On the Conversion of the Canonical into the Popular — A Commentary by Hurmat Altaf
January 26, 2023
Hurmat Altaf explores the process that makes a canonical literary work also a popular one for the masses by evaluating the widespread popularity of Shamas Faqir and Lal Ded’s verses among the Kashmiri people.

In older times, literature was simply defined as everything that is in written form, but with the evolution of everything around us, the definition of literature also evolved. Literature in today’s world may be defined as anything voiced, spoken or invented. Throughout the world, literature, for that matter, has its own stylistic qualities, thematic undertones, and aesthetic beauty that captivate a reader for multiple reasons. The beauty and charm of literature lies in its literary language that results in a peculiar “literariness”, a quality that makes literary language stand out and distinguish itself from other linguistic forms.

Kashmir as a melting pot of Sufism and intellectualism has consistently been characterized by a rich literary history. Our Peeri Waer (the land of spirituality) has produced a worthy number of Sufi poets and intellectuals who have contributed immensely in the field of literature in multiple ways that eventually composed or framed our rich and illustrious Kashmiri literature. Poets like Lal Ded, Habba Khatoon and Rasul Mir are some of the significant figures of the soil in the earliest manifestations of Kashmir’s literary tradition.

Another important figure, the noble Sufi poet Shamas Faqir, also an apprentice to Niama Saeb, was born in 1843 at Habba Kadal Srinagar. He was a prolific Sufi poet who is remembered and cherished through his tremendous contribution in Kashmiri Sufism. Through his art, he elevated the genre of Sufism to new heights. The aestheticism of literature lies in the fact that it makes the subject of depiction immortal and constant through ages. His works are mainly concerned with mystical poetry in his professing of love for the divine and the sublime.

Shamas Faqir is recognized in popular culture for the lyrics of the sensational song “Bedard Dadi Chane”, which is derived from a Qalam where the poet reveals his love towards the Divine and gives voice to the supreme power. Such verse reflect on the power of the divine to move, inspire, exalt and elevate us. Moreover, as a work of literature, its ambiguous nature leaves ample room for multiple meanings such as its unfolding as a song about the pain of the lover for his beloved and much more.

Another sensational song of the day is “Naazneen”, which is again connected to the magnificent Sufi poetess of the valley, Lal Ded. The song begins with Lal Ded’s widely recognized verse (Vaakh):

“Lal bu drays, Kabtse posh satschay
Emi dayn disham myetschi laal…”

(I came into this world, just as a cotton flower sprouts from its bud
But this world dragged me to the mud)

The lyrics of the song were actually written by a son of the Kashmiri soil, Ghulam Nabi Doolwal popularly known as Janbaz Kishtwari. He was an enthralling, illustrious and magnificent poet and a musician. The song meditates upon the journey of life, and more specifically on how life is recurrently seen through binaries and contrasts; if on one end someone is celebrating, on another end someone else is lamenting. It basically highlights the absurd nature of life and also how one gets indulged in this world and forgets one’s real purpose.

The Qalam “Bedard Dadi Chane” and the song “Naazneen” became overnight sensations when first performed for the public. Their growing popularity since their inception and the permanent place in the collective memory of Kashmiris takes us back to the age-old debate of  “Canon/Popular Dichotomy.” Canonical literature is defined as classical in nature. A writer is said to be known as canonical when they are interested in the disinterestedness, otherwise understood as not writing for the sake of the market and instead with the sole focus on the standard of stylistic quality and intellectual value.

Popular literature, on the other hand, is defined as being written in vogue with the trends and prominent tastes found in the market and is thereby intended for the masses (common people). It is therefore commercial in nature and is often referred to as “para literature” or “leftover literature” because of the lack of theoretical and critical work based on them.

As a result, one has to wonder how pieces of literature such as “Bedard Dadi Chane’’ and “Naazneen”—originally written by the canonical writers at the very center of Kashmir’s canonical literary corpus—became a core part of popular literature almost overnight. One could consider the notion that canons result from material formations, especially in the Marxist view, where the change in material conditions of a given society results in a shift of perception and value towards something concrete.

Be it canonical or popular, both are distinct parts of the corpus that is literature, which while characterized by stylistic and aesthetic elements is ultimately constituted by the literary language it composes and that in turn composes it. Literary language for that matter provides us with the freshness of language by defamiliarizing us from the quotidian nature of things and the known nature of reality.  In “Bedard Dadi Chane’’ and “Naazneen” we see that freshness of language merge into the popular from space of canonical writing and literature by two of the most prominent figures of the Kashmiri literary canon.

In such a mode, a work that—or a writer who—is canonical in one age can become popular in the other and vice versa. Needless to say, popular literature should never be labeled as “trash literature” or “leftover literature” since it has a significance of its own. Secondly, the value ascribed to specific works of literature depends upon taste, which in of itself evolves with time, eventually blending the modern and contemporary with the traditional and the folk. “Bedard Dadi Chane’’ and “Naazneen”, perhaps, are two prime examples of such a conversion of the canonical into the popular within the history of Kashmiri literary production.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/hurmataltaf/" target="_self">Hurmat Altaf</a>

Hurmat Altaf

Hurmat Altaf is a student pursuing B.A. Honors in English Literature from Cluster University, Srinagar. She considers herself a passionate writer and poetess in formation who has published several articles, poems and research paper in recognized newspapers, magazines and journals.