Amritsar’s 18th-century Govindgarh Fort is unlikely for a headbang concert. Much less so at the Sacred Amritsar Music and Poetry Festival, where evening acts usually include Kabir couplets and devotional poems and renditions of folk and classical songs.
So when Kashmiri singer-songwriter and musician Mohammad Muneem took to the stage in a black suit and trousers, his legs bare, the audience didn’t know what to expect. “How many of you have heard of us before?” he asked the crowd. Only two hands went up.
That didn’t bother him. Munim goes by the stage name Alif and is the founder and vocalist of Alif, a four-man band that also includes pianist Aditya Bhandarkar, drummer Kabir and Singh and guitarist Shivam Pant. They perform rap, rock and Kashmiri folk music in Urdu, Koshoor and Hindi. For the next 90 minutes, they hit it off, playing songs about women’s plight, the rat race, grief, college memories, hope and love. Muneem occasionally translated some Urdu and koshur songs into his deep baritone. The audience burst into applause, and the ending ended with, yes, a headbang.
Alif, made in 2008, has a habit of surprising people. Their social media pages are full of comments from listeners who admit to crying, getting goose bumps and feeling like they’ve been transported to another world when listening to their music.
40-year-old Munim, an engineer and an MBA, performed on stage for the first time in 1997. He says his songs are the sum of his experiences, mistakes and the people he meets. The first spark of interest in writing came when he was sent to a boarding school in Dehradun at the age of nine. “I felt left out there,” he recalls. So he wrote many letters home. After two and a half years in Srinagar, he was scolded for ‘Dehradun-Return’. “But when I was on stage, I realized that I was myself. It saved me. Things would have been much, much harder for me if I hadn’t performed.
In later years, when his parents found his diary, he took up poetry as a tool to express an idea and hide it at the same time. “I felt the need to be mysterious,” he says. “To let go of everything I hold inside me, give it an outlet, but not straight up.”
This made the song loved by the fans. Reciting the lines from his unreleased song Charagar (Healing), Munim sings “Abhi hasas he dil, bharosa kaise kare, banega sang ye jabi tabke tab pyaar karo (My heart is sensitive now, you can’t love me. When it’s strong . a rock, love me). “Sometimes, I hide behind my work,” he admits. “But I like that it’s out of my system, anyway.”
The band’s 2017 song, Zhelmus, on Koshur, part of the album Sufayed, celebrates the resilience of Kashmiri women after the 2014 floods. Even those unacquainted with the language can feel their pain– through the voice of the medium. In Lalanavath (Palo), he sings about lives lost, dreams left unfulfilled, and blood spilled as people fight against each other.
However, Alif’s voice is more Indian and specifically Kashmiri. “The struggle of being a Kashmiri or not doesn’t matter,” says Munim. “Everyone goes through struggles, weaknesses and abandonment.” Sanjay Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organizes Sacred Amritsar, has a different view. “We generally see Kashmir as a place of conflict and violence, not as a place of love and music as it used to be,” he says. “Alif is reviving it.”
Alif is working on a new album, Siyaah, which has 19 songs across four playlists. One song called Zindabad vs Murdabad talks about how cruel the internet can be. “It seems to empower people to say bad things. I doubt those things will be said to me or to anyone personally,” says Munim. He now teaches Urdu poetry and songwriting at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce and is often overwhelmed by the material created by his young students. “Sometimes, it is so painful that it worries me. There are many good things on the Internet, but if its evil is not controlled, it can break a person’s confidence.”
The upcoming song Fitna Fitoor asks how far one can go for worldly happiness, how much one can struggle for it, how much one can compromise. “You know the answers, but you’re afraid to ask yourself the right questions,” says Munim.
Some joys, however, come easily. Like starting a gig with only two fans in the audience and ending it with a standing ovation.
From HT Brunch, April 1, 2023
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