When stones turn to song in Kashmir
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At the cosy, wood-panelled Ground Zero café in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, Mohammad Muneem, the singer-songwriter-frontman of the Pune-based Kashmiri rock band Alif, is in the house.
It is an informal afternoon gathering: Conversation, acoustic guitar-backed singing by Muneem and Kashmiri noon chai (salty tea) are on the menu. About a dozen young people have gathered; several of them profess to be poets or aficionados of poetry. A couple of girls, veils loosely wrapped around their faces, seem to be captivated by Muneem’s presence—they shoot videos on their mobile phones, their eyes gleaming.
Muneem is among the trio of singer-songwriters from Kashmir who are registering their dissent not through guns but through the rich decibels of sound and lyrics. Led inarguably by rap artist MC Kash, 27, and backed by the forceful, full-throated singing of Ali Saffudin, the trio is inspiring a move towards musical resistance to what they perceive as the subjugation of the Kashmir valley.
Considering that only Muneem and his band have considered a commercial release of their music, with the others opting for the free-for-download YouTube or social media route, protest music in Kashmir feeds as much off the spread of high-speed internet access in the valley over the past decade, as it does off the mass resentment against the Union government.
In a land long known for its entrenched love for poetry, the works of Habba Khatoon, Mahjoor, Allama Iqbal, Lal Ded and Agha Shahid Ali, among others, provide an accessible wellspring of inspiration and ideas, in combination with the well-known political malcontents from the realm of Western music—Tupac Shakur, Gil Scott-Heron, Nas, Rage Against The Machine, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. As a result, the emerging music from Kashmir is undeniably glocal, with traditional instruments like rabab, santoor and sarangi mingling seamlessly with distortion-effected guitars, bass slaps and drum rolls. Borrowing from the title of the Grateful Dead album, the blues blends Allah here. Sufi meets soul. Confectionery pop or flippant metal isn’t what the youth gathered here is interested in. All of them want to sing about and on behalf of Kashmir.
Twenty-two-year-old Saqib has travelled 50km from Sopore, his home-town, to hear Muneem who, according to him, “binds poetry and modern sounds to create a clear Kashmiri identity”. To Saqib, Sufi music signifies inner freedom.
A couple of years ago, it was music that saved Saqib from the army.
It was an evening like most others, when Kashmir goes indoors. There was a knock on Saqib’s door in Sopore. It was a neighbour saying the army was looking for him. Is this the best news you could come up with at this hour, a nervous Saqib found himself muttering.
Soon, army personnel had the villagers lined up in a park. A civilian had been murdered earlier that day. Questions were being asked, names and identities sought. When he reached Saqib, the army officer stopped. The name matched with that of the suspect. You will have to come with us for interrogation, the officer ordered.
In Kashmir, reports of those who have gone “missing” are common—one much cited, but unverifiable estimate pegs the figure at 10,000.
Saqib’s mother fainted in fear.
His father protested, saying there were other Saqibs in the area. Saqib was led back and his home searched. As soon as the army man entered the hall, he noticed the harmonium, banjo and percussion instrument nout—Saqib’s father is a Sufi singer and his son would often back him on the nout. When he heard that Saqib played the nout, the army officer let him go, saying, “Bhai, if you play music, you cannot be who we are looking for.”
At the Ground Zero café, Muneem has just run through a robust and rousing rendition of Jhelumus, a track from Alif’s recently released debut album, Sufayed. The title is his coinage, taking off from the river Jhelum that runs through Srinagar and Kashmir, a “witness to every upheaval in Kashmir’s history, every horror and atrocity”, says Muneem.
“Srinagar hunches like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill… while the Jhelum flows under them, sometimes with a dismembered body”—this is how the late poet Agha Shahid Ali put it in his poem The Country Without A Post Office. Similarly, Jhelumus encapsulates the resilience and perseverance of the Kashmiri woman through decades of conflict—the mother whose son has been lost, the conundrum of the “half widow” whose husband never returned from police custody. It is this woman who appears in the song’s video who eventually drowns in the Jhelum—and metaphorically, in her own emotions.
A self-trained composer and musician, Muneem was born in 1983, around six years before the armed insurgency began in Kashmir. “Every Kashmiri has a tragic story to tell, every Kashmiri bears a scar,” says the soft-spoken 34-year-old. Quite literally in his case. Muneem’s father, a retired government employee, bears the scars of shrapnel injuries, having survived a freak grenade blast in a bazaar where he had gone in 1993 to buy kites for his son. His bloodied hands were still holding the thread of a kite when help arrived. In 2003, in Pune, Muneem was attacked at night outside his housing complex after a solo performance during which he had spoken to the audience about the Kashmir situation.
