Despite success coming his way, Sopori remains down to earth
At a recent function in Gulmarg when semi-classical and popular singer Shafi Sopori started his trademark rendition Dum Dum of the famous song Dum Mast Qallander, he improved his own record and continued the Dum Dum sequence for one hour and 15 minutes; incredible. The song cast a spell on the audience and everybody, from the singer to the listeners, were in trance. Some of the audience started swaying in Sufi dance, a regular at Sopori’s such functions. After the song ended an astonishing incident happened which Sopori had never imagined. Six outside tourists who were in the audience came to Sopori and bowed before him. Sopori was taken aback as they fell at his feet and he pleaded them not to do it. “I was shocked because as Muslims we don’t bow to anybody except Allah and they were trying to touch my feet. I told them why they are doing it, it is not good,” recalls Sopori at his modest house in Sopore. “They told me Sopori Saheb you don’t know where you took us in that time period. It was an experience beyond imagination. We are endowed to you.”
Though experiences of fan mobbing and felicitations are common but this was the first of its kind incident for Sopori further strengthening the position of Sopori as an artist of immense talent. But it was not always the case as the lad from small had travelled a treacherous path to reach the current place of success.
Born to a poor family in Sopore whose father and mother died in childhood, Sopori had a hard life right from the begining. His sisters were already married and this put Sopori in a position wherein he was literally alone in the world to fend for himself. He was brought up by his uncle and later the father of his friend sponsored his education but that was always far from enough.
In the life of hardships, Sopori had unlikely natural inclination towards music. Nobody had taught and neither he had visited any singer, but whenever he got hold of some box or even plate for dinner in his early childhood, he would play it like a tabla. This would often receive ridicule from his sister or others. “As i grew up my love for music reached crescendo. It had become my life and i couldnt live without it. My friends would encourage me and I would sing for them. Slowly the word spread i was known as a small singer in the community,” said Sopori.
The closest link of Sopori with rhythm was that his father Ghulam Mohiuddin Najar was a famous Naat Khwan of Sopore. He was known for his sweet voice.
During late 90s people who saw his talent advised him to approach Radio Kashmir. He soon came knocking at the door of one of the few rare avenues for the artists in Kashmir at that time. Luckily he met a neighbour from Hygam, who after inquiring him why he was here took him straight to Ghulam Rasool Akhoon. He asked Akhoon to see ‘if this boy has got some talent or he is wasting his time here.’ Akhoon made him sit in his office along with other boys hopeful for audition. When Sopori sang on his turn, everybody including AKhoon was stunned with his voice. He just held his hand and took him to his studio. “Prof Dost Mohammed was also there and he stopped playing harmonium when he listened me singing. Along with Akhoon Saheb they placed me before mic. Till that time i had never sung before a microphone and i told them the same. But they didnt listen and prepared me for half an hour and later i sung two songs which included Kahi door din dhal jaye of Mukesh,” said Sopori.
This was the start of the career as well as struggle for Sopori. Akhooon taught him the technics of singing and capturing audience and advised me to learn music professionally at Institute of Music and Fine Arts. Sopori was amazed to learn that we had an institute of such kind too. For next four years Sopori would commute from Sopore to Srinagar to learn music. Borrowing money, taking lifts from passerby’s and daily walking from Batmalloo to Rajbagh via Bund because he had no money for bus fare, were the challenges that he happily took. “Sometimes while walking on BUnd i would ask myself why am i doing this, am i ruining myself. But then i would answer it, no i am doing anything wrong like smoking, stealing, drugs or any bad deed. This gift of music has been given to me by Allah and i am taking it forward,” said Sopori who later had to drop one year as his financial conditions deteriorated.
Such was his condition for three years straight Sopori had to wear a single set of clothes as he couldnt afford another set. At times his lunch comprised of just plain rice as there was no money even for vegetables. Sopori remembers even the minutest of those days and says it is important one never forgets the old days.
At times the opportunity knocked at his door but due to paucity of resources he had to let it go. In 2000 he along with Waheed Jeelani and Mudasir qualified for national TV program SaReGaMa. As Waheed and Mudasir reached Mumbai, Sopori couldnt go due to lack of resources.
