in Kashmir by doctrinaire hardliners. It is, thus, heartening that Badr un Nisa, a Kashmiri girl, has shouldered the responsibility of reviving the rich Sufi tradition through her paintings. She began as a child painter but has achieved distinction with exhibitions of her paintings being held in places as far afar as Turkey and Austria.
Although Sufi saints were not architects, the people of Kashmir evolved a unique architectural style in the construction of mausoleums and shrines of these saints such that Kashmir also came to be known as “pir waer” or the Alcove of Saints. These are wooden edifices that are gloriously conceived and designed marvels of architecture. The oldest and finest example is the shrine of Shrine of Hazrat Syed Sharif-ud-Din Abdur Rehman ‘Bulbul’ Shah who arrived in Kashmir, from Turkistan in 1324 AD. Over time, people came to describe the Sufi shrine architecture as “Reshi Architecture” being an allegorical reference to the Sufi saint Nundreshi whose shrine was built at Charar-e-sharif.
Although ‘Bulbul’ Shah’s shrine was recently restored, many of these symbols of veneration and masterpieces of architecture have tragically suffered from neglect over the years eroding our heritage. The moment produces the man. Iqbal Ahmed from Kulgam, a graduate with a Diploma in numismatics, archaeology and heritage is an accomplished cultural historian who has produced as many as 12 books on Kashmiri archaeology and heritage. Iqbal Ahmed has embarked upon a programme of forceful advocacy to preserve the iconic “Reshi Architecture’ of Kashmir arguing that it is an inseparable part of the Kashmiri culture, tradition and history; something that the Kashmiri people cannot afford to lose anymore.
Pakistani architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz has explained the spiritual dimensions of Sufi shrine architechture. He points out that the mausoleum consists of a cube, representing the earth, material body, and a dome, which symbolises the spiritual sphere. The point at which they meet indicates the human and divine.