Let There Be Pragaash (Light)…!
Government must realise that the tipping point that is delicately poised towards normalcy and Sukoon must be pushed firmly, making the girl band issue a test case for calling the bluff posed by inimical elements. That is the only way to work towards the dawn of Pragaash in the Valley.
The raging controversy over the fatwa (decree) by Kashmir’s self-appointed Grand Mufti on the Valley’s only girl-band, ‘Pragaash’, has attracted media and public attention. Is this issue simply a case of perceived female social impropriety in a conservative Muslim society, or, are more complex issues involved? The article attempts to unravel the conundrum.
Kashmiris as a people are well read, gifted in taqreer (expressing themselves) and love music. It is therefore not surprising that three feisty, music-minded upper middle class teenage girls studying in standard 10 in Srinagar’s uber smart Presentation Convent; Noma Nazir, Aneeka Khalid, and Farah Deeba—launched Kashmir’s first girls-only Sufi-rock band early last year; performing initially at schools, then for increasingly larger private audiences. In Koshur, Pragaash means ‘transiting from darkness to light’; an inspirational phrase taken from the Bihadaranayaka (3500 BCE). Unsurprisingly too, the lyrics “Main hoon mushkil mein, nazar toh kar le, faza ke pal mein zara gul kar de…” that won the girl-band deafening applause and top-gun status in the December 2012 ‘Battle of the Bands’; a yearly rock band extravaganza (Kashmir has 42 bands), were written by the popular 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah.
So why did this effervescent fairy tale not transit ‘from the unreal to the real; from darkness to light’? A respected Kashmiri journalist writes in anguish that it did not take a Kalashnikov to kill the bubbly schoolgirl’s songs… The schoolgirls were terrorised by a cleric inspired by a barrage of lethal threats delivered through social media. Bashir-ud-din Ahmad, 75, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti of the Supreme Court of Islamic Shariat’ issued a ‘Wahabi’ fatwa with fatuous advise: “stay strictly within the prescribed limits of womanly modesty”. Most opinion polls outside Kashmir squarely put the blame not just on puritanical interpretation of religious tenets regarding participation of women in public entertainment, but, equally on the omnipresent, disapproving, tunnel-visioned, male mindsets about women singing/dancing in public. The multi-layered complexities that surround the issue however demand that we look beyond the rhetoric to unearth the real truth.
Kashmir’s legacy of music, song and dance
Kashmir, the ‘Land of Kashyap Rishi’ has always had quality time for music, song and dance and these find mention in the earliest Kashmiri texts such as Nilmatapurana and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini. Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who founded Shrinagari (now Srinagar), brought in Buddhist compassion in addition to the existing Rishi traditions of tolerance, music and song to Kashmiri culture. In 1349, persuaded by Sufi saint Bulbul Shah, Prince Rinchin of Ladakh, converted to Islam, becoming King Shah Mir. Muslims and Hindus then lived in relative harmony, since the Sufi-Islamic way of life that Muslims followed in Kashmir complemented the Hindu Rishi tradition. This led to a syncretic culture, with both revering the same local saints; a phenomenon from which Kashmiriyat emerged. Budshah; Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1423-1474) is still regarded as its greatest proponent.
The heart and soul of this unique culture has always been Kashmiri folk songs. However, as music from the Indian heartland entered the Valley, young Kashmiris have gravitated to mixing-and-matching traditional with modern music, song and dance. The Lol-gevun (love songs) of the tragic 16th century singer-queen, Habba Khatoon; gay Rouf or Wanwan festival and marriage songs, Nendi Ba’eth (weeding season), Sont Gevun (spring) songs are woven into the Kashmiri soul. Kashmiri young love the film versions of Bhumbro Bhumbro, a catchy Rouf number and Rind Posh Maal, an 18th century ode to spring by Rasul Mir, both popularized by the hit film Mission Kashmir. Besides the girls-only Rouf, Sufiana Kalam, which is accompanied by the santoor, saz, wasool, tabla, sitar, ends in Hafiz Nagma; a dance performed by a female with males providing musical accompaniment and Hikkat , a playful, popular dance for boys and girls.
Prominent Kashmiri singers and poets
Lal Ded (1320-1392), also called Lal Arifa, was a remarkable mystic poet who created a poetry genre called Vakhs. These verses are part of Kashmiri folklore across religious persuasion. The haunting legend of the beautiful 16th century Kashmiri poet-queen Habba Khatoon, who sang about unrequited love, still fascinates Kashmiris. Habba brought to her singing the timeless feelings, yearnings, hopes and desires that all young women and men possess. She simply did not believe in denial and was sufficiently ‘bindaas’ in today’s language, to “drink deep at the fountain of life” and without artifice or apology.
