Rediscovering Kashmir’s Forgotten Classical Music

Rediscovering Kashmir’s Forgotten Classical Music

29 August 2013
Greater Kashmir
Nausheen Naseer

Srinagar: Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh places his santoor on a wooden stand and picks up a pair of finely carved wooden mallets or kalems. He holds them carefully between his index and middle fingers. A deep, gripping sound fills the room as he strikes the metal strings of his santoor with the mallets. It’s the kind of music that brims with life. Sheikh stops, looks up and smiles. “Beautiful, isn’t it? The world just ceases to exist for a while,” says the 53-year-old top-grade Sufiana artist who works in Radio Kashmir. The sound of the hundred-stringed Kashmiri santoor is indeed very rich and distinctive. No doubt it is used as an accompaniment to Sufiyana Mausiqi, the soul-stirring music of Sufis. Sufiyana Mausiqi is the classical music of Kashmir, the cradle of Sufism in South Asia. It is a choral, spiritual style of music in which a group of musicians sing and play various instruments simultaneously. A Sufiana ensemble comprises four to seven people and sometimes even more. A group leader sings the main lines of the song and usually plays either a santoor or a saz-i-Kashmir. The songs are a mixture of Persian and Kashmiri Sufi poems, the hymns of Sufi mystics. Though the language seems almost foreign sometimes and is hard to keep up with, it is the rich, sonorous voices of the singers and the beautiful pieces of music that keep listeners captivated until the performance ends. A product of cultural intermingling, this form of music is believed to have come to Kashmir from Persia (Iran) around 500 years ago. The impact of Central Asia and particularly of Persia on Kashmir’s art and culture has always been evident in the cuisines, architecture and handicrafts of Kashmir. Likewise, Kashmiri music too has imbibed and retained many aspects of Persian music. Despite this influence, the Kashmiri Sufiyana Mausiqi is unique and not found anywhere else, according to Sheikh, who was initiated formally as a pupil at the Cultural Academy when he was about 15-year-old. “I have travelled the world and participated in numerous events, but I have never felt that any other form of music is similar to ours. In fact, whenever I performed with English and Iranian artists, they told me how different and beautiful Kashmiri Sufiyana Mausiqi is,” he says. The difference, he adds, is not only in the structure of the instruments and the way they are played across the musical world, but also in certain words. “We say maqam(mode) but Indian classical musicians call the same thing a raga,” he says. Some thirty-years ago, it would have been easy to find a performance of this ancient form of music in various festivals, cultural events and other mehfils. Now, Sheikh says, such performances are rare. Amidst growing popularity of folk and light music and more than a decade long insurgency in Kashmir, Sufiyana Mausiqi has gradually faded away from the social and cultural life of Kashmir. Qazi Rafi, a top light-music singer who is very fond of Sufiyana Mausiqi, says that the widespread interest in Sufiyana Mausiqi is dying out due to a number of reasons. “There is no proper training being given to students. Also youngsters these days are not that fluent in Kashmiri, let alone Persian. These are the two major languages of Sufiyana Mausiqi,” he says. He feels that people tend to prefer light music more because Sufiyana Mausiqi is quite hard to learn and understand. It has many maqams and taalas. The easy availability of western and Bollywood music has also contributed to its decline, he says. After years of neglect, only a few performers of this centuries-old music are left today. The old maestros have passed away and Sheikh puts the number of Sufiana artists in Kashmir’s radio station so low that “they can be counted on one’s fingers”. A small number of people now-a-days can play saz-i-Kashmir, a spiked fiddle, which is the Kashmiri rendition of the big Iranian Kemencheh and is played with a bow. Sheikh says that the recent all-girl rock band controversy too has been bad news for Sufiyana Mausiqi. “Many girls stopped playing after that. They were scared. It was very unfortunate,” he says. Some things have already been lost forever. “Of the total 180 maqams, only around 40 maqams remain today,” informs Sheikh. The trance-like dancing called Hafiz Nagma that accompanies Sufiyana Mausiqi has also disappeared altogether. Legend has it that