Sopori would often come to Radio and Doordarshan where work was scarce and politics was in abundance. Barring few performances here and there, not much avenues were present for the talented singer. But the commitment to singing never wavered. During this time Sopori who was known for his Bollywood songs, did an introspection and together with advise from seniors he started adopting a different style. “I thought for Kashmiri folk, ghazal and other genres there are stalwarts here and it is difficult to make place. Meanwhile i developed interest in classical and i thought it is good for me,” said Sopori.
For almost eight years Sopori started studying the Sufi genre of music by listeneing and watching to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. The binge watching on TV and Internet was such that he was advised by doctors to use specs as his eye sight was falling.
The switch to sufi singing was a timely decision as he excelled in the field. In 2009 NGO Sarhad heard him singing at Kashmir University and they approached him to come to annual Kashmir festival in Pune. The NGO asked him to give in writing that he wont charge anything and Sopori for the sake of art relented. At Pune when Sopori sang Dama Dam Mast Qallander the audience went crazy and everybody started dancing. No other singer got such a response. A Minister who was chief guest at the function gave him cash award of Rs 50000. After that Sopori became regular at the festival.
Back home his talent was also being accepted. Once he was invited to sing at a function in Gulmarg where guests from SAARC countries including Pakistan were present. The similar thing happened as Pakistanis heard there songs being played with such perfection they stood up and started dancing, dozens of Kashmiris soon joined.
During one of such events Sopori had the privilege of performing before music maestro Bhajan Sopori. When he was told that Shafi Sopori is from his neighbourhood he called him by the name of Shafi Sopori. The name stuck and Mohammed Shafi Najar became Shafi Sopori.
Despite success coming his way, Sopori remains down to earth. Once in Pune, he out of courtesy started helping an outsider drummer gather his instruments. The drummer known as Vikas from A R Rehman group was impressed with his humility among the group of artists present there. He held him back and took Sopori to his rehearsal session wherein he taught him till 2 AM for two straight days. As Sopori says, i learnt in those two days as much as i had learnt in my life here. He introduced him to new techniques, guaging mood of audience, hand movements, mastering strokes and much more. The result was as expected as Sopori stole the show yet again two days later.
As his fame grew, Sopori has been regularly invited to major functions in Delhi, Nagpur, Mumbai, Bangalore, Jammu and other places. He had performed before Bollywood cream alongside Hans Raj Hans. He is perhaps the only singer from the state who is invited to Punjab for singing Punjabi and Sufi songs. Despite Punjab having numerous singers, Sopori remains in their hearts too.
Ever since his switch over to Dhamal type head rolling movements, Sopori has been continuously improving on it. When asked, he simply says I hardly know what I do during these events as I feel in a different world. At a recent event the video of which became viral, Sopori is seen pouring water over his head over the trademark curly hair. The interesting thing about his hair which he often trims every two years is that he has never used a comb since 2009. The swinging of hair together with Dum Dum makes audience crazy.
“First I started singing Dum Dum for two minutes, then five, ten, and now one hour and fifteen minutes,” says Sopori. The corporates love Sopori as he is invited to their events all over the world. The next in line is invitation from an MNC event at Shirdi next month.
Apart from being a talented singer, Sopori is a composed par excellence too. He has composed 185 songs in Kashmiri and around 50 in Urdu. Due ot paucity of resources and a studio, most of them are unrecorded.
Once Sopori was aksed by the local college to make an anthem for them which he did. When Teri Azmat Ko Salam anthem was played before an audience that also included colleges principals from other districts everybody lived it. Now all colleges wanted to have their anthems too and Sopori was approached. He composed anthems for colleges of Handwara, Kupwara, Wadoora, Bemina and Pattan for free of cost.
Not keeping talent to himself, Sopori has been teaching others too. When Sopori started his career, he was the first of his kind singer in entire Baramulla but now he has trained many more. His Jankar Musical Group which he made in 2003 is considered as the first musical group of Kashmir much earlier than the current social media phenomenons.
His all time favourite singer has been Mukesh followed by Talat Mahmood. “During my childhood while going for school my feet would get stuck at the butchers shop playing Mukesh’s song. Something would stop me right there with that voice,” said Sopori. In Kashmiri he cherishes Shameema Dev and Ghulam Hassan Sofi and Sufi singing nobody can impress him much more than Nusrat Fateh ALi Khan and Abida Parveen. The 1972 born singer feels indebted to his wife who has been his support all these years in poverty and prosperity. His son a class 10 student is also interested in music and daily practices for an hour along with his father. With so much accomplished, Sopori says it is a vast field and he has not even touched the surface.