Space is constructed through the mediations of human agency manifest through the exercise of power. You see buildings, human habitations, and concrete cemented on roads and plastered between bricks meant for walls that guide the gaze and direct it at each corner. In such an interpretation of space, movement is not simply ordered and organized, it is commanded and imposed. In Kashmir, walls were once made of hay and mud, now they are weaved from barbed wire that over the last three decades has become more prevalent than patches of nettle. Human intervention over the spatial has taken precedence over what once was naturally occurring or had been emerging without such a peculiar intervention. Here, one can look beyond the idea of nature, cityscape and landscape and perhaps posit the idea of the Indigenous as a naturally-occurring subject, independent of the larger and overpowering governing forces that are external and alien to such notions of Indigeneity.
In such a view of Kashmir, if space is constructed through the mediations of human agency that is manifest through the exercise of power, the same can quite easily be said of time—particularly for Kashmiri subjects dislodged from a history of their own making. Under such circumstances, displacement from a history of one’s own making means—without variation or possible embellishments that could lead to alternatives—the unmaking of one’s history in the personal grammar of the self and in the collective vocabulary of a people. History, in that sense, is merely a word tied to space, bound to time and configured by event—and in being Kashmiri, all three involve an imposition rooted so deep that a massive cultural amnesia works in subtle and not so subtle ways to push one’s notion of culture, Kashmiri culture, into the precipice of mimicry and acculturation—resulting in yet another unaccountable loss.
Acculturation is “assimilation to a different culture, typically the dominant one” and it rarely occurs in isolation, instead taking concrete shape when one people and their culture is confronted with the cultures of multiple others—more at ease with their history and its determination. In such a mode, the determination of the one is the undoing of the other given that acculturation comes with four strategies of imposition: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization.
As an indirect result or consequence, space and time are revealed as imposed constructs when power and its negotiation are set by the vertices of integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization, within the matrix of acculturation. The complex manner in which such vertices shape and shift the matrix of acculturation is so vast that to some it may deceivingly come across as a form of “transculturation”—defined as “a process of cultural transformation marked by the influx of new culture elements and the loss or alteration of existing ones.” However, the difference between “acculturation” and “transculturation” is marked by the fact that within the latter, a process of negotiation and exchange becomes central—a giving and receiving of sorts structured by relative influence and reciprocity, and not by invisibilization as is the case. You exist as we wish you to exist.
We are, as an imposed history would have it, living outside of time, and operating within a delimited space that has been structured for us in numerable ways through multiple coordinates of power and its authoritative exercise. How then can a Kashmiri subject be rescued from such a prison that renders one as an ahistorical entity since history has been written by someone else calling the shots and setting the movable type on the printing press that will pronounce any and all possible futures to be written?
Within the gravity of what it means to be Kashmiri at each and every point in time’s artifice, and within the space that is fabricated to serve a particular and set design, a congregation of young Kashmiri musicians singing to the night sky might have far more answers to inconvenience any and all imposed histories. They assemble “by accident” and “by chance” because the miracle of creation is instantiated by the mystery of unforeseen encounters and the illumination brought forth by happenstance. After all, creativity cannot be forced, it flourishes within a certain collective mood that cannot be manufactured, and is at its peak naturally occurring, much like the Indigeneity encroached upon by the four strategies of acculturation.
In the contemporary Kashmiri music scene, some of the greatest questions posed by both musicians and some of the few active music critics like Kashmir Music Live are: what constitutes contemporary Kashmiri music and how do we identify it? What styles, progressions, musical arrangements, themes, vocabularies, motifs, languages, and vocal deliveries determine authenticity within the contemporary Kashmiri music scene, and how do these separate our current music culture from what is projected from India’s Bollywood and Pakistan’s Coke Studio? Of course, both of these are not addressed within the same vein or on an equal plane of comparison—yet, the search for authentic contemporary Kashmiri music that is least affected or influenced by the forces of acculturation coming from neighboring giants remains at the center of a critical lens that is in a process of formation—much like the musical explorations and innovations that bring about the notion of a discrete (or distinct) contemporary Kashmiri music genre and field.
