Like the Edelweiss of Switzerland, the ‘Yemberzal’ is a harbinger of springtime in Kashmir. The Kashmiri Narcissus or Daffodil is the first flower that Kashmiris see after the harsh winter – and now, the word has taken on another equally joyful meaning with the emergence of the first all-girl Kashmiri Sufiyana band of that name.
The band, consisting of the five girls ranging in age from the early twenties to their late teens - Irfana Yousuf, Gulshan Lateef, Saima Hameed, Irfana’s younger sister Rehana and the youngest member, Shabnum Bashir – use Kashmir’s rich heritage of the spiritual poetry of revered Kashmiri Sufi saints Sheikh-ul-Alam, Lal Ded, Haba Khatoon, Ghulam Hassan Gamgeen and others as the foundation of their Sufiyana Mausiqi (Sufi music).
A PASSIONATE DEVOTION
Living and learning their music in Ganastan village in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, it all began about ten years ago when Irfana persuaded her father, Mohammad Yousuf Beigh, a classical musician, adept at playing the santoor and Saaz-e-Kashmir, and a Class ‘B’ artist with Radio Kashmir, to teach her to play the notoriously complicated instrument. He, in turn, put her under the tutelage of his own teacher, Ustad Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh. Irfana soon picked up the techniques of four classical instruments - sitar, santoor, Saaz-e-Kashmir, and tabla - and became passionately devoted to the music, saying that it gave her a sense of calm and centeredness.
But our story begins in 2011, when Irfana performed on the state TV station as a thirteen-year old. Fascinated by the novelty of a girl playing the large instrument with such ease, many girls in her village and school approached her to learn music. Soon after, her younger sister Rehana and classmate Gulshan Lateef joined her in practice sessions and the three forged a close link.
Sufiyana music evolved into a uniquely male tradition over centuries, sung by men and handed down through the male line of the family. However, seeing how youngsters were turning away from this ancient classical tradition and choosing pop and rap protest songs, Ustad Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh, decided to teach whoever would breathe new life into the art form – including girls.
“The earlier masters wouldn’t even pass it on to sons of their daughters, only sons or sons of sons,” he said, “When I first started teaching girls, I faced opposition from both neighbours and soldiers, and had to move the classes to a new location four times.”
Among the girls who make up the band, the youngest member, Shabnum Bashir also faced opposition at home. She was Rehana’s friend and after school, she used to secretly go to Rehana’s home to learn Sufiyana music. When her family found out, she was scoffed and scolded and it took all her persuasive powers to continue her musical journey. Her father finally relented, adding the usual parental rider: that her studies must not suffer.
The fifth member, Saima Hameed, happened to hear the girls perform at an inter-school cultural show in her village nearby and was so obsessed with the beauty of the music that she actually shifted to Irfana’s school to be with the others and join the band.
In 2015, the girls formally announced that they would be a music band. It was not a move without risk – in 2012, three other Kashmiri girls, Noma Nazir, Farah Deeba and Aneeqa Khalid had formed a rock band called ‘Pragaash’. However, the band attracted such a backlash including a fatwa against them, that it was disbanded merely three months later. The Yemberzal band members hoped that their classical tenor would quell opposition.
“We decided to focus on Sufiyana mausiqi because nowadays every musician is inclined toward contemporary music,” said Irfana, “People have forgotten about our classical music. We decided to create a band and revive the dying art form.”
In their quest for the original sounds of the Valley’s Sufi music, the band members have started learning Persian, the language in which much of the original poetry is rooted, although many of the Sufi poets composed in Kashmiri also. They also accompany their singing, which is at once full-throated and sweet, on traditional Kashmiri instruments – the 100-string santoor which is closely associated with the Valley, the Saaz-e-Kashmir, which is a local variation of the violin, the tabla, a percussion drum set and the sitar, a plucked string instrument.
For a long time, the girls only had the instruments owned by Irfana’s father for practise. After collecting and earning through programmes, the group has finally managed to buy individual instruments for all the girls in the group. “Santoor costs around 30000 rupees. Saaz-e-Kashmir costs around 15000 rupees, Sitar and Tabla cost around 10000 rupees,” she said.
For Gulshan Lateef, the band has been a way of breaking free from the boundaries created for women over the generations. The group has received a lot of criticism from people but they believe that they have been successful in changing mindsets “even if just a little”.
“Some people kept saying that we are girls and we should not do something like this. That we should stay at home and do the home chores. They believe that this is what women are meant for,” she said.
The constant pressure of home chores, education as well as music becomes overburdening sometimes, she said, but the thought of their journey keeps them going. “A woman has to do everything,” she said.
All the girls have chosen the instruments of their choice that they play during their performances as a group. However, Irfana has been collectively assigned the role of the lead vocalist and the Santoor player by the other girls. “She is the most senior among us, she deserves to lead all of us,” says Gulshan, adding that Santoor is the key instrument of a Sufiana mausiqi.
IN PRAISE OF THE PROPHET (PBUH)
For the group, performing Sufiana music is a way of feeling calm and forgetting about the world. “One forgets about everything else. It includes praising the religion and our Prophet as well,” she said.
The all-female ensemble has performed for the public broadcaster, and also at events held in Srinagar city, particularly those of the Cultural Academy. They have won several competitions in Kashmir and have represented Kashmir in music competitions held outside.
Irfana and Gulshan are now studying music in the University of Kashmir to further sharpen their skills and knowledge and want to spread their love for classical Sufiyana mausiqi.
“More yemberzals [budding artists] will mark new beginnings to keep the music alive after us as well,” Irfana says.