Kashmir rocks: Alif and the chorus from the valley
Four-person band Alif sings songs about lost dreams, strong women and more, in three languages. There’s headbanging too
The 18th Century Gobindgarh fort in Amritsar is an unlikely venue for a headbanging concert. Much less at the Sacred Amritsar music and poetry festival, where the evening acts typically cover Kabir couplets and renditions of devotional poetry and folk and classical songs.
So, when Kashmiri singer-songwriter and composer Mohammad Muneem took the stage dressed in a black suit and trousers, his feet bare, audiences had no idea what to expect. “How many of you have heard us before?” he asked the crowd. Only two hands went up.
It didn’t bother him. Muneem goes by the stage name Alif and is the founder and vocalist of Alif, a four-person band that also includes pianist Aditya Bhandarkar, drummer Kabeer and Singh and guitarist Shivam Pant. They perform rap, rock and Kashmiri folk music in Urdu, Koshur and Hindi. For the next 90 minutes, they got right down to it, playing songs about women’s hardships, the rat race, grief, college memories, hope and love. Muneem occasionally translated a few lyrics from the Urdu and Koshur songs in his deep baritone. The audience started out clapping along, and ended up, yes, headbanging.
Alif, which was formed in 2008, is used to surprising people. Their social media pages are full of comments from listeners who confess to having wept, got goose bumps and felt like they were transported to another world while listening to their music.
Muneem, 40, an engineer and MBA, performed on stage for the first time in 1997. He says his songs are the sum of his experiences, mistakes, and the people he’s met. The first sparks of an interest in writing came when he was sent away to boarding school in Dehradun at age nine. “I felt abandoned there,” he recalls. So he’d write many letters home. Back in Srinagar, after two and a half years, he was bullied for being a ‘Dehradun-return’. “But when I was on stage, I felt that I belonged. It saved me. If I wasn’t performing, things would have been very, very difficult for me.”
In later years, when his parents found his diary, he took to poetry as a tool to express an idea and conceal it at the same time. “I felt the need to be cryptic,” he says. “To release everything that I have bottled up inside me, give it an outlet, but not straight up.”
It fuels lyrics fans have come to love. Reciting lines from his unreleased song Charagar (Healer), Muneem sings “Abhi hasaas he dil, bharosa kaise kare, banega sang ye jabhi tabke tab pyaar karo (My heart is sensitive now, you can’t love me. When it gets stronger like a stone, love me then). “Sometimes, I hide behind my work,” he admits. “But I feel good that it’s out my system, somehow.”
The band’s 2016 song, Jhelumas, in Koshur, part of the album Sufayed, celebrates the resilience of Kashmiri women in the aftermath of the 2014 floods. Even those unfamiliar with the language can feel their pain-- through Muneem’s voice. In Lalnawath (cradle), he sings about lives lost, dreams left unrealised, and blood spilt as humans wage war against each other.
Yet, Alif’s sound is more Indian and specifically from Kashmir. “One’s struggles of being or not being a Kashmiri don’t matter,” Muneem says. “Everyone goes through struggles, vulnerabilities and abandonment.” Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organises Sacred Amritsar, offers a different view. “We usually see Kashmir as a place of conflict and violence, not as a place of love and music as it used to be,” he says. “Alif is reviving that.”
Alif is working on a new album Siyah, with 19 songs over four playlists. One of the songs, Zindabad vs Murdabad, talks about how cruel the internet can be. “It seems to give people the power to say nasty things. I doubt if those things would be said to me or anyone in person,” says Muneem. He now teaches Urdu poetry and songwriting at the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce and finds that the content his young students create often leaves him disturbed. “Sometimes, it’s so insanely traumatic that it worries me. The internet has a lot of good, but if its evil is not controlled, it can break a person’s confidence.”
Fitna Fitoor, an upcoming song, asks how far one might go for worldly pleasure, how much one might fight for it, how much one might compromise. “The tricky bit is that you know the answers, but you are afraid of asking the right questions, even to yourself,” Muneem says.
Some pleasures, however, come easy. Like starting a gig with just two fans in the audience, and ending it with a standing ovation.
From HT Brunch, April 1, 2023
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