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Silence of the nightingales

The media and social media chose to ignore the strong support Zaira Wasim received from the girls of her age who could not come out in the open fearing reprisal19 Feb 2017 | 2:07 AM

What is a paradise without the songs of a nightingale? The Kashmir Valley — the paradise on earth — restricts the songs of its nightingales.

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Vandana Shukla 

What is a paradise without the songs of a nightingale? The Kashmir Valley — the paradise on earth — restricts the songs of its nightingales. Of the many exiles from the Valley, the hardest has been the exile of music, dance and theatre, subtracting aesthetics from people’s lives. Hardest — because the fulcrum of the Sufi culture that Kashmiris like to identify with — rests on poetry and music.

They blame it on the many shades of politics practised in the valley for whitewashing Kashmiriyat. Their claim that Kashmiris are not averse to music holds ground in many successful women singers the Valley has produced. The land has a long history of Sufi poets and singers. Padma Shri Raj Begum, a singer of traditional music who passed away recently; Shazia Bashir, recently nominated for Bismillah Khan Award by Sangeet Natak Akademi and Mehmeet Syed are well known names in the Valley. They, however, stick to the traditional forms and compositions in their renderings. Freedom is not a welcome word when it comes to adapting outside influences; in music or otherwise. 

The recent offensive on Zaira Wasim, launched on the social media by the youth of the Valley, forced the young actor to apologise for earning a distinguished visibility in a crowded world outside the Valley. The teenager received critical acclaim for playing the role of young Geeta Phogat in Amir Khan-starrer Dangal. Her harassment on social media became national news —someone called her a ‘cursed girl’, another added — ‘May you be hit by lightning’. What did not make to the news was a much stronger support she received from girls of her age, aspiring to touch the sky but restricted by the constraints on their social freedom. These young female supporters could not come out in open fearing reprisal, unlike the vitriolic youth, who enjoy social sanction for their violent offensive. “She didn’t do anything vulgar, why should she feel ashamed?” asked a girl. There were many whose minds resonated with these questions, they, however, found no mention in the subtext of the story — because of their anonymity. 

undesirable role models 

The trolling intensified after Zaira met the Chief Minister, who described her as a ‘Kashmiri role model,’ forcing the actor to post an apology. Ironically, her film Dangal celebrates the efforts of two girls in tradition-bound Haryana to become world-class wrestlers. The incident is a sad reminder of a similar social offensive against the first all-woman band Pragash launched by three Kashmiri girls, in 2013. The three Class X students — vocalist and guitarist Noma Nazir, drummer Farah Deeba and guitarist Aneeka Khalid — had to disband their group after much online abuse. Eventually a fatwa was issued against them by the state’s grand mufti. Their unusual achievement for winning the first runner up prize in the inter-state Battle of the Bands, held at Bengaluru, notwithstanding, the girls were forced to apologise, while no action was taken against their abusers. 

“Youth in Kashmir has no platform to grow, and then, there is politics. If you notice, the trolls intensified against Zaira after the CM endorsed her. Why did she do it? Zaira got the role on her own,” says Shaheem Zargar, founder of Taqdeer-e-Kashmir, an organisation that provides a much-needed platform to Kashmiri youth. He launched successful singers like Ali Safuddin, who now enjoys celebrity status getting overseas offers to perform. “People want entertainment; Kashmiris are the biggest consumers of Bollywood, but they don’t want a Kashmiri to do what they love watching. They don’t like any Kashmiri to leave Kashmir and the youth fear that they will be looked down upon if they join the entertainment industry.” Even Zargar had to manoeuvre his way around this ticklish issue. He launched Taqdeer-e-Kashmir, post-floods to raise funds and had to ticket the concerts. “When people pay, they want to be entertained.” 

reality shows as game-changers

Television has translated aspirations of many Kashmiri youths into an opportunity, and a few have made the best out of it. Supporters of Zaira say it’s easier for men in Kashmir to avail these while women usually have to buckle under violently imposed social taboos. The girls who formed Pragash had to leave the valley to pursue their academic career elsewhere. They don’t want to talk about the issue and have shelved their passion for music. The nightingales have been silenced. 

When Qazi Touqeer won the Fame Gurukul reality show in 2005, he was supported by a record-breaking number of Indians. He received a hero’s reception in the Valley on his return. He is dismissive of the fact that girls alone are targets of hatred for earning celebrity status. “Men are also told to become doctors or engineers. I never used the name of Kashmir, nor did I talk of politics. Some people do it to get in the news, I just sing.” Qazi overlooks the plurality offered by the life in a metro like Mumbai where he has been living in for the past 11 years. 

The lack of training facilities for the youth who aspire to make a career in performing arts is another hurdle. Ehsaan Asgar, 23, highly enthusiastic about a singing career, laments this fact. He could not make it among the top 14 contestants of the Indian Idol 2017. “I have great passion for music since my childhood, but no one understood it. There was no support from the family or outside. Dr Jafri, my mamu, heard about auditions taking place at Jammu and asked me to try my luck.” The day of the auditions, there was a curfew in Poonch, the border area Asgar hails from. He rode 200 km on a motorbike to make it, and was selected. He, too, has moved to Mumbai and is getting opportunities and work that keep him going. “Unless we are given a platform, how can we show our talent? I want the youth of Kashmir to be known outside for better things.” Asgar has received a lot of support from the youth of Kashmir on social media. He says people have begun to understand that everyone can’t follow Sufi music tradition, and that people like diversity.

a liberal society 

The need for diversity does not include women singers is another matter. “We are a liberal society, there is no Taliban here,” defends Shazia Yousuf, assistant professor, Islamic University, Pulwama. “Albeit”, she reiterates, “we are a South Asian patriarchal society where certain restrictions for women are the norm. It’s the media that wants to give a certain twist to every event, to portray Kashmir in a certain fashion.”

That music is a means of self expression, which should be available to all in a liberal society, is stated by Dr Ahmad Sarmast, the musicologist who founded Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music (Anim), Kabul, and the Zohra orchestra, the first woman orchestra of Afghanistan that recently gave a scintillating performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos. How did Noma, Farha and Aneeka feel watching this band that came from the land of Taliban? Did these lines of Agha Shahid Ali, resonate in their mind. “I must force silence to be a mirror”. One can only wonder. 

Silence of the nightingalesUnholy notes? Kashmir’s first girl rock band Pragaash had to disband in 2013 after the state’s grand mufti declared its music to be ‘un-Islamic’ and issued a fatwa against it. The three-member band had been the target of an online hate campaign ever since winning a “Battle of the Bands” contest photo: AFP
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