In April 2017, Mumbai-based Archana Kamath Hegdekar visited Kashmir for the first time. She had heard about its extraordinary beauty but had not expected the kind of hospitality she and her family experienced. “The people were generous. They were courteous and placed immense importance on the guests’ comfort and safety,” she recounts. On one occasion, sensing trouble ahead, the driver taking their family around Srinagar, took a longer route and went out of his way to ensure they returned to the hotel safely. “I came back to Mumbai, touched,” says Hegdekar.
However, the 29-year-old Hegdekar who is of Konkani origin with roots in Mangalore, had not expected that she will end up forging a life-long bond with Kashmir in a matter of months. Hegdekar, who works as a music teacher with Shankar Mahadevan Academy, became a viral sensation among Kashmiri locals after her first song in Koshur garnered over three lakh views. Hegdekar has since been recording covers of several traditional Kashmiri songs, even though she does not understand the language.
The singer attributes all of it to “fate”. A few months after her trip to Kashmir, she came down with chicken pox. The illness gave her time to explore a variety of music. “One day, an advertisement for Kashmir Tourism showed up on my social media. I loved the song they used. It was titled Sahibo, which got me interested in the music,” she reminisces. A month later, she recorded and posted the song Harmukh bartal on YouTube. “I sang the song phonetically and it got 500 views initially. The next day, in order to get feedback from a local, I reached out to the people who manage the Facebook page ‘Koshur Music’. They were kind enough to reply. They corrected some of my pronunciations and, to my surprise, posted the video on their page, which made the song go viral,” adds Hegdekar.
In the months since, Hegdekar has posted several covers of Kashmiri songs on her social media and YouTube channel, which have got her a lot of response. Last month, she was also invited to perform at an event organised by Mumbai’s Kashmiri Pandits. “It feels like this was destined to be. When Harmukh Bartal went viral, people began commenting on the video saying, ‘Well done, sister.’ Several would ask if I am a ‘KP’. But I didn’t know what the term meant,” she says. When she looked up the term on the internet, Hegdekar says she realised “there is a connection between Kashmiri Pandits and Saraswat Brahmins”. “I am a Saraswat Brahmin and I read online that Kashmiri Pandits also share the same roots — we were all Brahmins settled by the banks of river Saraswati until we migrated. That, for me, strengthened the bond I share with Kashmiri music,” she says.
Last month, Hegdekar recorded her first Kashmiri original. Composed by a Mumbai-based musician of Kashmiri origin, the song is titled Nigaar wallo. In the song, she appears in a Kashmiri phiran, which she says was gifted to her by one of her many local friends she has now made via social media. “My new friends are very encouraging and helpful. Many of them send me song recommendations, some help me with pronunciations. Another one is teaching me the language,” she says.
Several factors come into play when Hegdekar selects the songs to record. The meaning of the lyrics is crucial. She says she steers clear of protest music and prefers the numbers that speak of love or unity. For instance, Harmukh bartal, is perceived as a love song by Kashmiri Muslims whereas the Hindus view it as a bhajan for Lord Shiva. “The opening of the song translates to, ‘I am waiting for you at the gate of Harmukh, I will offer you whatever you ask of me.’ So it’s open to interpretation,” explains Hegdekar, who finds herself gravitating towards slow, soulful numbers that are in sync with her training in Hindustani classical music. “Another factor is the music itself. Since I record the songs at home, I cannot use songs that require a number of instruments,” explains Hegdekar, who grew up listening to her grandfather singing bhajans and her father crooning old Hindi film songs. “I didn’t enjoy much of this back then but I guess it shaped my own choices in music,” says Hegdekar, who was working as a psychologist until 2012.
Currently, she is working on a Kashmiri-Hindi bilingual track that she wants to write, compose and sing. “It’s like a love song to Kashmir, from the rest of India,” she explains. In future, she wants to contemporise old Kashmiri classics for the newer generation. “One of the compliments I receive from Kashmiris is that they feel I am taking their culture mainstream, popularising it. Now, I want to make that my aim,” she says.