It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to enter the complex and rich territory of producing traditional Kashmiri music, while incorporating contemporary elements of Western music. But Pragnya Wakhlu, who has just released her second album Kahwa Speaks, is all about crossing barriers.
An information technology professional who left her job in the US to return to her roots, Wakhlu said the album is about “many firsts”. In it there are Kashmiri songs, specifically the traditional songs of Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, that have never been sung in English before. Wakhlu does both, harmonising the traditional and contemporary musical sensibilities, with élan. She said she was apprehensive about how the Valley’s traditionalists would react, but she need not have been.
Wakhlu’s musical journey began in Pune, where she grew up learning Hindustani classical music. At the age of 16, another influence entered her life, as she started playing the guitar. Enthused to learn Western music, she took vocal training lessons from coaches such as Joanna Mary Skillet, Sarah Jerrom and Lucia, and attended the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai and the Caux Artists programme in Switzerland. She also took a songwriting course with the Berklee School of Music and an Ableton course in music production from the Global Music Institute.
Her first self-produced album, Journey to the Sun (2012), sold well on eMusic, an online music and audiobook store. Her second, Kahwa Speaks, has been released by Songdew, an online music sharing platform for indie musicians. Wakhlu got the deal because she was among five young promising musicians selected by the company through a contest.
Producing Kahwa Speaks took two years. Wakhlu began by researching the lyrics she would compose and sing for the album – songs that both Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris would be able relate to, across generations.
“The album came through this dual approach of enhancing my own understanding about where I come from, and also to introduce the world to the positive side of Kashmir,” Wakhlu said. “Kashmir is being misunderstood due to the media attention on violence. But there is so much more about Kashmiri culture, traditions and music that remain concealed from the public eye because of the predominance of that narrative. A lot of young people in India have never been to Kashmir. Their understanding of Kashmir remains limited.”
The first song of the album, Henzay – which means return to peace – sets out to achieve this end of exposing a new side to her audience. Performed in the Kashmiri style called wanwun, which is sung at weddings as a form of blessing, Wakhlu renders the serene strains in the Vedic chanting style of the Kashmiri Pundits and the Arabic verses sung in Muslim weddings. The lyrics are in fact, blessings for Kashmir.
The lilting sounds of Katyuchuk – My Love begin with the hundred strings of the santoor. Based on a poem written by Habba Khatoon, the much -loved mystic poet of the Valley, the track celebrates the love between Khatoon and the 16th century king of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak. The switch between Kashmiri and English and the two genres of music are seamless.
Wakhlu’s music reflects a blend of folk-fusion, blues and pop, incorporating influences from the East and West. In Hokus Bugus, one can also get a little flavour of rap music. Strings of the sarod and the guitar enliven Lalla’s Lore, while the lyrics in English and Kashmiri offer a lovely aural experience.
Lal Ded’s poetry has been translated by scholars across the globe and Wakhlu chooses Jawahar Bhat’s translation of the vaakhs or verses of the 14th century poet. She said this was because Bhat also authored the book Lal Ded Revisted, which gave her a deep understanding of the mystic vaakhs. She re-wrote the essence of the vaakhs in English to make them song-friendly. The title track Kahwa Speaks relates to a Kashmir’s famous tea, kahwa, as a metaphor for life.
Now based in Delhi, Wakhlu is a composer, singer and lyricist but also an activist. “The last track in the album, Burning Fire, is about a cause I feel really strongly about – the injustice faced by the Tibetan community,” she said. “This song aims to bring awareness to the ignored and critical issue of self-immolations. The territory of Jammu and Kashmir includes Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Ladakh has a huge community of Tibetans and I feel their forced exile is very similar to what Kashmiri Pandits went through. We’ve also released a music video for Burning Fire, which was shot in Dharamshala among real refugees in real locations narrating real stories.”
Wakhlu is going to perform tracks from her new album in Pahalgam soon. Does it worry her that the all-female Kashmiri music band Pragaash was issued a fatwa for singing and playing music? “A lot has changed since,” she insisted. When she was younger, her grandparents were kidnapped and released by militants – they still chose to live in Srinagar. Wakhlu will return to her roots, no matter what.