Insurgent-turned-singer finds fame in Kashmir with viral music video

Insurgent-turned-singer finds fame in Kashmir with viral music video
Mohammad Altaf Ahmad Mir has become famous after his song blew up on social media.
5 min read
01 August, 2018
Mir's family are proud of the singer, but want him to come home [Sameer Mushtaq]
Jana Begum has been waiting for her son's return for the past three decades.

The frail woman's son crossed the Line of Control - the unofficial boundary between Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir - more than twenty years ago, seeking weapons training and the life of an underground militant fighting Indian rule back in his Kashmir Valley homeland.

"I want to reunite with my son. I want to see his family," she tells The New Arab at her home in Anantnag district, south Kashmir.

Begum is proud of her son, Mohammad Altaf Ahmad Mir, who has become an internet sensation in recent weeks.

Coke Studio Explorer, a popular Pakistani music programme, featured a Kashmiri-language song on July 11 on its YouTube channel. Leading the vocals on the song is Mir, born and brought up in the Indian side of Kashmir.

This is the region disputed between India and Pakistan. Both nations are part-governing the region, but both claim Kashmir in its entirety. The history of the conflict dates back to the partition of British India in 1947, which gave birth to India and Pakistan.

Since then, the two countries have fought three wars over the region. More than 70,000 people have died in decades of conflict. In the early 1990s, many young boys took up arms to fight Indian rule, while many more - like Mir - crossed to the Pakistan side to get weapons training.

Before leaving for Pakistan, Mir was a craftsman, making traditional Kashmiri handicrafts for a living in his hometown of Anantnag. But Mir's whole family was inclined towards music.

"He is still running the business of handicrafts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to earn his livelihood," Mir's brother, Javeed Ahmad, told The New Arab.

Mir's song, Ha gulo tuhi ma sa vuchwun yaar muen ["Oh flower, have you seen my friend?"] has been seen three-quarters of a million times already - very unusual for a Kashmiri-language song.

Watch now: Mir leads his band, Qasami, in the online hit that has made him famous 

Mir has settled in his life. He got married to a local woman in Muzaffarabad and now has four children. Like many of the boys who crossed the LOC in the early 1990s, instead of coming back to fight Indian rule, they preferred to stay and settle for a peaceful life.

Mir has been living in Pakistan-administered Kashmir for almost three decades now. Until recently, few in his hometown had heard of him. But as his YouTube video started trending on social media, he became something of an overnight sensation in and beyond the valley.

Mir attracted attention not only for his exceptional talent, but for being a Kashmiri boy who intended to pick up a gun but ending up becoming a singer. His video shows him wearing headphones in full Kashmiri attire while singing.

The song, written by a famous Kashmiri poet, Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor, has been sung by many artists - but Coke Studio Explorer has presented a modern version of this traditional song.

Back in Anantnag, Mir's family longs for his return. His mother is ill at home in Ashajipora.

Watch now: Mir's elderly mother, with tears in her eyes, watches her son perform

"He was influenced by Sufi music and used to perform locally," Mir's brother told The New Arab when we visited. "He and my father used to do handicraft work to fulfill the daily expenses of our family."

His family says Mir received the weapons training he sought in 1995, but feared getting killed by the Ikhwan, a counter-insurgent force that was influential at the time, and returned to the Pakistan side of Kashmir. He established his own band, named Qasami, in Muzaffarabad, and, more than 20 years later, was talent-spotted by Coke Studio Explorer showcasing "the richness and power of Kashmiri folk music and poetry".

In 2010, India's government and local state authorities drafted a policy for the return "and rehabilitation" of the young people who had crossed the LOC in years past but who now wanted to come back to their families. Many former militants returned through the India-Nepal border.

However Mir's family says he wanted to return but couldn't due to fear of being caught by the authorities. "They had returned via Nepal where there was risk of getting arrested… He had to return along with his four kids and he didn't want to sacrifice their future for the sake of uniting with his own family," Javeed told The New Arab.

Interest in Kashmir's traditional music has been growing among the region's young generation in recent years - and Mir's song is the latest trending addition to these songs. After years of conflict, many young singers from across the valley have started to revive near-forgotten Kashmiri music and culture.

In the peak years of conflict, the Kashmiri music industry stagnated with practically no platform for artists to perform. But the trend has now picked up. There are several renditions of old traditional songs by young singers available online and the new generation are making use of social media to promote their work.

Yet this revival also faces challenges. A group of teenage girls who had started performing in Kashmir in 2013 as a band named Pragaash ["The first ray of light"],faced the wrath of the local clergy, who issued a fatwa against them. They stopped performing to avoid social media abuse and later disbanded their rock group.

Aijaz Nazir is a freelance journalist from India. He has been published in Tehelka, Firstpost, Huffington Post and the Asia Times Online.