Among the few who dare to write about the contemporary Kashmiri music scene from a direct and continued engagement with its musicians and their diverse works, Kashmir Music Live—for instance—has described Ramooz’s Aalav as “a promise – a promise that Kashmir has a sound that belongs to Kashmir. It’s pointless to call it a fusion of any sort, because it isn’t. Rather, it is just the sound of contemporary Kashmiri music, as effective as it is original.” Coincidentally, two of the founding members of Ramooz—Ayan Joe and Srinath S. Kumar—have roots in Kerala and are not shy to bringing in a South Indian folkloric and Carnatic influence. Nonetheless, at the core of composition is Kashmiri musician, multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, studio owner and folktronica artist Zeeshaan Nabi—who guides and directs the sound that has set the band as the first and strongest Kashmiri progressive rock band. The trio’s musical experimentation to arrive at a signature Ramooz sound is evident in the release of their first single and is spread evenly through their entire musical oeuvre that can be seen in their live performances and the list of tracks that compose their upcoming album.
Diametrically opposite to bands like Ramooz are several young Kashmiri musicians whose work fits into the popular segment of Top 40 radio, and lyrically, stylistically and in compositional terms is aligned with a brand of Kashmiri musicmaking that overtly reveals heavy Bollywood influences at worst and heavy Coke Studio Pakistan influences at best. The popularity and allure of both Bollywood and Coke Studio Pakistan cannot be ignored, and much less treated as a happy coincidence if one considers the strong political and cultural influence of these two countries on Kashmir’s present, particularly when the strategies of acculturation (integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization) are concerned, again not on an equal plane of comparison between the two.
Certainly, many young and aspiring Kashmiri musicians would rather emulate the sound of Vital Signs than find themselves engrossed in the nasality of Himesh Reshammiya’s musical brilliance. In that sense, the irony of a band like Ramooz—with two of its three members originally from Kerala—is that as a musical ensemble, Ramooz ends up producing songs that are considered more authentic and loyal to the contemporary Kashmiri music genre than much of the music produced by young Kashmiris under the influence of the Indo-Pakistani mainstream music scenes. At this juncture, one cannot expand enough on the declarations of Kashmir’s Hip Hop artists, particularly those from the Koshur Nizam lineage of Himalayan Hip Hop Highlanders, who have categorically stated that they struggle in finding mass acceptance and wider press attention while staying loyal to their indigenous Kashmiri sounds—when it could have been much easier to produce something heavily influenced by Bollywood and by the supreme shikas that is Yo Yo Honey Singh, considered as such especially in front of the finesse and sophistication of an artist like Prabh Deep who performs exclusively in the Punjabi language. Besides, artistic collaborations between Kashmiri and Punjabi hip hop artists are not uncommon in that arena where authenticity is maintained at the risk of not being so popular and mainstream—preferring instead to maintain the legitimacy and respect that comes with being an underground artist. Two great examples of musical collaboration that maintain that type of integrity and realness are Ahmer’s Elaan with Prabh Deep (a song considered the 2019 Hip Hop anthem of resistance) and SXR’s VOID with Talwiinder (leaning towards the gentler side of SXR who lyrically leans into his feelings while Talwiinder and Prxphecy’s mark on the track remains clearly distinguishable). In both cases, virality, number of views, and subscribers have nothing to do with the quality of music and the commitment to a unique vision of artistry that such musicians bring forth.
Whether from the Kashmiri rock scene, or from the Kashmiri Hip Hop scene, the struggle to remain authentic and loyal to a distinct and refined notion of what constitutes contemporary Kashmiri music is a daily one for such artists. Some of its greatest players often risk being far less “viral” while accumulating less views and shares on social media because they are unwilling to compromise and make music that is patently influenced by India’s Bollywood, while also ensuring that they are equally distinguishable from Pakistan’s massive Coke Studio approach to contemporizing folk songs and composing music for classic ghazals. Meanwhile, those Kashmiri artists who easily fit into the Bollywood mold acquire greater visibility and greater popularity. As was posited early on in this piece, space, time, identity, and subjectivity are regulated, controlled, and measured in a place like Kashmir. The best place to look at the impact of such regulation is perhaps the blooming contemporary music scene, and particularly from the lens of acculturation and the four strategies that decide who will get millions of views, and who will have to remain content with thousands of views—especially in the arena of youth culture where views, shares and likes seem to have a great significance, particularly for artists seeking to rise and develop careers out of their musicmaking and through greater online visibility and reach.
