Top Music Videos of 2020: Of Songs and Grief    

SONG and music has been an inalienable part of Kashmiri culture, and has invariably reflected the ethos of the times in which it has been produced. As the winds of modernity blow over Kashmir, the song has seen a paradigm shift as it is now produced in accompaniment to non-traditional instruments like the guitar, and moreover is invariably accompanied by a video with a detailed storyline. The audience of the song too has changed as the radio is now replaced by streaming sites like Spotify or video streaming sites like YouTube, which cater more to the taste of the younger generation. With the advent of social media, alongside the flourishing of poetry and literature, music too has seen a renaissance of sorts as youth increasingly explore different avenues of expression to vent collective trauma and anguish of Kashmir. With the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, this anguish has grown manifold as a new era of gloom and doom has inaugurated. Naturally, the art produced after the abrogation bears witness to this overwhelming complicated and collective grief, as old wounds are raked by the new ones. In this testimonial spirit, this article seeks to examine a few videos that emerged post August 2019, and analyse them for motifs, symbolism and their overall approach to this testimonial function.

The first video I have chosen is “Jhelum” by Mad in Kashmir released recently on November 18, 2020;  Written & Directed by Faheem Abdullah & Imbesat Ahmad with Faheem Abdullah as the Singer/ Songwriter and Rauhan Malik & Ashish Joseph as Music Producers.

The video features a young boy in an unresolved quest that causes him unmistakable anguish and grief. Starting with an aerial view of old Srinagar with the durood, or invocation of peace upon the Prophet (PBUH) playing in the background; the gaze soon shifts to a young boy fiddling with the radio which promptly announces that floods are in the offing due to incessant rain. The flood and rain are thinly veiled symbols of the flood of emotions tugging at the boy’s heart that is filled to the brim just like the Jhelum. The flooding of Jhelum is also an important milestone in the Kashmiri collective memory since it evokes memories of the great destructive flood of 2014, which were a precursor to the terrible years of disenfranchisement and disappointment that have followed ever since. The line ‘Jhelum roya/Kashmir kay liye Jhelum roya’ – Jhelum weeps (Wept)/Jhelum weeps (Wept) for Kashmir is therefore particularly apt, as the Jhelum’s waters testify to the private and public grief of Kashmir. Soon the boy begins a frantic run, but soon gives up panting and clearly in anguish and deep emotive agony. Calling out to a friend, he jolts him out of sleep, and sets out with him to visit a graveyard and later the roaring Jhelum. Diving into the Jhelum, he seeks the object of his yearning, goaded by the news announcer’s proclamation that Jhelum is now ferrying unidentified objects, only for his hope to be frustrated. Whether the boy is searching for a relic of a dead father, or the body itself is unclear, but that his quest is frustrated is clear. He comes home dripping and wet to a mother who gives him an understanding and sorrowful look, almost on the verge of tears and the video ends there.

The interesting thing to note in the video is the dialectic between the lyrics and the video. While the video clearly depicts a private grief, the lyrics specifically address the collective Kashmir, and mourn the pervasiveness of death, literal and metaphorical, in the valley – “Everyone has died, Everyone has died, but the ones who live cry for they die (everyday)” What significations can be drawn from this dialectic apart from the obvious derivation that the private self in the video is a microcosm of the larger public self? It appears to me that this dialectic raises a question on the question of testimony and the question of performing this testimony. One, it reiterates that the Kashmiri self is forever implicated in the collective trauma of Kashmir, and grief no matter how private draws from the tropes and articulations of the public grief that is the true inheritance of a subjugated people. Second, in its shift between the public and private mourning, it points out that the act of mourning, which is typically a private performance restricted to closeted spaces, has spilled into the open fluid space indicated by the motif of Jhelum and the cityscape for everyone to claim and reclaim.

The question between the public and private testimony is at the heart of the next video – “Hosh ha” also released in November 2020. The video Written & Composed by Alif, sung by Mohammad Muneem Nazir and directed by Mohammad Muneem, Ruman Hamdani and Xulkarnain Dev, presents a complex interplay of image and words to create a disconcerting interrogation of the act of testifying, and the nature of testimony. The title ‘Hosh ha’ itself resists translation and can either be interpreted as beware/observe/Look out/be mindful. This multiplicity aptly foreshadows the disjointedness of the video, which relies on incoherence to fully illustrate the fractures and contradictions that determine the Kashmiri subject’s perceptions of self. The video starts with a conversation between a group of four men gathered around a table, sipping tea in a bare shack with a few sacks lined against the walls. The bareness of the room indicates the exhausted mind and heart of the Kashmiri self which is left with the burden of overwhelming grief indicated by the sacks. The men converse about the need for witnesses, the challenge of finding the witness and cultivation of ‘a tear drop’. While the rest take turns to speak and listen, a boy seated at the table keeps noting details in his notebook. Since the conversation revolves around witnesses, and the boy acts as a witness of sorts, scribbling the proceedings presumably in his notebook, it can be assumed that the conversation is an oblique reference to kiraman-katibeen- the two angels supposed to keep an account of a human being’s deeds during mortal life. What, however, is the significance of re-enacting the role of these testifying angels? The video provides no easy answers.