Tall and lanky, Muneem jumps up and enacts the attack on the café floor—how he intuited shadows moving fast behind him; the flash of the sickle; his block and fall. Muneem ran, “faster than Usain Bolt”, and sought refuge in a Hanuman temple. His assailants faded away.
He still bears the scars. They have provoked the songs in Sufayed, for as Muneem recuperated in hospital, he felt compassion rather than hatred. The incident proved to be a turning point in his life as a musician. Answering violence with further violence was not the answer, he realized. Indeed, the trilingual Urdu-Kashmiri-Hindi album Sufayed is as much a carefully designed canvas of rock, pop, lush orchestration, qawwali, ghazal and opera-inflected sounds, as it is in large parts meditative, satirical, critical and questioning.
While in Jhelumus, he commiserates with the Kashmiri mother, in Malaal Kya Huwa, built around a foreboding keyboard line and delectably patterned bass playing by Amit Gadgil, Muneem is earnest and poetic while bringing up the issue of mental depression, reflecting on reports that suggest Kashmir has among the largest number of cases of chronic depression in India—symptomatic of generations without any real jobs or career growth, their movements stifled, identities questioned and future imperilled by days of curfews, hartals, protests and internet clampdowns. Inspired by the poet Muhammad Iqbal questioning Allah for turning his back on Muslims in his famous and controversial 1909 poem Shikwa, Muneem lays bare his own complaint in Khuda, lost, as the songwriter thinks god is, behind the complexities of fundamentalism and religiosity.
In many ways, Muneem questions his own society, setting and circumstances in the song Mazhab.
Fifteen kilometres into the 250-odd kilometre journey from Jammu to Srinagar, I call a Srinagar-based fellow journalist from my shared taxi. He is brisk. There’s been a shootout in Anantnag, which falls on our route. A policeman has been shot by militants. The counter strike by security forces is happening as we speak.
In the taxi, the news has filtered in. A Kashmiri Muslim man, sitting next to me, checks Facebook on his mobile phone for news. He scrolls through updates, stopping momentarily at a post on Burhan Wani, a young militant leader who was killed by security forces in July last year. The killing led to mass civilian protests across Kashmir and a severe counter-offensive by security forces.
The July 2016 protests came after a lull in Kashmir’s long history of agitation. From 1931, when widespread protests erupted against the rule of the Dogra king Hari Singh, to the protests of 2008-10, against the handing over of chunks of land to a Hindu shrine board, the rape and murder of two women and the death of a 16-year-old boy from injuries inflicted by security forces, the pot has been on the boil in Kashmir. Even as the Union government blamed neighbouring Pakistan for both the trouble in Kashmir and the increasing radicalization of Kashmiri youth, street protests, powered by thousands of stone-pelting youth, had become the new face of protest. “The only music one hears in Kashmir is that of stone-pelting,” our taxi driver quips on hearing about my area of research, protest music.
It is rhetoric, of course. At the peak of the 2009-10 protests, Roushan Illahi, then a pimply 19-year-old, who went by the name MC Kash to reflect his grounding as a rapper and a Kashmiri, released an incendiary single, I Protest, on the site Reverbnation.com. Propped by a marching beat, chilling use of recorded gunfire, and with lyrics like I protest against the things you’ve done/ I protest, fo’ a mother who lost her son/ I protest, I will throw stones an’ neva run/ I protest, until my freedom has come/ I protest, fo’ my brother who’s dead/ I protest, against the bullet in his head, the song went viral. Fans made videos of the number using raw protest footage; one such video, made and uploaded on the internet, reportedly crossed 100,000 views before it was pulled down from YouTube, and the studio where the song was recorded was raided by the police. Multiple fan-made videos still exist on YouTube and a line from the song inspired the title of the Sanjay Kak-edited 2011 book, Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada In Kashmir.
“Oh, my god!” Parvaiz Bukhari, a veteran Srinagar-based independent journalist, goes taut with excitement in his office. “When MC Kash’s I Protest burst on the scene, he overnight became the most popular Kashmiri in Kashmir. He became the biggest star by far. The people’s guy who had a clear understanding of the place’s history,” says Bukhari.
