Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the beautiful valley of Kashmir is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, serene lakes and snow-capped mountains. But, there is more to this region than just its natural beauty.
The valley of Kashmir is also home to a rich musical tradition that has been passed down many generations and through centuries. Among the various forms of music that are native to this region, Kashmiri Sufi music emerges as very captivating and soul-nourishing.
The roots of Sufism in Kashmir can be traced back to the 13th century, when the legendary Sufi saint Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali arrived in the valley from Central Asia. He is known to have played a crucial role in spreading the message of Islam through his mystical teachings and, particularly, his use of soulful music.
The followers of Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, also known as Nund Rishi, developed a unique form of music that combined the traditional folk music of Kashmir with the mystical teachings of Sufism. This music is known as Kashmiri Sufi music.
The rich and vibrant tradition of the mystical music of Kashmir is slowly becoming a relic of the past in Azad Jammu and Kashmir
Kashmiri Sufi music is characterised by its soulful lyrics, haunting melodies and mystical themes. The lyrics of Sufi music are often inspired by the teachings of the Sufi saints and poets, who believed in the power of music to connect with the Divine — symbolising love, compassion, and tolerance. The music is also deeply rooted in the folk culture of Kashmir, and the lyrics often incorporate elements of nature, love and spirituality.
The music is performed by a group of musicians who use traditional instruments such as the santoor, rabab and harmonium, along with traditional Kashmiri percussion instruments such as the tumbaknari and the dholak.
Kashmiri Sufi music is also characterised by its meditative and trance-like quality. The repetitive rhythms and hypnotic melodies of the music are designed to induce a state of spiritual ecstasy in the listener. This is achieved through the use of ‘call-and-response patterns’, where the lead singer chants a line and the chorus responds with a repeating phrase or melody.
One of the most unique features of Kashmiri Sufi music is its emphasis on improvisation. While the basic structure of the music is often pre-determined, individual musicians are given the freedom to improvise and add their own personal touches to the music. This improvisation creates a sense of spontaneity that is rare in other forms of music.
One of the most important aspects of Sufi music is the devotional qawwali. Characterised by its repetitive rhythms, and with lyrics often including verses from the Quran, as well as the teachings of the Sufi saints, the qawwali is an integral part of the Sufi tradition and it is believed to have the power to heal and soothe the soul.
“Kashmiri Sufi music has a special place in my heart,” says Zia Naqvi, an educationist and photographer who hails from Multan, and is currently based in Islamabad.
He says he connects deeply with Kashmiri Sufi music.
“It is a profound and spiritual form of expression that speaks to the deepest parts of the human soul. It has the power to uplift and transport us to a higher state of consciousness, connecting us to something greater than ourselves. To me, there is nothing quite like the experience of listening to Sufi music in the beautiful landscape of Kashmir, surrounded by the majesty of the mountains and the peacefulness of the valley.”
Across the Line of Control, the popularity of Kashmiri Sufi music has grown significantly over the years, and many music festivals are organised in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir throughout the year, showcasing the talents of local musicians and promoting the rich musical heritage of the region.
One of the most popular music festivals is the Sufi Music Festival, which is held annually in the month of October in the Indian-held valley. The festival attracts music lovers from all over the world.
Unfortunately, there has been little cross-border exchange of music among Kashmiris. The few offerings that have materialised have been primarily in the Kashmiri language, which is now understood by a diminishing number of individuals in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
While a handful of liberation-themed songs have garnered some degree of fame, they cannot be regarded as representative of the transcendent Sufi music tradition that has played such a crucial role in the cultural identity of the Kashmiri people.
RELIC OF THE PAST?
The land of Azad Jammu and Kashmir is a hidden gem in the Himalayan region, blessed with breathtaking natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage that has been passed down through centuries. Yet, as time marches on, the people of this region seem to be losing touch with their roots, neglecting the very essence of what makes them unique.
In particular, the hauntingly beautiful strains of Kashmiri Sufi music, which have long been a staple of the region’s cultural identity, are being forgotten and neglected, as if they were mere relics of the past.
Some other factors are also threatening the enchanting rhythms of Kashmiri Sufi music in AJK. The conflict-ridden region has led to the curtailment of cultural activities and weakened the social and religious structures that have long supported Sufi music. Moreover, the rise of conservative ideologies also dismisses music and artistic expression as un-Islamic, further driving younger generations away from Sufi music.
Globalisation has also introduced Western musical influences, prompting a shift in the musical preferences of Kashmiri youth towards modern genres and leaving the mellifluous tunes of Sufi music to languish. This has put Sufi musicians in a precarious position, with limited opportunities to share their art.
It is a tragedy that such a rich and vibrant tradition, which has touched the hearts and souls of so many generations, should be allowed to fade away into obscurity, without so much as a second thought.
“Kashmiri Sufi music is not just music,” says social activist and documentary film producer Zahid Nisar. “It’s a language of the heart that speaks of love, peace and harmony. In a world that’s increasingly divided, we need more of such music that unites us and reminds us of our shared humanity.”
The beauty of Kashmiri Sufi music must be preserved, cherished and shared with the world, so that it may continue to inspire and uplift all those who hear its divine melodies.
The writer is based in Muzaffarabad and writes on culture, tourism and higher education. He tweets @SMubasharNaqvi
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2023