One possible answer, apart from a mystic reading of the conversation, is that the enacting is meant to point out that testifying is the inevitable fate of every interaction in Kashmir, since all conversations, interactions are determined and shaped by collective trauma, since every Kashmiri is implicit and complicit in the collective trauma of subjugation. Trauma, which manifests itself through flashbacks, is an attempt to seek closure and meaning of an experience which eludes closure and complete perception. Rather, the repetitiveness of the flashback is meant to seek a right and complete answer to the actual factity of the traumatic event/phenomenon. The conversation too seeks witnesses to keep the right records of “When to descend the grave/How many breaths are borrowed/ how much and who is to be mourned?”. The need to find witnesses who will supply the right answers parallels the flashback which continually interrogates the experience to scale the ‘impossibility’ of truth and seek answers as to the correct ‘event’ and correct ‘experience’. That the conversation talks about existential despair and the challenges of tending to the crop of agony produced by the sowing of the ‘teardrop’ strengthens this reading. It appears to suggest that the Kashmiri self only makes difficult ‘meaning’ through perpetual mourning, and this mourning itself is the ultimate witness to the banality and facileness of life under subjugation. The remark particularly about there being no measure for shame reinforces this reading, since shame is an integral aspect of trauma, the emotion of emasculation and helplessness quite often a corollary of trauma. The excess that the conversation refers to – there being no measure of shame, therefore, is a reference to the excess of trauma, the shame that defies closure, the shame that defies an origin, but rather occurs as an inheritance passed from one generation to another tended with tears and the crop of agony. Interesting to note, that in response to the question of measure of shame, the protagonist replies – “What I discern here is that everyone is a breath thief.” This expression further validates the reading of trauma since it implies that existence has been reduced to a frantic, desperate race against death, stealing moments of life from the all-pervasive death of hope and death of the will to live, struggle and survive.

The video proper itself provides a reminder of these themes revolving around the images of death, burial and decay. The opening scene, for example, starts with the protagonist lugging a heavy sack to a ditch, presumably to bury it. In the background a voice sings “Got the sun draped in blood, say when to die?) Katri puur kar Chu wavun Kar Chu marun (When is the droplet to be sown say when to die?)”. The sun – the ultimate source of light could be taken as a metaphor for truth, clarity and meaning. To drape the sun in blood implies, to view meaning through the prism of bloodshed and death, which eclipses every meaning and emotion and only leaves a lingering shame of emasculation and grief behind. Similarly, images of confinement and imprisonment recur throughout the video. One striking image is that of a young boy, walking into the sunset with a bird cage in his hand. Sunset is traditionally an image associated with death, and combined with the image of confinement evokes the death of liberty, autonomy and life in general. In another scene, the camera pans to coffined bodies about to be buried, while a voice interrogates the meaning of death: “Some borrowed breaths; breaking into the grave- is that - to die?”. This interrogation reinforces the earlier lament about confinement and imprisonment, pointing out that in a place as devoid of hope as Kashmir, death is not just living on borrowed breath, rather it is to be acutely aware of this borrowing and the agony of being a mute witness to this subjugated and inferior existence, to be aware that this existence is a shared inheritance, and that this inheritance is never likely to be replaced by emancipation, and freedom. It is no coincidence then that the next question again harks to the question of death, and asks whether ingesting the agony of life is life. The whole video is built around this complex interplay of death and life, and music and image to interrogate the question of trauma due to subjugation.

‘Janaan’ is a corroboration of Irfan Bukhari and the popular folk singer – Noor Mohamad and features the Indian stylist Sapna Moti Bhavani. The storyline of the video directed by Danish Renzu is simple- Sapna is an Indian tourist facing a writer’s block as her life is uninspired and monotonous. One day while struggling to write, a voice comes floating from the window – that of Noor Mohamad who sings a song of pining, separation and love. The song proves to be the muse that Sapna needs, and she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and inspiration. The song by itself is beautiful and is in keeping with the themes of trauma, yearning and loss that are quintessential to Kashmir. However, the video, even as it is breathtaking in its craft, has a storyline that disappoints.

