Master of Note

  • Ishtiyaq Sibtian Joo
  • Publish Date: Jul 23 2017 9:11PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Jul 23 2017 9:11PM
Master of Note

An afternoon with the legendary singer Rashid Hafiz


I grew up hearing that mesmerising voice on radio and tape recorder, so I couldn’t contain my excitement when, over three decades later, I finally got to meet the person behind it – the legendary Sufiyana singer Abdul Rashid Hafiz.

It took multiple phone calls and much persuasion to get him to agree to a meeting but it was worth the effort. Wearing a traditional salwar kameez with a black waist coat, I found Hafiz sitting under a small tree in a park in Lal Chowk, where we had agreed to meet, his eyes closed and softly humming some song. It was as if he was in a different world.

I walked up to him, offered my salutations and we got talking.

Hafiz was born in Tujgar mohallah of Nowhatta in downtown Srinagar, into a family of carpet weavers, seven years after the Partition. The place, he says, was a den of mystics, ascetics and artists, among them the Classical Sufi singer Ghulam Ahmad Sofi alias Amme Sofi.

Hafiz was 13 when he heard Sofi at a function in the neighbourhood. “I was so moved by Sofi sahib’s voice I couldn’t think of anything except for singing,” he says.

Being the only son, Hafiz’s decision was not received well by his parents, especially his father, who wanted him to go into the family trade. But Hafiz had made up his mind. “It was not an easy decision. My father was a namda weaver and his sources of income were limited. He saw me as a helping hand to raise the family income but after hearing Sofi sahib my dream was to be, if not like him, at least something like him,” he says.

Hafiz’s passion eventually swayed his father, and he let the budding singer carry on. It wasn’t easy, though. He knocked on the doors of many singers, hoping they would agree to train him. After much struggle, he found Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Dar Sarangi Nawaaz from Kralyara, who took him in. “He was my guide and mentor. He taught me many things and introduced me to professional music,” says Hafiz.

Hafiz started out playing second fiddle to established singers in sufiyana mehfils, earning Rs 1-5 for his performances. “Survival became tough. It seemed as if there were no takers for my kind of music,” Hafiz recalls. But he did not give up. In October 1979, he finally caught his big break. He auditioned for Radio Kashmir and was selected as a B-class singer. Radio was the just platform he needed. “Performing on Radio Kashmir helped me in a big way. It helped me reach a larger audience,” he says.

Before long, Hafiz, he of the base voice, was all the rage in the valley. He became a brand in his own right, releasing number after hit number: “Ya tuli Khanjar maaray, nat saani shaba rozea”, “Kail panas chem ga chun warew mai poruw ha wasew”, “Be yaar lagay begam nawas.”

Hafiz was soon made an A-grade singer and later promoted as top grade artist on both Radio and TV, fetching him Rs 2,500 for each booking. He also earned good money performing at private functions.

But, as happens to most artists, Hafiz’s purple patch was followed by a lean one. Then, when the militancy erupted in 1989, he was forced to look for alternative work to feed his family. “Things came to standstill in early 90s. So did my musical work, but not my family expenditures. I had to find means to feed my family so I opted for whatever came my way, which included carpet weaving and other odd jobs,” recalls Hafiz, who has two sons and two daughters.

Despite the financial hardship, the singer did not let his passion for music subside. He continued rehearsing in the hope that things would improve and he would have a resurgence. So it happened. He re-emerged on the music scene in second half of the 90s, and never looked back. 

“An artist dies two deaths. One is his physical death and the second is if he loses his skill. I couldn’t imagine dying the second death. So I kept on rehearsing for performances which were hard to come by. But I didn’t lose hope,” he says.

Hafiz has received many accolades and awards over the years, including Bakshi Memorial Award (2007), Ahad Zargar Award (2008), Raj Begum Award, Ghulam Ahmad Sofi Award, and State Award (2014), but he says the high point of his career came when he was honored with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in October 2015. The citation described Hafiz as the king of Kashmiri folk singing. 

“It is really an honor when the president of the country recognises your work. Besides, I also saw it as recognition of our traditions and our music,” Hafiz says.

After Raj Begum and Ali Mohammed Shaikh, the 63-year-old Hafiz is only the third singer from the state to have won the prestigious award.

Not that he puts much store by stardom. “I believe an artist should have a 'fakirana' lifestyle. He shouldn’t get used to stardom as he will never know when his time may change. The songs that I sing are inspired by Sufism where importance of subjugation is highlighted. Attempting to understand the philosophy of these lyrics shapes your persona and brings out modesty in you. You realise arrogance will do nothing but accelerate your downfall,” Hafiz says.

Hafiz is illiterate and he wears it on his sleeve. He believes not knowing a foreign language does not make him any less of a person. In fact, he thinks Kashmiris, by making their children converse in Urdu and English only, are murdering their culture. "A house where elders are not respected loses its value. Likewise, the country whose children don’t speak its native language, its culture eventually dies,” he argues. “Also, if our children don’t speak our language, how can they understand the beautiful things that have been said or written in it?”

Does the Classical singer in him feel threatened by the new crop of singers who are mixing up genres by remixing old hits? “In the end, it all boils down to the quality of music you are offering the audience,” Hafiz responds.

Hafiz says he is certain that Kashmiri Sufiyana music will never die. It may change form, he adds, but it will live on.