Keeping rabab alive a struggle for folk musicians in Kashmir
When a friend left for Kabul in the summer of 2016, Nazir Ganaie, a government official in Srinagar, lost no time in doing what he had been waiting for ages: order a rabab, a lute-like instrument having 16–17 strings.
He could have gotten it made locally, but the ones from Afghanistan are known to be the best.
“The sound is so sweet,” says Ganaie, playing his rabab, carved out exquisitely from mulberry wood, at a cafe in Srinagar. “If we, Kashmiris don’t preserve it, who will?”
The instrument, adapted by Kashmiri musicians over the centuries, has become an essential part of the region’s folk music, but it is gradually facing an existential crisis, like the Kashmiri Sarangi, Tumbaknari, Santoor, Nutt, which are played along with it.
Folk musicians and enthusiasts say the strife-torn Valley has not withstood the onslaught of modern Western influence, but people are doing their bit to keep the traditional songs and instruments alive.
Ganaie, an amateur himself, has started a Kashmir Rabab Academy in his hometown, Budgam and is offering preliminary rabab lessons to children.
“The academy is still at a nascent stage. A few teenagers have come forward and the Facebook page is getting traction,” he says. “The idea, ultimately, is to establish a platform for rabab players to come together and find a way to teach the next generation about this instrument.”
Senior rabab players of Kashmir blame the instrument’s decline on youngsters’ lack of passion for folk music and the negligible infrastructural support for folk music teaching.
The youth are taking to rock and rap, especially those with political undertones in the angst-ridden Valley.
On public support, artistes say there is little although officials counter it.
“We regularly organise folk music festivals and many artistes participate in it. In my tenure, I have organised four festivals,” Dr Aziz Hajini, secretary of Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
A US-based organisation, Funkar International, focused on preserving Kashmiri folk music, has promised to contribute two or three rababs for Ganaie’s academy.
However, enthusiasts wonder whether a young musician has long-term prospects if he trains himself to be a good rabab player.
Abdul Majid, a rabab player with over 40 years’ experience, says that youngsters wanting to pursue instrumental music must be encouraged and supported to take up traditional ones like rabab.
“And there must be avenues where they can perform and their talent would be appreciated,” says the artiste who plays for the All India Radio (AIR).
Ghulam Mohammad, who has played the rabab in other parts of the country and the world for 30 years, says, “Small instrumental music training centres have come up sporadically in some villages and towns, but a systematic support to teaching and promoting them is still missing. We need resources and funding for the revival of the rabab and development of folk music.”
Amongst rabab artists of yesteryears in Kashmir, Sonaullah Bhat, who played actively from 1930-60, is the most prominent. Today, his grandsons, Abdul Hamid Bhat and Yawar Bhat have kept the family tradition alive. The family runs a music institute in their native village Kreeri in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district.
Reiterating the lack of support for instrumentalists, noted Kashmiri singer Waheed Jeelani says that whenever he is invited to perform in Kashmiri communities abroad, he insists that the organisers must make arrangements for the travel of 3–4 of his accompanying instrumentalists.
“I tell them that if they want to listen to Kashmiri folk songs, it cannot happen without the folk instruments, like rabab or sarangi,” he said.
Hope has, however, not died for Irfan Nabi and Bilal Ahmed, who jointly run a music institute in Bemina locality of Srinagar and have six rabab learners as they look to grow.