November Issue 2007

By | Arts & Culture | Published 16 years ago

Badal denge duniya ki tasveer
We, the youngsters of Kashmir
Milegi manzil yeh hai yaqeen
Manzil hamse door nahin
Badal denge duniya ki tasveer
We, the youngsters of Kashmir

Maana hai dushwaariyan
Bebasi laachariya
Maanah hai mushkilen kayee
Phir bhi badhte hum sabhi
Phir bhi badhte hum sabhi
We, the youngsters of Kashmir
Badal denge duniya ki tasveer
We, the youngsters of Kashmir

These gentle words do not flow from any poet’s or politician’s pen. They are the thoughts of 27-year-old Amit Wanchoo, a medical doctor in Srinagar. With cropped hair and green eyes, he is the quintessential Kashmiri. Yet, Wanchoo’s is a precarious existence. Growing up in conflict-ridden Kashmir, he has seen enough violence to last him a lifetime. A member of the minority Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) community, his is one of the few families still left in Srinagar — they did not flee to the safer havens of Jammu when militancy was at its peak. There was a price to pay however: Wanchoo’s grandfather was assassinated by the Hizbul Mujahideen in 1992, when Hindus in Kashmir were being targeted.

The tragedy only increased the yearning for calm and peace. Wanchoo’s is thus a special investment in peace. “Life for an average youngster in Kashmir is terrible,” he says. The transient nature of life was flung at his face every waking moment. Life in Kashmir is like walking over a minefield of bombs and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), hoping that you will not be the victim and forgetting all about it once you have crossed the danger zone. Extremely talented, Wanchoo felt tormented every time he moved out of the valley and saw life in other parts of India. He realised how cruel life had become for the youth of Kashmir. “Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, they also have dreams. They want to do something great in life; [but they also] want to attend music concerts, have fun, go dancing, enjoy late nights out with their families and friends and do lots of other things.” But the atmosphere in Kashmir was too restricting. Islamist militants had imposed bans on cinema, music, concerts — in fact, on almost all forms of entertainment.

It was out of this yearning for peace and normalcy that Immersions was born. It was a scene that belied belief — the first performance of Immersions at Tagore Hall in Srinagar. A youth group was singing and dancing on stage, performing songs in Hindi, Punjabi and English — and what’s more, there was even a young and beautiful woman in their midst! This was unprecedented in the valley.

Call it karma, or call it sheer luck, but it just so happened that all these like-minded, talented people came together. Wanchoo’s longtime friend, King Paul Singh, who is Immersions’ lead singer, was already a known name in Srinagar. A Sikh by birth, Paul was born and brought up in Kashmir, and at a young age he decided to make music his career and the centre of his universe, even though “people in Kashmir neither value nor respect music,” he laments. It was not exactly smooth sailing for him. There was family pressure for him to engage in music simply as a pastime and not as a profession. Moreover, there was no state support, nor infrastructure.

“There is no encouragement for the youth here,” says the bearded and turbanned Paul. “And neither is there any concept of music shows.” But he persisted, even as he pursued a Masters in Computer Applications (MCA) course from the Indira Gandhi Open University. He won his first prize in music when he was in class 11, at an inter-school competition in Srinagar. That’s where he also met Mehmeet Syed, who was to join Immersions as the band’s female voice.

Later, many solo shows followed, and Paul became a known voice in Kashmir, performing on different TV channels, on radio and even doing commercial shows in Srinagar.

It was around this time that he teamed up with Wanchoo who was then in his third year at the Shere-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. “We had no extra curricular activity in our college, and the whole atmosphere was depressing,” he recalls. On the other hand, 1,500 Kashmiris reported annually to the psychiatry hospital, and, at least, half of them were teenagers. So Wanchoo, determined to do something and inspired by the extra-curricular activities in the academic institutions in the rest of the country, organised the first musical programme in college. “There was a lot of opposition from some staff members and students, but we managed to do it on a large scale, defeating the opposition,” he says.

Wanchoo went on to establish the Amit Wanchoo Infotainment Division and worked wholeheartedly to establish a group “that would put Kashmir back on the national culture map.” He wrote the lyrics and Paul composed the music and sang, and together they hired other musicians as well.

Among them was Mehmeet Syed. The long-haired, doe-eyed Syed had already made her mark as a singer in Kashmiri society by this time.

“It was not considerations of peace or healing that inspired me to sing; it was simply the sound of music,” she tells me candidly. “I sing for the joy of singing, first and foremost for myself, and if in the process I am able to convey some sort of a message to anyone, or provide balm to any wound, then I am only too happy.” Luckily for Mehmeet Syed, her family has been extremely supportive, and she has been singing since she was in school. Like Paul, she too has won prizes at inter-school competitions and began doing shows much before she joined Immersions. In fact, she set a trend in the valley when she did video clips of her songs with models from Jammu swaying in the background. Now this style is copied by many in Kashmir. Lata Mangeshkar, Shamima Azad (the wife of the current chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir who is also a singer) and her mother, who has a diploma in music, are the sources of her inspiration.

