We met Kashmiri musician, and Praagaash band manager, Adnan Mattoo to find out more about the issue, how it coalesced and how the musicians of Kashmir are responding to it.
Kashmir is not an easy place to live in. There are enough problems with living in a state that is being constantly vied for by two countries, and faces indiscriminate violence from both sides of the border, along with insurgencies inside it. Even with this, the state has seen a slow-rising “alternative” music scene. The word is in quotation marks because the definition of what is alternative in Kashmir, and what is say “alternative” in Mumbai is yet to be clearly determined. In a state that is occupied by a generally repressed society, even fusing rock with Sufi poetry, a fusion that has been happening for years in neighbouring Pakistan, is frowned upon, if Adnan Muhammed Mattoo is to be believed.
Who is Mattoo? Mattoo is a musician from Kashmir and a founding member of (apparently) Kashmir’s first rock band Blood Rockz. We caught up with Mattoo to find out about the music scene in the state and, keeping in mind the Praagaash debate, how it has developed. Mattoo says his own group was formed in 2005 and has been playing in and around Kashmir since then. “Out of all the shows we’ve done, about 90 percent have been outside the state and the rest have been in Kashmir,” he tells me. “I really wanted to be a musician, so I got instruments and started learning on my own. It was a bit difficult considering there weren’t many teachers and the internet was a lot slower than now. The rest of the band was pretty much in the same boat. We got together and started playing and that’s how it all began.” Mattoo has taken on the role of music mentor in the state, and set up a music school in Srinagar to encourage young people to learn instruments. “We didn’t want other bands to face the same problems that we’ve faced,” he explains. “So in 2011, we set up Band Inn. Band Inn is a music school that we established to make life easier for other people who might be interested in learning music. We teach students. We also try to do a few shows here and there. There is another group in Kashmir called Valley Youth Expression who also help us out. We do shows here and there and we organise a battle of the bands competition in Kashmir called Band War.”
Band Inn was where the members of Praagaash met and formed the band. The band was Mattoo’s idea too. “After forming my band, I really wanted to form an all-girl band. The thing is that girls have this tendency to devalue their talents, and I thought that if there is an all-girl band on stage, it’ll be helpful in changing that. So finally, when we established Band Inn, I really wanted to get that in place. In about July-August 2012, I got these three girls to form Praagaash.” Praagaash consisted of three members – Aneka Khalid, bassist, an avid metalhead and fan of bands such as Cradle of Filth; Noma Nazir, guitarist and vocalist, who is more into mainstream film music and Hindi music; and Farah Deeba, an enthusiast of Sufi music. The three girls met at Band Inn where they had registered as students. Nazir and Khalid knew each other from school and became friends after joining the music school, while Deeba was just a music enthusiast who got along with them after meeting.
“The three girls were really good friends. I mean, they’d just sit around and talk a lot. They would talk without stopping and keep eating all the time. It was great. The whole atmosphere around them was vibrant and filled with laughter. The other thing was they would never tire of was music. They’d constantly listen to it or sing or play. They were never bored of anything,” says Mattoo. The aforementioned reasons are why the girls were chosen to form the band. “They were all really dedicated. They would practice for so many hours and make such an effort. It was great.” Mattoo decided to have the band perform live at the Band War and even though the band were well-received by people, it got them a lot of flak from strangers on social media. “They were getting very awful messages on Facebook by a lot of people after that performance, but then that isn’t such a big deal. I’ve been playing for eight years and I’ve received a lot of flak by people too, but it wasn’t that serious at all.” The situation blew out of proportion when a local Kashmiri magazine called The Kashmir Walla filed a report about the harassment the girls were receiving. “They made an issue out of nothing, and suddenly, that turned the whole situation around for everyone. Once the news was out, everyone wanted to cover it, and it’s a great story for everyone, so the whole world jumped on to the bandwagon. Suddenly, the fact that the girls were in no real danger, just vaguely threatened by idiots on the internet, didn’t matter to anyone and everything about them was under scrutiny now,” Mattoo told me. He’s visibly agitated now.
“There had been music in Kashmir for years and no one issued fatwas or tried to shut it down or anything of that sort. We’ve had 250 years of music and that’s been OK. We’ve had radio for years – if music is haraam, so is radio, but no one issues a fatwa against the radio. I don’t think it’s even about western music because we were playing western music eight years before this incident happened and there were no fatwas, so why is this a problem? I think that they found the weakest people they could attack and suddenly everyone wanted to use the opportunity and profit from it, because what will three schoolgirls say to these things, right?” This is Mattoo’s stand on the whole issue and this is also why every band in Kashmir has decided to stop releasing or playing music, according to him. “We won’t make it because they have a problem. We respect them and their wishes. We might play our music outside or for ourselves but we won’t do it otherwise. There has been no government support given to any band in the country, but when they were in trouble, suddenly everyone was extending support. The girls haven’t released any music and talented as they may be, people are offering them record deals and the opportunity to travel to places without caring about how prepared they are. They’ve only been together for eight months. They haven’t even started writing their own songs yet! Everyone wants to cash in on the issue and that is what I don’t like about it.”
No one knows if Praagaash would have gone on to become one of the country’s most treasured rock bands because they never had the chance to play any music. Chances are, like most bands in the country, they would have played a few shows and gone on to live their own lives. But with the ugly turn of events that this “controversy” took, the whole state may lose more than a few generations of modern musicians.
Get involved in the Praagaash debate. Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
Photos of Mattoo by Vivek Manek.
Illustration by Atharwa Deshingkar.