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An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri


  Ghulam Hassan Sofi
Ghulam Hassan Sofi- The undisputed Melody King of Kashmir.
Photo Courtesy: Rakesh Kaul

Melody, meditation and melancholy:

A tribute to Hasan Suif

by Haseeb A Drabu

Obituaries are written for people who die, Ghulam Hasan Sofi never will. Haseeb A Drabu records some facets of the legend’s life and reveals the nuances of his craft.   

Most singers sing for a living. Very few live to sing. Almost no singer lives his songs. Hasan Sofi did all three. What distinguished him from all other singers is that he lived his songs. Looking back and reminiscing, it would appear as if he sang only either to anticipate or to rationalise his own life and that of many others. Every facet of his life, from his being a prodigy to the neglect towards the end of his life, has been described by the songs that he sang.

His famous song, taethi cha diwan aane khali, kyoh kali kar tharav, is a mystical explanation of the fact that his voice - an embodiment of melody, melancholy and mystery - with no formal training was divinely ordained. He had been given his voice, as if in lieu if the visual impairment that he was born with.

This should not come as a surprise considering that his father had sought him from the darbar of Hazrat Moin-ud-din Chisti. The greatest Sufi saint of the land seems to have blessed the unborn Hasan Sofi.  After his birth, going toAjmer sharif, along with his father, became an annual pilgrimage. He owed his spiritual allegiance to the chisiti silsila and in this his murshid was Zia sahib of Pampore. It is during the visits to Ajmer that he was exposed to music through qawaalis which seemed to have forged a lasting association of sufism and singing in him.

The singer in him was awakened by his surroundings. This was a period in Kashmir when Hafiz nagma was at its peak. One of the most famous hafizas of that time, was a woman called Gill, who was sought after in Lahore and Punjab. Such was her pre-eminence that in the shehre khaas, a popular adage was: (mirwaiz) rosulyun waaz, omar pranun maaz, amriun saaz, te gilli hund naaz (dancing etiquette). Hafiza Gill used to reside at Dalgate in the neighborhood of Sofi. He was so taken in by her singing that he would often eavesdrop near her gate.

One day she caught him snooping and asked him why he was there, ”I love your voice” replied young Sofi. Gill ded, as he would call her in later years, took him under her wings and inquired of him whether he knows to how play any musical instruments, perhaps thinking of including him in her troupe. Hasan Sofi told her that he can’t play any instruments; she encouraged him to learn.

The next we know is that the young boy pestered his father, Wahab Sofi, to buy him a Sarangi. The father relented and a sarangi was bought from Tota of Nawa Bazar, a famous Sarangi maker for the princely sum of Rs.2.50. Soon Sofi was adept at playing it. In later years, such was his talent and dedication that he learned to play all instruments used in Kashmiri music, known as the panch hathyar: Sareng, Baje, rabab, knut, and tumbak naer.

His initiation into singing was done by Mohamed Subhan. Every evening Mohammad Subhan would conduct a mehfil, singing with him till late hours. Eventually, Sofi got hold of singing in rhythm.

However, it was Ghulam Mohammad Tanki from the neighbourhood who recognised the prodigious talent when he was just about 20. Tanki introduced him to the legendary Amrit Lal Maini, Officer on Special Duty in the Radio Kashmir. Maini gave him a break in Radio Kashmir, in early 1950's and the rest as they say is history.

Except, in this case, the history is not well recorded. Officially, Hasan Sofi was born on 8th July, 1932 at Dalgate. He came from the Hanji clan who make a living off the Dal lake and are not particularly known for cultural pursuits. He married a widow and adopted her daughter from the first marriage and continued to live in the Dal.  To come from a very underprivileged background and achieve such heights demands respect.

Hasan Sofi started his career singing Chakir and within no time mastered it. His first co-singer was Habibullah Bomboo. Rahman Dar’s Sheesh Rang that he sung is still considered to be the crowning glory of the genre of Chekr. Over time, he moved away from this form to evolve his own unique form of modern Kashmiri ghazal singing, which was more modern and accessible to the newer audience that was now listening in from the new beams of the radio rather than as sit-in audience.

