NEW DELHI — Rehman Rahi, a celebrated Kashmiri poet who devoted his life to promoting and preserving the Kashmiri language and gave its poetry a distinct identity, died on Monday at his home in Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city. He was 97.
His son, Dr. Dildar Ahmad, confirmed the death.
Throughout his career as a writer and university professor, Mr. Rahi was committed to Kashmiri, a language he considered the source of Kashmiri identity and essential for preserving the ancient culture of a divided territory.
He published more than a dozen books of poetry and prose in Kashmiri and is credited with restoring the language spoken by more than six million people to the realm of literature, lifting it out of the shadow of Persian and Urdu, which once dominated the literary scene in Kashmir, a disputed territory that straddles India and Pakistan.
“He introduced intellectual richness, modern sensibility and accessibility to Kashmiri language and poetry,” Muhammad Amin Bhat, a Kashmiri television anchor and president of Adbee Markaz Kamraz, the region’s oldest literary organization, said in an interview this week. “Without a doubt, he was the greatest living poet of modern Kashmiri language.”
Over a career that spanned many decades, Mr. Rahi won dozens of awards, including the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, in 2000, and in 2007 the Jnanpith Award, India’s top literary prize, becoming the first Kashmiri to do so.
In 1961, he won a literary award from India’s National Academy of Letters, for his poetry anthology “Nawroz-i-Saba” or “Advent of the Spring Breeze,” (1958).
Like most Kashmiris, Mr. Rahi grew up speaking conversational Kashmiri, but the language had been removed from schools — the Indian government viewed it as subversive — and its formal speech had fallen into disuse.
In the 1950s, he attended a poetry reading in the village of Raithan in central Kashmir, where a Kashmiri poem was greeted with tremendous applause. Mr. Rahi then went onstage and read his work in Urdu, then the region’s official language.
“No one understood it,” he said in an interview with The New York Times last year. “That day I started learning Kashmiri.”
That was the beginning of his long love affair with the language, which he described in his 1966 poem “Hymn to a Language”:
He also promoted Kashmiri in more concrete ways. He was one of the biggest supporters of a campaign to restore the language to schools, an effort that finally succeeded in 2000. He helped recruit teachers and scholars to teach Kashmiri and created a course to teach it to children.
More recently, his poems addressed the despair of the Kashmiri people living at the heart of a bitter and longstanding dispute between India and Pakistan.
One untitled poem reads:
Rehman Rahi was born Abdul Rehman Mir on May 6, 1925, into a poor Muslim family in the Wazpora area of the city of Srinagar.
His father, Ghulam Muhammad Mir, a day laborer, died when Rehman was 14; his mother, Rahat Begum, was a homemaker. After the death of his father, he was raised by a maternal uncle.
Rehman studied Persian at Sri Pratap College and English at Kashmir University, both in Srinagar, earning a master’s degree in each language. He started writing while in college, adopting the pen name Rehman Rahi.
He worked briefly as a clerk in the department of Public Works, earning just a few cents a month and sometimes traveling dozens of miles to northern Kashmir for his job.
He then joined a regional Urdu-language newspaper, Khidmat, as an opinion writer. In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, leading to widespread violence between Muslims and Hindus and cleaving what had been the princely state of Kashmir.
For years, Mr. Rahi wrote about the pain and anguish that the upheaval had inflicted on millions of ordinary people and how it had shaped their experiences and encounters. He also started writing poetry.
In 1964, he joined the Persian department of Kashmir University as a lecturer, and in 1979 switched to the recently created Kashmiri department.
He married Zareena Mir, who died in 2019. Along with his son, Dr. Ahmad, Mr. Rahi is survived by two other sons, Dr. Javed Iqbal and Dr. Farhad Hussain; a daughter, Nighat Nowsheen; and five grandchildren.
He retired from the university in 1985.
Mr. Rahi was sometimes criticized as having failed to engage with the brutal conditions faced by many Kashmiris, who have been oppressed by both Indian security forces and Kashmiri militants fighting for independence from India.
While working for the newspaper Khidmat, he joined the Progressive Writer’s Association, which was affiliated with India’s Communist Party, and early in his career he had a reputation as a progressive poet.
But he later denounced Communism and became more guarded about his political thinking.
As Kashmir plunged deeper into turmoil after an insurgency began in 1989, Mr. Rahi’s poetry grew more somber, expressing anguish over the mounting violence, yet he continued to avoid addressing the politics around it. He saw literary modernism as a new framework for examining the human condition.
Abir Bazaz, a professor of Kashmiri literature at Ashoka University, outside of New Delhi, said Mr. Rahi’s reticence had been a valid response to the conflict.
“Rahi’s political silence, a refusal to take sides in the vicious cycles of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Kashmir, does offer a hope for a path beyond the violent binaries that have shaped the Kashmiri present,” Dr. Bazaz said.
He cited a poem Mr. Rahi wrote in 1995, at the height of the insurgency, seemingly justifying his detachment:
Looking at that state, I only desired madness and silence
I was told your fate, dear, is madness and silence
But in the Times interview last year, looking back on his career, Mr. Rahi expressed regret, faulting himself and other poets for failing to sufficiently grapple with the difficult realities on the streets of his homeland.
“We stood with pen and paper on banks of a river filled with blood,” he said, “and chose not to see the pristine water had turned red.”