Updated: June 19, 2020 8:30:07 pm
It was four years ago, in 2016, in the wake of protests post militant Burhan Wani’s death, followed by a five-month shutdown, when Kashmiris looked politically exhausted, that singer-songwriter Ali Saffudin thought of writing a song that inspires them. “I had listened to Martin Luther King Jr’s speech ‘I have a dream’ so many times, that it became a starting point for the song,” says Saffudin, considered among the most popular artistes in the Valley, while talking about his latest single Asaan Gindaan. We do hear the American civil rights activist at the beginning of the song before Saffudin starts singing in Koshur; and his voice transports us to the vale.
“Everyone felt saturated that even after doing so much, there is no change on ground… I could see people walking on the streets with dropped shoulders, and I wanted to write something which gives hope,” says Saffudin. Though he had started writing the first lines then, it has taken him four years to release the song.
Asaan gindaan ye pirvear sean shaad roozin, sadaa roozin, Ye aabshar ye sabzaar ye sheenuk shehjaar pooshin (In hopeful spirits and joy, let this valley of saints remain, forever remain. The gushing waters, the meadows, the serene snow, may this last, last forever)
Through these words he wanted to tell the people that “rather than looking at things that have been taken away, we focus on things that we have – like the blessings of nature – that make life liveable in Kashmir”.
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But soon a writer’s block got hold of Saffudin, and the song was left incomplete. He picked up the pen again in 2017, when news of a civilian killing troubled the singer. He called them “blooming flowers, which got nipped in the bud”. But that wasn’t the end. “Soon after, I shelved it and completely forgot about it for a long time. It is very difficult to stay positive in Kashmir,” he says. “But yes, music does therapy to me which I hope it does to others too. I, myself, am looking for hope from these songs,” he says.
Eventually, the summer of 2019 arrived, and after much persuasion from friends, Saffudin decided to shoot the music video. By the time it got completed, it was already the first week of August, and on fifth of the month, the abrogation of Article 370 was announced by the Centre, along with a complete shutdown of movement and communication. “I remember telling my friend that I would delete the file, the whole project, because there was no point in it. Everything has been taken from us,” he says.
He decided to revisit the song after two-three months. “There is a piece of document that has been scrapped, there is no machinery to fight that and all the voices of dissent and objection have been curbed. It was then I thought what I can do as an individual?” The song isn’t something that will bring back Article 370, but it invokes an idea of Kashmir which we all love, which has its people and community at the centre,” he says.
One can find the paradox of Kashmir is in the song, he says. “One moment you see me riding on a bike, having a good time, and the next moment you see a montage of 10-12 civilians who were killed,” he says, adding that working and coordinating on low-speed 2G internet was “another hustle of creating an independent project in Kashmir”. They are a team of eight people included Fazil NC, Nausheen Khan, Syed Shahriyar, Nizam Kadiry, among others.
Saffudin is known for bringing forth Urdu and Kashmiri poetry in his music. His repertoire includes Inqalab o inqalab by Abdul Ahad Azad, a Kashmiri poet of the 1950s, Chaar su by Urdu poet Syed Zeeshan Jaipuri, and noted poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Nisar main teri galiyon pay, among others. “I believe that if an artiste is staying true to his craft and expressing real emotions, the element of protest will naturally come out,” he says.
But what made the singer popular in Kashmir were his renditions of popular ballads by 16th-century poetess Habba Khatoon, including Chol hama roshay and Rah bakshtam, bringing old and the new together. “There was a time in my life when all I wanted to do was play the blues. But then it occurred to me that I can never be an authentic blues man because I am not a guy from Mississippi,” says the Srinagar-based singer. “I realised that I have my own roots, which is the Kashmiri Sufiyana music. The love of blues was acquired, but these songs are my inheritance,” he says, adding that he is influenced by grunge vocalists, including Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam, and the eastern Sufiyana music of Nusrat fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, among others.
Saffudin is one of the few independent artistes in Kashmir. His set-up includes him, his laptop and mic at home. But the months-long shutdown made him make one change. “I thought I would be an indie musician all throughout and never sign with a label. But when I found myself in a situation where I was so helpless, there was no internet, no phone. So I signed up with the indie label Azadi Records,” he says. His first project with them is a 10-song album. “It has songs that I have written since my school and college days. Some were written in 2011, some in 2019 and even in 2020. They are like my memoirs,” he says.
His time in University of Delhi – he had a three-piece rock band called Ilhaam – was instrumental in making him take music seriously. But it was 2008 when his tryst with music began. “I picked up the guitar and started making songs, crappy songs, but I always wanted to write my own songs. Even when I made a cover, I thought about what I can add to it,” he says.
His post-graduation days at the Kashmir University was the period when the protest art scene in Srinagar was burgeoning. “I used to go with my guitar, another person used to paint, some guy was discussing philosophy; it was a melting pot for students from all the courses and we used to discuss politics, sing songs. We didn’t know it was some kind of a movement; we were just hanging out there. It was then Fazil, a cinematographer from Kerala, who identified it,” he says. Fazil later documented these moments and voices in his short film In the Shade of Fallen Chinar (2016), which is available on YouTube.
“I remember he used to put a camera in front of us and told us to speak. The extent of political awareness that we had was much more than we expected. The ’90s generation is a politically-aware generation, even if we don’t know the jargon. Being ignorant is not an option in Kashmir, you can’t live like that, the conflict in one way or the other will seep into you,” he says.
But the days of painting on chinar trees, reciting resistance poetry and holding rap sessions are long gone, the artists’ collective has died down, says Saffudin. “I, as an individual, am doing whatever I can, but I don’t feel that there is a movement any more. When we were about to graduate, meetings at the university garden were banned, and outside in the city, there is even more control over the spaces,” he says.
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