all-women Sufi band
The all-women Sufi band practising at Irfana Yousuf's home, which has been permanently converted into a Sufi music classroom. Photo: Safina Nabi

This Band Thought Their Biggest Hurdle Was the Patriarchy. It’s Actually the Internet.

This all-women Sufi band is trying to break into a traditionally male genre of music, but that's the least of their problems.
October 25, 2021, 6:54am

INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR, India – In almost every way, the tiny village of Ganasthan seems cut off. The closest big city, Srinagar, is a two-hour drive away. The main road that snakes through it is so narrow that most people are forced to walk two to three miles to get home. 

Surrounded by tall pine trees that are hundreds of years old, most villagers busy themselves with the yellow paddy fields ready to be harvested, but the all-women band Yemberzal are practicing their distinctly traditional Sufiyana music at home and recording their sessions on their mobile phones. 

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They’re at a band member’s home made of mud, brick and wood – a traditional house no longer found in other parts of Indian-administered Kashmir. Despite being remote and traditional, the village has been connected to the rest of the world through mobile phones for years.

That is, until the internet blackouts that have driven the region of 12 million people into isolation. 

“It’s been so long that we haven’t seen or performed on a stage. If you see other parts of the world, there are online music concerts, classes, but in Kashmir, nothing happens,“ said 22 year-old Gulshan Lateef, a member of Yemberzal, which last performed in 2019. 

all-women Sufi band, internet blackout

Gulshan Lateef playing Saaz-e-Kashmir, a bowed instrument decorated with ivory work. Photo: Safina Nabi

In August 2019, the Indian government revoked a 1948 UN resolution that gave Jammu and Kashmir autonomy as the only Muslim-majority state in India, and started one of the longest internet bans in history. It was restored in February of 2020, but internet outages have been frequent and unpredictable since then. A recent spate of violence prompted the government to cut the internet in the region yet again. This writer too had to ultimately resort to social messaging to submit this story when it proved too difficult to use email or other cloud sharing platforms.

Lateef and Irfana Yousuf, another 22-year-old Sufi musician, grew up with the internet easily accessible on their families’ mobile phones. 

As soon as Yousuf was introduced to the basics of Sufiyana Mausiqi by her father, she knew she wanted to keep the dying art form alive by connecting with audiences on the internet. But first she had to formally learn the classic Islamic mystical music genre that is almost exclusively dominated by men, has unique instruments and is on the verge of extinction in Kashmir.

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Experts say there are only four master teachers or ustads left in Kashmir who teach this ancient genre that is believed to have been born in the 15th century. Yusuf enrolled in a music course at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar to learn from one of them.

all-women Sufi band, Kashmir, Internet ban

Irfana Yousuf playing the santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer. The instrument is generally made of walnut wood and has 25 bridges. Each bridge has 4 strings, making for a total of 100 strings. Photo: Safina Nabi

Her mission is to revive the dying genre of devotional music by preserving it and reviving its audiences through social media.

“I had planned to create an account of the band on different social media platforms, but there was no internet for half of the year and the other half had a 2G network that came to a halt,” Yousuf told VICE World News.  

With the internet gone, she had to look for other ways to learn the craft as well.

“When the communication clampdown happened, I was home for a few weeks, and one day, I sneaked out quietly to meet my teacher,” said Yousuf. 

Yousuf asked a local milkman who used to deliver to Srinagar if she could travel with him to meet her teacher. “I kept traveling [to and fro] with him the entire time Kashmir was under communication blockade. At times it was difficult but that was the only option I had,” Yousuf said. 

She would often be the only woman on the road to Srinagar. Since 2019, women are even less visible in public spaces in Kashmir. Rampant random security checks by Indian soldiers and frequent communication outages have become major roadblocks for women to move freely to study, work or even step out for chores.

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Just when Kashmir was slowly coming out of the internet blockade, a COVID-19 lockdown was imposed on the region, leaving Yousuf homebound again.

all-women Sufi band

Riahana Yousuf, playing Tabla, a pair of twin hand drums. Photo: Safina Nabi

In her semi-constructed single-storey house, a square-shaped room measuring 64 square feet has been converted into a music classroom. The walls are plastered with mud, and on them hang instruments like the santoor, sitar, tabla and saaz-e-Kashmir, covered with cloth.

Yousuf says her tryst with these musical instruments was inspired by her musician father, Muhammad Yousuf.

She was mesmerized by the santoor when her father used to play it. One day, when she was 10, she asked her father if he would teach her. He agreed, and her musical journey began. 

“I was too young to understand the basics at that time,” said Yousuf. “My father made learning easy and taught me the basics. In three years, I was ready to perform. I was 13 when I first appeared on Doordarshan Srinagar (a state-owned television channel).”

After seeing Yousuf perform on television, other girls in the village also got attracted to the art. Yousuf was thrilled. They could help her preserve this dying tradition, she thought. 

After basic training and lessons, they decided to form an all-women Sufiyana band and named it “Yemberzal,” after a flower that blooms in spring, and marks the beginning of the season of warmth in Kashmir, a region of brutal winters.

But building an audience in Kashmir has been hard for what’s touted as the region’s first-ever female Sufiyana band. Most Gen-Z Kashmiris prefer Bollywood music or protest rap.

“Sufiyana Mausiqi is a tough art to learn and needs a lot of rules and discipline to be followed,'' Yousuf said. She is writing a book and documenting the tenets of Sufiyana music in order to preserve it.

all-women Sufi band

Shubnam Bashir playing Saaz-e-Kashmir. At 16, she's the youngest member of the band. Photo: Safina Nabi

Sufiyana music has 12 basic overarching muqams – a collection of distinct melodies or surs. All muqams have specific timings linked to the sun. For example, muqam-e-todee can only be performed between 11AM and noon.

“All these muqams have branches called goshe, shobe, and parde; collectively they generate a total of 118 muqams,” said Yousuf. “Currently, no one knows 118 muqams, not even our teachers. There are only 60-70 muqams that experts can play, and I want to learn them all and document them. Otherwise, this art will vanish.”

While tuning the cords of her santoor, Yousuf says that if they  gained popularity, they could possibly inspire the younger generation to learn Sufiyana music. 

“If the internet was available we would have been able to go live on social media platforms right now,” Yousuf said.

Follow Safina Nabi on Twitter.