Mohammed Khaleel Bhat: Reliving seventy years of musical history

In 1948 renowned music director of Radio Kashmir Mohan Lal Aima listened to a small musical concert at Habbakadal. In the crowd of artists he was stuck with the sweet style of Mohammed Khaleel Bhat.

Haroon Mirani
Srinagar, Publish Date: Feb 24 2018 12:02AM | Updated Date: Feb 24 2018 12:02AM
Mohammed Khaleel Bhat: Reliving seventy years of musical historyFile Photo

In the summer of 1945, the legendary poet of Kashmir, Mehjoor, was on a visit to Wathoora Budgam. Near a famous chinar tree he had set up a small mehfil wherein famous local singer Sonaullah Bhat was rendering various poems in his voice. The place was in the vicinity of a local government school where it was time for lunch and students were free to go to their homes during the recess. Sonaullah’s seven year old brother Mohammed Khaleel Bhat was also on way to his home when he saw people converging around some person with white turban amidst his favourite music. He forgot the lunch and started listening and clapping on the rhythm of song. Mehjoor was impressed with the boy. He brought him near and asked him his name. “My original name is Khaelle but in school they call me Mohammed Khaleel Bhat,” Khaleel told him in typical rural style. Mehjoor bursted into laughter at his innocence. He hugged him and told him that you are son of my brother. Khaleel’s father and Mehjoor had same spiritual guide Raheem Saeb Safapori.  

“At this place something stuck me and music became my passion,” remembers Khaleel who grew up in a poor family. Despite being intelligent he had to leave studies after class 5 and thereafter he took music as his full time profession and gained everything which could have been missing in his life due to lack of higher education. Gifted with melodius voice and a unique style Khaleel impressed his listeners right from his childhood. 

In 1948 renowned music director of Radio Kashmir Mohan Lal Aima listened to a small musical concert at Habbakadal. In the crowd of artists he was stuck with the sweet style of Mohammed Khaleel Bhat. After the concert Aima invited Khaleel and his party to radio. In reply they told him, “what is a radio.” Somehow Aima convinced them to come to Emporium building Lal Chowk with their musical instruments. They came and recorded their song. There was a mismatch between talent of Khaleel and his party and Radio Kashmir executives suggested them to make Khaleel as their party leader to which they agreed. He became one of the youngest leaders of any musical group that attested to his talent.  

A major incident that propelled him into fame was when National Conference had won municipal elections and Khaleel who now was a government employee (first in Dehat Sudar and then in Information Department Culture section) thanks to his talent, was asked to perform before NC supremo Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. “When I saw the itinerary there were only Naat Shareef’s. I told my immediate officer to Kindly include songs of the genre too. He relented and told me to a suitable song  according to a situation,” said Khaleel. When his turn at the state facing Sheikh Abdullah came, the profusely sweating Khaleel sang a somewhat prophetic song.

Yus Dama rozee salamat badshah chukh taeth damas

Raech kar pannis muqamas vaat pannis azmatas

Chui agar dushman che rustum yuth ni haawakh buzdili 

Abdullah was impressed and after the concert he inquired about the “thin singer” and Khaleel was brought before him. The former Prime Minister removed all of his garlands and put it on Khaleel. His officers, audience and people were in awe of Khaleel. “It was the wish of Allah that wherever I went I emerged as a sort of winner,” said Khaleel. 

It was a time when the music scene in Kashmir was managed by legends like Saznawaz, G M Bhat and others. “There were big names in Chakkri, Sufiyana and other genres. I thought if I have to make my name I will have to improvise or take something else,”  said  Khaleel who later chose Qawwali as is speciality. The decision proved an intelligent one and as time passed Khaleel became perhaps one of the most famous Qawals of Kashmir due to his style. 

