The song ‘Ha Gulo’ (O! Gul or the flower-faced beloved), a Kashmiri melody that was recently released by Coke Studio, has been received very well in the Kashmir Valley. Despite an almost permanent gloom hanging in the air due to the daily routine of deaths and violence, the song has lifted the public mood and turned Altaf Mir, a resistance militant-turned-folk singer, into an overnight celebrity.
The reputation and public following of Coke Studio have afforded Mir a wide audience across the political geography, breaching the highly-guarded frontiers on both sides of the divided territory. It is for first time that a Kashmiri song that originated from Pakistan has gained a massive following; perhaps no other Kashmiri singer has ever received such instant fame.
The new generation of Kashmiris, who had otherwise abandoned their language, is suddenly feeling ‘cool’ about identifying with their mother tongue and singing its melodies. Shah Faesal – a Kashmiri-Indian bureaucrat who is currently under the official scanner for his tweet that called India “rapistan” due to frequent incidents of sexual violence against women – is delighted about the Coke Studio release, which he believes is “a really big thing for Kashmiris”. He told me that “this number has taken Kashmiri music to a new level”. He added that: “at a time when [the] new generation of Kashmiris [is] shying away from listening to Kashmiri songs, Coke Studio has made it fashionable again, and the new song has won many young hearts”.
Bashir Dada, a leading Kashmiri writer, is thoroughly impressed at the way the song has been presented. Dada, who has produced dozens of hit Kashmiri songs during the last four decades, called it “really marvellous”. “This is the real way and style to produce a Kashmiri folk song,” he added. “The costume and the characters fit in well with the locations”. Dada congratulated the team and believes that the song will impact Kashmiri music in a positive way as it has set a new benchmark for doing folksongs.
The Kashmiri language, colloquially known as Koshur, has been treated like an alien within its own territory for centuries. Historically, it has been the medium of communication between the dispossessed people and the Sufi poets – from Lal Ded to Nund Rishi and from Wahab Khar to Ahad Zargar – who adopted it to discuss religion and diurnal issues, and empower the people by speaking against the exploitation of the rich or the religious class. The elite – from Brahmins to the Muslim clergy – always looked down upon the language as it was considered rough and uncouth, bereft of any aesthetic or intellectual value.
During the Islamic period that started in the early 13th century, the traditional mullahs – who had migrated from Central Asia in need of succour and many of whom advance unsubstantiated claims of being among the so-called Sayyids – adopted Farsi as their medium of interaction and instruction in the royal courts. During the late Dogra-Hindu raj, Urdu became the language of officialdom, and that of literature, poetry and intellectual discourse.
In the early 1930s, as the Kashmiri political struggle fuelled the local conscience on a distinct Kashmiri identity and culture, new and emerging writers and intellectuals started to express themselves in their mother tongue. During this era, Mahjoor, the writer of ‘Ha Gulo’, became known as he penned some melodious poetry. Although by no means an intellectual or as erudite as his contemporary Ghulam Naib Azad – a great and revolutionary poet in his own right – Mahjoor’s verses popularised the language that also kindled the so-called elite interest in it.
Since Mahjoor’s death in 1952, Urdu has taken over Kashmiri middle-class households as abandoning Kashmiri at home and adopting Urdu affords a certain sense of class elevation. That is why Kashmiri parents are forcing their children to discard their mother tongue; even in schools, it is a struggle to find schoolteachers talking to their students in Kashmiri. Most public officials also believe that Urdu is a better medium to converse with the people. In such a scenario, the Coke Studio song is a commendable effort to popularise the language.
Altaf Mir’s own journey from a militant to a singer is quite eventful and reflects the unending tragedy of Kashmir. In his particular case, there is some promise as well. He comes from Janglat Mandi in Islamabad, a historic town built by Mughal governor Islam Khan. The town’s name was officially changed to Anantnag in the early 20th century as the Dogra-Hindu rulers wanted to please the local Brahmin clergy who had a history of trolling their kings and the commoners alike.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Mir – like thousands of Kashmiri youth who abandoned their vocations as calligraphers, artisans, writers, medical doctors and teachers – left his handicraft business and joined the resistance. He came back after four years, only to leave again as pro-government militants were wreaking havoc through their often brutal murders of resistance militants along with their family members and sympathisers.
Nizamuddin, a former journalist-turned-senior politician of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is fascinated by “the background of the singer” and believes his newfound fame will help promote the language beyond the borders.
Dr Bashir Veeri, a well-known writer and a senior politician from the pro-India National Conference sees Mir’s journey representing the “tragic story of Kashmiri youths whose talent is consumed by the conflict between India and Pakistan”. He also praised Coke Studio for discovering and bringing to the fore “the hidden talent of a migrant Kashmiri”, adding that this had given a “fresh lease of hope to hundreds of talented people in Kashmir who have been failed by the current political impasse”.
Sheikh Amin, a Rawalpindi-based Kashmiri writer and journalist who migrated to Pakistan in the late 1990s, hopes that the song will encourage a new generation of Kashmiri children in Pakistan or Azad Kashmir to take some interest in their language. He lamented that they are adopting Urdu and English, leaving no room for Kashmiri.
The power of music is quite formidable and we hope such efforts can continue promoting Kashmiri music as a vehicle to unite people from both sides of the divide and improve their fractured lives.