‘Santoor, Saaze-e-Kashmir, Sufiyana’: Sufi Girls who call themselves Yemberzal 

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It was strange for teenage girls in Ganastan village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district to see a girl their age playing the sitar on television back in 2011. It was also the first time 13-year-old Irfana Yousuf had performed for an audience, specifically for the public broadcaster Doordarshan.

Mesmerized by her performance, girls in the village began approaching Irfana to learn how to play the traditional musical instrument. For Irfana herself, the journey began by watching her father Mohammad Yousuf, a classical musician, spend his evenings practicing instruments like the sitar, santoor, and Saaz-e-Kashmir.

Irfana’s eagerness to learn sufiyana music led Mohammad Yousuf to put her under the tutelage of a master sufiyana musician Ustad Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh.

Playing the classical instruments, Irfana said, made her feel a calmness that she hadn’t experienced before. She soon mastered four classical instruments — sitar, santoor, saaz-e-Kashmir, and tabla  — and decided to further impart the art to the girls in her village.

With time, Irfana was joined by four other girls from the village, sharing a passion for sufiyana music, to form what is perhaps Kashmir’s first all-female sufiyana musical ensemble, long dominated by men owing to its religious overtones. They have been dubbed the “Sufi Girls” of Kashmir.

“We decided to focus on Sufiana music because nowadays  every musician is inclined toward contemporary music,” said Irfana, now 22-years-old. “People have forgotten about it. We decided to create a band and revive the dying music.”

The young women sing the poetry of the revered Kashmiri Sufi saint Sheikh-ul-Alam, Lal Ded, Haba Khatoon, Ghulam Hassan Gamgeen among others and have gradually begun to learn and perform in Persian language, which has a special place in the sufiyana tradition. 

Over the years, however, a small section of the diminishing Sufi musicians of Kashmir has continued to sing in Persian. “Initially, we could not understand the meaning of the lyrics but that changed as our teacher makes us understand the meaning,” said Irfana.

Irfana Yousuf, the lead vocalist playing Santoor, the key instrument of Sufiana Mausiqui. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

The Journey

Soon after graduating from High School, Irfana and another member of the ensemble, Gulshan Lateef, joined the Department of Music and Fine Arts’ Sufiyana Santoor section at the Kashmir University in 2019. They are the only two students in the department.

Soon after they had joined the department, they found “musical instruments were covered with layers of dust but there are no students to play them except both of us”, said Lateef, who plays the Saaz-e-Kashmir, a localised version of the violin. 

Every day the two spend the day at the department, returning to Lateef’s residence in Srinagar after class work to practice again. “We learned a lot including the history of instruments, its components and proper usage,” Lateef said. 

In her small under-constructed house in the picturesque village surrounded with vast stretches of mustard fields and multi-coloured newly constructed houses, Lateef’s small mud-walled room is filled with musical instruments, awards and photographs, telling the tale of their journey so far.

The all-female ensemble has performed for the public broadcaster, and also at events held in Srinagar city, particularly those of the Cultural Academy. They have won several competitions in Kashmir and have represented Kashmir in music competitions held outside.

For a long time, the girls only had the instruments owned by Irfana’s father for practise. After collecting and earning through programmes, the group has finally managed to buy individual instruments for all the girls in the group. “Santoor costs around 30000 rupees. Saaz-e-kashmir costs around 15000 rupees, Sitar and Tabla cost around 10000 rupees,” she said. 

All the girls have chosen the instruments of their choice that they play during their performances as a group. However, Irfana has been collectively assigned the role of the lead vocalist and the Santoor player by the other girls. “She is the most senior among us, she deserves to lead all of us,” said Lateef, adding that Santoor is the key instrument of a Sufiana mausiqi. 

For the group, performing Sufiana mausiqi, music, is a way of feeling calm and forgetting about the world. “One forgets about everything else. It includes praising the religion and our Prophet as well,” she said. 

For Lateef, the band has been a way of breaking free from the boundaries created for women over the generations. The group has received a lot of criticism from people but they believe that they have been successful in changing mindsets “even if just a little”. 

“Some people kept saying that we are girls and we should not do something like this. We should stay at home and do the home chores. They believe that this is what women are meant for,” said Lateef. 

The constant pressure of home chores, education as well as music becomes overburdening sometimes, said Lateef but the thought of their journey keeps them going. “A woman has to do everything,” she said.  

Of single scale and muqams

Before performing on stage, the group spends days practising together as all the girls learn to play their instrument on a single scale by following the santoor. “But once you keep practising, you learn. It also depends on the matra – beat. The easiest composition of a song has eight matra. Then the matra can even go up to sixteen or thirty-two,” Lateef said. 

The preparation for performance starts by deciding the sur – sounds in which specific surs from the seven basic surs Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni — are chosen. “This is the part where one struggles after that it becomes easier,” she said. 

Rehana Yousuf, one of the Sufi girls practicing the sitar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

The musicians create mathematical graphs of the songs and later, a sur metre is used to check the scale for each sur

Unlike Indian classical music, Sufiana Mausiqi has muqams — the collection of surs in which we cannot add different surs — instead of ragas. The Sufiana Mausiqi consists of twelve muqams, said Lateef. “All these muqams have branches called goshe, shobe, parde,” she added. 

All the muqams have their specific timings and can only be performed during those timings, she said. “For example, muqam-e-qoohi can only be performed during the first part of the night. There are similar muqams for morning, afternoon, evening etcetera,” said Lateef. 

The most important instruments in Sufiana Mausiqi are considered Santoor, Saaz-e-Kashmir and Tabla. However, classical music cannot be performed without a Santoor, said Lateef. 

“The most difficult instrument is Saaz-e-Kashmir. Sitar has a relevance with guitar. We have been seeing Tabla all our lives. Santoor is also used a lot. But Saaz-e-Kashmir is completely different and unique,” she said. 

A Santoor consists of hundred streams or wires fixed on bridges. Each bridge has four streams. “If one of the streams gets imbalanced, it won’t give the proper sound. There is small equipment called ‘abrakh’ through which we fix the streams,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Tabla is an innovation of Dholak –  a two-headed hand-drum. The Tabla has been divided into two parts – right and left. “The parts are called syahi, maidaan, chanti and kinaar are where we tap while playing,” she said.  

Lateef believes that Kashmiri classical music is a vast subject and cannot be learned completely at such a young age. “We don’t think of learning modern instruments. We want to learn this properly, we haven’t even started yet,” she said.

Hoping to start their own academy for people of all age groups, the ‘Sufi Girls’ believe that they have been successful in reviving the Sufiana Mausiqi  to a large extent. “People around us want to listen to it again. That means something,” said Lateef. 

For a group that has not been named till now, the girls have finally decided to call it “Yemberzal”. “It is the flower that blooms in spring, marking the beginning. More yemberzals [budding artists] will mark new beginnings to keep the music alive after us as well,” she said.

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