On A Sweet Note

  • Faheem un nisa
  • Publish Date: Mar 28 2016 11:06PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 6 2016 11:13AM
On A Sweet Note


 How three young singers made hallfuls in the US, Australia and New Zealand fall in love with Kashmiri music



It only takes a smell, a word, a sight for old memories to come rushing back. Or a note plucked out of a forgotten instrument. So, when concert halls in the United States, Australia and New Zealand echoed with soulful Kashmiri songs, nostalgia washed over the audience, mostly comprising Kashmiri expatriates. The sentimental experience was courtesy Funkar International, a US based NGO which had organised for the singers Mehmeet Syed, Irfan Nabi and Bilal Matta to tour the United States to promote Kashmiri music and culture, and to strengthen the bonds between non-resident Kashmiris regardless of their religious and regional affiliations. And what a performance it was! The three singers regaled packed concert halls, with Irfan and Bilal also playing guitar and harmonium respectively. The group was joined by some instrumentalists from Chicago who played rubaab and tumbakhnaar

Their first overseas performance was in Maryland. They then went on to perform in five other cities in the United States, travelling the breadth of the country coast to coast. The impressive response the shows received caught the eye of Shafat Qazi, founder-CEO of BQE Software Inc, a Kashmiri who has been living in the US for the past several decades. He felt that people, particularly non-resident Kashmiris, loved the idea of having a Kashmiri music concert in their adopted land. So, he decided to explore the idea further. “I was fortunate enough to experience their music,” says Qazi, who went to their performance in Los Angeles. There were two things, he says, that really appealed to him. “One, their music and compositions were different. They had done a wonderful job of creating a fusion of Sufi compositions that was alluring to people of all generations,” he adds. “Two, the concerts refreshed the love for Kashmiri language and culture among all Kashmiris living in the USA, and generated interest in Kashmiri music among kids, many of whom were listening to it for the first time.” Qazi decided to take the tour to other countries, starting with Australia and New Zealand. 

In November 2015, the group performed twice each in Sydney and Melbourne, and once in Auckland, New Zealand. The shows in Sydney and Auckland included a cruise and a stage performance, while in Melbourne, the group gave a theatrical performance. “The response was phenomenal,” recalls Mehmeet. “People loved our music. There were people who attended our concert in Sydney and then traveled all the way to Melbourne to see us perform again.” In Sydney, says Mehmeet, all Kashmiri women came to the concert wearing traditional embroidered dresses. “At each of the concerts, there was so much harmony and unity in the air that it felt like we were performing for one big Kashmiri family,” she adds. Qazi, too, was overwhelmed by the response. “The hospitality of the Pandit community in New Zealand was second to none,” he says. “They invited Irfan, Bilal and Mehmeet to private lunches and dinners, and danced along with other Kashmiris at the concerts. It is the best evidence of their kinship and I am very proud of Irfan, Bilal and Mehmeet for making this happen.” The shows attracted quite a few non-Kashmiris as well. “They clearly could not understand a word but seemed to enjoy the music as much as the others, and were lost in some sort of a trance. Talk about how music transcends language,” Mehmeet says, with a smile. 

The best part, of course, was that the concerts melted down the metaphorical barriers between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits built over the past couple of decades. “Muslims and Pandits couldn’t be differentiated in the crowd,” says Mehmeet. “They were singing along, laughing together, dancing with each other and chatting about the good old days, as if there never had been any rift.” She says the coordinators came up to them and said, with tears in their eyes, that they had never seen such unity before. “People of one soil separated by politics were brought together by our music,” she says. It was a pleasant surprise to Qazi as well. “In Melbourne, it was for the first time in 25 years that I saw Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims working together as they organised the concert. During the concert, they even went on the stage together and performed a jaw-dropping rouf that gave me goose bumps.”

Mehmeet feels, after this experience, that the people living in Kashmir, “who are by default entrusted with protecting our culture and language are letting it fade away while those living amid foreign cultures are fighting to keep it alive”. “The non-resident Kashmiris make it a point to make Kashmiri culture a part of their everyday lives and teach Kashmiri language to their kids. But in Kashmir, we have taken it for granted to the point that it is on the verge of extinction,” she rues. “I think the fact that we never received the kind of response to our music in Kashmir that we did overseas speaks for itself. It’s very saddening.”

Mehmeet knows what she’s talking about. Coming from a generation that was, unfortunately, hardwired to look down upon Kashmiri, she struggled with the language when she took up singing. So, the need to rejuvenate the language is real and urgent for her. “When I was in school, we were punished if someone caught us speaking in Kashmiri. We grew up considering our mother tongue inferior without knowing or asking why,” she says. “Today, I consider it my responsibility to contribute towards restoring to Kashmiri its lost glory. I am thankful to Shafat Qazi for giving me the opportunity to do so.” The tour, Mehmeet says, was an “enlightening experience” for her, especially the realization that youngsters who had never visited Kashmir were keen to learn about their language, culture and tradition. “An eight-year-old boy came up to us and said that the concert had changed his perception of Kashmir and evoked in him an interest in Kashmiri language,” she recalls. “At another concert, one little girl told me she wanted to grow up to be like me.” Qazi says he saw young children wearing pherans asking their mothers to teach them how to do the rouf and the hikat. “I talked to some of the kids after the concert and was pleased to see that their love for Kashmir had increased exponentially,” he says. “It was truly heartwarming.”

Qazi insists that the revival of Kashmiri music is a crucial step towards rejuvenating Kashmiri language. “This language is on the verge of becoming a relic. Now is the time for its revival, and music is by far the best way to make people fall in love with our culture, poetry and language,” he argues. To revive Kashmiri music though, Mehmeet says it’s necessary to improvise with the changing times. “Some people are cynical about improvisations, but if tiny modifications can turn a whole generation towards Kashmiri music and save it from being lost to the winds of westernization, I don’t see any reason for criticism,” she says. The modifications she speaks of usually involve mild variations to tune and background music, or, at times, replacing or interchanging traditional instruments, or using the guitar. “We try to create a fusion without taking away the soul of the song,” she says. “That way we make Kashmiri music sound appealing to the newer generations without losing its true essence.” 

Qazi is now trying to organize more tours for Mehmeet, Irfan and Bilal. In the pipeline, is a visit to the UAE. As for the need for such efforts, Mehmeet puts it succinctly: “Kashmiri language has been ignored for long. Something needed to be done and these concerts are a step in the right direction.”