An Ode to Habba Khatoon (1554-1609), the Doyenne that Revived Kashmiri Language Against Great Odds

An Ode to Habba Khatoon (1554-1609), the Doyenne that Revived Kashmiri Language Against Great Odds

Zubair Hamid

Habba Khatun belonged to an age when Kashmir suffered much socio-political and economic agony. The dynasty of the Sultans (the prominent rulers of which Shahab al-Din and Zain al-Abidin) was on the decline; power passed into the hands of feuds who measured swords with one another in a bid to exercise their power. This internecine conflict continued which proved fatal to localities: bridges were burnt, and hunger and famine cornered the valley. On account of mutual squabbles the disgruntled leaders sought assistance from the rulers who fanned defections and destabilization. The Kashgari Invasion of 1534 had brought an acute insufficiency which added to the misery of the masses. Almost fifty years people were oppressed and harassed, writes R.L. Sadhu, by the warlords whom they had to maintain for their mercenary rabble. The unseasonal snowfall of 1576, the impact of which lasted for three years left the economy crippled for a decade and in 1586 Akbar allured by the beauty of Kashmir annexed it. It is therefore no surprise that the people faced excruciation during the lifetime of Habba Khatoon(Zoon).
Born in the area of Lal Ded (Pampore), Zoon was intelligent and eager to learn: she studied the Quran and the Persian classics ( the court language then). Zoon shared the company of other village girls in searching for herbs, balancing a number of water-pots and spinning wheel. Educated and accomplished she also was beautiful with a melodious voice. Her family married her to Aziz Lone who was impassive to her charm and apathetic to her love. Despite this, Habba Khatoon was fondly devoted to him in love and fidelity and left no stone unturned in trying to evoke a suitable response from her husband.
Aziz Lone’s mother was harsh, hostile and cruel. Zoon expressed her experience revealing her forlornness in her famous lyrics Chaara Kr Myon Maalino Ho and unloading her grief-stricken soul. Habba Khatoon sought help from a Sufi (Khwaja Masood) who predicted a better future for her. Yearning for love, tears in heart, disgust, confusion and vexation, she found relief in poetry and music. This melancholia drew a young man (Yusuf Shah Chak[d.1592]) irresistibly towards its source whose beauty bewitched his eyes. Thus did the Cinderella of Chandahar meet the charming prince of Kashmir.
Habba Khatoon entered the palace in 1570. She was consort of a king, the paragon of beauty, but attained immortality as the queen of songs. It is unfortunate to note that the well-known Persian chronicles of Kashmir like Bahristani Shahi (Syed M. Mahdi), Waqaat e Kashmir (Azam Deedmari) Muntakhab al-Tawarikh (Haider Malik) make no mention of the Habba Khatoon.
During the 14th century, hundreds of Sayyids of the Middle East and Central Asia found asylum in Kashmir. With their settlement the language, arts and culture became heavily influenced by Iranian subject matter. Persian was elevated to the status of court language and the mode of official communication. Though, Zain al-Abidin (1420-70) tried his most to revive the Kashmiri tradition of art and language but they succumbed to Persian influence. (But, there is no doubt that Persian influence enriched the Kashmiri tradition)
Kashmiri language was checked and elbowed out of high places and was reduced to the valley-sides, the peasantry, illiterate and ignorant. Habba Khatoon entered the palace when dark clouds of apathy were hovering over the Kashmiri language and art. As a queen she could have fallen in line by upholding Persian at the cost of Kashmiri language but her devotion to her own culture and language proved stronger. After Lal Ded (c. 1335-85) and Shaykh Nur al-Din (1377-1440) one finds hardly any example of Kashmiri writing for practically another century till Habba Khatoon revived it from indifference and neglect. There is no authentic substantiation of any poet of great stature having consciously espoused the mother tongue during this long interval. Abdul Ahad Azad (1903-48) writes, the next poet whose contribution is laudable is Prakash Bhat who lived two centuries after Habba Khatoon. Her timely contribution in perpetuating the Kashmiri poetry which was on the brink of being lost, while during this critical juncture her contemporaries tried to outweigh one another nurturing and contributing in Persian.
What makes Habba Khatoon singular and significant is that she wrote in Kashmiri despite the predominance of Persian. She gave a new art-form to Kashmiri which it did not enjoy before. Though her poetry seems vacant of mystical content yet her contribution to the Kashmiri language cannot be nullified. It appears as if she has practically turned away from this influential movement (Sufism). As an advocate of a fresh movement in Kashmiri poetry , she is a top brass to have intentionally and systematically relied on song and lyric to express her feelings, experiences, love, sorrow, frustration, expectation, disappointment, pangs of separation and aspiration. She did not allow the existing trend of mysticism to overwhelm her emotional poetic composition as a result a symphony of romantic and mystic verses was created. She gave expression to her torment with a rare spontaneity and is dubbed as an “exponent of the school of sorrow and pain”. Zoon was engrossed with the separation from the object of adoration to the extent that everything else seems to be out of scope. Undoubtedly, she is the founder of the lyric of romantic love in Kashmiri.
Habba Khatoon ensured the continuity of the stream of Kashmiri poetry and thereby giving it not only a fresh lease of life but also a strong momentum forward. What she sang and composed is sincere, natural and simple and stands practically in a class by itself. Kashmiri language and literature will remain indebted to her. She still claims immortality as the people cantillate her numerous poignant songs.

—The author has been awarded a PhD in 2019 from Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at:
Zubairhamid11@gmail.com