‘My goal is to give Kashmiri music a wider appeal’

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Photo: Faisal Khan
Photo: Faisal Khan

She emerged on the Kashmir music scene in 2001 when the Valley was in throes of unbridled separatist militancy. While still in her late teens, Mehmeet Sayeed was suddenly catapulted from performing in colleges to big stage singing and become an approved female artist for Radio Kashmir – all in one year. In the subsequent years, she was cutting albums, some carrying her videos that became a rage.

Sayeed never faced public criticism, militant threats or fatwas, albeit she did pass her own set of hurdles involving an odd phone call to stop singing. “My parents took care of everything. I didn’t need to worry,” says Sayeed who at 21 has carved a distinctive place for herself amongst a clutch of the Valley’s old and established women singers. Shameema Dev, Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s wife and an accomplished singer says, “Threats are routine and should be taken in stride.”

Mehmeet has come a long way – becoming Kashmir’s well-known woman singer and also pushing the envelope by starring in some of her albums. In her video albums, she can be seen moving around trees lip syncing to her songs while a bevy of girls in Kashmiri costumes dance in the background in lush meadows.

Albums sold by thousands in the Valley, a huge achievement for a Kashmiri singer and they were also sought by the Kashmiri diaspora. Her work was in great demand on local radio and television stations. She would also be sought to sing for official and unofficial cultural functions where her vocalising of Kashmiri Sufi and romantic poetry would draw rapturous applause from the audience. All this, in the early 2000s, when Kashmir was descending into chaos with militancy running rampant in the state.

Mehmeet has so far released three albums. However, it is her moving rendition of the poetry of Kashmir’s sixteenth century tragic queen Habba Khatoon, with its profound articulation of sorrow for her exiled husband, the king Yusuf Shah Chak that gave Mehmeet her identity. For every new Kashmiri singer, singing ‘Habba Khatoon’ has become a rite to passage. And Mehmeet did it exceedingly well. She evoked Habba’s pathos and folksiness in true Kashmiri vocal tradition at the same time, added to it a touch of modern sensibility. One such song is Gah Choon Pevan Ghati, Aki Lati Yiham Na (I see your halo in darkness, Will you not come back to me even once).

Mehmeet was also the first Kashmiri woman singer to start a rock band of her own named ‘Immersion’. She is the lead singer and also plays the keyboard and flute. Mehmeet doesn’t think that Kashmir lacks creative space for artists. “I received some threats but these are normal and I took these in my stride,” Mehmeet says while adding that the all girls rock band who recently decided to quit following a fatwa against them should carry on their singing.  “There are so many bands playing in Kashmir. Besides, these things happen and you are not supposed to pay much attention.”

“My effort has been to break out of the straitjacket as a Kashmiri singer and widen my horizon,” says Mehmeet who will soon be singing for a Bollywood movie alongside Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. “My goal is to give Kashmiri music a wider appeal and take it outside Kashmir,” she says.

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