Besides Syed, Paul also brought Irfan Nabi Bhat, 25, a talented musician who is now the lead guitarist of the group, on board. Irfan learned the guitar in the sunny island of Goa and, in 2000, was awarded the ‘Best Guitarist of the Year’ award by none other than the musical genius A.R. Rahman. He is also an accomplished rock singer and, together with Paul, has done several heart-stopping shows. Some of the numbers that have become a regular feature of their repertoire are songs sung by Pakistan’s Abrarul Haq and Jawad Ahmed, especially Haq’s “Preeto mere naal vyaah kar le, sada aitbaar kar le.” Occasionally, Irfan also plays the drums, and one of his claims to fame is his ability to play the Tumbakhnari, a Kashmiri percussion instrument.

Incidentally, Irfan also pulled 25-year-old Bilal Mattaa into the group, much to his bandmates’ delight because he was like the “the missing element” in their shows.

Bilal has studied classical music and is a fantastic ghazal singer, with several solo performances to his credit. He has also been selected by the song and dance division of the cultural ministry to perform at classical music festivals. An excellent keyboard player like Irfan, he too, is an audio-recordist.

In fact, both Bilal and Irfan work as audio-recordists at the Soundcraft Studio in Srinagar, which means Immersions can now do their recordings in the valley, instead of going out of Kashmir as they did earlier.

Bilal and Irfan also form a wonderful combination while rendering Sufi songs. The number that is a hit with music lovers in the valley is the Kashmiri Sufi song, “Dilbaro mein dilas kaas Ghangalah, bih balay emi chaani garmi seet.”

So what is so different about Immersions?

Their songs carry comforting messages of hope. And this hope is not just reflected in the lyrics they sing but in the composition of the group as well. Immersions is an inter-religious group: Wanchoo is Hindu; Mehmeet, Irfan and Bilal are Muslims and Paul is a Sikh. And they enthral the audience with their renderings in English, Hindi, Kashmiri and Punjabi.

It is this that is perhaps endearing them not just to Kashmiri youth, but gradually to others beyond the state. Many NGOs in Kashmir and in Jammu have invited them to perform. The group has played at numerous charity shows too. There have been write-ups in the print media, and local TV and radio channels, as well as major national TV channels like CNN-IBN have broadcast their shows. The team has been invited to perform in major Indian cities like Chandigarh, Kolkata and Mumbai and also has invitations from the Islamabad-based Young Doctors Association and a university in Lahore.

In 2004, the group released their first music album, titled Sukoon. Though it was not released under the Immersions banner, it was a collaborative effort. Wanchoo produced it, Paul was the solo vocalist and Irfan and Bilal played the music. Omar Abdullah, president of the National Conference, released the album, which soon became a hit in the Punjab and Jammu. The group’s first album under the Immersion’s banner is expected next year.

When a Pakistani FM channel interviewed Wanchoo for a programme featuring Sukoon in 2006, he was flooded with friendship mail from across the divide. “It would be wonderful to perform in Pakistan and extend our hand in friendship — that is the only way to survive.” The 27-year-old, whose role models are Kishore Kumar and Jagjit Singh, is also extremely fond of listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali and has made up his mind that “if I ever go to Pakistan, I will visit his mausoleum.”

Immersions has had its share of problems. There was virtually no support for the band, neither from their families nor from the community or the state.

Moreover, the group has received numerous threats, many of which, to their dismay, came either from close friends who were jealous of their success, or rivals in the field. Two instances are still stark in their memory. One of them took place in 1999, just before a charity programme for leprosy patients. It was a time when diktats to observe purdah and a dress code had been announced by militant groups in the valley. Tickets for the show had already been sold when Wanchoo’s family got a call informing them that if their son went ahead with the programme, he would meet a fate similar to his grandfather’s. A tense Wanchoo was about to call off the show when a line from a song of the Bollywood film Lagaan wafted into his ears: “Baar baar haan, bolo yaar haan, apni jeet hau, unki haar haan.” He decided to go ahead with the programme, only to discover later that the caller was an acquaintance in event management. He got a similar call in June this year threatening to blow up his home if he did not cancel a scheduled programme. And this time there was actually a blast near his house, but the culprit again turned out to be an acquaintance.

These incidents only serve to make the group more determined than ever to carry on their mission. Immersions’ last major performance this year was in August at the Centaur Hotel, to mark the theme of global warming. Paul composed the lyrics, which he rates among his best — and not without reason. The description of a world wracked by global warming can easily double up to describe the conflict-scarred landscape of Kashmir:

“Mujhe yaad hai jab bachpan me taaza hawa aati thi
Mujhe ghar ke har kone se khushboo se mehek aati thi
Ab kya hua saara jahan itna kyon hai veeran
Banjar hai kyon yeh zameen, banjar hai kyon yeh aasman.”