the female Hafiza dancers who performed in the royal court during the Dogra rule in Kashmir were banned when the Maharaja denounced their dance as disgraceful after he felt that it had ceased to be a spiritual form of dance. Worried about this once-celebrated music that was vanishing, Sheikh opened his own music institute to provide free training to all those who shared his passion for music. The Qaleenbaaf Memorial Sufiana Music Institute was started in 1996 and has had students as young as 13 years old studying under the tutelage of Sheikh. They have been coming in great numbers too, even though it takes eight to nine long years to learn and master Sufiyana Mausiqi. While many of them have participated in various shows of All India Radio, Doordarshan, Sangeet Natak Academy, Cultural Academy etc, some others have gone on to become empanelled artists in the Kashmir station of AIR. It all began in rented rooms where Sheikh first started giving music lessons to his students. Besides many young boys and girls, Sheikh’s classes also lured militants who demanded to know what he was up to and army men who came looking for the militants. “But once they had heard us play, they would calm down and let us be,” recalls Sheikh. “We were never bothered again.” Today Sheikh’s students gather at his house in Kralpora, Budgam, a venue devoted to learning and preserving Kashmir’s Sufi music. Sheikh has built a separate hall in his house for his students where they can practice for as long as they want. And they don’t have to buy any instruments. Sheikh provides them with his own set. “It’s because these instruments are very expensive, each costing nearly Rs 20,000,” he says. Besides santoor and saz-i-Kashmir, other music instruments used in Sufiyana Mausiqi are the Kashmiri sehtar, a long necked stringed instrument played with a wire plectrum called mezrab; the rabab, a short-necked lute, which when plucked produces a very thick sound and the Indian tabla, which is the only percussion instrument used in Sufiyana Mausiqi. Tabla, in fact, has replaced the wasul or dhokra, a two-sided drum that was used earlier and is now virtually extinct. Sheikh has this entire collection of instruments lying in his hall, waiting to be held and played by anyone willing to learn. The hall also displays old, framed photographs of a young Sheikh and his troupe playing together in concerts around the world. One photograph shows Sheikh standing with the Indian santoor maestro Pandit Bhajan Sopori. In others, Sheikh is sitting and playing a santoor with his female students who are wearing bright colored pherans and performing on stage. Sheikh has collected so many photographs over the years that he has made two big albums out of them. The gharanas of Sufiyana Mausiqi in Kashmir have inherited this music from their ancestors. It’s something that is passed down from one generation to the next. Sheikh began practicing when he was six-year-old, after watching and emulating his maternal grandfather, the legendary Ghulam Mohammad Qaleenbaaf who came from a non-musical family. But Sheikh’s own children are not interested in learning music. So he is teaching others, as many as he can. “My heart swells with pride when people tell me that I haven’t let my grandfather’s legacy die with him,” he says. Sheikh feels that there is a lot that can be done to revive Sufiyana Mausiqi. “We can start by giving music classes in schools and colleges. Setting up small music schools in districts and offering scholarships to students would help a lot,” he says. “The government should organize concerts and provide a platform to students so that they can showcase their talent and encourage others to join as well.” In other Indian states, he says, students have good facilities of accommodation, training and even scholarships. “Their future is set before they even know it,” says Sheikh. “We have been organizing programs and concerts in which prominent Sufiana artists participate. Recently, we had a music festival in SP College where Sufiyana Mausiqi was very well received. Peoples’ interest in it has diminished over the years but it won’t become extinct,” says Khalid Bashir Ahmad, Secretary, J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. Some other musicians from distinguished gharanas have also started giving music lessons to youngsters. They too, like Sheikh, are struggling to save something very precious to them from sinking into oblivion. “I will always be here and even if my class has one student,” he says, “I will still teach him.”