In 2002, Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, music Programme Executive, called Waheed Jeelani and urged him to rush to his studio for a recording session.
Sheikh told Waheed that he urgently needed to record some songs and he couldn't find better voice than his to do the job. Among the songs there was one song written by Bashir Dada, whose music was composed by Waheed himself. Waheed decided to add the song to the list of recordings. The song had earlier disappeared without trace while being part of a small television serial two years ago. Waheed sang it normally like other songs.
Next day when the particular Kashmiri song was broadcast on Radio Kashmir, it was an instant hit. Barely an hour had passed and Radio Kashmir's phones started ringing. Listeners were enquiring, praising and demanding the song be broadcast again. Kashmir valley at that time was going through one of the worst phases of violence. The song summarized the pain and its realistic words and soulful music grabbed the hearts of Kashmiris. Some cried, others became nostalgic and many more couldn't stop remembering those who had departed, and died young.
Duay khaer karus pot aalaw dis ya osh dadraarey traav matyo thus became the most popular Kashmiri song of the decade. The song turned the fortunes of Waheed and it brought Bashir Dada again in limelight. Its contribution towards the revival of Kashmiri music has been huge.
Three years later Waheed was conferred the award Artist of the Millenium in London just for this song. It has been played tens of thousands of times on Radio Kashmir, FMs, Television and Youtube. At one point of time Radio Kashmir just got fed up of demands and they used to categorically tell listeners to stop demanding playing this song.
"The song was the turning point in my life," remembers Waheed. "Its success was unexpected. Though Bashir Dada said that he had written the lyrics before 1990. But people related the words to the post 1990 situation when thousands of boys left their homes to cross LOC. It was the pain, longing, dreams and prayers that gripped people in the song."
A decade down the line nothing has changed as people continue to share the song on social media and play it on their mobiles. Even today Waheed gets requests for this particular song at various concerts.
It has been a long journey for Waheed since the turbulent days in 1990 when he took 10 days to record his first song Vallah me vadaan gash sotoi myani matyo ho at Radio Kashmir studios. He sang it as a duet along with late Abdul Rashid Farash.
Waheed became interested in music in late 80s. His brother and mother were fond of music. His mother had memorized songs of Shamas Fakir, Soch Kral and other sufi poets which she used to sing to her children. Even her relatives used to request her to take lead during marriage functions.
"My brother knew legendary vocalist and music composer of Kashmir, Ustad Ghulam Nabi Sheikh. One day he took me to him and when Sheikh listened to my voice he told my brother that you should stop coming here and instead send me to him every Sunday," said Waheed. "Sheikh sahib honed my skills and laid the foundation of my professional music."
After some time Waheed's brother shifted to Mumbai for work and Waheed also found himself in the film city within no time. In Mumbai he joined the Radhika Music Institute, Bandra, Mumbai for a degree in music. "Mumbai taught me professionalism. They work hard and leave no stone unturned for that perfect song," said Waheed. In Bollywood he sang along with the likes of Udit Narayan, Sonu Nigam, Kavita Krishnamurthi, Usha Mangeshkar and Chandani Mukherjee. Unfortunately his Bollywood debut for movie Pyar Ka Safar never got released.
Due to his family compulsions Waheed had to return back to Kashmir after a year. This time he approached Radio Kashmir with a matured voice. Waheed was barely 19 when he recorded his first song. He easily cleared the audition for B Class singer in 1991. Thereafter there was no looking back for him. Under the able guidance of Sheikh and stalwarts at Radio Kashmir, Waheed progressed a lot.
In 1993 when he sent his recording to New Delhi for getting upgrade from B Class to B High, he was in for a big surprise. "It was for the first time in the history of Radio Kashmir that an artist sent an upgrade for B High and in return he gets the recognition for A-Grade singer," says Waheed. There was jubilation in the entire team that used to manage Radio Kashmir at that time. It was a confidence booster. In 1995 he got approved as Music Composer from New Delhi.
However, the biggest unexpected surprise came in 2012 when he was bestowed as A-Top Grade artist, highest grade as vocalist and Music Composer in Kashmiri Light Music. It was for the first time that an artist below 40 got that award. By qualifying the top grade Waheed was made member of National Music Audition board where he represents North India.
"Music gave me everything," says Waheed in his soft voice. "Perhaps more than it could have given me in any other profession."
In early 2001 during one of his concerts at SKICC, when the then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah heard him singing, he straightaway offered him a government job. Waheed was soon appointed as a senior artist in Department of Information. But he soon became uncomfortable with the job. Being asked to perform at the wedding ceremonies of relatives of ministers or on a makeshift stage with no audio in front of some Deputy Commissioner was too much for him.
In 2004 Waheed got his first break to perform in London, but the department of Information denied him the permission instead asking him to reroute the permission through endless offices in Secretariat. "I simply resigned from the department and went on to perform in London," said Waheed. "It was a big relief for me and Alhamdulillah, God has always been bountiful on me."
Being forthright has often created problems for him. Last year when Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages unilaterally slashed fee of artists by as much as 50 percent, Waheed protested aloud. "Academy brings a senior artist from a far off place like Kupwara and then after his hard days performance hands him Rs 1000 or 2000. What kind of justice is this?" said Waheed. "We are destroying our art and culture with our own hands, we don't need outsiders to do the job."
