In Kashmir, ‘conscious music’ tests India’s limits on speech

In Kashmir, ‘conscious music’ tests India’s limits on speech

In Kashmir, ‘conscious music’ tests India’s limits on speech

Sarfaraz Javaid thumps his chest rhythmically in the music video, swaying to the guitar and letting his throaty voice ring out through the forest: “What kind of soot has shrouded the sky? It has turned my world dark. Why has the home been entrusted to strangers?”

“Khuaftan Baange,” Kashmiri for “the call to night’s prayer,” plays out like a groaning dirge for Muslim-majority Kashmir, the starkly beautiful Himalayan territory that’s home to decades of territorial conflict, gun-toting soldiers and harsh crackdowns on the populace. It is mournful in tone but lavish in lyrical symbolism inspired by Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition. Its form is that of a Marsiya, a poetic rendition that is a lament for Muslim martyrs.

“I just express myself and scream, but when harmony is added, it becomes a song,” Javaid, a poet like his father and grandfather, said in an interview.

Javaid is among a movement of artists in disputed Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both since 1947, who are forming a new musical tradition that blends progressive Sufi rock with hip-hop in an assertive expression of political aspirations. They call it “conscious music.”

Drawing on elements of Islam and spiritual poetry, it is often laced with religious metaphors to circumvent measures restricting some free speech in Indian-controlled Kashmir that have led many poets and singers to swallow their words. It also seeks to bridge tensions between Muslim tradition and modernism in a region that in many ways still clings to a conservative past.

“It’s like venting decades of pent-up emotions,” Javaid said.

Kashmir has a centuries-old tradition of spoken poetry that is heavily influenced by Islam, with mystical, rhapsodic verses often used when making supplications at mosques and shrines. After rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989, poetic renditions about liberation poured out from mosque loudspeakers and elegies inspired by historical Islamic events were sung at the funerals of fallen rebels.

Two decades of fighting left Kashmir and its people scarred with tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces dead before the armed struggle withered, paving the way for unarmed mass demonstrations that shook the region in 2008 and 2010. Around that time Kashmir also saw the rise of protest music in English-language hip-hop and rap, a new anthem of resistance.

Singer-songwriter Roushan Illahi, who performs under the name MC Kash, was the genre’s pioneer, making angry, grab-you-by-the-neck music that became a rallying cry for young people to use sharp rhymes and beats to challenge India’s sovereignty over the region.

Kash’s songs treaded dangerously close to sedition, however, as questioning India’s claim to the restive region is illegal.

The country has sharply restricted freedom of expression regarding the issue in Kashmir, including some curbs to the media, dissent and religious practices.

Frequent questioning by police pushed Kash to a point where he almost stopped making music. Some colleagues have continue to record and perform but began incorporating coded language, or moved away from politics altogether.

“First it was a chokehold,” Kash said, “but now it is a pillow on your mouth.”

Many artists stuck to the music and have been catapulted to fame, their songs widely shared on social media. “Conscious music” has flourished further as artists more recently began incorporating Urdu and Kashmiri lyrics.

On a recent afternoon, a cohort of young artists gathered at the home studio of composer Zeeshan Nabi in the suburbs of Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city. Filling the room with coils of cigarette smoke, they passionately debated the essence of metaphors and religious references in their work.

“What [religious symbolism] is doing is constantly knocking at the door, either in the form of a reminder or a memory from the past,” Nabi said.

He expressed optimism that the gag is temporary: “For how long can you hold the grip? The oppressor can oppress till about a certain time.”