Should Kashmir’s youth sing loud enough for all of India to hear?

Kashmiri musicians struggle to harmonise an extra discord—between personal ambitions and a society asking them to stick to their roots and not amplify a narrative of ‘normalcy’

Screen grab from Coke Studio's 'Kya Karie Korimol' video (courtesy @cokestudioindia/YouTube)
Screen grab from Coke Studio's 'Kya Karie Korimol' video (courtesy @cokestudioindia/YouTube)

Zenaira Bakhsh

When Coke Studio India dropped ‘Kya Karie Korimol’, which blends aspects of traditional Kashmiri folk music with fast-paced pop, the song struck a chord with many who could relate to its critique of societal expectations from and pressures on wedding hosts in Kashmir.

At the song’s outset, the lead vocalist implores listeners to pay careful heed to this important message. The next five minutes are a tribute to a Kashmiri father’s struggle to host a grand feast and a bride’s nostalgia, sung by prominent musicians Mohammad Muneem (aka ALIF), Noor Mohammad and Aashima Mahajan. The song also includes a segment of traditional Kashmiri wanwun folk music, sung by women.

In the end, the lead vocalist asks: What can a father of a girl do?

The song went viral with more than 10 million views on YouTube in a short span, gaining popularity all over India. It was relatable sentiment across the country, after all, a common patriarchal conundrum, even as its flavour was distinctly that of Kashmir. However, the song also called to the fore a broader question—that of Kashmiri artistes walking the tightrope of managing their personal ambitions and the Kashmiri public's expectations.

The song drew the ire of some in Kashmir, even though the backlash paled in comparison to the outpouring of appreciation pan-India. Its detractors, however, objected to Kashmiri musicians choosing to promote themselves on a national platform.

While decades of conflict have shaped Kashmir’s poetry and music, the Kashmiri people’s tastes and political sensibilities have evolved in tandem too. Association with certain platforms and events is seen as furthering the Indian government’s narrative of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir, which is far from the lived experience of its residents, and inevitably draws flak.

On the other hand, Kashmir’s foundering economy leaves artistes with few opportunities to grow and sustain their art or gain a thriving livelihood. So artistes rue the dearth of patrons and say that Kashmiri society does little to encourage them on local platforms, despite the immediate and intense criticism if they branch out beyond the regional boundaries. Many now travel to Indian cities in search of gig work, performing at private parties and cafes.

Like most Kashmiri musicians, 37-year-old Sarfaraz Javid, who goes by the stage name Muntazir Faraz, is struggling to keep his passion for music alive. For a livelihood, he runs a thrift shop in Srinagar to make ends meet.

Faraz writes his own songs, his poetry reflecting the situation around him. His musical journey began with an impromptu performance during an outing in the hills, where he shared his tribute to Kashmir’s troubles.

“I write and sing in my mother tongue—that keeps me motivated,” Faraz says. “My music consists of references to the forests and villages of my homeland. I feel for my people, speak of my place and the constant conflict.”

A video capturing that performance went viral in Kashmir, with people relating to the sombre message behind the lyrics. So Faraz and his friends decided to form a band, calling it Gaekhir Republik.

Their popularity has crept higher outside Kashmir too, now. Recently, they performed to a full house at a cafe in New Delhi. The band wants to release a full-fledged album, but are compelled to crowdsource for funds. “As of now, we don’t have enough money,” Faraz says. Like him, the other band members also make music in their time off from work, pooling their own resources. “We record on our phones and upload them directly,” says Faraz. “We could never afford to record in a proper studio because there is a lot of money involved.”

Veteran Kashmiri musician Waheed Jeelani says the political turmoil in Kashmir had made it virtually impossible for artistes to survive on music alone. “The situation didn’t let us move forward,” he says. “We don’t have the latest technology and resources to make music.”

Until Kashmir has better infrastructure and greater societal patronage—which implies a larger set of citizens with both the additional income and the leisure for listening—Kashmiri artistes won’t be able to achieve the financial stability to make a full-time career in music, Jeelani adds. “Not all artists get the opportunity to go out and perform.”

For some, the woes of financial instability are overshadowed by the growing curbs on dissent in Kashmir. It is what compelled 33-year-old Shayan Banday to give up his dream of becoming a rapper five years ago. “At this point, personal safety comes first and that’s the reason why I quit music,” he says. “Is anyone speaking for all the journalists who are behind bars right now? Artistes have to keep themselves safe and survive.”

Jeelani has a word of advice for the younger musicians: no matter where they get the opportunity to perform, they should take it. And it is not pragmatism alone that guides his voice. “An artist is an ambassador of a society, and art has no boundaries,” he adds. “Artists need freedom [from all sides] to perform and [spread] their roots.”

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