Waheed was tipped for state awards last year but according to insiders his name was withdrawn at the last moment due to his stance. He had protested earlier too when Academy had once bundled the legendary singer Ghulam Hassan Sofi in a Sumo and sent him to Jammu for a performance. Visually challenged Late Sofi had fainted after the ardous journey. "Awards hardly matter to me," says Waheed who has dozens of awards to his credit.
Regarding the state of music in Kashmir, Waheed feels both pessimistic and optimistic. "In 2003 I along with few friends realized that our art is getting erased. In our homes and vehicles Bollywood was playing aloud and there was not a trace of Kashmiri music," said Waheed. "I composed new tunes, brought back old lyrics and songs and refashioned them. We trained new people and released new albums and videos."
The efforts paid off and a new crop of singers like Mehmeet Syed. "Nowadays we hear Kashmiri songs played in vehicles, mobiles and our homes," says Waheed with a sense of excitement. "I don't say that everything if fine but we made an effort and we succeeded."
Waheed has been instrumental in taking Kashmiri music to Kashmiri diaspora all across the world too. He has performed in 14 countries before Kashmiri audience. "I have a contract with Kashmiris living in UK where I have to visit every year. I perform there, conduct workshops for younger non resident Kashmiris," said Waheed. "I tell them no matter where you are, just learn about Kashmir, Kashmiri and everything related to it. I tell them to send their children to Kashmir in holidays so that they can experience their land of origin."
During one of his performances in London, he trained young Kashmiri origin girls for a performance on Lal Ded. "We adorned those kids with Kashmiri jewelry, pheran and costumes and they performed wonderfully. The audience especially their parents loved it," said Waheed. "With such initiatives we are globally connecting Kashmiris."
Till date Waheed has sung over 10,000 songs in Kashmiri, Urdu, Hindi, Pahari, Bhojpuri and English. In 2009 he sang with American singer Tera Naomi as part of campaign to save earth from climate change. The English Kashmiri song was highly popular among younger generation.
With dual masters, in Political Science and in Kashmiri, from Kashmir University, Waheed feels the art and culture of Kashmir is under threat. "If we don't save it now, in next 50 years there would be no Kashmiri culture and art," he said. "At government level too there is no culture policy and it kind of seals our fate."
Regarding new crop of artists, Waheed says that they need to work more, and stick to one genre of music. "The problem is that on day one these youngsters come up with a beautiful song and on day two they bring a keyboard claiming to be its master, on day three they play santoor and so on. They try to be jack of all trades and end up master in none," said Waheed. "Like MBBS, singing needs at least five year training. We used to conduct riyaadh for up to 12 hours a day but the youngsters don't have that patience."
Along with a group of artists Waheed has set up Kashmir Music Academy that aims to promote Kashmiri music and train students in it. They are roping in professional singers from outside to train students here. "There are so many issues like how to help artists who are in advanced age. We want to start some corpus for those who cant perform now," said Waheed. "Similarly there is hardly anybody getting trained into classical music and instruments and we want to bring new talent in this dying art."
For Waheed, music is not just art to earn money but he believes in philanthropic activities too. He has been perhaps one of the first artists to raise money for underprivileged kids, institutions and individuals. "We once raised Rs 17 lakhs for Chotey Taray foundation and it gave me immense happiness. At another time we managed to raise Rs 8.5 lakh for a poor patient who needed kidney transplant by performing at SKICC," beams Waheed.
"If I have to perform even for five days for a cause I will happily do it," says Waheed who has also performed for various blood banks and philanthropic institutes.
The annual Shashrang festival managed by Waheed has quietly starting to make an impact. "Last year around 1000 children and 150 artists performed at the event. The aim is to promote Kashmiri art and culture," said Waheed.
However Waheed also had to face stiff resistance from certain quarters for organizing the festival. "Some people blame me for immorality and other such sins. But show me one such example. I have left my destiny in the hands of God, he will award or punish me for my deeds," said Waheed referring to such statements.
He is one of the singers who started his career right at the time when militancy erupted in Kashmir. He was beaten up, warned, and kidnapped many times, but he kept going. "I have strong belief in Allah and he always kept me safe," said Waheed. "When I sing Lab pe aati or Sahibo Sath Cham me chaeni along with of kids, it gives me immense strength."
Waheed believes that if we have to document the modern history of Kashmir, it wont be history books only, music and art will play an important role too. "Our lyrics, music, art, everything is affected in this turmoil. Like in Bashir Dada's lyrics you can find he has documented current conflict too," said Waheed who is soon releasing Iztiraab, album dedicated to disappeared persons. "After 100s of years we find poems of old times depicting the situation of that period, similarly 100 year down the line people will listen to our songs and read our poetry and come to know about the situation we have gone through. That also adds to the importance of art and culture."
Notwithstanding challenges this year Waheed and his fellow artists are planning big by organizing an international festival by inviting artists from across India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The last country he had always longed to perform but could never go there. "I have performed before Pakistani and Pakistani Kashmiri crowd in England, but it's my dream to perform there. In 2004-05 I got a chance to visit Pakistan but I couldn't get approval from this side," said Waheed.