Remarkably, even as he did this and brought about a paradigm shift in the art of singing, he stuck to being a purist in form and rendition. Sofi’s passion for purity and the oral tradition enabled him to compose most of his songs himself. Not many people know that he sang even the famous song, Rinde poosh maal gindnai drai lolo in the film Rasool Mir.

He was fondly remembered by friends as ‘hazar daastan’ for being innovative and versatile within the tradition. Perhaps one of his best qualities that set him apart from some of his contemporaries and which might, paradoxically and partly, explain his rather sad and neglected end was his approach to music and poetry as a purist. 

In one of his interviews for Prasar Bharati Broadcasting corporation a few years ago, Sufi’s message to the younger generation of Kashmiri singers reiterated the significance of purity of language, tradition and diction. Money or fame would not lure him towards anything that he would consider hybrid or ‘filmy’ or ‘paerum’. 

He would say that if you wanted to sing in Kashmiri, you had to understand the verse in its totality and find the appropriate notes in the local tradition to which the song belonged. This he practised himself to a perfection.

At the peak of his career, his songs reflected a perfect weave of poetry, emotion and melody and a talent for capturing the essence and mood of lyrics in different genres ranging from the serious mystical renderings of Rajab Hamid’s Afsoos Duniya…  to gazaals like tsche looguth sorme chachman, me korthum dil ubelyi, to lighter folk songs like chon paknooy parzanovmayi dooryie, walay Kasturiyee.

From romance to spirituality, he would sing with seamless ease and feeling. In doing so, he would drown in his experience of the song and leave indelible imprints on the souls of his audience. His ability to lift his listeners above earthly concerns was supreme as was so evocatively done in many of his songs song especially, afsoos duniya kansi na luob, Zamanai pokene hamdam, Ye Na Chhun Duniya and many others.

His greatest assets as a singer was that he was quite at home rendering the mysticism of Shams Faqir, the romantism of Rasool Mir, the revolutionary zeal of Mahjoor, the radicalism of Nadim, and the devotion of Wahab Khar. All this was done only with just style and intonations; not supported by music. Can anyone else even try this!

This is a huge achievement considering the fact that the musical accompaniments in Kashmiri music, principally the sarangi, and harmonium, weren’t evolved enough. Frankly, there was no musical variation across his songs. To put it bluntly, his singing was not about music; but about melody. It was pure melody of his voice laden as it was a palpable feeling for the lyrics.  

What took his songs from the ear to the heart was the mystical acuteness of feeling for the song in his singing. It is nothing short of being divine. The devotion that he brings into jaan wandyo haan be paan wandiya is reflective of the Islam that we in Kashmir have been practiced; no apologies, no compromises. The philosophical discourse in tan nare daz arrival kyoh kale kar tharaw was enhanced by his singing. Therein lay his greatness.

He didn’t merely sing songs, he vocalized the cultural philosophy of the Kashmir Valley. Not only his style his sensibilities too were deeply Kashmiri.

As a singer and artist, it seems that Sofi found his spirituality through his songs and will live forever as part of our rich musical heritage and folk andromantic lore- a heritage dating back and underpinning a local, syncretic musical-mystical tradition that cuts across the religious, gender, class and rural urban divides.

Incidentally, Sofi was not completely blind as most people tend to believe. In his younger days, he used to go for movies and many old timers remember seeing him bicycle regal cinema to Lal-chowk. 

The death of Sofi as a person, even though he claimed that he had received (materially) what was his share, is a poignant reminder of the failure of Kashmiri society as a whole in supporting him and fulfilling our obligations towards him in his years of decline. Perhaps, the final years of Sofi and his guarded pleas for help and how he died is a sign of the decay and decadence of a cultural heritage.

For such a great and accomplished singer, his ambitions were pretty modest. His only dream in life was to become a music composer in the station! But there were certain officers in the station who being jealous of his singing prowess and also his music composing capabilities didn’t allow that to happen. He worked in the Radio Kashmir for 29 years at very low levels.

It is a great tragedy of our society and a shame that for the last few years of his life, Sofi was living in oblivion. After his throat lost grip on tunes and his heath deteriorated, he was deserted by his fans and even family. The culture entrepreneurs, who have mushroomed in Kashmir after 1994, also left him in lurch. A close but impoverished relative in Rainawari pocket of downtown offered shelter to the legend during his hard and testing years.