There was one particular qawwali which propelled Khaleel into a higher league of artists. In 1968 Khaleel sang a qawwali Mykhane juda sheeshe tae paimaan e juda myon, it was appreciated by people. Encouraged by the response Khaleel got hold of a poem of Moti Lal Saqi and converted it into a Qawwali.

Gannett sham e gam rozya na rozya

Tamis sultan yi kham rozya na rozya

It was a huge hit right from the beginning. Entire audience would join Khaleel in chorus whenever he sung this qawwali. Special requests would pour in for this qawwali from far and off corners of Kashmir. With a single qawwali Khallel popularised the genre of music tat was missing from Kashmir. “Kashmiri music has such flexibility that it can be adopted into any type of music and churn out gems,” said Khaleel. “And Qawwali is no exception.”

Radio Kashmir too approached Khaleel to sing the qawwali for them. Though popular singer Ali Mohammed had sung Ganeemat Sham e Gam (GSG) as a ghazal and it was present in a archives of Radio Kashmir but they wanted the qawwali version of it. Khaleel told them that he doesn’t have a crew of such a calibre that they can do justice with high standards of Radio Kashmir. He was offered the expert crew from Radio. When Khaleel reached Radio Kashmir for the recording he was amused to be joined by likes of Raj Begum, Naseem Akhtar, Ghulam Mohammed Bhat and others. The qawwali cast its spell in Radio Kashmir too and even today people request them to play it one more time.

The fame of GSG spread to other states too. Once the artists of Jammu and Kashmir were taken for a cultural programme to new Delhi. As the time was limited the majority of chunk was taken by leading artists. When Khaleel and others told the organisers that they want to perform Chakkri their were summarily rejected. Some artists from Jammu told Khaleel to perform GSG which he reluctantly rehearsed before them. It was immediately accepted and when he performed it at stage entire audience loved it. “Later the reporters came to me and said that they didn’t understand the words but the style was such impressive that it gave away everything,” said Khaleel who was then requested to perform it on second consecutive day too. Similar scenes were recorded in other states too.

Being a sufiyana nature himself, Khaleel used to to Sufi Mehfil where the qawwali was also liked. “Once I was at a Sufi mehfil and one of my arrogant friends told me that your GSG won’t work here, don’t even think about that. But others intervened and requested me to sing. Till that time the Pir saheb was in sleepy mood and on this qawwali he almost stood up and entire mehfil was lively,” said Khaleel. “After this my friend said, ‘yi Pir ti Chu ni kihi,’” Khaleel laughed. 

Even at this age Khaleel is as lively as he has been decades back. Besides Sheikh Abdullah, he has sung before former Mehjoor, PM Indhira Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, R K Narayan, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammed and others. He has received Jashne Kashmir Gold Award, Khilat e Harmukh, Prasar Bharti Award and state cultural academy award. He has sung along the legends like Amma Sofi, Ab Ahad Nyama, Ab Gani Trali, G N Bulbul and others. With immense knowledge of sufism, philosophy and seventy years of experience at his back, Khaleel is a living history of his times. 

He can go hours on the philosophy of music, life death and then sum up everything in one sentence. During the conversations Khaleel quotes writers from Rumi to Ghani Kashmiri to Rahman Rahi with ease all thanks to his sharp memory. “I try to understand the lyrics before I start singing. Otherwise I cannot pour ones souls in it,” says Khaleel who was recently granted B High grade status at radio Kashmir.

“I had a friend Ghulam Nabi Khan, who was my friend, mentor and everything. He had a hold on Persian and other languages. It was he who would made me and other the audience understand about the deep meaning of lyrics. Whatever I am, Khan saheb had a huge hand in it,” says an emotional Khaleel. 

To the younger generation venturing into music Khaleel has only one advice, “do not let go of Kashmiri language come what may,” says Khaleel. “This will take you to new heights. Improvise, upgrade or adopt in any new form but keep it going. You people have world in your pockets. You don’t have to look for audience, so use the opportunity of mobile and internet for betterment of our art and culture.” 

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