A Sufiyana Group

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Five young girls picked up the art of playing intricate musical instruments with a serious bid to revive Kashmir’s fading Sufiyana Mosiqi, reports Farzana Nisar

Lead vocalist on Santoor in the all-female Sufiyana musical group. Irfana is now a student of music in the University. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

It is raining outside, and the walls of a single storey modest house in Sumbal’s Ganastan village reverberate with mystical voices of five young girls. Dressed in pherans and colourful headscarves, these girls are sitting cross-legged in a circle, each playing a musical instrument and singing melodies of Kashmiri Sufiyana Mosiqi (music). With a pair of light wooden mallets held between her fingers, the lead musician of the group, Irfana Yousuf strikes some perfect chords on a hundred-stringed instrument, Santoor.

Fell For Santoor 

Six years back, when Irfana, then an eighth standard student, asked his father, Mohammad Yusuf Beigh to teach her Sufi music, he immediately agreed. A few months later, Yusuf’s younger daughter, Rehana and Irfana’s school friend, Gulshan Lateef also joined her.

It is a -5-member all-girl group of music lovers who are so keen to revive the Sufiyana music in Kashmir. They all are studying in different classes and some are still in school. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“I have seen my father performing this music since childhood and thus it somehow got inculcated in me,” says smiling Irfana. “Sufiyana music is very powerful as it soothes my heart, so I couldn’t stop myself from learning it”.

Teacher Father

Mohammad Yusuf, a maestro Santoor player has been performing for the past twenty years and is approved by Radio Kashmir as a B-class artist. He now trains girls from the village who share his passion for Sufiyana music, besides working as a mason.

“Initially, I took these girls to my teacher, Ustad Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh Sahab to receive the basic training. He gave them the lessons once a week and the rest of the days I used to make them practice at my home. In a year or so the progress was evident,” said Yousuf, while tightening the slipping pegs of his Santoor. “I remember I had to sell some trees for Rs 6000 to buy a Santoor but today my daughters have my support. I don’t let them face such problems.”

Once when the three girls were performing in an inter-school cultural event at Nowgam Srinagar, another participant from a neighbouring school Saima Hameed was fascinated with what she saw. Later that day, she went to Yusuf’s home and expressed the desire to learn the art.

“The first thing I asked them was to show me the musical instruments. As I touched their strings, the metallic ting notes they produced made me close my eyes and imagine myself in a completely different world,” says Saima, playing Saz-e-kashmir, a traditional version of violin, with a bow. “That moment I knew what I want in my life.”

The lead girl of the 5-member team busy in practice with her family. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Joined Same School

Irfana, Gulshan and Saima then got themselves enrolled in the same High School and used to perform in all school events together. “Being in the same class was an advantage for us”, says Gulshan, a sitar player. “We became good friends and got many opportunities to showcase our talent as a group”.

The youngest of all, Shabnum Bashir, has a different story than the other girls in the group. A friend of Rehana, Shabnum earlier used to practice singing and playing musical instruments in secret. Fearful that her family might oppose her desire to learn music, Shabnum decided to keep it hidden.

“That time I was in my fifth primary and as soon as my school ended I used to rush to Rehana’s home and learn Sufi music. I didn’t tell my parents about it,” says Shabnum. “I am passionate about it and that’s why I set out to do what my heart told me to.”

After Shabnum’s father came to know about it, he refused to support her and ridiculed her choice. But she kept persuading them and finally, they softened their stance. “My father gave me permission to learn music on one condition that my studies shouldn’t get affected by it.”

The girls literally conspired with each other and enrolled themselves in the same school so that they can practice together. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Music As Subject

In 2015, these five young and determined girls, now aged between 16 and 21 formally formed an all-girl group with the shared ambition to revive the dying art of traditional Sufi music. Since then there was no looking back. The group has participated in many events held in and around the state, including Kala Utsav 2017.

“First we participated at the district level in Srinagar where we were selected for the state-level competition, which was held at Jammu. We won the first position there and that was one of the most memorable moments for us,” says Tabla expert Rihana. “We even showcased our talent at the national level in Bhopal. Even though it didn’t fetch us any award, we received huge appreciation from everyone.”

The group is also approved by Radio Kashmir in Sufiyana category.

After passing the twelfth class examination from a local higher secondary, the elder three girls, Irfana, Gulshan and Saima planned to get a professional degree in music. Last year, after qualifying an entrance test, they enrolled themselves in the Institute of Music and Fine Arts at the University of Kashmir and are now pursuing their Bachelors in Music and Fine Arts.

In the last few years, this group has got many trophies for their performances. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“A professional degree will help us a lot in becoming better musicians. Moreover, our teachers at the university are very supportive. They appreciate our talent and always inspire us to strive for best,” says Gulshan.

Rihana studies in Class 12 at Gadkhoda Higher Secondary and Shabnum is a tenth class student at Government High School, Ganastan. Both of them also want to pursue a career in music. “I think it’s important to study what you love not what others think you should. I enjoy playing music and I will always want a professional recognition,” says Rihana.

Sufiyana Revival

Earlier considered the domain of males, the all-girls group has changed the old belief of gender specificity in Sufiyana music. “In recent years, girls have come forward and showed interest in learning this music. I have trained many girls from the village, but unfortunately only few were able to continue as they were married off by their parents,” says Yusuf. “I don’t have a son, but even if I had one, I would have never stopped my girls from doing what they wanted. Girls need to be empowered, and our duty is to support them in their decisions.”

The girls say that the Sufiyana tradition of music gives them happiness as most of it is in the praise of God. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Considering the fact that Sufiyana music is very hard to learn and understand, Irfana says that youngsters get attracted to modern forms of music rather than the traditional ones. “It may be because of the mass availability and popularity of other forms of music that new generations try to learn them,” she says. “But learning classical Kashmiri music requires patience. One has to practice for a minimum 8 hours a day and there is no room for errors. You have to give your best.”

Sufiyana Mosiqi (music) is a type of classical choral ensemble music of Kashmir. This musical form developed through Indo, Central Asian cultural exchange that took place after the arrival of Islam and Sufism in the region during the fourteenth century.  While this music is facing a real threat of extinction, this all-girls group is hoping to keep the traditions of Sufiyana music alive. The girls’ dream is to achieve heights in the field of Sufi music.

“It is certain that Kashmiri Sufiyana music will never die. We will not let our passion for music subside,” says Irfana, confidently. “This music is our cultural inheritance. Nowadays, artists try to blend folk with contemporary, but the original is always real.”

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