Five girls wearing traditional Kashmiri pherans and colourful headscarves sit in a circle, holding musical instruments. They all sing in unison, playing their instruments and filling the air with their melodious voices. The mighty Himalayan mountains in the background give their music an other-worldly touch.
Irfana Yousuf Beigh, 22, the lead musician, is strumming chords on a santoor- a 100 stringed instrument. Her co-performers are on the tabla, a hand drum, and Saaz-e-Kashmir, a stringed instrument with a bow. They are all part of an all-girls musical ensemble in the north Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir, a troubled territory over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars.
The band plays Sufiyana Musiqi (Sufi music), a dying genre of devotional music that’s traditionally been a male preserve.
Thousands of people in Kashmir follow Sufism, a mystical form of Islam based on peace, tolerance and pluralism, whose followers seek spiritual communion through whirling and music. Sufiyana music based on poetic verses has Central Asian roots with lyrics in Persian that came to Kashmir from Iran in the 15th century. With gradual assimilation into Kashmir, it is now a blend of different languages from Hindi and Urdu to Kashmiri with the original Persian.
In the past, there were many different gharanas ( schools) of Sufiyana Musiqi across Kashmir. But with the advent of Western and Bollywood music, they have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Despite its long history in the region, interest in Sufiyana music is on the wane due to a range of factors ranging from the loss of royal patronage to the rise of conservative Islamic groups and civil strife and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the region. Kashmiri Pandits were one of the major patrons of Sufi music.
Irfana became interested in Sufiyana music, watching her classical musician father Mohammad Yousuf, in the small village of Ganastan in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. She was fascinated by the traditional instruments played like santoor and sitar, and the songs that were compositions of Sufi saints. Her younger sister Rehana used to learn the tabla (drum) from her father.
For music lessons, her father sent her to a master musician and expert, Ustad Mohammad Yakoub Sheikh. Seeing her perform on Doordarshan, India’s public broadcaster, her neighbour Gulshan Lateef also joined her. Some friends in the village showed interest in learning the musical form too. They formed an all-girls group called Yemberzal, the first flower that grows in Kashmir after a long, harsh winter.
The girls are in their late teens and early twenties. While pursuing careers in music, they continue attending their respective schools and colleges.
They have participated in many district and city level competitions and won prizes.
“This music is part of our Kashmiri heritage. Since childhood, I have listened to my father perform this powerful music which always gives me peace and calm. I was also inspired to learn and perform this genre,” explains Irfana.
“Learning classical music is demanding and requires hours of practice every day.”
The girls did not own musical instruments initially and practised on instruments that Irfana’s father owned. But after making some money through performances, they managed to buy their tools, which was a moment of pride for them. Yemberzal has performed on All India Radio and participated in many concerts in Srinagar, Jammu and Bhopal.
Professor Shabir Ahmed Saaznawaz, an expert on music from the University of Kashmir, says that the university started a course in Sufiyana music in 2005, giving Kashmiri women an opportunity to learn it. The move broke centuries of male dominance since the genre was handed down through the male line of each family. “Its popularity waned in Kashmir with less people speaking Persian which was the original language of all the lyrics. But with the introduction of Kashmiri and Urdu, more people are able to understand and appreciate it and there is a resurgence in the interest in this genre,” Saaznawaz, who mentors numerous female artists.
“Sufiyana music used to be performed by men in mehfils for a small audience at homes before, but today it’s moved to stages and radio and television. There are a lot of elements to this genre of music like Sur ( the notes), the matra ( the beat) and muquams (like ragas)- each of which can be played only at one time of the day,” explains Irfana.
Gulshan and Irfana are in their last year of their bachelor’s degree at the University of Kashmir, specialising in Sufiyana music. They want to open a music school for girls and also continue practising and honing their music skills.
“Music is a lifelong journey and for us and it’s just the beginning,” Irfana says.