The nightingale of Kashmir, Habba Khatoon was born as Zoon or Zun (moon) in the small village of Chandhur in Pampore. Folktales claim the origin of her name as being given by a Sufi Saint on observing her beauty. Zoon was born into a poor peasant family and thus, was expected to live by a certain bondage imposed by the cost of her birth into a supposedly disadvantaged caste, class and gender. Therefore, it comes as an admirable surprise that she learnt to read and write under the guidance of the village local teacher (Maulavi).
Folklores mention that she had an inherent talent for composing lyrics for songs and poems. She was further precepted into this by a Sufi mentor, which in a way explains the mystic touch of her compositions. In this manner, Zoon was very different from girls her age and stood out in a world, where her name was just coined based on her beauty and represents a line of thought where a woman’s greatest achievement is seen in her beauty. Even today she stands as an exemplary woman to look up to who challenged the societal norms that the then society asked women to live by at probably every step of her life.
Escaping an oppressive marriage
As the oral tradition goes and as could be expected from the then patriarchal society, her family and others around Zoon were not happy with her newfound love for poetry. They tried cutting at the base of it by marrying her off to another peasant boy at a very young age. This further does nothing but adds to the long list of examples of marriage being used as a way to clip women’s wings that have gone down in history. Here again, the rebellious streak in Zoon got her into trouble as her in-laws expected a more acceptable, “woman-appropriate” behaviour from her.
As oral tradition goes, she was often mistreated by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Here again, one can see in Zoon’s story how patriarchal notions are reinforced by women themselves. Zoon, however, stood up against this and this is believed to be the reason for the end of her marriage. The fact that a 16th-century peasant woman proceeded to divorce her husband rather than live with what society deemed suitable then is undoubtedly noteworthy.
Experiencing a newfound freedom
This change in Zoon’s life further led to her taking up the writing of Poems and songs in Kashmiri. What more was that Zoon sang those songs set to a melody that she composed. The local touch and relatability made her poems popular among the common folk. Here one can see the euphoric sense of freedom that Zoon must have experienced.
This is not very different from the issues that numerous feminist movies like Queen or English Vinglish where female protagonists embark on the journey of self-discovery and explore their newfound freedom once they discard the chains of bondage that patriarchal and misogynistic society shackled them in.
The peasant queen
While Zoon was exercising her agency through her choices unlike earlier, her writing as being recognised by its reach, received a breakthrough when she became the Queen of Kashmir. The legend goes that Zoon was sitting under a Chinar tree singing her songs and the King of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak was passing by, he was so taken in by her melodious voice and beautiful compositions that he proceeded to propose her marriage.
Here’s the interesting element in Zoon’s story, earlier, her name and her marriage were associated with her beauty. Now, she emerges as an independent woman who wins over a man through her talent.
Perhaps, one can even go on to say that this was the peak of the freedom and the feeling of being cared for that she experienced, and a symbolic mark of this is the fact that she takes up a new name of Habba Khatoon (a loved woman).
Life as an ascetic
While sources differ on whether they married or not, the idea both of them were happy in their marriage for six years remains undisputed. During this period, her songs reached a greater audience than before and the Peasant turned Queen won people’s hearts with her poetry that they as common folks found relatable.
After six years of their marriage, the Mughal Emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir and as legends go, Yusuf Khan was summoned to Delhi by Akbar and ultimately imprisoned in Bihar where he met his end. After Yusuf’s imprisonment, Habba embraced asceticism and took to wandering in the valley singing songs. It was in this period, that she wrote most of the songs that have become a part of popular tradition over time and echo in the valley to date.
The love and mystic poet
While Habba’s story seems tragic and an account that one can root for, at one level, it is highly significant for the literary fabric of Kashmir. This was the time when poetry as an art form for women primarily focused on themes like spirituality and nature appreciation, Habba went a step ahead to make them more individualistic than society focused, more intimate, romantic, melancholic and even bold at times.
The themes of her poems can be identified as two major strands defined by the major incidents in her life. The phase following her escape from an oppressive marriage explored the theme of freedom at great length. In some poems that are attributed to her, there is a mention of oppression at the hands of in-laws and subjugation.
The second phase can be identified as the one that started after her separation from Yusuf Khan. These poems are full of the sorrow of separation, romantic lyricism and melancholia. However, what sets Habba Khatun apart is her boldness in the way she addresses her lover, using phrases which were primarily restricted for usage by men. But the quality that uniformalises both these phases is how one can see the beauty and landscape of Kashmir through her eyes.
Zoon’s legacy as a “woman”
In light of the above, it does not come as a surprise that Habba Khatun is still alive in the Kashmir valley through her songs, poems and other compositions. While not all songs that have been attributed to her, are historically recognised as her compositions, Habba Khatun remains a famed name throughout Kashmir. Habba Khatun as an inspirational woman from history comes off as even more inspirational when one sees her beyond just being a woman poet who transcended the limitations that society set upon her.
Her legacy is not limited to the poets and poetry lovers of the present but extends to womankind in general as well as those who strive for a more egalitarian society. All in all, as people recognise the struggles that women have undergone throughout history, one needs to appreciate the journey and evolution of Habba Khatun, not just as a legendary poet but also as a woman.