June 2005 News

Kashmir Searches For Its Lost Sufi Music

1 June 2005

Kralpora: Amid the daily roar of gunfire and grenades, there's something new in Kashmiri villages these days: music classes. A dozen teenagers, cradling ancient Kashmiri string instruments and notebooks listen in rapt attention to teacher Mohammad Yaqoob speak about Sufyana Mosaqi, Kashmir's classical music. 'It is a Himalayan task to revive Sufyana Mosaqi, but when I listen to these young girls and boys singing haunting melodies, I see a ray of hope,' says 45-year-old Yaqoob. 'In this kind of a situation, it is very difficult to motivate youngsters to learn this music. But I will keep trying.' The strains of the 500-year-old musical form, drawn from the rituals and teachings of the Sufis or Muslim mystics, have been drowned in the 16-year separatist conflict in one of the world's most beautiful regions claimed by both India and Pakistan. Teachers fled the region because of the violence and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which sought to restrict Kashmiris from pursuing art and replace its gentle Sufi traditions. But a few Kashmiri musicologists are now trying to revive the tradition as they hold classes under the shadow of the gun, look for surviving artists in far flung villages and try to recover lost pieces of music. Experts say that Sufyana Mosaqi, a style of choral music performed by five to ten musicians, has already lost 130 out of the 180 'ragas' or melodies referred to in ancient scripts. A Kashmiri musicologist, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, has preserved 42 melodies by notating them over the past 15 years in a four-volume monumental book 'Kashur Sargam' or Kashmiri music. The fourth volume is under publication. 'The tradition of verbally passing down ragas from generation to generation also contributed to the disaster besides the ongoing militancy,' said 75-year-old Aziz, the only contemporary theorist of Kashmiri music. 'I am weak now. I can't go looking for more ragas and the situation is not good.' Aziz, lying in bed in his house in Srinagar, the summer capital of the bloodied Himalayan region, said he traveled to remote villages and towns of Kashmir, met old musicians, music lovers and collected Sufyana ragas for his project. Also lost is the once-celebrated Hafiza dance associated with the Sufyana Mosaqi. A solo female dance, the Hafiza expresses the meaning of poems sung by musicians through delicate postures and gliding steps similar to the Kathak dance tradition in northern India. The popular Hafiza dance was performed by Kashmiri women to the accompaniment of Sufyana Kalam or spiritual poetry, but musicians say Hafizas or female dancers disappeared from the scene in the 1940s after some were linked with prostitution. Sufism is a gentle Muslim way of life preached by Sufi saints in Kashmir, which was known for its scenic beauty, Sufi poets and religious tolerance before the rebellion broke out in late 1989 in which more than 45,000 people have died. Sufi music and its mystic dance were brought to the idyllic Himalayan valley from Central Asia in the 15th century. Many musicians still sing Persian poems. Some instruments also face extinction. The dhokra, an antique Kashmiri drum, has been replaced by the Indian tabla instrument. Very few players are left to string the Saz-e-Kashmir, a violin-like instrument. The other instruments used for performing Sufyana are the stringed santoor and Kashmiri sitar. 'The recent build-up of social and political tensions has created an environment acutely dangerous to such already vulnerable traditions as Sufyana,' wrote American music researcher, Jozef M. Pacholczyk in his book, 'The Classical Music of Kashmir.' Ironically while Sufi music is struggling for survival in Kashmir, its popularity is growing in elsewhere in India. A popular Punjabi singer, Rabbi Shergill's album with a distinctive Sufi touch has been one of the biggest sellers in recent weeks and Sufi music festivals with international singers from Pakistan and Iran are big draws. Some Kashmiris say the Indian government has deliberately sought to snuff out their culture. 'Music and arts of other Indian states received help from New Delhi while Kashmir's music and art was deliberately ignored since 1947,' said Imtiyaz Ahmad Shah, a music lover. 'They pushed this precious art to a shambles.' At the end of British rule in 1947, Indian rulers took over the Himalayan region, when a Hindu king of then independent Jammu and Kashmir state acceded to India in return for military aid. But government officials said they were committed to preserving Kashmir's rich cultural traditions, the country's only Muslim-majority state. 'We are trying our best to save this great art. We are frequently holding Sufyana concerts to woo people for learning, I am sure we will not let it die down,' said Ramesh Mehta, secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art and Culture.


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