He often complained and legitimately so, that nobody was coming forward to help him despite his pleas. He accused several composers of plagiarising his songs and tunes. I am sure he must have dawn solace from his own song, Dil khot aath thaze kole, zahan kaa mainsih kahan aav, nile-wat lalnow laali.

It is ironic that there is not a single decent collection of the legendary singer’s songs available. Most of what he has sung is with the Radio Kashmir, Srinagar but it has not been made accessible. Nor have the new technologies, like digital, been used to give the recording a better edge.

As an artist, he could be very temperamental. Even though he was visually impaired, he could gauge the mood of audience – whether they are attentive or not. And at times he would refuse to sing just because he would feel that the gathering was not quite up there.

One evening when he was performing at a private party, one of the guest asked him to sing a foot tapping folk song, Dimyo dilase gande valase, partho gilas kulnee tal he felt offended to be asked to sing a light song sung by someone else and got up and went away! 

What was it about Sofi that he enthralled three generations of Kashmiris and is getting registered with the fourth one as well? What made Ghulam Hasan Sofi such a great artist is that he didn’t just sing songs; he vocalized Kashmiri culture. In doing so – and herein lies his greatest contribution not only to the culture of J&K but to the cultural nationalism of -- he opened the doors to the average Kashmir like me to explore the fascinating world of Samad Mir, Wahab Khar, Waza Mahmud, Shamas Faqir, Mahmud Gami and Nyame sahib.

This significance of this cannot be underestimated in a situation where the language is a dying or an endangered one. Speaking for myself, there was no way that I could have got into the philosophy of Shams Faqir or Samad Mir had it not been for Ghulam Hasan Sofi. Rasa Javedani would have not been in the realm of my consciousness, nor would have the terms zeer bum or rattan deep been a part of my lexicon. Not only his was his style Kashmiri but his sensibilities were truly Kashmiri. In that sense he was a ethno-musicologist.  

While it is well accepted that Sofi contributed to the music of the Valley, what has not been appreciated is his role in the cultural revival of Kashmir . If there were to be one living symbol of my ethno-cultural sensibility as a Kashmiri, the most tractable one, it would be have to be him.

One of his personal favourites that gives you an insight into what his own innermost beliefs and philosophy was, kam kam sikender ayi matyo kati chhu haetim tai dourah karith tim drayi matyo jaai katyu chhai. His eyes would get moistened while singing it, showing how he had imbibed the transitory nature of this life and its glory.  

All that we, those who were blessed to listen to him and privileged to meet him (my regret is that despite meeting him so many times, I didn’t photograph myself with him), can pray for is that Allah grant him what he sang so soulfully, chui saawale nabi, tatte moklavaizaem, Yeti aase allam geer tai lo. May Allah grant him the same peace and solace that he gave to millions of Kashmiris by his soulful singing.

(Originally published in Greater Kashmir, reproduced here with permission of
the author)

Afsoos Duniya kansiya' na lob samsaar sity'e
Cho'n pakinuyee parzanomae dooriye
Tanai roodum n hyes tai hosh
Chana'e bar tal ravam racha'e aawaaz vach'e no
Che logath soram chachm'n , may koratham dil
Katiya myan'e maashok mat dit zor
Chukh so'n jigar gosh, jaan-e-n mas'e rosh
Jaan vandiyon haab-paan vandiyon
Nyaree latee'e, bar ch vathiyey'e
Soz Ashkun Boz
Aem yaar Kornas
Bal Pyaras Ashmuqam
Aftab deeshith
More chyon chhu sombul, howut yaar kaman
Yaar yikhna chhum kraar poshan
Paan aeshko, chhui katyu thhikana
Ner katiye chhum karaan
Walo maar mati yaar karo
Tche kemyoo karnai taeweez pan
Kyoho kali karoo thhahraaw
Zamanai pokene hamdam
Chaneros pyala goum
Chhum ashque naaran
Nundbani maashooq
Rozoo rozoo bozoo
Sitamgare chhanave isharave
Yee gome panas
Mo chhaye rozuh mahinave
Brahm Dith Saqi
Walo Jadgaroo
Nawas Vandsay Sar
Ye Na Chhun Duniya
Betabai Korthas Walo
Wale Kaaley Raway
Grees Kouri
walai aaz vasiye (with Raj Begum)


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