The Bahawalpur born Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) is understandably a rave in Kashmir. His verse form, Kafi, written in Saraiki faithfully followed Sufi teachings and has been made very famous by Junoon, the iconic Pakistani band, and by Rabbi Gill with his Bullah Ki Jana Main Kaun, a haunting Sufi-rock fusion song. The Kashmiri all-girl band, it may be recalled, sang Bulleh Shah’s verses in their still-born career.
Modern Kashmir has lots of respected female singers; amongst them, Girija Pandit, Raj Begum, who, in 1954, along with Naseem Akhtar broke the cultural barrier of women singing publicly and Shameema Azad, wife of Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Double standards at work?
Savage criticism from the Grand Mufti, Separatist leaders; “inspired” social networking sites and threats of ‘social boycott’ from the Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM), a radical women’s outfit, ensured that Pragaash was still-born; also demotivating Adnan Mattoo, the schoolgirls Sufi-rock mentor, who introduced rock bands to Kashmir in 2005. Women’s rights activists like Ms Hawa Bashir are indignant that double standards are being displayed by public “morals minders”. Women have been singing for ages, without inviting hate or censure, they say. Abida Parveen and Noor Jahan are raved about so the logic of strangulating the Sufi-rock girl band defeats them. Kashmir watchers recall Immersion, a hugely popular 1997 vintage multi-religious pop/rock band, whose USP is Kashmiriyat and “Immersing oneself in the sea of music in order to get relief from the depression, stress and sorrow of life”. Members include a Kashmiri Pandit doctor, three Muslims including a girl singer and a Kashmiri Sikh. No one objects about them.
Did national media get it wrong?
Majority opinion in Kashmir feels that the national media, particularly TV channels, do not understand the complex multi-layered entity that is Kashmiri society; its cultural, emotional imperatives and end up ‘getting it wrong’. Thus, while some radicalisation is taking root in Kashmir, there isn’t hardcore talibanisation at work a la Pakistan. The Grand Mufti, for instance, was virtually unknown and would have been largely ignored by local media as had happened with his past fatwa’s on Christian missionaries; or, asking US nationals to leave the Valley after public anger over the US made anti-Islam film. Ironically, the perception of the state Government seemingly running with the hares and hunting with the hounds is better understood within the Valley than by excitable anchors in mainstream electronic media who often seek reinforcement for their Kashmiri mindsets.
Is there a Pakistani/ISI proxy hand?
At first glance, it appears clichéd, to suggest ISI involvement as there is no hard evidence to support this construct. Detached thinking however reveals a worrisome sub-text. These last two years, Kashmir has been at a cross roads; a classical Malcolm Gladstone “tipping point” in terms of the return of normalcy to Kashmir which is Army and Intezamia driven. A tipping point, Gladstone says, is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold; the boiling point of sociological change, which spreads like viruses do.” Seen from the Pakistani perspective, the tipping point—in its negative connotation—that best served Pakistani interests was to demonise Governance in Kashmir, and its key implementation arm; the Army. However, the recent General Ata Hasnain tenure and follow up has helped dismantle this mindset, “making the Army look humane” in the words of a veteran, resident Kashmir watcher. The last thing that suits Pakistan is to allow a positive tipping point that reverses the disenchantment which the negative tipping point of 1989 achieved.
It is in this context that the sudden decapitation of two Jawans in Mendhar; the “candid” Kargil revelations concerning Musharraf; the inexplicable snapping of across-LC trade; denial of MFN status; the sudden Grand Mufti and separatist labeling by both Hurriyat factions and DEM of the girl rock band as “against Islamic values” using inspired social media anger as evidence while turning a Nelson’s Eye towards regular performances by Valley rock bands;; televised dance competitions in public and women singers commanding packed audiences suddenly seems to make sense.
The bottom line is that, while the girl band issue could hardly have been thought up by the ISI, they were quick to realise its potential for discrediting the “normalcy” claims made by Intezamia by exploiting the rants of an unknown Grand Mufti and the blustering of the separatists and their proxies in Kashmir. The electronic media’s anxiety for breathless breaking news and sometimes misdirected panel discussions may have ironically helped the Pakistani efforts by hyping what was a local issue that would have died down anyway, simply because the young in Kashmir no longer want Intefada, but jobs and progress, big bucks, and, most importantly, a return to Eden; Sukoon above all. It is not unfair for young Kashmiris to hope to dance some day, to Farhan Akhtar’s infectious “Senorita” or “Gangnam style” at Lal Chowk; in flash-dance mode. If secular Turkish Muslims across gender can do it, surely they can too…
Though not related, the final steps leading to Afzal Guru’s execution were perceived both inside and outside Kashmir as insensitive and graceless. The case starkly illustrates how carefully thought through perception management by those in power could have won them grudging admiration from traumatized parents down to the awaam. Government must realise that the tipping point that is delicately poised towards normalcy and Sukoon must be pushed firmly, making the girl band issue a test case for calling the bluff posed by inimical elements. That is the only way to work towards the dawn of Pragaash in the Valley.
By Maj Gen (Retd) Raj Mehta