Yawar Abdal stood on a university stage, his Epiphone in hand. He said a short prayer, “Alhamdulillah”, and the curtains went up. For a brief moment, surrounded by a fog of dry ice, Abdal closed his eyes and listened to the crowd in the packed auditorium. “Goosebumps,” he told me when we met the next day at a cafe in Delhi, a few months ago. “This is what I was born to do.”
Abdal, 24, shot to fame in 2017 with "Tamanna" a single with lyrics in Kashmiri, Persian and Urdu, drawn from the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, Mahjoor and Amir Khusrow. The video has two million views on YouTube, and is the most-watched Kashmiri song on that platform.
A regular face on Pune’s indie gig scene, Abdal is now working on his debut album, out later this year. The first thing I noticed about him when we met was his height: 6 feet, 185 cm and lean, in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, with Adidas Original Stan Smith black sneakers. He has long eyelashes and speaks softly. He had his guitar with him, a PR 4E—the first thing that he brought from his earnings from music a couple of years ago.
Abdal told me he's written five to six new songs so far. "For the first time I am giving words to my feelings,” he told me. “When you’re composing someone else’s poetry, which I was doing with all my earlier songs, you’re limited in some ways.”
“I grew up listening to these poets back home” in Srinagar, Kashmir, Abdal said. During mehfils, he'd stay awake to listen to mystic sufi poetry. By age 10, he was familiar with Khusrow, Rumi, and Kashmiri mystic poets like Wahab Khar, Mahjoor, Shamas Fakir and Ahad Zargar.
Though Abdal gravitated towards music, it wasn’t considered a viable career option. “My grandfather is also a good musician but only at home,” he says. “No one outside our household knows he can play musical instruments.” Though young Kashmiris are challenging the notion that music is not a “respectable” profession, it is still not completely acceptable in a Muslim majority state. At one point, Abdal’s family confronted him about “singing in bars”. They said, “How would it make you feel if your daughter were to dance in these bars?”
“I cried so many times.” Abdal tells me, but adds that his parents are supportive now. At age 16, he moved in with his older brother in Pune to finish school, then pursued a bachelors in computer studies. It was a financially tough period—and Abdal’s mother was battling cancer.
Music was nowhere in the scene until Abdal attended an open jam at Muziclub, a music academy run by another Pune-based Kashmiri singer, Mohammad Muneem (of Alif and Like a Sufi fame). “That’s where I met other musicians. They told me that there are local gigs and that they earn money from it. I didn’t have any profile, any videos then—I would walk to pubs and cafes and ask for gigs.” Initially he performed for free, then charged Rs. 500 for two-three hours.
He started gigging at Jövós, a Pune bar, in 2015. One of its owners, Sanjay Dhamol, told me over the phone that he was “looking for a Sufi genre singer.” He found a video Abdal had made with his local band Aabad. “We met once and I offered him the gig at the bar,” Dhamol recalled. In the year Abdal played there, “He was versatile and he never shouted or cribbed about anything,” Dhamol said. “There are artists that want more money but I told Abdal that I’m giving you a platform. So he took the gig.”
As more gigs came his way, it became difficult for Abdal to manage work—odd shifts working IT with Tech Mahindra—with music. “I would come back at 2 AM from a gig and then go to work at 4 AM for morning shift,” he says. There wasn’t enough sleep or food. Eventually, he quit his IT job. “I was, mashallah earning decent money from my gigs.”
When Abdal’s family found out they were worried—“Family ka kir kir hone lag gaya” he said, using a Kashmiri expression. Muneem told me on the phone that he gets messages from Kashimiri parents: “their children tell them if Muneem bhai could do it, we could also do it. Music is not considered a profession at all, But I think slowly that’s changing.”
Abdal was in office, supposedly working on IT solutions, when he sent his first composition of “Tamanna” to Muneem. “Honestly, all I did at work was compose, compose,” he says. Muneem responded to his email right away. “He said meet me now.”
Abdal put his own money into the production of the video, which was conceptualised by Knightmotion Media, a company that has worked with other upcoming artists, like Raees Khan, Ayush Goel, and Laksh Bhatnagar. Video director Nikhil Arjune, 26, told me “These are all legendary poets: Khusrow, Mahjoor and Ghalib. We had to think of something that would be accepted by people.”
When I spoke to Muneem, he told me he looked forward to Abdal composing his own poetry too. “That’s the culture we need to create,” he'd said. With his new as-yet-untitled album, Abdal wants to bring the essence of Kashmiri poetry to a younger audience. He felt his video for “LalleWaan” didn’t click that well with the audience because it uses “language that youth no longer use.” The challenge now is to connect to people using words expressing "my own true feelings."
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