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After Nearly 30 Years In Exile, This Kashmiri Singer Has A Hit Song Of The Summer

Altaf Mir, second from left, with his bandmates.
Insiya Syed
Courtesy of the artist
Altaf Mir, second from left, with his bandmates.

A love song about wildflowers by a would-be militant turned folk singer is the hit song of the summer on both sides of the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir, a Himalayan valley that's been the site of fierce fighting and territorial disputes for decades.

"Ha Gulo" which translates to "Oh Flower" is the rare Kashmiri-language song to achieve commercial success internationally; in July it was featured on Coke Studio, the longest-running TV music show in Pakistan, while its music video has, in less than a month, received more than a million page views combined on YouTube and Facebook.

In its video, four bearded, middle-aged men dressed in traditional cloaks, bright yellow caps and colorful sunglasses bob their heads to electronic beats and lyrics from Kashmiri poetry, playing a traditional Kashmiri stringed instrument called therabab, snapping their fingers in unison and dancing around the stone ruins of what looks like an ancient castle.

The lead singer, Altaf Mir, is a Kashmiri embroiderer and part-time wedding singer, who crossed the India-Pakistan border from his native Kashmir in 1990, at a time when scores of young Kashmiri men were joining underground militias, taking up arms against Indian control of their valley.

Mir, 50, cites "unsafe conditions" as the reason he had to leave his homeland nearly three decades ago. But some local media claim he crossed into Pakistan with the aim of taking up arms. In a phone interview with NPR, he would not clarify whether he ever intended to fight.

In 1947, India and Pakistan became separate countries following the end of British colonial rule over the subcontinent. Each country subsequently claimed Kashmir as its own; the territory is currently divided between Indian and Pakistani-administered areas, its permanent status unresolved.

"I used to sing in the open fields of Kashmir, with my neighbours," Mir recalls by phone from Muzaffarabad, the city in northeast Pakistan where he now lives. Mir fondly recalls performing at school assemblies as a child, and at local wheat-sowing ceremonies in Kashmir. "But I was forced to run away from my homeland, when the situation deteriorated," he says.

As a migrant in Pakistan, Mir had to give up singing, and began working as a textile embroiderer, making intricate Kashmiri needlework designs for clothes, tablecloths and curtains. (It's still his primary job.) But after a few years in the country his love of singing was rekindled, when a Pakistani neighbor heard about Mir's talent and hired him to sing at a family wedding. The job snowballed into more gigs and eventually leading to regular appearances on Radio Pakistan.

Then, a few years ago, Mir started a band called Qasamir, in which he is the lead singer, accompanied by Saifuddin Shah, Ghulam Mohammad Dar and Manzoor Ahmed Khan — all fellow Kashmiri speakers who live in Pakistan. Dar is a professional musician regularly heard on Radio Pakistan, but Khan's day job is as a rickshaw driver and Shan is a part-time cook and laborer — together, they play a variety of traditional percussion instruments and the flute.

After being featured by Coke Studio Pakistan, Mir has become the most famous Kashmiri singer in the country. (The number of people who speak the Kashmiri language inside Pakistan is tiny; in the Muzaffarabad district where Mir has settled, they amount to about two percent of the population.) Coke Studio was founded by The Coca-Cola Company in 2007, with distinct versions of the program in Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa and India that showcase the local talent of each region. The programs air on local television, radio stations and YouTube. Coke Studio Pakistan is the most popular of the Studio's programs across South Asia.

This year, Coke Studio Pakistan launched a project called "Coke Studio Explorer," in which producers went out to remote areas of Pakistan in search of folk artists performing in regional and minority languages. Eventually, they were led to Altaf Mir.

"We wanted to focus on things that we hadn't ever explored before, and to look at elements of what makes Pakistan what it is today — highlighting the Pakistani identity and truly owning the white in our flag," says Hamza Ali, one of the lead producers of Coke Studio Pakistan. (Pakistan's flag is green and white, with a star and crescent moon. The green is meant to symbolize Islam, the country's majority religion. The white is meant to symbolize its minorities.)

The producers traveled to Muzaffarabad to meet Mir, recording the video for "Ha Gulo" partly in a hotel room there and partly outdoors. It's the last in a series of five songs from various artists produced by the Coke Studio Explorer project, which also include songs by artists who sing in Kalash, Sindhi and Balochi, three other languages within distinct regions of Pakistan.

He says nothing — not his radio gigs, or the cultural events where he would sometimes perform — compares to the response he's received since appearing on Coke Studio. His phone has been ringing nonstop with calls from Kashmir, from both unknown fans and people he hasn't seen for nearly 30 years.

"Coke Studio advertised me. So now everyone knows who Altaf Mir is!" he exclaims, laughing. "Everyone knows me."

His song and his migration story have also captured attention from Kashmiris on Twitter.

Khalid Ahmed, a Kashmiri singer based in India, tells NPR it doesn't matter that many listeners in Pakistan won't understand Mir's Kashmiri lyrics. (Most Pakistanis speak Urdu, often in addition to other regional languages.)

"It's not about the technicality of the song. It's his voice that does the magic for me," Ahmed says. "I feel proud, because this is the first time a Kashmiri song has gone international."

Mir's success this summer on Coke Studio may open a path for other aspiring musicians in his troubled home valley, says Mohammad Muneem, a fellow Kashmiri poet and singer also based in India. "Singers back home, they may feel that more is possible, that things will happen for them too," Muneem says.

After the debut of Mir's song in July, Kashmiri media sent TV crews to the small town of Anantnag where he grew up — and where his mother still lives. They recorded her reaction upon watching her son's performance online; she broke down in tears. The two have not seen each other in person in nearly 30 years.

"It's very difficult for me to reach there," Mir tells NPR, longingly. He fears for his life, and could be arrested — or worse — by Indian soldiers and police, if he were to attempt such a journey. After so long, he has made a home for himself in Pakistan, marrying a local woman and starting a family, giving birth to four sons.

In Pakistan, Mir has amassed a collection of traditional Kashmiri poetry, which he sets to music. Before the Internet, and without access to a local Kashmiri-language library, Mir managed to amass a collection of verse, asking friends and travelers to ferry books across the India-Pakistan border.

The lyrics of "Ha Gulo":

Ha gulu tuhi masah wich wan yar minu

(Oh blossom, have you seen my beloved?)

Bulbulu tuhi sahari toon dildar mainoon

(Oh nightingale, help me find my love!)

Ha gulu tuhi masah wich wan yar minu

(Oh blossom, have you seen my beloved?)

Mir's voice has now reached his homeland — even if he cannot.

Furkan Latif Khan is an NPR producer in New Delhi.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Furkan Latif Khan