music

A Kashmiri singer is blending mystic poetry from the Valley with blues, pop and rap music

Pragnya Wakhlu’s blend of santoor with guitars and wedding folk songs is hypnotic.

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.

Winning selection

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.

Pragnya Wakhlu.
Pragnya Wakhlu.

Mystic influence

“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.

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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.

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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.

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The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.