first_imgWhen Kashmiri teenager Shabnam Bashir first took up classical Sufi music three years ago, she had to practise singing in secret because all the men in her family opposed her new passion.Now the 14-year-old is a proud member of what her teacher Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh says is the first mixed Sufi singing ensemble in Jammu and Kashmir, where the music has for generations been a male preserve.“It took me two months to convince them all,” said Ms. Bashir as she joins four other girls — and one 13-year-old boy — for singing practice. “My father finally gave me permission on condition that it did not affect my regular studies.” Thousands of people in the Muslim-majority region follow Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam whose adherents seek spiritual communion through music and dance at the shrines of their saints.The songs, which use the lyrics of old Kashmiri- and Persian-language devotional poetry, date back to the 15th century. But they have evolved as a uniquely male tradition, sung by men and handed down through the male line of the family.Exception to the ruleMr. Sheikh is an exception — he learned the art from his maternal grandfather, Ghulam Mohammad Qaleenbaf, one of the region’s best known Sufi singers.“The earlier masters wouldn’t even pass it on to sons of their daughters, only sons or sons of sons,” he said. Mr. Sheikh began teaching young Kashmiris in a bid to preserve the Sufi musical tradition of the picturesque Himalayan region.He said young Kashmiris were turning away from classical music and towards protest rap songs inspired by the tense politics of the heavily militarised region, where dozens of protesters were killed last year in clashes with government forces.Facing oppositionWhen he first started teaching girls, Mr. Sheikh faced opposition from both neighbours and soldiers, and had to move the classes to a new location four times.“It looked like everything was going up in flames. I wanted to do something to save Sufiyana,” he said.Now he has trained nearly 50 Kashmiri women — although only a small minority continue to perform after marriage.Among his current students are teenagers Rehana Yousuf and her sister, who sit in a circle with their fellow musicians, heads covered in bright colourful scarves.Ms. Yousuf plays the Santoor, a 100-stringed instrument that accompanies Sufi singing, and says she was inspired to learn when she first saw Mr. Sheikh perform on television. “When I heard he teaches girls too, I developed a strong urge to learn,” she said.On the Pakistan side of the border, Sufi music is thriving thanks to a hybrid form known as Sufi Rock, in which the original lyrics are sung to electric guitar tracks and traditional tabla beats.The form has seen a recent revival with the advent of Coke Studio, a television show which features live music performances. Female performers are among its biggest stars.last_img

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