Notwithstanding his fashionable bomber jacket, baseball cap, ear studs and tattoos, Rishab Chaku – who goes by the stage name Rishab Raino or just Raino – displayed none of the flamboyant cockiness associated with rap artists. He was taciturn when we met at a plush café in Raj Bagh, Srinagar. “I don’t enjoy parental support,” he said, sipping a cappuccino. “My relatives make snide remarks about me. But I am determined to pursue music as a profession.”
A resident of Ganpatyar in Srinagar, Raino started out in music as a preteen backup vocalist in Ludhiana, Punjab. As he grew, he began composing and singing rap. In college, he joined a band as lead vocalist and today, at age 25, he is a rapper, songwriter and producer who has composed and sung over 30 songs over 14 years.
Raino belongs to a growing generation of young artists from the Valley who want to avoid the trappings of mainstream music. They don’t aspire for record deals or glossy, overproduced videos. They are happy being independent, underground artists producing songs that are intensely personal, with lyrics that articulate the angst of living in a conflict zone.
Not all their music is themed on azadi or freedom. Raino’s song Vadi-e-Kashmir, for instance, is emblematic of the cynicism that infuses the worldview of most young Kashmiris born and raised amidst the quotidian violence of the 1990s and early 2000s. The opening lines are: “Vadi-e-Kashmir, yeh taro se hai lipti vadi, kya dharti ghoome gol, farq padhta nahin, siyasat dal bhi karti hai siyasat khule aam, woh kya jaane galiyon mein humein dikhta nahin!” This Valley of Kashmir enveloped in stars, the world keeps spinning and no-one cares, even political parties openly indulge in politics out here, what do they know about what’s unfolding on the streets, things that miss our eye.”
Music has always been part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage – the region’s rich musical legacy includes folk ballads, Sufiyanah and devotional songs. In the turbulent 1990s, the tradition suffered a sharp decline owing to increasing acceptance of hardline Islamism which condemned music.
Things improved after 2005 when a few young people took up music as a profession. As the first signs of cultural revival surfaced in the Valley, a fusion genre known as “Sufi Rock” – pioneered by iconic Pakistani band Junoon – caught on. While composing music was still seen as an act of rebellion, the infusion of Sufi elements and lyrics that chronicled stories of Kashmiri struggles lent music a new energy and identity that at once made it attractive to the youth.
In 2007, the Valley got its very own Sufi Rock band named Blood Rockz. Blood Rockz was followed by a profusion of bands such as Tales of Blood, Dying Breed, Valley Boyz, Pyaas and Northern Nights. Around the same time, rap music too became influential. Rapper Roushan Illahi aka MC Kash – often referred to as an “azadi artist” – gained immense popularity in the early 2010s with his protest songs, an intriguing blend of catchy hip-hop beats and explosive anti-India lyrics.
In the late 2000s, paramilitary forces began sponsoring music events in the Valley as part of their outreach effort. One such event was Battle of Bands. An annual competition, it was catapulted into spotlight when Pragaash – Kashmir’s first and only all-female rock band – won an award at the event. Pragaash was disbanded less than three months later because of widespread social media slander and a fatwa against it by a local cleric.
Bands started going underground sometime in 2012-’13, both due to lack of commercial opportunities and low social acceptability. “Limited prospects of earning mainstream recognition and family pressures compelled even highly talented musicians to seek the stability of a government job, relegating music to a mere pastime,” said 27-year-old Mohd Azhar Abbas, a former musician and music event organiser. “Besides, societal approval was – and still is – low. Unless you become someone well-known like Saim Bhat, you’re derogatorily called a bhand [entertainer] and not everyone can ignore those kinds of taunts and jeers.”
Some like 28-year-old Danish Ilahi Bhat chose to stay independent because they wanted to chart their own path. Bhat, the lead bass player of a band named Maktoob, said, “As a non-commercial artist, I am free to make the kind of music that I want to make without caring for the vagaries of popular demand.” Despite having liberal parents who don’t object to his music, Bhat – whose grandfather is a retired bureaucrat – wants to be a civil servant more than anything else.
