An overnight celebrity; From militant to folk singer

An overnight celebrity; From militant to folk singer

The song, ‘Ha Gulo’ (O! Gul or the flower-faced beloved), a Kashmiri melody that was recently released by Coke Studio, has been received very well in the Kashmir Valley.

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Despite an almost permanent gloom hanging in the air due to the daily routine of deaths and violence, the song has lifted the public mood and turned Altaf Mir, a resistance militant-turned-folk singer, into an overnight celebrity.

The reputation and public following of Coke Studio have afforded Mir a wide audience across the political geography, breaching the highly-guarded frontiers on both sides of the divided territory. It is for first time that a Kashmiri song that originated from Pakistan has gained a massive following; perhaps no other Kashmiri singer has ever received such instant fame.

For Asmat Ashai, Coke Studio’s this release of Ha gulo has finally gifted her US-based organisation fame beyond the cultural circles in her native Kashmir, but what makes the sexagenarian scholar happier is the big picture: the Valley’s music has won a global audience.

It took five years for Maryland-based Asmat to convince the Karachi-headquartered international franchise to take up Kashmiri music album so as to spread its beauty to people beyond the region and even the Asian continent.

Today, it excites her Funkar International that Coke Studio Explorer’s twist to a cult Kashmiri folk song has become massive hit a week after its release. YouTube alone has clocked close to 3.2 lakh views of the three-minute video that has the seven-decade-old lyrics rendered by a middle-aged vocalist from Muzaffarabad of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir.

So, in 2013, Asmat met producers of Pakistani a music band called Strings with the primary aim of bringing together people on both sides of the Kashmir border. “For that, we have to have Kashmiri music. But they didn’t want to be involved with anything Kashmiri—because of the region (which is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan),” she recalls.

All the same, Asmat, who teaches the Kashmiri language in the US Universities, began auditioning people. And, at one stage, everything seemed to have got ready: two artistes—“though not well known”—were selected. “But then there happened a slump in the India-Pakistan relations. We had to shelve the programme”, she said.

Later, Asmat began trying to search someone in PoK capital Muzaffarabad who could sing in Kashmiri. “At that, one of my contacts there told me that there is one who sings at marriages,” she says, revealing how he got in touch with Altaf Ahmad Mir, who ended up singing in the Coke video that has gone viral after its release last Wednesday.

Altaf’s rendition of the classic by famous Kashmiri poet Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor is now a rage across the whole of Kashmir—and several other parts of the world.

“Ha gulo tuhi ma sa vuchwun yaar muen (O Flowers, have you seen my love?)” form the opening lines of the song by Mahjoor (1887-1952), who was born in a Pulwama village, 40 km away from Srinagar.

Altaf, 50, has been living in Muzaffarabad for the past 23 years, but the singer originally belongs to Anantnag on the Indian side of Kashmir.

According to his family, Altaf had, at the age of 22, left his Janglat Mandi home in 1990 for arms training like hundreds of fellow Kashmiri youngsters.

Four years later, he returned to Kashmir, but found the place had changed: a counter-insurgent force had gained control in south Kashmir. Fearing the pro-government Ikhwan (Renegades) comprising surrendered Kashmiri militants, Altaf crossed over to the LoC again—in 1995, this time choosing to settle in Muzaffarabad permanently. He later got married there and has four sons now.

Mir’s brother Javeed Ahmad said, “He was an expert chain stitch artisan. He was inclined towards music from childhood.” Altaf used to sing Sufi and folk songs since his early youth and would perform at the marriage ceremonies also.

Over the past 28 years, Mir’s family has tried their best to see their son return home to Kashmir. But that was not possible. For Mir’s brother though, his newfound fame is almost as if he has returned home.

Altaf Mir’s song is a loving ­message of a son’s wish to come home, according to his mother, Raja Begum. As Raja is shown the latest video song of Altaf on a mobile phone, she breaks down and pleads for the return of her separated son.

The release of the song has had a bittersweet impact on Mir’s family. “When I met him, I couldn’t recognise him. He had turned old. He looks so old,” says his mother, Raja Begum, who hadn’t seen her son for 15 long years before she went to visit him in Pakistan. “I have visited my son twice in Muzafarabad long back”, she said.

She now watches the song on her mobile phone several times each day, and finds in it a message of longing and love: a mother’s love for her son and the son’s longing to be back home.

“By any means, I want his return. I want to live last years of my life with my son in front of me. He has never harmed anyone here and I request the government to facilitate his return to his native place,” pleads Raja, as her eyes well up again while the relatives and neighbors throng their house with Ha Gulo on loop in the background.

“I wish him back in my home,” she says. But the family are indeed happy with their newfound fame, with their house now frequented by admirers and reporters.

Now, almost a quarter-century later, Altaf and his band have made it to the Coke Studio to the delight of everyone in the Valley. Along with sarangi player Ghulam Mohammad Dar, Saif-ud-din Shah (tumbakhnaer) and Manzoor Ahmad Khan who plays the pitcher-like nout, this Ha gula version is an “effortless mix of traditional and electronic”, according to Coke.

The franchise has been featuring live studio-recorded music by both known and budding artistes experimenting in a range of genres that includes traditional, classical and folk from the subcontinent alongside contemporary hip, hop, rock and pop known for their Western moorings.

For Asmat, the Coke Studio song is important for Kashmir and its heritage. “Its impact will be huge. There will be a burst in the appreciation of the music,” she says. Already her Funkar is facilitating singers, including Kashmir’s leading female voice Mehmeet Sayeed, to perform Kashmiri ghazals and folk in America and other parts of the world.

Shah Faesal – a Kashmiri Indian bureaucrat is delighted about the Coke Studio release, which he believes is “a really big thing for Kashmiris”. He told that, “this number has taken Kashmiri music to a new level”. He added that: “at a time when [the] new generation of Kashmiris [is] shying away from listening to Kashmiri songs, Coke Studio has made it fashionable again, and the new song has won many young hearts”.

Bashir Dada, a leading Kashmiri writer, is thoroughly impressed at the way the song has been presented. Dada, who has produced dozens of hit Kashmiri songs during the last four decades, called it “really marvellous”. “This is the real way and style to produce a Kashmiri folk song,” he added. “The costume and the characters fit in well with the locations”. Dada congratulated the team and believes that the song will impact Kashmiri music in a positive way as it has set a new benchmark for doing folksongs.

Nizamuddin, a former journalist-turned-senior politician of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is fascinated by “the background of the singer” and believes his newfound fame will help promote the language beyond the borders.

Dr Bashir Veeri, a well-known writer and a senior politician from the pro-India National Conference sees Mir’s journey representing the “tragic story of Kashmiri youths whose talent is consumed by the conflict between India and Pakistan”. He also praised Coke Studio for discovering and bringing to the fore “the hidden talent of a migrant Kashmiri”, adding that this had given a “fresh lease of hope to hundreds of talented people in Kashmir who have been failed by the current political impasse”.

The power of music is quite formidable and we hope such efforts can continue promoting Kashmiri music as a vehicle to unite people from both sides of the divide and improve their fractured lives.

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