Holding the fort of Sufiyana Music

The one thing Ustad Muhammed Yaqub Sheikh doesn''t know is to quit

Haroon Mirani
Srinagar, Publish Date: Sep 22 2017 11:17PM | Updated Date: Sep 22 2017 11:17PM
Holding the fort of Sufiyana Music

On the outskirts of Srinagar at Kralpora, the lull in the environment is usually broken by the Persian words of Hafiz, Rumi, and Jami, sung in traditional Kashmiri voices. With accompanying music on sitar, santoor and tabla, the lyrics explain the philosophy of religion, humanity and love. For art lovers it is elixir even as pedestrians mistake it as some programme on Radio Kashmir, and move on.

Ustad Muhammed Yaqub Sheikh, 57, doesn't mind even if nobody is around. Every day practices the Sufiyana Kalam at his Qalinbaaf Memorial Sufiyana Music Institute (QMSMI), either with his students or alone, for decades. The one thing Yaqub doesn't know is to quit.

At a time when traditional Kashmiri Sufiyana Music is on the threat of extinction, Yaqub is valiantly holding the fort. He did it at the top of violence in 90’s and he is doing it now when every second singer is claiming to be a sufiyana musician.

“Sufiyana Music is not something which you can learn on guitar by watching movies. It needs dedicated learning from a master musician for around a decade. Where can you find such dedication in current generation,” said Yaqub even as he continues to renders deep meaning lyrics of Omar Khayam, Amir Khusro, Rasul Mir, Neame Seab and other renowned poets.

Yaqub hails from a family of Ustaads like his maternal grand father Ghulam Muhammed Qaleenbaaf and then received training from famed people like Shiekh Abdul Aziz and Ustaad Kamaal Bhat. He is adept in playing Santoor, Sitar, Tabla, and Saaze Kashmir but was more inclined to play Santoor where he achieved perfection. He learned to play Saaz-e-Kashmir from late Ustad Kamal Bhat.

He is credited with single handedly reviving the dying art, by documenting it and establishing a formal school in this regard. “Earlier the Sufiyana Music used to be an oral tradition, but I documented it. I give students notes, thesis and they work on it,” said Sheikh. 

He also changed the old tradition of gender specific roles in the Sufiyana Music. “This used to be a male dominated field. It was taught by men to men. But I opened it to girls too,” said Sheikh. “Earlier such was its strictness that an Ustad won’t teach the art even to his own daughter or son of a daughter.”

The credit for the original massive change can be traced to master Musician Qalinbaaf himself. One of the most revolutionary steps taken by Qalinbaaf towards the art was his decision to introduce women in the field. He taught Sufiyana Kalaam and playing of instruments to women. “Never before in our history had women performed in a Sufiyana Kalaam. He had a vision that if we have to save this music we need to bring in women. He was an advocate of change,” said Yaqub. The introduction of woman gave a new lease of life to this music that was already been taken over by light music and music from mainland India.

The urge to innovate for better has passed on from Qalinbaaf himself. Though Yaqub loves to introduce new things but one thing which he never compromises is the quality. At his institute if a student has to learn for seven years to achieve accomplishment as a classical musician, then it cannot be six and a half years. “In Sufiyana Music there is no room for error and it has to be 100 Percent,” said Yaqub at QMSMI.

Set up in 1996 after Qalinbaaf died, the Institute registered by Society of Registrar and DIC has managed to act as the last fort for the drowning art. The Institute is sought after by Sufiyana music lovers as such training is hardly available at anywhere else. In a vast hall in his own residential compound, the hum of sitar and soft strokes of 100 stringed santoor provide a soothing experience. 

Though many institute claim to impart training in the classical music, but none comes close to  QMSMI. Though small in number but the Institute is always filled with students who want to learn the Sufiyana Music. Be it siblings Irfana and Rehana, who in the last one year have achieved remarkable progress and broadcast quality material or Rashida who vowed the audience with her Tabla skills, the Institute is a gold mine for future artists.

Although there is a demand for Sufiyana Music, but the reality is much harsher. Every four to five years, a group of girls completes the rigorous training of Sufiyana Music in Kashmir to try their skill at minimal platforms available in Kashmir. The enthusiasm is soon extinguished as they are literally shunned by government departments. Being thorough professionals, they are unable to make their way through minefield of nepotism and bribery in the modern art world. They hardly last couple of years. Dejection is followed by marriage and children. The talented artist is lost forever.

This has been a routine at Qalinbaaf Memorial Sufiyana Music Institute, perhaps the only place in valley where pure Sufiyana Music is taught. “Sometimes I get frustrated, I pour in everything in an artist for upto eight years. And then they find no avenues or even encouragement in this brutal society,” said Yaqub. 