Sitting across him in his small Srinagar office, I ask Bukhari if one could accuse Kash of elitism, given the choice of rap, an unknown genre in Kashmir back then, and the use of English as the language. “I don’t think so and I understand why. Kashmiris know what is happening here but the lament is that people outside Kashmir don’t know. His music spoke to the outside world as much as it spoke to his generation in Kashmir, which was now English-educated and finding its position in the world. It really clicked,” says Bukhari.
Since then, Kash has released many more songs in English and inspired other singers. Saffudin and Muneem chose Kashmiri and Urdu as their idiom, the rabab and sarangi as instruments, and vociferous rock, anthemic pop and traditional folk as genre.
Kash’s collaboration with Alif could easily be counted as among the most scintillating musical experiments taking place in India right now. The seven-eight tracks that they have recorded within the rap-rock-folk framework are an explosion of ideas and musical originality. Kash’s stinging rap blends perfectly with Muneem’s powerful verse; Kash’s edgy English is matched by Muneem’s soaring, soul-searching singing in Kashmiri and Urdu. Delightfully crafted, arranged and produced numbers such as Like A Sufi, Listen, My Brother and Hukus Bukus—a Kashmiri children’s play song interpreted as a dying dream till children sing a prayer in chorus at the end—are songs that unspool complex layers with every listen. No matter how harsh the portrayal of human tragedy, they are pleaders for peace at the end of each song.
After a month on his trail, it is understandably Muneem who helps me to connect with Kash.
Burhan Wani’s first death anniversary falls a few days after I arrive in Srinagar: Violence, shutdown and curfew are expected. I scroll through the Facebook page of Gulistan News, the local channel that my co-passenger was checking on our way to Srinagar. The counter-offensive of the security forces starts streaming in real time on my palm—armoured vehicles, soldiers, guns, ready to go. The current reality of Anantnag, another 100km down the highway, as much as that of the rest of Kashmir, is live and bloody.
Two days later, I visit the chinar-lined campus of Kashmir University to meet Ali Saffudin, a master’s degree student of journalism and a popular singer. The chinar leaf is often seen as a mark of Kashmiri identity and resistance, and in autumn, the campus turns yellow-red with the drying leaves. Manan Khan, a young poet and musician, accompanies me, and recites a few lines he had written earlier as a tribute to the chinar in the shade of autumn: Kadam kadam pe saath diya, surkh bas hum nahin, yeh bhi hua (You kept us company, and you suffered too).
Khan, 20, studies civil engineering. His mild disposition reflects in the couple of songs he has recorded with the talented pianist Hujat Kirmani. Yeh Lahu (This Blood), a number that he plays for me, has the rabab, violin and a minimalist piano line providing a lush backdrop to the soulful singing. It doesn’t stop him from allegorizing the Kashmir conflict with lines like It’s not stones I threw at you, but pieces of my heart...
For many, Kashmir’s loss of sovereignty goes back to the time of its last native ruler, Yusuf Shah Chak, and is tied intrinsically to his beautiful poetess-singer wife, the once-peasant girl Habba Khatoon. In 1585, Akbar, the Mughal emperor in Delhi, invaded Kashmir. To broker peace, Shah Chak personally visited Akbar’s court, where he was imprisoned and sent subsequently to be confined in Bihar’s Nalanda district. Estranged from his two loves, Kashmir and Habba Khatoon, Shah Chak died there in 1592 a lonely man—and “after whom Kashmir was never free,” writes Basharat Peer in his book on the conflict in Kashmir, Curfewed Night.
Distraught and having sought solace in religion, Khatoon burnt all her poems and verses, and became a recluse till her death in 1605. “The whole of Kashmir wept; no smoke came out of houses on that tragic day. Habba Khatoon had risen as a luminous moon in the firmament of Kashmir’s history,” writes S.N. Wakhlu in his biography Habba Khatoon: Nightingale Of Kashmir. Khatoon’s poems and songs on love, loss, longing and treachery are, for many, the first songs of protest from Kashmir. These old Kashmiri songs have found life again in the voice of the young.
Saffudin is 24. He was a regular guy, growing up on a diet of rock ‘n’ roll—Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and the Black Keys—mostly for the instrumentation, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and the kalams of Mirza Ghalib and Bulleh Shah for the kind of writing that gave him “goosebumps”. His grandmother taught Kashmiri traditional music, an exception in a place where “there is some social taboo against music, but not if you strike the right chord”, he says. Saffudin’s haunting interpretation of Habba Khatoon’s Sufi writing, Rah Bakshtam, built delightfully around the rabab and guitar playing in tandem, is reflective of his musical upbringing.