If one places the process of acculturation at the center of this debate on authenticity when it comes to catering to external influence versus remaining loyal to defining an indigenous sound, the four strategies of acculturation (integration, assimilation, separation, marginalization) put into context reveal the current scenario of the contemporary Kashmiri music scene as far as views and streams are concerned. Those Kashmiri artists whose music reflects integration and assimilation into the broader notion of music with its heavy Bollywood influences, seem to thrive in terms of number of views, subscribers, and streams online. On the other hand, those Kashmiri artists who lean towards separation and risk producing music from the marginalization reserved for an indigenous notion of contemporary Kashmiri music, also risk acquiring less views, subscribers and streams while remaining loyal to their particular and uncompromising sound that maintains their authenticity as purely contemporary Kashmiri artists.
While one reflects on these notions of acculturation and transculturation, and the impact they have on the idea of contemporary Kashmiri musicmaking, it is important to highlight that there is a far greater complexity at the center of collaborative practices between Kashmiri artists and their Indian counterparts. As far as Bollywood is concerned, at its own margins there exists the notion of the “art film” or the independent film, with examples such as Ali Saffudin’s musical renditions in No Fathers in Kashmir, which breathe the freshness of that particular (and localized) authenticity into the film, allowing it a certain artistic legitimacy given its thematic backbone related to and set in Kashmir. Saffudin’s participation in the Indian film project as an indigenous contemporary Kashmiri musician reflects the greater leverage that Ali stylistically and creatively has over it, which in turns shows a process of creative negotiation at play between Saffudin and the film’s producers leaning more towards a musical transculturation, rather than the dreaded acculturation many in the Kashmiri music scene are cautious about. In the process of acculturation, the dominant culture completely takes over, whereas in transculturation, there is a negotiation and an exchange of equal terms or one that gives greater leverage to the less dominant culture. Just like Saffudin’s participation in the Original Soundtrack to No Fathers in Kashmir, the same can be said of a band like Ramooz, where the core compositional style and distinct musical signature of Srinagar-raised Zeeshaan Nabi is harmoniously supported by the additions brought by bassist Ayan Joe and drummer Srinath S. Kumar.
In bringing the greater discussion towards a concrete direction, at a times like this, a musical ensemble such as Gaekhir Republik does not occur simply by choice, but by necessity. The historical process in of itself requires for such musical acts to be formed particularly at a time marked by the aftermath of a complete dispossession. In a Kashmir that remains under the influence of powerful and far larger nations and their respective cultures, understanding how time, space, culture, language, trends, and notions of value operate on the creative faculties and decisions of Kashmiri artists is essential to gaining a broader insight into how the current contemporary Kashmiri music scene is organized and structured. Things do not occur randomly; they are made to happen by design and choice. A young Kashmiri artist does not wake up one morning and decide that they are going to have less views, less subscriptions online and less visibility in a digitized world where the online medium has become a primary channel of communication with fans and audiences. Such a decision requires remaining loyal to one’s notion of contemporary Kashmiri music and what makes it Kashmiri, far beyond Bollywoodized and Coke Studiofyed renditions. It is far easier to succumb to the temptations of mainstream fame and widespread popularity that comes with producing music that falls within the creative umbrella of Bollywood. Yet, in Kashmir we have artists who produce quality music and have vastly increased their production value to such an extent that their songs, albums and music videos can easily compete with the musical productions of artists elsewhere in societies that do not have to deal with, and storm through, what Kashmiris face on a daily basis. Engaging with the contemporary Kashmiri music scene to an extent will clearly show that some of our musicians produce music at the level of Grammy-winning artists, sometimes even surpassing them in creative depth and artistic acuity. However, even after many such efforts, and personal financial investment without any external support, the Kashmiri press does not seem to take note much less highlight or cover major musical releases left to float on their own without any critical engagement by the writing and publishing community. As a result, such Kashmiri artists are marginalized twice over; once, because they choose not to toe the popular and mainstream line, and two, because at the risk of maintaining their authenticity as Kashmiri musicians they are then ignored by the press and the writing community. Many of such artists end up finding greater appreciation and critical reception beyond Kashmir—yearning for the same in their indigenous culture and native home.
Coming back to Gaekhir Republik, the musical ensemble lends itself to a greater critique in the context of what is broadly discussed in this piece. For one, Gaekhir produces music that is primarily performed live. One is yet to see a studio recording from them. Secondly, they perform in settings that seem visually distant from the world where unsolicited human intervention has had a drastic impact on Kashmiri space, time, and subjectivity. Performing under the open sky, in Kashmiri woodlands or on a bare rooftop in a city, Gaekhir Republik separates itself from the negative space configured as such by the detrimental human intervention of power and its exercise. Absenting itself from such a space and the spatiality that is governed by greater forces is not a means of escape or distraction—it is a conscious political stance, one where the Kashmiri subject in taking such a distance from constructed space and constructed time forged by those who make the laws, break them, and then remake them at their whim.
