A Kashmiri youth band, traumatised by violence and loss, now sings of hope, forgiveness

When they pick up a guitar, instead of a gun, they do it with conviction. The children of the conflict zone know what it is like to wear the scars of violence. Gaash, or roshni (light) is the name they have given to their musical band to spread a word of love, forgiveness and peace, to clear misgivings on both sides of the divide, in Kashmir. Turning the scars into musical notes has been a long process of transformation.

The sounds of violence — gunshots, grenades and bomb blasts— was their normal soundscape. Music, if at all, meant film songs heard wafting from a radio. As children, when they were asked to sing, they lacked the repertoire of a normal child’s nursery rhymes and poems and would end up singing film songs. This made them the butt of a joke among ‘normal’ children. This was 15 years back, when they came to Sarhad, in Pune, for rehabilitation and formal education.

They were traumatised, all 150 of them; orphans of the conflict zone. And they came from both sides — children of the killed militants, of the martyred army and police personnel and of the innocent civilians, blurring connotations of the lexicon in their shared suffering and loss. Apart from the loss of family members, the warmth and security, the added intangible loss in their lives was — the absence of things that add beauty and meaning — poetry, music, theatre, art and literature.

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Gaash. Image courtesy of the author

Shameema Akther of Bandipora was discovered, all soaked in blood, by strangers under the seat of a bus, when her mother was hit by a bullet in her arm and her aunt lost her life caught in a crossfire between militants and the army. Manzoor’s father, a police constable, took the bullets to save the life of his infant son he was holding at the time of an attack on his life. Joginder Singh lost 15 members, including his mother, father, grandfather and a sister, in a single militant attack in village Lehota Nandna, district Doda, when he was barely four years old. Aquib Bhat, another orphan from Bandipora, Bashir Khan, an orphan from Kargil, Leh, and  Ruqaya Maqbool and Mukhtar Dar from the Valley, too have their tales of violence and blood — lived and witnessed.

But this chapter of history is forgotten and forgiven. Their vocabulary has changed. So is the soundscape. “Now, when I go to Kashmir and hear a gunshot, I think, it must be a cracker,” says Aquib.

The idea to create a musical band must have germinated in the music and dance classes they were introduced to at Sarhad School, in Pune. “We used to look forward to these classes. Music and dance gave a kind of release to our pent-up emotions, “ says Mukhtar, now pursuing a medical degree for a career.

They came to Pune in 2004. As young men and women, in 2014, they started a programme called “Jago Bharat”, wherein they would visit schools and colleges in Maharashtra to interact with the local youth to clear misgivings about the loyalties and dilemmas of the ordinary Kashmiri. It was in 2016, when Shameema Akther sang a few songs during one of the Kashmir Festivals, organised by Sarhad, in Pune, they realised that the response to music was far greater than their lectures for Jago Bharat.  And the idea of Gaash was formulated. Perhaps because, in the face of adversity and the most complex circumstances, music can lift the human spirit and bring people together like no other force on the planet.

Against many odds, Shameema had pursued her passion for music by getting trained in Hindustani vocal classical music at Bhatkhande Music Institute Deemed University, Lucknow. Few of her songs became very popular among the youth in Kashmir. Her friends from Bandipora, studying at Sarhad, persuaded her to become the lead singer.

Joginder, who binds a large group of violence affected youth with his ever-broadening smile, the face of the band, plans to compère the programmes and compose a few lines on “let go”, in his signature mirthfulness. Manzoor, a professional dancer, is the drummer. Aquib plays the Tumbaknari, an earthen goblet like drum, played by Kashmiri folk musicians. Bashir Khan, whose father was martyred in the Kargil war, is the guitarist. Well-known composer Mohammad Mazhar Siddiqui, who is associated with Kashmiri music for years, will coordinate and compose the music for the young singers. Mukhtar is the male singer for the band.

Their songs range from Sufi classics of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon to the contemporary, reflecting a new approach that tends to focus on the psycho-social effects of conflict. If the bullets and blasts have been loud, so can be the microphones and amplifiers that carry the message of peace and harmony to places far and wide to transform conflict into a space for co-existence.

“All of us have known violence, our message for peace comes from a deeply felt need. We don't know how far we can travel on this path, we don't want others to experience what we had to. We invite other violence-affected youth to join us in our collective mission for peace,” they say in unison.

Before they have their first show in Srinagar, in March, 2019, they want to test the waters in local colleges and universities. The opening popular song, Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam is interspersed with Kashmiri Sufi couplets. A mix of Hindi, Kashmiri and Marathi songs make their repertoire for now.

“Kashmir’s name is associated with violence to the outside world,  if the violence affected children themselves introduce the other face of the Valley, of its long tradition of poetry and music, it can bring about a positive difference," says Sanjay Nahar of Sarhad, Pune. One likes to believe in their songs of hope; subko sanmati de bhagwan.

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Updated Date: Dec 09, 2018 09:25:12 IST

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