What ails Kashmiri Culture?

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CULTURE is the characteristic of a specific group of people which envelops everything from language, social habits, music, cuisine, arts etc. It defines the shared and common patterns of behavior and interactions among the members of the community. These shared cultural values are learned, preserved and passed on through a process of various forms of social interaction. 

Kashmiri culture—be it language, arts and crafts, music, architecture, social values, attire etc, has been suffering from a one way import of ideas for a long time now, where it has been absorbing influences from other cultures, without making its own presence felt on those cultures. In its various facets, Kashmiri culture is facing an existential threat from various quarters. It not only faces threats from what is commonly known as Western culture, but also from Indian and Arab culture. The influences and threats, will either completely obliterate whatever is left of Kashmiri culture or bring it to a stage where it loses its local and indigenous flavor.

Language serves as the backbone of any culture. It helps preserve and transmit history and culture of a nation. There was a time, till about three decades back, when Kashmiri language was taught in schools. But in the early 80s, this practice was discontinued. Instead major emphasis was laid on teaching of Urdu language. This resulted in a complete disconnect of Kashmiris with their past history, origin and culture. Now the Govt has reintroduced Kashmiri language in the school curriculum, but so much damage has already been done that such half baked measures will hardly have any long term positive effect on the language. With the failure of the State to promote the language and the indifference of the masses, Kashmiri has failed to evolve with changing times and seems destined for extinction. Parents encourage their kids to learn Urdu in their formative year which further goes to obliterate Kashmiri language. In fact kids who speak Kashmiri are frowned upon. 

As with language, other aspects of Kashmiri culture are under attack as well. With the advent of cable TV over the last few decades, it seems the Indian Cultural project in Kashmir is making huge inroads with the help of TV Shows and movies. With no local television channels and no commercial film industry, the Hindustani cultural footprint in Kashmir is growing by the day.

Traditional Kashmiri attire has also undergone a noticeable change owing, both to the Western and Arab influences. Though dressing still retains much of old flavor, given that unlike language, it depends to a large extent on the geography of a place. But the discerning eye can not miss the subtle changes, especially the way women dress themselves. Since the beginning of militancy in Kashmir, in the early ‘90s, there was a concerted effort by various organisations to impose a certain kind of dress code on women. This effort was carried out in the guise of introducing ‘Islamic dressing’ among women in which women were asked to wear Abaya as a ‘modest Islamic’ dress. This influence is becoming so deep that many people genuinely think Abaya to be an ‘Islamic’ dress rather than consider it as overarching imported attire. A feeling has been created as if it is the only ‘modest Islamic’ dress that a woman can wear. It is a subtle attempt to ‘’Arabise’’ Kashmir. It is not only in Kashmir, but in other parts of the non-Arab Muslim world, where the Gulf funded project of ‘’Arabisation’’ and obliteration of local culture is being carried out in the name of Islam. It is more visible among office and school going educated urban women. It would hardly make sense for a rural woman, to wear this dress, especially when she goes out to work in her fields. 

Kashmiri culture took another blow with the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the early ‘90s. Though a small minority, Kashmiri Pandits formed an important social group which helped Kashmiri culture evolve and retain its distinct flavor. They were crucial for social interaction which helps in developing and transmitting a culture. Various Kashmiri Pandits made important contributions in the fields of literature, poetry, art and music. With their departure, Kashmiri culture has lost a vital part and a link to the shared past history and culture. With rapid globalization, it will be extremely difficult to hold on to the shared common threads between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits and both communities will find it extremely difficult to transmit each other’s essence and legacy to their future generations.

Kashmiri music is also at the cross roads. New talent has failed to come up on the Kashmiri music scene for a long time now. The Music industry in Kashmir was one of the biggest sufferers with the onset of militancy in 1990. Many notable Kashmiri singers either migrated from Kashmir or began to cut down on new ventures. Also adding to this acute paucity of talent is the fact that no new sensible poetry is being written in Kashmiri. The slow death of Kashmiri language has played a major role in the demise of Kashmiri music. Owing to Bollywood influence, most new Kashmiri songs are generally cheap remixes. Gone are the days, when one could sit back and listen to some pure, traditional classic Kashmiri music like Sufiyana and Chhakar and Roff. For a true connoisseur of Kashmiri music, this is an immense setback.

Kashmir is rich in heritage and has architecturally significant heritage buildings, especially in the city of Srinagar. Most of these historical buildings have been designed according to the traditional architecture. The Pagoda style of roof which is seen in these heritage buildings like the Old Jama Masjid in Srinagar was designed to cater to the typical geography of Kashmir. But now with new mosques coming up, some of which are funded with petro dollars, hardly any respect is paid to the local architecture and skilled Kashmiri workforce. Instead one sees Arab style domes in mosques, mocking the local traditions and sensibilities.

If Kashmiri culture has to withstand these frontal attacks, it needs a multipronged strategy. Making Kashmiri a language in the school curriculum, encouraging local artisans, artists, reviving the Kashmiri folk music and developing a sense of pride in Kashmiri heritage would perhaps be the starting points for a long awaited cultural revival in Kashmir. It needs both the State and the society to do their bit to revive this dying culture. Like any other culture, Kashmiri culture also cannot remain exclusive. It will definitely take some positive influences from other cultures, but a one way transfer of ideas will surely be a death knell for Kashmiri culture. Let the old art of bedtime storytelling and lullabies in Kashmiri be the first small, but positive step in this much awaited revival.

(The write-up appeared in special Kashmir Observer supplement on Oct 29. The suplement was dedicated to ‘SAMANBAL’, a two day long cultural festival, organised by the Talent Club of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Kashmir)

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