Story Telling And Singing

The Quest for Freedom

Arup Kumar Sen

The fact that traditional storytelling emerged as a site of resistance and freedom was noted by Frantz Fanon in his speech at the Congress of Black African Writers in 1959. The context was French colonialism in Algeria: “The example of Algeria is significant in this context. From 1952-3 on, the storytellers, who were before that time stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and contents of their tales. Their public, which was formerly scattered, became compact. The epic, with its typified categories, reappeared; it became an authentic form of entertainment which took on once more a cultural value. Colonialism made no mistake when from 1955 on it proceeded to arrest these storytellers systematically”.

Recently, the 16th century song of romantic pathos of a queen in Kashmir got new life in the Valley. Naseer Ganai has narrated (See Outlook, January 24, 2022) this ‘invention of tradition’:

It begins in the 16th century and is still said to resonate in the Valley’s doleful air. As the story goes, the Mughals had annexed the independent kingdom of Kashmir and exiled the last king, Yousuf Shah Chak, to Bihar, leaving his beloved queen Habba Khatun wailing, wandering and singing mournfully, all alone across the Valley… “Her language is direct, simple and melodious”, says poet and actor Bashir Dada, adding that a true Kashmiri is bound to relate to her story. “There are Yousufs in jails for years, some killed and buried secretly in far-off places. I know many Yousufs and have witnessed the wailing of many Habba Khatuns”, says Dada…

The comments on the You Tube video of this Habba Khatun song sung by Saffudin are telling. Even when couples meet to talk over coffee in the highly militarised zone they mostly talk about the conflict. It creeps into their blandishments. There is limited time to meet. The Valley shuts down after 6 p.m. …The conflict enters the exchanges of couples involuntarily, as terms like crackdown, encounter, fake encounter, bunkers, CASOs, Gypsy, cargo, tuluk (lifted), rutukh (arrested), murukh ha (killed) – have become part of the daily lexicon…

 Saffudin says there is nothing political about Habba’s poetry, but at the same time, there is nothing apolitical about it either… “What makes Habba distinct is talking persistently about the loss of the one you loved. She is witness to that loss, she has suffered that loss, she lives that loss and her wailing never reached any conclusion. We are also witnessing that loss every day. Our wails haven’t reached any conclusion”, says Saffudin.

The above narrative raises deep ethical questions in connection with the tales of loss and pathos as well as the quest for freedom in the Kashmir Valley.

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Vol 54, No. 32, Feb 6 - 12, 2022