Attention, Ladies and Minstrels


Young girls are giving a lost Kashmiri musical tradition a shot in the arm, says  Parvaiz Bukhari

Radical notes Yaqoob Sheikh watches as his protegés practice. Photo by Javed Dar

IT IS now an almost silent string in the soul of a once singing people, who even till the 1980s woke daily to the rhythms of an ancient Persian music form. But SufianaMousiqee, the only classical form of Kashmir, is slowly stirring again. Young girls are learning the ancient form for the first time ever, even as families of earlier maestros turn their backs on their own tradition. Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh, 50, and a rare maestro, runs a one of- a-kind Sufiana school from his home outside Srinagar, in Kralpora. And he teaches anyone willing to learn, regardless of gender.

The first girl came to Sheikh in 2001, five years after he started teaching Sufiana. Shabnam had grown up listening to Sufiana music on radio, in her grandmother’s lap. “One day without telling anyone at home I came here. I liked it immensely and persuaded my family to let me learn Sufiana,” says Shabnam. “Without my grandmother’s help I wouldn’t get my family’s permission.” She brought along a few more girls including her cousins. Today Shabnam leads an all girls Sufiana ensemble of seven that has performed in many Indian cities and shared stage with the likes of Abida Parveen.

Shabnam is now an empanelled artist in All India Radio’s Kashmir station. She still cannot afford a Santoor of her own. Her ensemble includes Sami Jan, 20, the first Kashmiri female Sufiana tabla player. During the Dogra rule that lasted until the mid-20th century, Kashmiri women known as haafiza sang and danced in the royal court but never played any instruments used in Sufiana like Saz-i- Kashmir, santoor or tabla. That tradition had also died more than a century ago.

A Persian and central Asian connection that Kashmir has preserved for six centuries, Sufiana Mousiqee has now atrophied. The master practitioners are gone, the youth aren’t interested and the easy availability of light and film music has relegated sufiana to barely an echo.

But Sheikh, who was initiated into the Sufiana tradition by his maternal grandfather and maestro, Ghulam Mohammad Qaleenbaaf, wouldn’t let it die. “When my grandfather passed away, I felt the sufiana music in my soul and started practicing seriously,” says Sheikh, who did not let the initial discouragement from family and friends, dampen his passion for the music and the zeal to preserve it.

The Qaleenbaaf Memorial Sufiana Music Institute began with a single boy interested in the music, amid the chaotic and politically unstable 1990s. All that this sufiana institute has is Sheikh, his personal set of music instruments, and forty-odd students, girls and boys learning at his home, some for nine years. In summers, little children from schools around his Kralpora neighbourhood join him in bustling numbers. Sheikh teaches them all for free.

It hasn’t been easy. Unfriendly locals (“people are dying in Kashmir and you want children to learn sufiana music”) forced him to move four times and he’s had to “entertain soldiers” who came searching for militants disguised as music students.

But, Sufiana Mousiqee remains in the margins. Sheikh’s own children don’t want to learn it. “It’s not entertainment. It is like prayers, you cannot force it on anyone,” he says. His daughter serves tea while Shabnam practices with her guru.



  1. Dear Sir

    Please tell me if Shabnam has already a Santoor if not (!)
    I can help you by sending money….
    Best regard from an Santoor lover and good luck for your school
    Please keep me informed



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