Worthy Notes

  • Haroon Mirani
  • Publish Date: May 26 2017 2:25AM
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  • Updated Date: May 26 2017 2:25AM
Worthy Notes

The tale of a master’s heroic struggle to preserve Sufiyana music

 

Half a decade ago, when Mohammed Yousuf Beigh started learning Sufiyana music, his two small girls used to watch him in awe. As he mastered octave after octave, the girls’ interest progressed into passion. They insisted on learning, too.

Luckily for Irfana, 17, and Rehana, 15, their father agreed, and they all started taking their daily music lessons together. Four rigorous years of training later, the girls are ready to showcase their craft.

“I developed interest in learning Sufiyana music after listening to my father and Sheikh sahab. After I came to know that he also teaches girls, I asked my father to let us learn. He agreed,” says Irfana, referring to Ustad Mohammed Yaqub Sheikh who runs the Qalinbaaf Memorial Sufiyana Music Institute at Kralpora on the outskirts of Srinagar. The institute is named after his grandfather, the legendary Ustad Ghulam Mohammed Qalinbaf. 

Irfana and Rehana are lucky to have a music-loving father. For many other girls who have developed interest in this old form of Kashmiri music, family support is hard to come by. Many end up abandoning it, heartbroken.

Every four-five years, a group of girls completes training in Sufiyana music and then seek to exhibit at the few platforms available in Kashmir. Often, their enthusiasm is extinguished as they are literally shunned by government departments. Being thorough professionals, they find it hard to make their way through the minefield of nepotism and bribery in the state’s art world. Many last barely a couple of years. Dejection is followed by marriage and children. The talented artist is lost forever.

“Sometimes I get frustrated,” says Sheikh. “I give everything for training them up to eight years. And then they find no avenues or even encouragement.”

Sheikh’s music academy, set up soon after Qalinbaaf’s death in 1996, is much sought after by lovers of Sufiyana music as the training provided here is hardly offered at anywhere else. 

Shabnam Bashir was a teenager when she started training. She had literally fought with her parents to pursue her passion for Sufiyana music. At the institute, she stood out among her peers thanks to her prodigious talent. She is blessed with a mesmerising voice and envious skill at Santoor. 

As days passed, she realised that apart from adulation and a few performances on Doordarshan and Radio Kashmir, her career was not going anywhere. Somebody asked her to switch to light music. She tried her hand at it and sung some memorable songs, but still making a career in music proved a herculean task. Her parents could not wait any longer and married her off. 

Her husband didn’t allow her to continue her musical journey and, thus, an emerging talent was lost forever. Today, the music in her life remains limited to lullabies and humming while doing domestic chores. 

“This is the hard reality of Kashmir, the place which gave the world a unique form of classical music,” says Sheikh. “Now we are losing both artists and listeners at an alarming rate.”

Sheikh is credited with single-handedly reviving the dying art of Sufiyana, by documenting it and establishing an academy to teach it. “Earlier it used to be an oral tradition but I documented it. I give my students notes and theses and they work on them,” he says. 

That was not all. “This used to me a male-dominated field. It was taught by men to men but I opened it to girls, too,” Sheikh says. “The tradition was so strict that an Ustad would not teach it even to his own daughter.”

Sheikh, in turn, was inspired by the work of his grandfather. It was, in fact, Qalinbaaf who had started teaching Sufiyana to women, although informally. “Never before in our history had women performed Sufiyana Kalaam,” Sheikh says. “He had a vision that if we have to save this music, we need to bring in women. He was an advocate of change.”

The introduction of woman gave a new lease of life to Sufiyana just when it seemed the art would be consumed by light music and other forms of music from mainland India.

Sheikh has built on the legacy. His academy has broken many taboos. It helped make Rashida Akhtar, an accomplished vocalist, the first woman Sufiyana tabla player from Kashmir. She vowed audiences with her skill and grace with the instrument before she too, unfortunately, met the fate of other girls who pass through the academy. She had to let go of her passion and settle for the obscurity of her marriage.

Over the past two decades, Sheikh has taught at least 45 women, of whom only 5-6 continue to practise and perform. “The rest of them have abandoned the field as they feel it has no future, no matter how passionate one is,” Sheikh rues.

Kashmir’s classical music scene is a graveyard of passions of those who were forced to abandon their art for want of interest or support. Yet, it keeps attracting people all the time as evidenced by Sheikh’s academy. 

Most girls have come to Sheikh after listening to him on radio or TV. The academy isn’t much into advertising. It’s the word of mouth that brings people here. “There are youth who are genuinely attracted to it and I get queries frequently. Earlier I used to admit everybody, now I select a candidate, be it girl or boy, based on the level of interest, talent and other factors,” Sheikh says.

The training is almost free, and even the musical instruments, some of which cost upwards of Rs 30,000, are provided to students for use for free. More than money, though, learning classic music takes enormous patience. It’s a difficult art to master and it can take up to eight years for a candidate to be ready for a performance. 

At Sheikh’s academy, the students learn to play Sitar, Santoor, Kashmiri Sitar, Tabla and are given training in vocals. Sheikh prefers students who are young. “The younger the student the better it is. A child of eight will be ready by the time he or she reaches 16.” 

 

NOBODY CARES?

Classical music in Kashmir is crying for government support, but little is forthcoming. There have allegations of corruption in granting funds and scholarships to musical groups. Sufiyana musicians hardly get any attention. The budding artists usually get a programme a month on Radio Kashmir and rarely on Doordarshan. Most platforms such as Radio Kashmir, JKAACL, North Zone Cultural Centre, ICCR seem more concerned about light music -- indeed everything but classical.

“You have connections, you can get all sort of funds. There are some groups who know nothing of classical music yet they get funding from one of the cultural organisations,” says a classical musician who asked not to be identified. “This has led to a rise in half-baked musicians and experts. These so called musicians don’t even know the difference between Indian and Kashmiri classical music, yet they get airtime.”

They are even denied awards, which could have catalysed the growth of classical music. Despite over three decades of experience, Sheikh too has never won a state award, which, the allegation goes, are lately being garnered by “amateurs”. Sangit Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Youth Awards, for one, have been bestowed on every Tom, Dick or Harry, but a classical musician. 

When it comes to engaging faculty in classical music, the trained musicians never get a chance. The management of the Institute of Music and Fine Arts has been accused of engaging a school dropout with no degree in classical music as assistant professor. Is it any wonder that the institute’s classical music department is on the verge of closure?

But despite all odds, Sheikh hopes to continue the journey. “I have lived my life, and made my career in this music. It is my dream to preserve it. Even if I try and fail multiple times, I will continue my journey,” he says. 

Of the hundred-odd musicians that Sheikh has taught over the years, only few are still playing. One of his brightest students works as a plumber now to make ends meet while another is a private school teacher.

Some, though, have kept at it passionately. Yousuf, for one, was often advised by his relatives and neighbours not to pursue music, Sufiyana or any other, let alone allow his daughters to learn it. But he never gave in. 

A mason, Yousuf performs whenever he gets time, on Radio Kashmir or other events. He knows the risks and challenges ahead, but together with his daughter, he is going strong.