One day, while returning from tuition, the teenager was beaten up by security forces. The “pros” involved in the stone-pelting street protest escaped. He failed to climb a wall. Rendered immobile by a leg injury, the 16-year-old wrote his first protest song. He would later incorporate lines from the song into Ye Kaisa Insaaf Hai: The Afzal Guru Song, raw fury bundled around an acoustic guitar riff protesting the 2013 hanging of the man convicted for the 2001 attack on Parliament. “My first protest song had childish lyrics, but it was my expression. When instances like this happened to others, they got into stone pelting. Some wrote poetry or painted. I sang.”
His strongest political protest song, Saffudin says, was written on the eve of the maiden Kashmir visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. Laid out on a gorgeous guitar groove, Manzoor Nahi is scathing, looping Modi’s speech of financial largesse for Kashmir against news of the killing of students, before slogans of “azaadi” singe the song. As in numbers like Tum Kitne Jawa Maroge, mourning the killing of the Kashmiri youth and a number which gained ascendance following the death of Burhan Wani, Manzoor Nahi is also characteristic of the raw heart and anthemic skin of Saffudin’s oeuvre—stripped-down, largely acoustic-guitar-strung numbers fired by passionate lung power.
“During a performance in London, the BBC asked me if I support violence. I don’t. Kashmir knows the implications. But we must hit the streets each time a Kashmiri is killed. That’s understandable.” Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call. The group of students and musicians start animatedly discussing the recent 17-hour gun battle between security forces and militants inside Srinagar’s Delhi Public School, Saffudin’s alma mater. A video, says Saffudin, suggests that his classroom, 12C, was hit.
Suddenly, amid the chorus of late-evening bird calls and the luxuriant cover of the chinars at the university, Kashmir’s spectre of violence has come calling again.
“There used to be a lot of parrots there. It was a nice walk during my childhood,” MC Kash points towards one of the banks of the Jhelum. Against the backdrop of blue hills, an opaque green canopy bowing to the river provides scenic camouflage for the fact that the trail from Kash’s childhood, when he was known as Roushan Illahi, can no longer be accessed easily owing to the presence of a military camp.
The army interrupts, intersects, interrogates, infuriates and threatens the 27-year-old rapper’s daily life. The nozzle of guns that glare at him from behind concertina wires and sandbagged bunkers at every other corner of Srinagar city are the Street poet’s biggest peeve. In the introduction to the 2011 book, Sanjay Kak says more than 600,000 army, police and paramilitary personnel are deployed in Kashmir.
“I’ll tell you, man. The only way to achieve lasting peace in Kashmir is by demilitarization,” he underlines as we walk through the leafy Bund along the Jhelum. “News reports say 90% of Kashmiris suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That happens only to war veterans or in war zones. What is India doing to Kashmir?”
Since the sensational release of his third single, I Protest, many of Kash’s songs, like Valley Of Saints, Take It In Blood and Bring Them Home, have been addressed to the state of India: often as a warning, sometimes as a plea. He has overcome hatred, Kash says. Yet the anger seethes through lyrics like When you come home/ fist in the air, we’ll march up to Eidgah/ Till you come home/ We’ll carry your fight from Bring Them Home, and Kash’s unambiguous articulation on the killing of Kashmir’s “ideologue of liberation” (going by the video uploaded by MC Kash’s official YouTube feed, he was referring to Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat) framed within standard hip hop time signature and a minimal piano line.
The rhyme meister’s rants aren’t directed exclusively at India. There’s Kash, the hustler, in the harsh Beneath The Sky: I don’t give a fuck whether you live or die/ You go to heaven or your soul to fry. There’s Listen, My Brother—Kash’s captivating rap in English, heightened in scope and scale by long-time collaborator Mohammad Muneem’s soaring Urdu vocals, where the rapper extols the Kashmiri young to join the “cause” with lines like Got our people up in jails, do you care, brother?/ Every new-born child is made a slave, my brother/ Why you selling your soul for some gold, my brother?/ Why you ready to give up what you hold, my brother?/ Can’t you see what we’ve lost in these years, my brother?/ Is you blind to a mother shedding tears, my brother? Are you living a lie, while we die, my brother?
