Of Rumi’s Poetry and Vintage Chikankari

Listen to presences inside poems,
Let them take you where they will.
Follow those private hints,
and never leave the premises.


Most of us live and consume information in an ‘English’ state of mind, we forget that every piece of historic writing – mythology, religion, spirituality, ancient poetry and more from non-English speaking cultures – is quite possibly not what the original author set out to elucidate in that particular manner. We are servants to what was, and wasn’t, lost in translation; and especially at the mercy of the bilingual agent who was entrusted with appropriately interpreting the work’s essence (again, completely in the hands of the interpreting author! Certain miscreants may deliberately manipulate words from one language to another, or have been known to write women/marginalized groups out of mainstream historic narratives). For me, the sublimely earthy translations of Coleman Barks and ’40 Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak sparked the pursuit of this mystic poet – and also Sufism – with a thirst almost akin to a budding peer-murid (Sufi devout). From my limited reading experience, I feel that author Coleman Barks’ contribution to bringing Rumi to the English speaking world is so admirable!

I believe that the truest appreciation of poetry comes when you speak it’s original language – for instance, only when you speak and read Persian, you can ‘think’ and ‘feel’ in Persian. Every language is more than words, it’s about emotions unique to that tongue! Those of you who appreciate Hindi, Urdu or any other kind of regional literature surely get the struggle of feeling like an English translation dimmed it’s radiance! Yet, these translations of Rumi’s poetry have been my soul-food for long. I bet what I feel is only the tip of the iceberg, were I to read them in their rhythmic Persian form I would be stupefied. I recently discovered this podcast, Radio Rumi, wherein a literary scholar by the name Dr Fatemeh Keshavarz offers beautiful readings of Rumi’s poetry in their authentic Persian language form; at the same time exploring the meanings, symbols and words in English. I found it surreal to be narrated Rumi’s poetry in both English and Persian, and the mesmerisingly rhythmic words of the Persian language come alive, and how, when you are told of what they mean.

The mystery of poetic prose and verse, heavily bejewelled with metaphors and linguistic eccentricities, is the question that does any poem ever stand to be understood ‘correctly’? Unless the author themselves narrates it’s meaning? How do we know that what we are doing to this graceful string of jumbled words is exactly what somebody in the 13th century was also doing deep inside their mind? How do we know that an idiom or word of one language does have an equivalent in another without changing or diluting it’s meaning altogether? Maybe there is never a correct interpretation for what a poem means. Although, I do try – this futile effort is a practice that compels me to cultivate peace with the profound subjectivity of everything about worldly existence, and also let’s me harbour the happy delusion of a secret that the poet seemed to whisper into my mind from behind their verses. I used to fret for hours on Google, trying to find somebody who interpreted Rumi’s poems for me to make sense of them – which is basically a lot of minds expressing a lot of different meanings, fuelled by subjective perception and experience.

Wearing a vintage hand embroidered chikankari saree from my mother’s closet – this ethereal hand embroidery tradition, which may also trace back to Persian roots, belongs to Lucknow, India. It is one of those textile crafts so gloriously old that it’s origin is still a host of theories, including mentions as early as 3rd century BC to the use of flowered muslins of India. There is also the colourfully mythic tale of how a traveler taught chikankari to a peasant in exchange for a glass of water to drink – however, the story of it’s introduction and royal flourish under the Mughal patronage of Noor Jahan is the most popularly circulated. Along with the graceful bakhiya (shadow work) stitch, this particular drape features exquisite jaali work; a meticulous (and now rare) technique within the school of chikankari embroidery that creates a carefully handworked lattice on the base textile. Hop over to an earlierĀ post devoted to this very saree, wherein I include information on traditional stitches, embroidery vocabulary and techniques particular to this piece of hand embroidered heritage; along with my experience of a day spent with chikankari artisans in Lucknow.

Did you enjoy this read? Do share it if you did. What do you feel about Rumi, and about the joys and sorrows of interpreting poetry? Tell me your thoughts in comments below, or on my Instagram!

this portrait was captured by @fishing_pixels

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