|PICS: SHAHID TANTRAY
Asif Dar juggles his drum sticks listlessly. The 19-year-old drummer, confined to his Srinagar house for a week now, is not allowed to play his drums. “My parents are scared that people might just attack us,” Dar says.
Across the city, there is a sense of hidden gloom. A casual conversation with a group of teenagers over coffee comes to a standstill the moment you mention the word music. Young men and women who once strummed the guitar and sang songs of a new generation shy away from being called musicians.
Last week, the head of the Muslim clergy in Kashmir, Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmed, issued a diktat against Kashmir’s sole all-girl Sufi rock band, Pragaash, asking it not to perform in public. After he called their music un-Islamic, the three band members said they would not play again. One has left for Jammu, and the other two are holed up in their houses in Srinagar, refusing now to talk to the media, or even to friends.
The development has created little ripples across Kashmir. The 40 home-grown bands that have been playing in and around the Valley have all hung up their instruments. Some are scared of fundamentalist backlash, others say they want to voice their support to Pragaash.
Kashmir is again in the throes of a conflict. This time, though, it’s not an armed strife that portends trouble, but a cultural one. If a great many youngsters of the previous generation took to the gun to express their angst, Gen X has found its voice through music. And efforts are being made — by some sections of fundamentalists — to stifle that voice.
“It is unfortunate that they have made music the casualty. They are creating an issue out of nothing,” says 22-year-old Adnan Mattoo, guitarist-cum-vocalist of Blood Rockz, Kashmir’s first Sufi rock band.
Mattoo, who runs his own music institute Band Inn in Srinagar, is also the mentor of Pragaash and many other rock bands in Kashmir. “It is sad that our own people are harassing us,” he says.
SHOW STOPPERS: Grand Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmed shows the fatwa against Pragaash; and (below) Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who saw a college fashion event as an ‘attack on Kashmir’s culture’
These youngsters represent a Kashmir that has been gaining ground over the last few years. Men and women roam freely on the streets today, sit in cafes and parks and shop in malls. Young girls are dressed in salwar kameezes and headscarves, and in jeans and T-shirts as well. Women ride a scooty and drive a car with ease. And they also offer their Friday prayers without a miss.
But there is another face of Kashmir — and that’s the one that frowns at all that the youth represents. “The tragedy is that some people are too much into moral policing in Kashmir. They politicise issues for personal publicity,” says Bashir Ahmad Dabla, professor, department of sociology, Kashmir University.
That’s not new in the Valley. Two years ago, a group of fundamentalists stopped Saim Bhat — who once sang for the band Vibrations and is now a Bollywood singer — from performing in Srinagar. Last year, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called a fashion show that a private college had organised an “attack on Kashmir’s culture”. A few years ago, Asiya Andrabi, head of the separatist Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith), said women should not sit in a park with men.
“We want our youth to know Sharia law and behave accordingly. This is ideal for them,” stresses Andrabi, who is among those who supported Bashiruddin’s statement on the rock band.
Culture has always been a bone of contention in troubled Kashmir. During its two decades of insurgency, artistes were often targeted, with radical militants treating cultural activity as violations of Islamic teachings.
Despite the constraints, today’s youth has openly embraced various forms of music, especially Western genres. The growing number of bands is a case in point. In 2005, Kashmir had two known bands — Mattoo’s Blood Rockz and Valley Youth X-pressions, headed by guitarist Ashraf Khan. Over the years, at least 38 other bands have come up — including Valley Boys, Tales of Blood, Dying Breed, Curse and The Sueen.
From punk and hard rock to progressive and metal, these bands experiment with a variety of genres. “Our idea is to do something different, something that Kashmir has not seen before,” says Mattoo, who has performed in several cities in India.
The number of rappers too is growing. MC Kash, MC Youngblood and Haze Kay are some who have made a name for themselves in the Valley. Most of these young musicians sing songs that relate to conflict. Take, for example, MC Kash’s I protest. It talks about violence on Kashmiris by the army. Or take MC Youngblood’s 16 Bars from Resistance — a hit song that speaks of freedom.
“But now I think we should also start writing songs against the fundamentalists in our state,” says Basit Fazli, the 19-year-old vocalist of the band Tales of Blood.
After years of strife, music burst into the Valley with the advent of satellite television, and the popularity of music channels such as Channel V and MTV. The channels were banned by militants in early 2000, but the Internet arrived, bringing with it open and easy access to the music of the world.
“When we got the Internet in 2006, we started watching Western bands on YouTube and slowly picked up their style,” says Abid Ali, a commerce graduate who sports what’s called a Korean hairstyle.
The fads of the youth in the West, clearly, are a part of the young Kashmiri’s life. Guitarist Ashraf Khan pierced his ears soon after he started his band. Members carefully keep their torn jeans — a sign of rebellion — in their wardrobe for their performances.
The Western music trend has been supported by event management companies that have come up in the Valley. “Traditional artistes never had to struggle to make a mark in society because Kashmiris were aware of their form of art,” says Mir Ajaz Ahmad, managing director of Kashmir Movie Tone, an event management company. “But these young men and women are trying something different. It is the responsibility of society to support them,” feels Ahmad, who has been organising shows for companies, giving a platform to young performers. Some of his music shows are also held in parks, shopping malls and college campuses.
The company has been organising contests too. Band Wars and Battle of Bands have been showcasing local talent since 2009. Pragaash, in fact, marked its debut in the Battle of Bands concert last December. And the audience applauded the performance of its three members — Aneeka Khalid, Farah Deeba and Noma Nazir, all Class X students of Srinagar.
“They were rocking that night. It was for the first time that Kashmir saw such promising young women rock singers,” says a music expert associated with the event.
But surviving solely on music is not yet feasible in the Valley. There are no jamming venues, so bands mostly rehearse at members’ homes. With only a few recording studios, most bands have to travel to Jammu or Delhi to record their music. Unlike in other cities, there are not enough performing arenas either.
Bands seldom earn more than Rs 2,000 for a performance. Getting sponsors for music shows is not easy. “The highest that we could collect was a sum of Rs 10,000,” says Khan, who also ran a dance academy for training children in contemporary Bollywood and Salsa moves, which he had to close because of a lack of funds.
But the artistes agree that fighting societal resistance is tougher than battling financial constraints. “People are always up in arms against others. It is not an easy place to live in,” says a young female singer, who refuses to be named.
What upsets the young is that the threat is not from old fundamentalists such as Bashiruddin Ahmed alone — even a section of their contemporaries is attacking them. Three young men were recently arrested for sending obscene messages to Pragaash on Facebook.
Rapper Gazanfar, 22, narrates an incident when fundamentalists hounded him on Facebook for composing the opening lines of one of his English love songs in Kashmiri. “Some Kashmiris ran almost a hate campaign against me. They wanted me to remove the Kashmiri line from my song but I didn’t give in,” says Gazanfar, who has just released an album called Resurrection.
But Kashmiris try not to despair. “These extremists will soon know that there is no place for them in Kashmir,” says Professor Dabla.
And once that happens, music will flow.