He refused to be just another skilled labourer working his eyesight out in penury in Srinagar’s downtown. His calling was music. Saima Bhat talks to Rashid Hafiz, the singer who kept traditional Kashmiri music alive despite an indifferent audience
Almost half-a-century back, when young Abdul Rashid Hafiz wanted to become a Sufiyana singer, the first resistance came from his father – a Namda weaver with meagre income. Hafiz’s dream meant instant loss of one earning hand to the family.
Being the only son, Hafiz worked with his father, doing needle work on the Namdas – a carpet made with felting – to keep the hearth burning.
Hafiz, who has ever since become a household name in Kashmir for his magical voice, clearly remembers a night in 1967, when he attended a Sufiyana mehfil organized by his neighbour Rehman Malik, on the birth anniversary of prophet Muhammad (SAW).
“I was 13 then. Throughout the night I listened to famous Sufi singer Ghulam Ahmad Sofi (Amme Sofi) with awe reverence. It was during that night I decided to become a singer,” recalls Hafiz.
With his goal set Hafiz was upbeat to learn singing. But he had no idea how to become one. “It took me a while to convince my father that singing is not bad, in terms of earnings as compared to Namda needle work,” says Hafiz.
Despite his father’s go ahead, there was a small issue still to be tackled: Hafiz had no money to buy a harmonium – a pump or reed organ, considered basic instrument for Sufiana singers. To fulfil his dream Hafiz took a loan of Rs 25 to buy a harmonium. “I worked extra hours during night for next 45 days to repay the loan,” remembers Hafiz.
After buying harmonium, half the battle was won for Hafiz. Now the question was: who will teach Hafiz to play it. “I visited a number of singers and instrumentalists to learn how to play a harmonium,” recalls Hafiz.
The next phase of Hafiz’s life was equally difficult. By 1977, Hafiz managed to get invitations as ‘filler’ at big Sufiana mehfils. He was paid between Rs 1 and 5 for an hour’s performance. “There were no takers for Sufiana singers then. There was no respect. It was literally a fight for survival,” recalls Hafiz.
In 1979, Hafiz gave an audition for Radio Kashmir, Srinagar and was selected as B-class singer. Same year, during a live radio talk, where Hafiz was invited as a guest, the host asked him how many songs he remembers. Around 900, Hafiz replied. “But that was not true,” Hafiz says with a sense of guilt since visible in his otherwise melodious voice. “When the host asked me this question, he himself raised nine fingers gesturing me to answer 900,” recalls Hafiz. “I was just a fresher then. How could I remember 900 songs? I only had a few songs in my kits then.”
After the show was over Hafiz remained sunk under the burden of guilt for many days. “It haunted me that I have cheated thousands of listeners,” recalls Hafiz.
The guilt took toll on Hafiz’s performance and he began doubting his abilities as a singer. “Disturbed,” recalls Hafiz, “I approached Mohammad Sultan Matoo, a famous Sarangi Nawaaz, for help.”
Matoo motivated Hafiz to move on and focus on his singing. “We are friends since then.”
Then came the time when Hafiz used to get Rs 2500 for a programme on Radio Kashmir or Doordarshan. “Credit goes to my teacher Ghulam Mohammad Dar for introducing me to the professional music,” says Hafiz.
But the happiness proved short living with the dawn of 1989. “That was a dark era for music in Kashmir,” recalls Hafiz who worked with his friend weaving carpets and doing odd jobs like wood carving etc to manage his family’s expenses. “I had to do something to run my family. I have two sons and two daughters.”
The “bad times,” as Hafiz remembers it, “lasted till 1996, when guns fell relatively silent in troubled Kashmir.”
In later half of 90s, lured by the likes of Hafiz a number Sufiana singers, came to fore in Kashmir. “They thought Hafiz has made it big overnight. But what they fail to realize is unimaginable struggle behind this so-called success,” says Hafiz.
In his almost five decade long singing career Hafiz has received many awards and recognitions. The awards include, Medical Forum Award (1998), Bakshi Memorial Award (2007), Ahad Zargar Award (2008) Raj Begum Award, Ghulam Ahmad Sofi Award, State Award (2014) and State Awards in Assam, Mumbai, Shilong, Madras. But the high point of Hafiz’s career came when he was given Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2014) by the President of India. “Despite all the recognition and laurels artists in Kashmir live a pathetic life,” feels Hafiz. “A singer in Kashmir sings from 10 PM to 6 AM for just a few thousand rupees. This happens nowhere else in the world.”
Hafiz feels, passion apart a singer has to think of his family and their survival too. “A singer should at least get a chance to perform once a month on Radio or TV or for Cultural Academy, so that he can run his family,” feels Hafiz, “but that is not the case. My last program was recorded four years back for Doordarshan! How I am supposed to survive, if I don’t sing at private parties.”
Hafiz believes that an artist needs to be happy, free from worldly troubles to realize his full potential. “But that is highly unlikely in a place like Kashmir,” says Hafiz. “All you see are gloomy faces of artists who struggle to feed their families.”