Madhosh Balhami: ‘A Chronicler of Collective Pain’

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Madhosh Balhami. Pic by Shabir Bhat

From his folk-singing days to a poetic prison period, a quintessential bard from Balhom Srinagar cemented his place as Kashmir’s unconventional couplet-maker over the years. But after losing his treasure-trove to a firefight in 2018, the poet turned platonic and began writing eulogies.

By Nayeem Rather

A YEAR before war sirens would alarm Kashmir, Madhosh Balhami, then 34-year-old poet, had picked up an unruffled routine. It was 1998, and he would silently retreat to his prison cell at Srinagar’s Central Jail and write poetry at length. He was arrested in January that year for “his activism, and writing poetry”. But weaving verses in incarceration threw a major challenge at him — how to smuggle them out of the jail, and importantly, what to do if the jail authorities checked his writing.

And the jail authorities did check, one day.

He had written a poem in Urdu, the official language of the Jammu and Kashmir. The poem was ‘overtly political’; its theme: Cargo — the city citadel of special operations group, the SOG of JK Police.

A police officer read it, and confiscated the paper and burnt it down. Madhosh was warned to not write again—at least not the political poems.

Among the confiscated writings, there were many poems on mysticism, God, and love; they were written in Kashmiri. Unable to read Kashmiri like majority of Kashmiris, the curious police officers enquired about the prisoner poet’s poems. “They’re Sufi poems,” he told them. They were left untouched.

“For the first time in my life did I rejoice at the fact that most Kashmiris can’t read or write Kashmiri,” Madhosh recalls the incident at his newly built home at Balhom, Srinagar. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

To filter through jail-time censorship, he devised a plan.

“I began to write political poetry in Kashmiri language. And I would also write a dozen poems in Urdu on the themes of mysticism, and God,” says Madhosh.

“It can be said that for every political poem, I had to write a dozen poems on Love and God—the poems I no longer know.”

He would put the mystic poems on the top of the pile of papers, and slip two or three poems of political nature in between. This way, the captive’s couplets conveniently circumvented the cell shadowing.

That was how he was able to write.

“Jail was the most productive time for me as far as poetry is concerned,” the unassuming poet continues to recount his poetic journey. “I had all the time, and I would just write, and compose poems.”

Before weaving verses, Madhosh had his stint with folksinging. Pic by Shabir Bhat

When he was released from jail in 2000, he carried all the poems, written in hard labour, in his bag, and wanted to publish them one day.

But in March 2018 his house was razed to the ground in a gun battle between three militants and armed forces.

“My entire corpus turned to ashes in front of my eyes—my hard labour of three decades,” the poet laments.

“My poems were like my children. However, I didn’t grieve over it; I grieved over the human loss. Death of a human being is more sorrowful than losing your poems.”

And death is from where Madhosh traces his journey as a poet.

In his childhood, Madhosh was ‘captivated’ by the idea of loss, and this idea of loss encouraged him to write, and express. And pain, both personal and collective, became theme of his writings.

Madhosh was 16 when his father, Ghulam Mustafa died in 1979.

“Death of my father destroyed me,” the poet says. “I felt immensely alone, and lost. I wanted to commit suicide. It was the beginning of my journey as a writer.”

It was the period when, according to Madhosh, he was personally lost and carried a “sense of low self-esteem” within him. With no one to support his education—he was studying B.A first year at SP College, Srinagar—he began to work as a daily-wage labourer. He tried to express the loneliness but was not able to.

“I was like a ship caught in a storm, crashing with waves, not knowing where to land. There was so much I wanted to tell but couldn’t find the voice,” says Madhosh of that time.

It was during this time of his life that he accidently discovered a book in a friend’s place. It was a collection of poems of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan.

“I read Iqbal, and it had an electrifying effect on me. His ideals of self and political action galvanized me,” says Madhosh. As did another figure, Ayatollah Khomeini — the spiritual leader of 1979 Iranian Revolution.

“I found fatherly figure in Ayatollah and in Iqbal. My political consciousness grew. They led me by hand from darkness to light, from despair to hope,” says Madhosh.

“The mere thought of Iranian Revolution healed my wounds. I felt that injustice can be defeated. I felt tyrant regimes can be toppled.”

Then he began to read.

Madhosh was part of MUF. Pic by Shabir Bhat

He read books on Kashmir history, notably the works of GMD Sofi, Prem Nath Bazaz and likes of Shabnam Qayoom. Apart from that, he read the works of Iranian intellectual, Dr. Ali Shariati.

The more he read, the more conscious he became politically.

And then in 1980s, he became an activist with Muslim United Front (MUF) — a political amalgam of various pro-Kashmir parties, that eventually contested elections in 1987 which were infamously rigged by New Delhi.

Four years before that, while a student, Madhosh had formed a local music band, mostly singing folk songs, mystic verses at cultural gatherings. Folk bands form an essential part of Kashmiri music — known for singing eulogies of the heroes of Kashmir, both mythical and real. Madhosh played role of a vocalist, and played Rabab.

The experience as a folksinger later was to influence the way he imagined his poetry. Stylistically his poems resemble folk oral poetry that is easy to rhyme, direct, and local. Madhosh was to use this style of poetry to express his political views, and document the times he lived in.

