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In Kashmir, 'conscious music' circumvents free speech restrictions

Singers and artists in Kashmir are finding creative ways to express themselves through politically charged 'conscious music'

‘I just express myself and scream, but when harmony is added, it becomes a song,’ says Javaid
‘I just express myself and scream, but when harmony is added, it becomes a song,’ says Javaid (Photo by Max Bender, Unsplash)

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Sarfaraz Javaid thumps his chest rhythmically in the music video, swaying to the guitar and letting his throaty voice ring out through the forest: “What kind of soot has shrouded the sky? It has turned my world dark. ... Why has the home been entrusted to strangers?”

“Khuaftan Baange” — Kashmiri for “the call to night’s prayer” — plays out like a groaning dirge for Muslim-majority Kashmir, the starkly beautiful Himalayan territory that’s home to decades of territorial conflict, gun-toting soldiers and harsh crackdowns on the populace. It is mournful in tone but lavish in lyrical symbolism inspired by Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition. Its form is that of a Marsiya, a poetic rendition that is a lament for Muslim martyrs.

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“I just express myself and scream, but when harmony is added, it becomes a song,” Javaid, a poet like his father and grandfather, said in an interview.

Javaid is among a movement of artists in disputed Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both since 1947, who are forming a new musical tradition that blends progressive Sufi rock with hip-hop in an assertive expression of political aspirations. They call it “conscious music.”

Drawing on elements of Islam and spiritual poetry, it is often laced with religious metaphors to circumvent measures restricting some free speech in Indian-controlled Kashmir that have led many poets and singers to swallow their words. It also seeks to bridge tensions between Muslim tradition and modernism in a region that in many ways still clings to a conservative past.

“It’s like venting decades of pent-up emotions,” Javaid said.

Kashmir has a centuries-old tradition of spoken poetry that is heavily influenced by Islam, with mystical, rhapsodic verses often used when making supplications at mosques and shrines. After rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989, poetic renditions about liberation poured out from mosque loudspeakers and elegies inspired by historical Islamic events were sung at the funerals of fallen rebels.

Two decades of fighting left Kashmir and its people scarred with tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces dead before the armed struggle withered, paving the way for unarmed mass demonstrations that shook the region in 2008 and 2010. Around that time Kashmir also saw the rise of protest music in English-language hip-hop and rap, a new anthem of resistance.

Singer-songwriter Roushan Illahi, who performs under the name MC Kash, was the genre's pioneer, making angry, grab-you-by-the-neck music that became a rallying cry for young people to use sharp rhymes and beats to challenge India's sovereignty over the region.

Kash’s songs treaded dangerously close to sedition, however, as questioning India’s claim to the restive region is illegal. The country has sharply restricted freedom of expression regarding the issue in Kashmir, including some curbs to the media, dissent and religious practices.

Frequent questioning by police pushed Kash to a point where he almost stopped making music. Some colleagues have continue to record and perform but began incorporating coded language, or moved away from politics altogether.

“First it was a chokehold,” Kash said, “but now it is a pillow on your mouth.”

Tensions escalated in 2016 when Indian troops put down another massive public uprising, leading to a renewed militancy. Three years later, in 2019, New Delhi revoked the region’s partial autonomy amid a communications blackout and a harsh crackdown on the press and other forms of free expression.

The situation has since worsened with India's aggressive counterinsurgency operations leading to an uptick in gunfights between rebels and Indian troops. Deadly attacks by rebels have also increased against Kashmiri police officials, Indian migrant workers and the region's minority Hindus.

The crackdown that began in 2019 has persisted. Nevertheless, many artists stuck to the music and have been catapulted to fame, their songs widely shared on social media. “Conscious music” has flourished further as artists more recently began incorporating Urdu and Kashmiri lyrics.

On a recent afternoon, a cohort of young artists gathered at the home studio of composer Zeeshan Nabi in the suburbs of Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city. Filling the room with coils of cigarette smoke, they passionately debated the essence of metaphors and religious references in their work.

“What (religious symbolism) is doing is constantly knocking at the door, either in the form of a reminder or a memory from the past,” Nabi said.

He expressed optimism that the gag is temporary: “For how long can you hold the grip? The oppressor can oppress till about a certain time.”

“We are dreamers,” Arif Farooq, a hip-hop artist who uses the stage name Qafilah, said with a chuckle.

Qafilah’s music video “Faraar” — “the runaway” — begins with a shot of a concertina wire and him sitting in the courtyard of a shrine to Kashmir’s most revered Sufi saint, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani. It invokes the ancient Battle of Karbala, where the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson was martyred and which symbolizes the struggle against injustice and oppression.

“Our malady can only be cured by revolution, my friend. Every answer lies in Karbala, my friend,” Qafilah urges in the song.

Religious symbolism, Qafilah said, is a creative device to reflect Kashmir’s pain and also evade the state’s gaze.

“You want to steal, but you don’t want to be caught,” he said.

The symbolism of faith as subtext is hard to miss in this new form of music.

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One recent video, “Inshallah” — “God willing” — has lyrics that evoke monotheism, the cornerstone of the Islamic faith. In it, singer Yawar Abdal imagines a Kashmir where people, blindfolded and with nooses around their necks, are liberated amid chants of “All shall be free.” The refrain “inshallah” is set against a booming chorus of morning prayers as chanted in mosques.

Another song — “Jhelum,” named for Kashmir’s main river — became an instant hit for contrasting the banality of daily life in Kashmir with the ongoing mourning for the dead. In online videos, users have since set the song to moving and still images of fallen fighters to memorialize them — it's in part a way of resisting authorities' policy since 2020 of burying suspected rebels in remote mountain graveyards, denying their families the opportunity to perform last rites.

“There’s this tension in the air that is shaping you in a certain manner,” said poet and singer Faheem Abdullah, the man behind “Jhelum.”

Poets and musicians receive state patronage in Kashmir, and government-sponsored musical events continue to be held regularly.

At least some Indian authorities take a dim view of the burgeoning movement of protest music, however; at one recent event, a top Indian military general lauded the region’s rich artistic heritage but deplored “the kind of rap songs which bring only sadness.”

On a recent evening, Javaid, the artist behind “Khuaftan Baange,” sat at the shore of Srinagar’s picturesque Dal Lake and belted out an elegy for his homeland. As the sun slipped behind the mountains and a drizzle began to fall, he ended by reciting the names of disappeared people. A distant relative was among the names.

“I reflect what I see,” Javaid said. “I see pain, agony and loss.”


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