Shabnam Bashir was a teenager bubbling with enthusiasm when she started as a student at the institute. She had literally fought with her parents to pursue her passion of Sufiyana Music. She always stood out among her peers at the institute with her talent. Adored with mesmerising voice and envious skills at Santoor, she performed at Doordarshan, Radio Kashmir and at many events. 

As days passed by, apart from adulations and few performances, she could get nothing. Somebody told her to switch over to light music. She tried her hand and sung some memorable songs, but making career in the music field proved a herculean task. Her parents couldn’t wait more and they married her off. Later she couldn't continue her musical journey and an emerging talent was lost forever. 

“This is the hard reality of Kashmir, the place which gave the world a unique form of classical music,” said Sheikh. “Now we are losing both artists and listeners at alarming rate.”

From the time in 1996 when the institute started, it has broken many taboos. An accomplished vocalist, Rashida Akhtar became the first ever woman tabla player in Sufiyana Music from Kashmir. With amazing grace and skill over the instrument, she mesmerised the audience. Unfortunately Rashida too met the same fate as do 90 percent of such girls. She had to ultimately let go of her passion and settle in domestic obscurity.

Till date Sheikh has taught around 45 girls and hardly 5-6 girls are continue to perform. “Rest of them have abandoned the field as they feel it has no future, now matter how passionate one is,” said Sheikh.

The Classical Music scene is like an uphill task, where people are coming learning and abandoning. One might feel that no one will come forward but that is not the case as people approach Sheikh for admissions. Most of girl students come here after hearing the Ustad play on TV or radio. The institute doesn’t go for massive advertising as word of mouth publicity attracts the students. “There are youth who are genuinely attracted to it and I get queries frequently. Earlier I used to admit everybody now I select a candidate be it girl or boy based on the level of interest, talent and other factors,” said Sheikh.

One of the advantages at the Institute is that the admission is almost free. Even the expensive musical instrument, costing upwards of Rs 30000 are provided for students.

The Classical Music is extremely difficult to master and one has to be patient too. It can take upto eight years for a candidate to be ready for the wider audience. 

At the institute the students learn to play Sitar, Santoor, Kashmiri Sitar, Tabla in addition to training in Vocals. The age of the student is an extremely important, which is why Yaqub prefers students who are young. 

“The younger the student the better it is. A student of eight will be ready by the time he or she reaches 16,” said Sheikh. 

The classical Music scene in Kashmir has been marred by lack of any government support. There has been accusations of corruption in granting funds and scholarships to musical groups. Sufiyana Musicians hardly get any attention. The budding artists usually get one programme a month by Radio Kashmir or in rare cases by Doordarshan. Other platforms like JKAACL, North Zone Cultural Centre, ICCR etc are more concerned with light music, and everything except Classical.

“You have connections, you can get all sort of funds. There are some groups who know nothing of classical music yet they get funding from one of cultural organisations,” said a musician. “This has led to increase of half baked musicians and experts come to fore. These so called musicians don’t even know difference between Indian and Kashmiri classical music, but they are surely given airtime.”

Even the awards are being denied to these musicians that could have catalysed their growth. Despite more than three decades of experience Yaqub too has never won the state award, which off late has been garnered to amateurs too.

Similarly Sangit Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Youth Awards too have been bestowed on every Tom, Dick and Harry except classical musicians from Kashmir. 

When it comes to engaging faculty in Classical Music, the trained musicians never get a chance. Off late Institute of Music and Fine Arts management has been accused of engaging a person with Class 8 education and almost no degree in this music as Assistant Professor. The result has been that the institute’s classical music department is on the verge of closure.

Despite the odds, Yaqub hopes to continue the journey. “I am lived my life, made my career on this music. It is my dream to preserve it. Even if I try and fail multiple times, I will continue my journey,” said Yaqub. 

Of the hundred odd musicians which the Yaqub has taught, only few are continuing. One of institutes bright musician is working as a plumber and another as a teacher in a private school to make their ends meet.

As Qaleenbaaf used to say that only Kashmiri Classical Music is suited for Kashmiris and Indian Classical Music is not according to our taste, the Sheikh has continued the same line and resisted attempts to dilute Kashmiri Classical Music with outside influence. He wants to keep it pure forever. 

Many a time neighbours and relatives advised Yousuf not to pursue music let alone allow his daughters learn it. But the committed art lover never backed down. He has faced every criticism with increased commitment. He wants to preserve the rich musical heritage of Kashmir before it is too late.

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