A year ago, at a music concert in Amritsar, a man with a powerful voice sang a homage to the resilience of the Kashmiri women during and after the 2014 floods of Kashmir. Later, a couple of small paper boats made their way to the audience, enclosing within them a message of the power of Jhelumas – also the title of the song – and asked the audience to find within themselves belief, strength, peace and love. This was my first time witnessing the band Alif and Mohammad Muneem Nazir, the founder of the Kashmiri folk band that documents the sounds of the valley, but with their own contemporary style. The frontman of the band is also a storyteller, bringing forth the stories of Kashmir and contemporary issues of life in songs written in Koshur, Hindi and English.
In front of a packed audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024, Alif once again showed that music goes beyond boundaries of language and cultures. Post the show, Muneem sat down for a chat with Zee Zest, every now and then breaking into couplets and poetry to emphasise his ideas and beliefs. Edited excerpts:
1. You shared that you are undergoing therapy for mental health. Why did you feel the need to seek therapy and has it helped you?
For a very long time, till I was 37-38 or so, I didn’t take it seriously. I felt I could control what I was feeling. Then Covid happened and I started feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I don’t talk much and I had someone who I could speak with but eventually, it becomes a lot for one person to take.
I realised I needed therapy then and also, that it goes really deep, to things that started in my childhood. I also realised that my writing and composing music is not an accident. It was my defence mechanism to save myself. My first abandonment happened when I was in standard five and sent to boarding school without being asked. Trust and mistrust were formed over the years. I’m sure my parents did the best they did at that time. All these things emerged during therapy. My therapist told me that my threshold of handling things had finished. It is when I surrendered to the therapy that my healing journey began.
2. You went off social media a couple of months ago. What was the reason?
I left it four-five months ago. If you dealing with social media, then you have to play it with your whole heart because it’s a game. If you don’t know how to play it or don’t want to play it, then there is no point. It was a very conscious call I took to leave it for a bit. I might come back to it after two more days, or six months or a year when I feel I want to play that game.
3. Not only do you sing but you write the lyrics too. How do words find you?
It reminds me of a couplet by Ghalib – the word sarir-e-khama. It means the scratching sound the pen makes when you write on paper. It is also the name of the poetry and songwriting course I teach at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce. The couplet goes: Aate hain ghaib se ye mazamin khayal men, Ghalib sarir-e-khama nava-e-sarosh hai. It means don’t take false pride in the scratching noise your pen makes; angels come and write for you. So, you have to detach from that feeling because if you feel you are writing it, it becomes scary and it often has become scary for me. In the end, you are stuck between Ishq-e-Majazi which is the love for worldly things and Ishq-e-Haqiqi which is the love for the divine. An artist is like a pendulum between these two. Every now and then, he needs a gentle nudge in order to maintain the balance.
4. You have lived in Kashmir during some tumultuous times. Keeping language aside, do you think you would have been a very different poet/musician if you had been born somewhere else?
Absolutely, if I was born in Delhi or Mumbai or London, I would have been a very different singer-songwriter. It is all about what you consume in the early and formative years of your life, what you witness. Your perceptions are formed there.
5. Your band Alif has been around since 2008, but you have released only two albums Sufayed and Siyah. Why is that so?
Yes, the second album has come in two parts, Siyah 1 and 2 - Haal and Maazi – and I have plans to do two more. We have done a lot of singles. The turnaround time for an album needs a lot of logistical support and being an independent artist, you need that logistical support in place. For instance, Coke Studio turned out to be our most streamlined project because everything was in place.
6. You have also composed a couple of songs for Hindi films. Do you find as much creative satisfaction in writing songs for films as you do while writing independent music?
So far, yes. Imitiaz Ali saab used our song Katyu Chuko in the climax of Laila Majnu and we were grateful for that. We have composed music for a film called Two Sisters and a Husband by director Shlok Sharma. One of the songs – Dil Sharaab - has been sung by Swanand Kirkire. He is magic. We were all given creative freedom and then they used the songs the way they wanted to.
7. Your song Jhelumas is about the resilience of Kashmiri women in the face of challenges, but it has found resonance with people of all ages and genders across the country…
We need to normalise the fact that both men and women can feel vulnerable and there should be spaces where they can be one with their emotions. It is okay to break down, else we will be like robots. The magic happens when you and I break down together; a bond is formed. ‘Kusu boze kaswane naar ha loug Jhelumas’, which means – ‘Is anyone listening? My river is on fire’. I fear I might drown in it but this drowning has different perceptions. Is it about being one with yourself or the actual act of drowning. Unless you don’t accept the grief, you won’t be able to come out on the other side. You have to sit with your grief and tell him, ‘I’m listening’.
8. During your concerts, you often hand out little paper boats with the message of finding your own Jhelumas and to flow with it. How did you think of doing that?
Sometimes, when I have my bad days, I look into the mirror and tell myself a few things. One of the things I say is - jumla abhi mukammal nahi, abhi lafzon ki khud mukhtaari baaki hai, which means the sentence is not finished; the words will decide when the sentence is finished.
When I feel rejected, lonely and unseen as many of us so often do, I say, Fanus (lamp) ki khamoshi pe gaur na kar, uska kaam shor nahi. I give myself the reassurance that light has no reason to make noise; its only purpose is to give light. The third thing, when I want to feel powerful, I say tumhein maloom nahi tum kaun ho, tum kaid nahi jo ijaazat lo, which means you don’t know who you are; you are not imprisoned that you seek permission. These are my capes which give me assurance. With the paper boats and the message within, I wanted to give back something to people. I want that whoever gets this message, believes that mumkin hai, munaasib hai; it is possible. And sometimes, you just need one person to tell you that it is possible.