Areej Syed Safvi, a 25-year-old psychology student from Srinagar, has never shied away from public speaking or stage performances. Growing up, Safvi was fascinated by the tradition of the ladishah, or folk balladeer, which traces its origin to 18th century Kashmir. Armed with a unique brand of humour, the ladishah would travel from village to village, presenting commentaries on the issues of the day.
Inspired, Safvi made her first video and uploaded it on her YouTube channel, Areejological, towards the end of 2019. She talked about the Public Safety Act slapped against two former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who were detained on 5 August 2019, after Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status. In subsequent videos, she touched on a range of issues: the modern lifestyle, the education system, covid-19, the vagaries of winter and power outages in Kashmir, lavish weddings.
Some of her content went viral. Today Safvi’s YouTube channel has more than 24,000 subscribers. On Instagram, she has 20,000-plus followers. More than 20,000 people follow her Facebook page. She calls herself Kashmir’s first female ladishah.
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Online content creators like Safvi continue to battle the odds, however. The lockdown after 5 August 2019 and the months-long communications shutdown that followed was a nightmare. Safvi couldn’t access the internet for three months. It was only in February this year, 17 months later, that 4G internet services were restored in the region.
Ali Fazili, a 22-year-old medical student who started making funny videos on his TikTok account in 2017, found himself in the same boat. He used to enjoy making content on TikTok; some of it got thousands of views. As time passed, he was able to monetise it. “My growth on the app was rapid, I was relishing the limelight,” says Fazili.
It proved to be short-lived. “I had no idea such a popular app would get shut down so suddenly,” he says. “I lost all my followers.” The ban was so sudden he couldn’t migrate his fanbase to other platforms. Covid-19 restrictions have taken a further toll.
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Safvi says she used the lockdown period to think and write down ideas she could record later on her phone camera. “I believe the more you push artists to the edge, the more creative they get with their content,” she says. Negative comments don’t deter her. Nor does criticism from relatives.
Her parents are her support system. “It’s hard in a society like ours for a girl to prove her mettle,” she says. “But when you believe in yourself and your parents are there to support you, you can achieve anything.”
Waris Wani, a 25-year-old BTech graduate from Tral, started his YouTube channel, Funny Kashmir, in 2016. He would upload short satirical videos in Kashmiri on social issues such as dowry, drug abuse, “eve-teasing” and unemployment. “Considering we live in a conflict zone, people don’t smile and laugh often,” he says. “I thought it’s better if I could come up with content that will spread smiles and make people laugh for a while.” His channel has more than 81,000 subscribers. He has over 45,000 followers on Instagram (wariss_wani) and more than 68,000 followers on Facebook.
After 5 August 2019, he was unable to upload new content for months. “I was cut off from my audience as both mobile and broadband internet was banned for about six months,” he says. When 2G mobile internet was restored later that year, Wani found it difficult to upload videos. He says it’s difficult to reconnect with his audience after such a long gap. Each spell of internet shutdown takes a toll on subscribers.
Taha Naqash, a 22-year-old from Srinagar’s Sanat Nagar area, has been making short, humorous, family oriented videos on his social media accounts. He has over 10,000 followers on Instagram (The Humorous Kashmiri). Currently pursuing his graduation online from a university in Dubai, Naqash says making content on social media is all about consistency and a regular connect. “The bridge between us and our audience was broken that August,” he says. “A video that normally can get about 20,000-40,000 views will hardly get 5,000-10,000 views on slow-speed 2G internet.” This also affects brand promotions and sponsorship. “Many brands would like to work with popular Kashmiri creators but unfortunately, because of the internet uncertainty, they hesitate to collaborate with us,” he says. The covid-19 lockdown last year only added to the mental fatigue.
But since he returned from Dubai last year, he has had more time to generate content, making videos about mask-wear and covid-19. “After high-speed internet was restored this year, those videos garnered views and I slowly got more followers.”
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Shadab Banday, a YouTuber from Srinagar, has more than 61,000 subscribers on his channel, Kashmiri Mastaan, where he shares his roast and rant videos, particularly on issues concerning the youth of Kashmir. The 25-year-old has made videos about late marriages, the education system, the stigma of mental health, and unemployment.
An engineering graduate, Banday says his reach and subscriber growth went down drastically after 5 August 2019. “On 2G internet, instead of watching my videos, people are mostly watching a loading sign on my face,” he says. “Nobody wants to spend 15 minutes to watch a four-minute video.”
“I used to receive about 12,000 hits daily before the internet shutdown in 2019 but that came down to 100-150,” he rues. The restoration of 2G internet didn’t help. “We usually make 8- to 10-minute-long videos which are about 600-800 MB files. Uploading such heavy files on YouTube, that too on 2G internet, is a very frustrating and time-consuming process.”
Shadab had hoped to hit the 100,000 subscriber mark by 2020-end. “I have a talent and I wanted to pursue it full-time but perhaps the authorities here want us to go back to the stone age by restricting and banning our internet,” he says.
Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and editor.