Aga Shahid Ali Poet of Kashmir (1949-2001)

In the month of December ,15 years back famous Kashmiri American Poet Aga Shahid Ali, battling cancer left this world and left a legacy behind. Shahid was the ambassador of Kashmir’s pain, suffering, beauty which he introduced to world through his writing. Famous contemporary writers of Kashmir like Basharat Peer, Mirza Waheed, Shahnaz Bashir all have taken inspiration from him and use his poetry in their writings.

Born in an educated family Shahid studied in Srinagar, Dehli and America where he taught later at a university. Shahid’s family has played important role in Kashmir especially in education. Shahid’s great grand father, Aga Sayyed Hussein was the first Muslim minister of Kashmir in the Maharaja government. Shahid’s father, Aga Ashraf Ali was famous educationist, who then became Chairman BOSE and Commissioner education. Aga Ashraf Ali in his memoirs “Kuch Toh Kehte Hai Log Likhye” writes about his family, education, his studies in Jamia Milia and USA. Shahid’s grandmother, Begum Zafar Ali to whom Shahid dedicated one of his book, according to Shahid could quote great minds like Milton, Ghalib, Iqbal and was the first women matriculate of Kashmir who played an important role in the education in valley. She was later nominated as member legislative council also. In her autobiography ‘Meri Aapbeti’ she writes about the patriarchy in Kashmir and how tough it was to get education in valley for women. C. Bilquees Taseer, wife of famous Pakisatani educationist, who was principal Amar Singh College and S.P College, sister in Law of famous Poet Faiz And Faiz has written one chapter on her role in the uplift of women and education in her book “The Kashmir Of Sheikh Abdullah”. Shahid had two uncles also, Aga Nasir who was an I.A.S officer and Aga Showkat Ali who was Tehsildar in Maharaja regime, who later resigned and joined Muslim Conference and fought against the plight of Kashmiri’s. He was arrested in late 1940s and released in exchange of Brigadier Gansara Singh who was arrested in Gilgit Scouts case. He was sent to Pakistan where he later became Director Tourism, Pakistan.

Shahid had great love for urdu, especially Faiz’s poetry, and music of Begum Akhtar whom Shahid had good friendship with, and dedicated a book to her. Faiz, known as the poet of poor, Shahid followed and wrote for poor Kashmiri’s pain and suffering. Shahid even translated Faiz’s work into English – ‘Rebel’s Silhoutte’. Shahid’s family had relations with the family of Faiz. It was his father who introduced him to the poetry of Faiz in childhood. It was the time when Nazim Hikmet was widely read in America, Shahid wanted to introduce Faiz’s revolutionary poetry into English. In the year1976 Shahid wrote letter to Faiz who was living in exile in Beirut due to government change in Pakistan. In 1980, his translation of Faiz’s work ‘Rebel Silhoutte’ was out. Shahid has the credit of introducing Ghazal in English Poetry. Besides this translation, Shahid wrote many other books like Lenox Hill, The country without Postoffice, Call me Ishmael Tonight and many other books.

Shahid compared with famous British Poet Ted Hud Hudgens had many great admirers like Edward Said, Naom Chomsky and Amitav Ghosh who wrote tribute on Shahid. Commenting on Shahid’s work Edward Said wrote “This is poetry whose appeal is universal”. Amitav Ghosh in his tribute to Shahid writes that Shahid was humane, would feel pain of anyone. Once at Barcelona he was asked by security person, “do you carry anything dangerous”. Shahid replied. “yes, my heart”. This was he. He had love for Kashmiri tradition, Wazwaan. Shahid had love for Kashmir as a civilisation. He used to feel the pain of Kashmiris. As his friend, Irfan Hassan, to whom he has dedicated the first poem in his collection “The Country without Post Office”, says: ‘once an auto driver was beaten by army, Shahid and I boarded. Shahid instead of paying him Rs. 50 payed him 100. When irfan told him why you paid him more. he said: “Irfan, he was beaten. I couldn’t bear the pain and may be he need it and could heal his pain”. Resistance leader Mohammad Yasin Malik once wrote: “Even on his death bed Shahid had a smile on his face. When I visited him in the USA he talked like nothing has happened to him”. His inspiration were Faiz, James Merill to whom he dedicated one book also.

In his name an award is given to writers, and poets at the University of Utah. It is most unfortunate that nothing is named after this great son of soil while he is being remembered in the USA. The question is how can we expect state to give award commemorating the person who has spoken against this state,  a ruthless one. However, some seminars were conducted on him in KU. After his death Aga Shahid Foundation was formed remembering him every year, and Aga Shahid Award given every year to five people. Some of the recipients of Aga Shahid award are Rehman Rahi and  C.L Vishen, an educationist. However, due to certain reasons the Aga Shahid Foundation didn’t function. We need to revive the foundation and remember this great son of soil. He still lives in our hearts, and is the most popular resistance poet of the Valley.

Faizan Bhat can be reached at bhatfaizan10@gmai.com