A few days back, there was a music concert organised at Srinagar’s famous Badam Wari garden complex in Rainawari on the foothills of Hari Parbat. The music concert, which among other performers hosted Kashmir’s famous female singer Shazia Bashir, was suddenly attacked by a group of goons, who were apparently angered by what they perceived as open propagation of “shameful” and “un-Islamic” activities in a Muslim-majority Kashmir. The venue was totally vandalised, chairs thrown, the stage and expensive music apparatus damaged. Artists like Shazia Bashir barely managed to escape with their lives.
How did Kashmir reach such a stage of cultural orthodoxy without anyone even questioning the same is a million-dollar question.
One of the most damaging aspects of the last thirty-year-old turmoil in Kashmir has been its rapid slide towards religious radicalism and nowhere has it been more pronounced than in Kashmiri society’s physical transformation into an orthodox Muslim community with a conservative attitude towards culture.
If one were to look at old photos of Kashmir from 1950s to early 1980s, one would find an entirely different kind of Kashmiri Muslim society than what we see today. The Arabisation of Kashmir’s Muslim community that is today the dominant cultural identity marker was completely absent earlier. The Arabic middle-eastern veils, burqas, abayas were either not that prominent or completely absent in a large segment of Kashmiri Muslim population. The long orthodox beard worn by Muslim men was also very rare. In a way, while urban Kashmir was very liberal, progressive, modern and forward looking, with most Muslim women and men not sporting veils, scarves or long beards, rural Kashmir also adhered to more traditional non-Arabic Kashmiri costume.
Things were even more relaxed in the field of music, dance, literary arts, movie, theatre, paintings, etc. Take the example of Kashmir’s legendary modern abstract painter, Ghulam Rasool Santosh, whose abstract paintings on Hindu Shaivite concept of “tantra” made him and Kashmir famous all over the art world. His paintings continue to adorn Delhi’s modern art galleries.
But is it possible for a Kashmiri Muslim in today’s world to openly paint Hindu Shaivite motifs without facing either social stigma or even threat to his life from religious radical elements? In the 1970s Kashmiri Muslims could paint or write about Hindu themes, which is unthinkable today. The period from 1950s to early 1980s is also considered a golden era in the blossoming of modern Kashmiri language literary traditions that include not only poetry and literature but also critical literary writing, all of which came to an abrupt halt in 1990, when there was a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandit community from Srinagar.
The advent of turmoil also brought forced social orthodoxy and conservatism on Kashmiri Muslims, the first victims of which were Kashmir valley’s cinema halls. Kashmir used to be a thriving hub of movie production having its own Doordarshan station at a time when only a few major Indian cities had TV stations. The cinema halls of Srinagar boasted of showing not only latest Bollywood movies but also English movies from the UK and the USA. Srinagar was the favourite “second home” of Bombay’s movie elite and mainland India’s business and cultural elite.
The per capita income of Kashmir valley was one of the highest at a time when most of India was extremely poor. The tourism and hotel industry and infrastructure of Kashmir valley was at par with that of Bombay and Jaipur. The Kashmiri Muslim society at that time was welcoming of not only tourists from all over the world but also cultural events like theatres, stage performances, music concerts, movies from different parts of India and the world, which helped Kashmir to slowly develop its own film and theatre culture.
Kashmir already had a rich historic tradition of music, dance and poetry, which also got a big boost with opening up of Kashmir to rest of India and the world. Kashmiri Sufi kalam, Kashmir rouf dance, Kashmiri traditional vocal and instrumental music all got a big impetus during the four decades since 1947. But all of this came to a halt in 1990. Kashmiri Muslim society has since then gone into a regressive, backward, and inward-looking shell.
While Kashmir has been a Muslim majority society for a long time, it was never an orthodox and conservative Muslim society. Songs, music and dance have been integral to the culture of Kashmiri Muslim society. Whether it is festivals, marriage or religious ceremonies, music has been an inseparable part of Kashmiri cultural heritage. But since the rise of religious orthodoxy, these have come under increased scrutiny and criticism by religiously radical elements, who have declared music, songs, dance and pretty much every cultural activity as “un-Islamic”. At a time when Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Turkey have thriving movie and TV industries, Kashmir’s Muslim actors and actresses have to face an immense social stigma in pursuing their artistic interests. “Dance” in particular has been declared against Kashmiri culture and Islam, when the fact is that dance forms like “Kathak” developed in the Muslim courts of north India and “raqs” forms an important government-promoted art tradition in countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Indonesia.
What is worse is that even Kashmir’s religious musical traditions like Sufiyana kalam have been declared “un-Islamic” along with traditional Kashmiri Eid songs and Eid Rouf merry-making dance. There is obviously no question of allowing more modern artistic enterprises in present Kashmir like fashion designing, when Kashmir has been rocked by radical outrage against the all-girl music rock band “Pragash” and slut shaming of Kashmiri Muslim Bollywood actress Zaira Wasim for acting in Bollywood movies.
All this does not augur well for the image of Kashmir as a modern, progressive and liberal Muslim society. The fact is that Kashmiri Muslims are today known as religiously orthodox, conservative and radical Muslims just like those in Afghanistan and Somalia. It is an image that has become the defining portrayal of modern Kashmir and the tragedy is that nothing could be far from the truth. Kashmiri people and Kashmiri culture have always been forward looking and dynamic, which is why, despite a small number of Kashmiri language speakers, Kashmiri culture has been able to disproportionately assert its impact. We as a Kashmiri society need to further revive this dynamic spirit of Kashmiri culture and not allow it to become a victim of orthodoxy, which will lead to its oblivion.
The writer is State Secretary of People’s Democratic Front. He can be reached @Javedbeigh across social media platforms. Views are personal.