Centuries old art of Kashmir

Zahoor Ahmad Bhat and 20 folk musicians performing Sazeena on the first day of Shashrang. Photo: Muhabit-ul-Haq

Without music, life would be an error- Fredrich Nietzsche

History is witness to the powerful influences exerted by music on human civilizations. Music, in fact, has always helped make us human. Transcending the barriers of culture, race and creed, music not only plays an important role to tie us in a single vast human family but even contribute in the processes of nation building. In Kashmir, the music that has resonated within these picturesque valleys has always connected us in our joy and in grief. For centuries, Music in our land was not merely a tool for entertainment but an epitome of a moral and ethical power entrenched in our spiritual and mystical practices. And as Kashmir has been a melting pot of ideas where civilizations met and flourished, its music too evolved and thus possessed axiological connotations. In our history, we can trace the phases of joy and grief in the tone and texture of our compositions.

Zahoor Ahmad Bhat and 20 folk musicians performing Sazeena on the first day of Shashrang. Photo: Muhabit-ul-Haq

The earliest recorded mention of Kashmir’s music is in its first written document of history. In the very first “Taranga” (Cantos) of “Rajtarangini”, Kalhana refers to the reign of King Jaluka, the son of Ashoka and indicates that a kind of wind instrument was played in Viharas. Kalhana talks about King Jayapida as a ruler who was well versed in “Natya Shastra” and 11th Century Prince Harsa who was an accomplished singer. The first references about Kashmir’s folk music ‘Chakri’ and ‘Nut’ (clay pot that is used as a musical instrument) too were in this document of history.

With the advent of Islam, our collective cultural personality was tremendously enriched, especially as the mystics from Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia brought cultural influences along with religious scholarships to our valleys. The influence was clear in our music as well and the synthesis was a mesmerizing vocal ensemble called ‘Sufiyana Mousiqi’. Five to 10 musicians would sing the Kalaam of Sufi’s on the comforting melody of Saz-e-Kashmir, Kashmir’s own version of Santoor, Kashmiri Sitar and Dhukra. Although a few voices still keep the tradition of Sufiyana alive, this classical music is facing a real threat of extinction. Of its 180 melodies referred to in ancient texts, we have already lost 130, and Saz-e-Kashmir, the instrument, is going silent too. It was only because of the life-long toil of Kashmir’s noted musicologist and only contemporary music theorist, Ustad Sheikh Abdul Aziz that we have preserved 42 lost melodies of Sufiyana. Without any official support or funding, Aziz interviewed musicians for clues for the melodies, passed traditionally from one generation to other. Then painstakingly, he notated the melodies and built a database even as he taught Kashmiri classical music in a University in the United States. He authored four volumes of “Koshur Sargum” the final volume published posthumously by his family from his meagre personal pension savings. On December 2, 2005, Aziz died an anonymous death. During his lifetime, he didn’t receive any encouragement for his work; in his death, there was little remembrance.

Today, there is a very small group of music lovers in our society, who know about the contribution of our legendary maestros like Ustad Hadi Joo, Ustad Wazir Joo, Ustad Ramzan Joo, Ustad Sidiq Joo, and their gharana, Ustad Muhammad Abdullah Tibetbakal and Ustad Ghulam Muhammad Qaleenbaft.

If Sufiyana music resounded in the serenity of valley, its folk music too occupied an important space in people’s lives. The traditional use of mystic poetry, the songs of yearning and remembrance of history have fashioned Kashmir’s folk music into an essential repository of memory and faith. The folk music became an important medium that carried the mystic poetry of Shams Faqir, Niam Sabh, Rahim Sabh, Ahad Zargar and scores of other legendary Kashmiri poets to the people, and it kept the loss, pain and yearning of a wronged and betrayed Habba Khatoon, the last Kashmir Queen alive even after 450 years of the the forced exile of her husband and Kashmir’s king Yousuf Shah Chak.

Without an institutional support, this music too is living entirely on past glorious periods. Kashmir has been through an unprecedented upheaval during the last two decades and like other people of Kashmir, the Kashmiri musicians too have gone through loss, pain, anguish and yearning. But our music remained largely untouched by these tragic experiences and it has almost failed to become an expression of people’s despair and resilience in these overwhelming times. Instead, our music has witnessed a stagnation that disconnected it from the times we lived in and lived through. While the wails of mothers resonate across these valleys drowning out even the whoosh of our streams, this collective pain couldn’t translate into a wave of new melodies. Our collective tragedy has been similar to what inspired the symphonies of Beethoven and led to the composition of “rescue opera”. We have failed to produce a musician who would be our Bedrich Smetana or Edvard Grieg. This is perhaps why whatever we Kashmiri muscians –think or talk about our music, our focus has always been exclusively on the maestros and their contribution in our past. There is an urgent need to think of the present and the future so that we too contribute to this glorious heritage.

This endeavour is a tiny first step taken independently by a group of Kashmiri musicians with an aim to stir our own consciousness and begin a long journey to elevate our music to its true status and make it much more than entertainment. There is a serious need to revive our traditions in music and provide a professional atmosphere to our new musicians to work and compose new and original melodies so as to restore the vibrancy, indigenous character and highest professional standards in this art form.

Excerpt from the brochure of a two-day music festival ‘Shashrang’ organised by Kashmir Music Club in June this year.

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