“At the meetings with people during my MUF days, I began to recite and sing my poetry—mostly copying the style of Iqbal,” the poet recalls. “I would compose a poem a day before or at the spot and recite it. I don’t remember any poem of that era but I do remember they celebrated Muslim identity and hope for a better future.”

By 1990, Madhosh was making headway as a small poet, known, if not to a lots of people, but to important political figures of the time, including pro-freedom leaders Nayeem Khan, and Syed Ali Geelani.

According to Madhosh, the leaders loved his poetry and suggested he publish it. Madhosh was encouraged to write more. However, he was arrested in 1991—first time, and served two years in prison.

“I wanted to publish my poems but no one was willing to publish it,” he says. “I showed some poems to a local publisher and they turned it down out of fear. So did newspapers of the time. They told me my poetry is too ‘direct and dangerous’.”

Discouraged, he didn’t try again.

But he kept composing poetry, recite it, and in order to not forget or lose the poetry he wrote it down.

“I wanted to preserve the poems for the generations to come, to let them know how a Kashmiri lived in the times of repression, and what injustices and zulm was committed on a people,” he says.

Madhosh standing in front of his gutted house. Photo by Syed Shahriyar

At times, Madhosh doesn’t consider himself a poet in the conventional sense of the word. He considers himself a ‘chronicler of collective pain’ and ‘a preserver of people’s brutal history, and struggles’.

Poetry, he claims, is a sublime art, dealing in themes of life in “normal and happy times” and believes that meaning of poetry and its nature should alter according to the times one lives in.

He calls himself a ‘resistance rhymester’ which sees and records every mood of the people.

“I have never seen my people smile,” the poet says. “I can’t write about flowers, flowing streams and beauty of Kashmir. I don’t see beauty, I see blood everywhere. I see the landscape in fetters.”

The most dominant theme of his poetry is his experience as a Kashmiri.

Back in March 1990, when the poet was 24, he was dragged out from his Balhom home and tied to a willow tree on a nearby hill. “I was tortured for two hours,” he says. “My back was lashed with willow sticks and bamboo rods.” This experience changed him, and the nature of his poetry, drastically.

While descending down the hill after torture, he made a resolve to write about his experience. And few days later, he penned down his first poem that was ‘overtly political: the poem was aptly titled ‘Gashti’ — a Kashmiri word for patrolling party of armed forces.

Sukh mukhe tawan pou hai hai Gashti aaye Gashti aye, Tharr czaye lookan sar to pai Gashti aaye Gashti aye,

(The dread spread, with the arrival of patrolling party, the onlookers trembled, with the arrival of patrolling party…)

For the poet, the street picket is the metaphor for ‘political repression’.

The repression in Kashmir, he says, began first on the landscape—when bunkers were erected all over the place, in every nook and cranny of the valley, giving rise to immense visual suffering and altering the mindscape of the place.

“Bunkers are objects of terror,” Madhosh says. “Thousands have disappeared in them, never to return, and their sight is the reminder of our humiliation.”

In one of his untitled poems, Madhosh elaborates on the violence that turned the land into “ruined barrenness”. The poet compares his verse with the ‘songs of spring’ and reprimands himself, out of fear, not to sing spring songs amidst ‘thorns’.

Yem saasebaedh khanjar che aamit loole chaane yoer, Hanne hanne cze kadnay jaan, ma kar chaak girebaan

(These thousands of daggers have appeared to kill you with a thousand cuts…)

The poet lost his major works in a firefight. Pic by Shabir Bhat

Madhosh is disappointed with the Kashmiri poets especially the ones who came before him and witnessed the turbulent times in the valley.

They, he says, have not risen up to the occasion—and instead wrote non-political poems without mirroring the ground reality in Kashmir.

“Most of the poets didn’t write because they didn’t want to displease the state,” the poet says. “They wrote Sufi poetry and penned paeans to win state sponsored awards and perks. It is the tragedy of Kashmiri literature.”

Apne qom kay dard kay qarb say be parva ho kar, Mera adeeb, mera shayir gyaanpeet ki talaash mein

(Staying indifferent to their homeland’s agony, my writers, poets are in search of literary award.)

Commenting on his poetry, Kashmiri novelist Shahnaz Bashir, states that Madhosh’s poetry is a departure from the conventional poetry of Kashmiri literature, in a sense that the poet is overtly political, and “laments our circumstances and situation”.

Echoing the views of Madhosh on established Kashmiri poets, Shahanaz says, “The history of Kashmiri intrigues me generally. Seldom in their poetry did our early poets mention, let alone lament, the situation of their times that was replete with autocratic repression”.

The author of Half Mother adds that the reason for such ignorance could be the censorship that silences poets and writers in Kashmir historically. However, Shahnaz also thinks that many contemporaries of Madhosh remained “intentionally neutral”.

“Rafiq Raaz wrote beautiful and profound poetry but you will find no mention of, or allusion to what was going on in Kashmir when he was around,” says Shahnaz.

But after his house was gutted, Madhosh has stopped to write as much as he would, especially the political poetry.

Of late, he has been writing religious eulogies celebrating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad [Pbuh], who, according to Islamic tradition fought against injustice that led to his martyrdom at Karbala, Iraq in seventh century AD.

The dominant theme of these poems is celebration of valour of Hussain in the face of tyranny.

“These eulogies are thematically exploring the idea of injustice and tyranny,” Madhosh says. “In a sense, the story is the same. I find Kashmir in Karbala!”

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