In re-setting their performative space, Gaekhir Republik are able to reconfigure the time that they operate within, far from the imposed time of an occupied reality—they bring about a time of their own making which is the time of the musical progressions and lyrical poetry found in their songs. Each and every second belongs to them and to their listeners. Summed together, Gaekhir Republik retrieve an Indigeneity that has been lost to time made to be borrowed by its rightful proprietors and rescued from a space set to confine Kashmiri subjectivity in spatial, cultural, and political terms. Crafting a performative space of their own, Gaekhir Republik take the power back to set their own time while breaking away from all spatial impositions.
It is no wonder that Gaekhir Republik, then, remind us of an/other time, with lyricism that belongs to a timelessness that is the other face of an eternity. As much as people are tired of hearing about Kashmir as “the land of Sufis and mystics” in the same breath as Kashmir as “paradise on earth”, the mystic quality of Gaekhir Republik’s musical oeuvre is undeniable, heightened to greater levels by the fact that the collective maintains a pact with a Kashmiri past that is not determined by, nor bound to, the human mess that has set Kashmir towards a particular trajectory. The mountains, the open night sky, the flame of fire in the darkness of an indecipherable Kashmiri landscape, the forests and woodlands, and the grass and wind bear witness to Gaekhir’s pact with a Kashmiri past at the brink of disappearance. Gaekhir assembles with each musical performance to retrieve that past and make it felt present with each note and verse.
As far as Gaekhir’s sound is concerned, their musical compositions are unpredictable, in the sense that one cannot tell where a chord progression, a strumming pattern, a repetitive set of notes, and a combination of riffs will lead as they harmoniously weave their instrumentals with the polyphonic vocal delivery. What is aptly clear is the percussive nature of the strumming patterns found in the band’s guitar playing. It is said that the most primitive and ancient instrument is the drum, tribal in its essence and conducive to trancelike engagement from both performers and listeners. Gaekhir’s repetitive strumming patterns on the guitars and the Rabaab acquire a percussive touch, with strings performing percussive functions such as setting the beat in absence of actual drums or the need for them. The trancelike engagement that is produced traverses centuries, hence the mystic quality of such music from a purely instrumental angle. Sooner or later, one is bound to get lost in the notes and the interplay and sonic dialogue created between multiple string instruments—one note resonating and reverberating within another to create a bubble of sorts from where the vocals emerge and take center stage.
The detachment from time made to be borrowed is immediate, and space that was encroached is set free to the tune of the band. Gaekhir Republik is one of the few bands that through their music detaches the inner being conditioned within each one of us, delinking us from that inner space that has been cemented deep within us, and setting us free from that notion of time that has been engraved in us. In turn, the collective’s music is able to recover another being, kept imprisoned for ages, held captive by the notions of a perverse modernity imposed on Kashmir and its spatial articulations and temporal impositions. There are more than enough Kashmiris who feel deep within themselves that their being is not the product of a few decades, but that ours is a lineage that goes back millennia, far beyond the myopic limits of nation states and their warring ways. The music that Gaekhir brings forth points towards that direction where the Kashmiri being breaks away from regimented notions of time, space, and history—into feeling an eternity from within and with it a liberating timelessness. From thereon, there is healing to be found and refuge to be secured, both of which can have regenerative powers for the fatigued inner lives we lead and the tired souls we drag along latched to our shadows moving across concrete roads, next to barbed-wired fences and between red brick walls.
Even at Gaekhir Republik’s early stage of elaboration and self-discovery, a dedicated engagement with their musical practice will ultimately lead to raising questions about the shaping of contemporary Kashmiri music in the face of an interconnected and digitized world. Many of the discussions on how to conceive the notion of a discrete field of contemporary Kashmiri music with specific stylistic and creative elaborations that set it apart from Indian and Pakistani counterparts is a process in progress. However, bands such as Gaekhir Republik and their contemporaries are creating their own space and in turn articulating a specific notion of contemporary Kashmiri music that is independent of all sorts of influences and far away from borrowed sounds and styles. At the same time, the contemporary Kashmiri music scene reflects an inherently diverse constitution, wherein artists are seen expressing themselves in multiple languages beyond their native Kashmiri—perhaps as a reminder of the central importance of Kashmir as point of convergence between South Asia and Central Asia.