In its politics, the video is just one of the latest in instruments that draw from a historical tradition of erasing the Kashmiri subject from the landscape in its attempt to fetishize the landscape. The gaze of the camera is firmly on the Indian tourist as her gaze imparts meaning and structure to the surrounding. Noor Mohamad is first introduced as a voice, and then gradually the camera pans to him from the top showing him a distant figure on the stairs. After brief glimpses of him, the camera immediately shifts to Sapna who comes down searching for the singer, only to find him vanished from the sight. Ultimately in the next few scenes, Noor Mohamad is shown passing through an empty lane, or staring out straight at the camera, thus creating an exotic object of display from him. To make this transformation complete, Sapna is shown following him and so we can impute it is her gaze that the camera was following. This positing of Kashmiri as an object of display is a typical re-oriental move where the civilized Indian transforms the Kashmiri body into an object of gaze and exhibition as a fantastic object capable of providing pleasure to the viewer. This is a pattern that is repeated throughout the video where the Kashmiri voice is relegated to the background, while the tourist gaze takes center stage. Repeatedly, the landscape is projected as beautiful and serene erasing all signs and signposts of violence from it, as the old motif of Kashmir as an idyllic bower is repeated. The scenic mountains, the gushing brooks, the scenic panoramic views and shrines with pigeons (to complete the effect of old world charm) are all there to leave the viewer in no doubt as to whose gaze is necessary for constructing the landscape. When the background further plays entreaties on “arousing the desires of my heart, don’t go”, even the song becomes an extension of the Indian tourist, since she now feels a longing for the land. Interestingly, the original differs from the translation since a more accurate translation would be “arousing the desires of this heart, where are you going?” The original, therefore, accords some agency to the lover, and emphasizes her charms, and therefore throws a playful challenge – where can you go after arousing the passions, for surely you can’t be left unscathed by the fire of passion too. The translation on the other hand reduces this playful interaction to an entreaty, while all the power accrues to the beloved in this case the tourist for whom the Kashmiri sings and creates a hospitable welcome. In effect then it points out that the Indian tourist is indispensable to the valley, since it is only the tourist who can be the right audience of our songs, and make the beauty of the land visible. This has been a recurring feature of oriental depictions of Kashmir, and the video points out that the fantasy remains intact for the Indian viewership, and in turn it lends legitimacy to the desirability of Kashmir, turning it into a territory of competing desire.

The concluding video for this essay comes from the stable of Gaekhir Republik and is titled Khoftan Baangay (By the call to Night’s prayer). Performed live by Sarfaraz Javaid, Suhail Ahmad, Zeeshaan Nabi and Ubaid Parvaiz, the video, directed by Tahoor Qadri,  features a group of men who sing a foreboding song of loss, mourning and catastrophe in a wooded area. It puts one in the mind of Macbeth where the three witches prophesied about the impending doom and tragedy of Macbeth’s ambition that causes his demise. The song could very well be read then as a mournful dirge on the doom and gloom at the inevitable loss of identity and fears of being erased from one’s own land. Since the video is restricted to the singing of the three, the focus of our investigation must lie on the lyrics. Accordingly, the first stanza speaks of a soot shrouding the sky, darkness consuming the world, and foxes howling at bridal palanquins. All three images are omens of evil, and portend destruction and doom. ‘Foxes howling at bridal palanquins’ is a particularly distressing image. Bridal palanquin suggests joy and merriment as well as the start of a new life of marital bliss, but the howl of foxes, which are considered an omen of evil and destruction, portends that the event will occasion distress and death. This could be taken to imply that the union of Kashmir and India occasioned by abrogation, which removed all symbolic totems of the erstwhile state’s autonomy, is bound to be a destructive one, and will only result in tragedy. The second stanza speaks of lamps being put out and darkness engulfing the world of the speaker besides employing the image of hail striking at a desolation.  These images are a very common trope in the Kashmiri poetic tradition to the point of being a cliché. Nonetheless, the shift from the outside world of palanquins to the world of desolation inside suggests that the private has spilled out into the public, while an overwhelming grief has become the center point of all existence. The rest of the song also speaks about the monotony of grief where everything exists in a perpetual state of wait, and neglect – the hills of despair await the snow of relief as home has been trusted to a stranger. The parched hearts of Kashmir await balms of hope and calm as the specters of death, both literal and metaphorical that haunt the land.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Huzaifa Pandit

Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published ‘Green is the Colour of Memory’, which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. He holds a PhD on poetry of resistance from the University of Kashmir.

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