Jibran Mushtaq has similar reasons for eschewing the mainstream. The 26-year-old rap artist, who goes by the stage-name Koshur-X, feels commercial rap is dominated by themes such as drugs, sex and women, which he says do not interest him. A line in a song he wrote following reports of wild animals being disturbed by the presence of a military camp echoes the smouldering rage and anguish in the music of his idol MC Kash. The line goes: “Gola baari chale pahadi mein, jaanwar samjhe insan aatankwadi hai, shor sharaba phaile chaaro oar, bandishe jabri qabza, koi nahin kare yahan gaur aisa kyon?” (Firing and gunshots in the mountains, animals must think humans are terrorists. There is chaos all around, restrictions and forced occupation, why is it that no one here notices all this?”)
For these musicians, as for anyone in the Valley, the last few years have been dispiriting. Ever since Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, according special status to Jammu and Kashmir, was revoked in August 2019, there has been simmering discontent in the region. Tourism has been hit. Jobs have been lost. Mainstream political processes have been derailed. Even a basic human right like high-speed internet was suspended for 550 days.
Musicians recall the excruciating delays in uploading music and downloading VST plugins on snail-slow 2G internet. Even today, after the restoration of high-speed internet, there is fear and foreboding that the smallest incident might trigger another interminable internet outage. “It is infuriatingly unjust that Kashmiris had to make do with 2G even as the rest of India awaited the roll-out of 5G,” said a teenage rapper on condition of anonymity.
Another problem is paucity of funds. Independent artists need live events to find their moment of fame. But with almost all music concerts and competitions being sponsored by the police or paramilitary forces, event managers stay away from them for fear of being seen as collaborationists. This leaves musicians with no reliable platforms.
Tying up with the forces has another drawback. “Music festivals funded by security forces provide good exposure,” said 26-year-old Amir Mir, a former musician and J&K Bank employee. “But we dislike the Indian media’s attempts to portray participants in such events as youth ‘deradicalized and reformed’ by the Army and Government. That kid holding a guitar, singing at that CRPF event is no terrorist-turned-musician. He’s long been practicing music, he belongs to a well-to-do family. Give us a break [from] fake news narratives.”
There is a need, independent artists believe, to make music events economically sustainable. “The involvement of locals at all levels of organising an event, from funds to logistics, will aid in generating income and employment,” said Mir. “This way, money will circulate among locals and have a multiplier effect.”
Azhar agreed. “We need to persuade Kashmiris to come forward and take the initiative in sponsoring music festivals and events,” he said. “While this may lead a lot of underground music talent to be commercially appropriated, financially and culturally, it will give our contemporary music industry a distinctly indigenous character.”
Even so, it won’t be easy to challenge the entrenched social conservatism. Luckily, attitudes are changing. Eleven-year-old rap artist Mohd. Naveed Rather aka Newton and his parents – a homemaker and a government schoolteacher – are a case in point.
Inspired by Eminem and Indian rapper Emiway Bantai, self-taught sixth grader Naveed made his stage debut at an event organised by Azhar in 2020. Naveed’s lyrics are about his world, his friends, coronavirus, online classes, school fees, and the beauty of nature.
“My son is a natural songster – he learnt to hum and sing before he learnt to speak,” said Naveed’s father Maqbool Rather, a genial man with a hearty laugh. “Both his mother and I encourage him. Times are changing and music can be a perfectly respectable profession, provided one is good at what one does.”
As our conversation meandered, dusk fell, enveloping Naveed’s under-construction house in darkness. In the inadequate light of mobile phone flashlights, Naveed transformed into Newton, putting up a remarkable performance with near-perfect rhythm and gesticulation as he rapped, “Online padhate hai, net slow chalta, teachers pakaate hai, kuch naa padhate hai, phir bhi fees maangte hai! Paisa nahin hai, income yahan kam hai, logon pe sitam hai kyunki ghar pe baithe hum hai!” (They teach us online but the internet is so slow, teachers eat our heads off, they don’t teach a thing and still demand fees! There’s no money, very little income here, what tyranny people have to suffer because we must sit at home!)
As the strains of azaan floated in through the partially constructed windows, I couldn’t help but muse on the symphonic beauty of the two sounds and the worlds they embodied. In that moment, it was clear that the two already co-exist in the Valley.