The subversive nucleus of Kash’s music landed him in trouble last year in Bengaluru when the police, backed, he claims, by Hindu right-wing student activists, pulled the plug on his concert right after he had performed Heart Of A Rebel. Threatened with jail if he continued, Kash promptly put up a Facebook post recounting the incident and highlighting the song’s dissenting bulwark: Heart of a rebel is beating right inside me/ Now how will you confine me, when you can’t define me?
Very few studios retain the recordings done of these “freedom songs”, a sound engineer tells me at a Srinagar studio. He, like most others, acknowledges MC Kash’s pioneering role as an artist who kick-started the musical resistance in Kashmir. Rapper Zubair Magray, one of Kash’s early collaborators, speaks about this fear among studios, more so after the studio that recorded I Protest was raided by the police. “It was one of the best recording studios in Kashmir, but they had no idea what hip hop was. The sound engineer didn’t know English, but knew exactly what I was doing. The studio suggested I don’t release the song, but sadly they got raided,” Kash tells me. At the recording studio I visit, the sound engineer plays about a dozen new recordings of Kashmiri protest rap, some even by high school students, and a particularly contagious tune by Mu’azzam Bhat, a young rapper I meet during my visit.
Even though none of the music shops I check stock any of these songs, veteran Kashmiri singer Waheed Jeelani, with “nearly a hundred” ghazal-styled albums to his credit, will soon release an album of “socially pertinent” songs, encapsulating the situation of the ordinary Kashmiri caught in the decades-long conflict. “I feel the time has come,” he says, when we meet at a recording studio. “It’ll be completely free for streaming and download. It’ll be my contribution.”
“There was no rap, no hip hop, no modern protest music in Kashmir before Kash,” says Shayan Nabi, a schoolmate and close friend of Kash and a fellow rapper. Kashmir, though, has a tradition of Ladi Shah, satirical poetry chronicling social injustice that is performed in rural areas. Theatre activist Nazir Josh is known to have used the dying form in one of his productions, while the well-known stage personality, Arshad Mushtaq, says he has used traditional Kashmiri marriage songs sung by women during the funeral procession of young, unmarried Kashmiris killed during the conflict, a usual practice.
At the end of yet another day of hartal, Nabi takes me on a midnight cruise around Srinagar in his car, playing his acerbic debut rap album, Shine On Darkness, on the stereo. The streets are largely empty barring military vehicles and sentries, and our 90-minute drive passes without event. I can’t, though, help but remember Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s searing line: They make a desolation and call it peace.
With an internet clampdown in Kashmir and curfew in parts of Srinagar following the deadly attack on Amarnath pilgrims, (on 10 July) Nabi calls and brings his friend Kash to my houseboat on the Jhelum near Zero Bridge. Kash is perceptibly at ease during our second meeting, shooting, with his phone camera, an insect caught in a spider’s web hanging from the houseboat window and marvelling at the river. We chat and laugh.
Suddenly, there is a loud bang in the distance. “Did you hear that?” Kash asks. “Must be a teargas fired somewhere.”
By MC Kash
They say when you run from darkness all you seek is light…
But when the blood spills over, you’ll stand and fight
Threads of deceit woven around a word of plebiscite
By treacherous puppet politicians who have no soul inside
My paradise is burnin’ with troops left loose with ammo,
Who murder an’ rape then hide behind a political shadow
Like a casino, human life is thrown like a dice…
I’ll summarize atrocities till the resurrection of Christ
Can you hear the screams, now see the revolution
The bullets, our stones, don’t talk restitution
‘Cuz the only solution is the resolution of freedom
Even Khusro will go back an’ doubt his untimely wisdom…
…I protest, against the things you done
I protest, fo’ a mother who lost her son
I protest, I will throw stones an’ neva run
I protest, until my freedom has come
I protest, fo’ my brother who’s dead
I protest, against the bullet in his head
I protest, I will throw stones an’ neva run
I protest, until my freedom has come
Like a Sufi
By MC Kash & Alif ( includes translation by the lyricist)
Bobai bobai suin kya rounuth pir saeri samkhin aai.
O grandma what did you cook, pirs have come to dine with us.
I await you. All our fallen, in the Garden of Remembrance
Like a Sufi
Be hai samkhai (Shall meet you)
I feel you swirl, in my thoughts,
Like a Sufi
Be hai samkhai (Shall meet you)
In those hosts of names, I hold on to yours
Like a Sufi
Lol jigras jigras lol wandai
(To you I give my heart full of longing)