Change of Heart

Despite a difficult childhood and lifelong disability Riyaz A Wani established himself as a professional singer. But then everything seemed out-of-sync as he had a change of heart. Zubair Sofi tells his story

For Riyaz Ahmad Wani, 30, who lives in Bonishah-Kralpora village in Budgam, around 12 kilometres from Srinagar, being blind since birth is nothing short of a curse!

But with time he has learned, rather understood how to overcome the shortcoming and try to live a normal life.

After Riyaz’s birth, when his father came to know about his disability, he divorced his wife. Almost a year later Riyaz’s mother married again, hoping to start a new life. She left Riyaz at her brother’s house. But the happiness proved short living.

“Six years later my mother died. She was then just 28,” said Riyaz. “My father had married again as well.”

Left alone, as Riyaz grew up with his disability, he sought solace in Sufiana music. “It (music) helped me forget my situation for a while,” said Riyaz.

Riyaz has a faint memory of his mother. “I just recall touching her face when she died,” said Riyaz trying hard to remember details.

After his mother’s death Riyaz’s maternal uncle Mohammad Jabbar Sofi, 65, took it upon himself to groom his nephew.

“For me Riyaz is like a gift from Allah. I don’t know why people see it otherwise,” said Jabbar.

But rejection from parents has left a deep scar on Riyaz’s adolescent mind. “I was a burden for everyone,” felt Riyaz. “So I dedicated myself to music.”

When Riyaz turned 19, he started learning the art of Tabla (Indian Drum) from Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh, a reputed musician who lived in his area. However, given his disability, learning music was not easy for Riyaz. “But my passion for music helped me learn it in just three months.”

Despite criticism from friends and relatives Riyaz kept practicing to hone his talent. “I proved all of them wrong,” said Riyaz.

As Riyaz started showing signs of a great student, a quick learner, his master Yaqoob, saw an immense talent in him. One day Yaqoob asked Riyaz to sing in rhythm. “As I sang my master was surprised to hear my voice,” recalls Riyaz. “You have a great voice,” Yaqoob told him.

This was Riyaz’s hidden talent. It was there Yaqoob promised Riyaz a chance to sing at Radio Kashmir and Doordarshan.

These assingments helped Riyaz earn decent money, and as well as recognition. “I started getting invitiations for Sufiana gatherings,” recalls Riyaz.

Soon Riyaz became a regular performer at Radio Kashmir and Doordarshan. “It was a big thing for me to perform at such big platforms,” said Riyaz. “I was happy for whatever I had achieved; I didn’t make my disability an excuse for not earning.”

In the meanwhile Riyaz also performed at Sangeet Natak Academy, Tagore Hall in Srinagar.

With fame came a number of requests from people who wanted to train under Riyaz. But Riyaz, who considers himself an amateur in music, preferred to stay loyal to his master. “It was because of Yaqoob Sahab that I achieved this much in life. How could I abandon him?”

Riyaz considers his singing talent as a gift from Allah to help him overcome his disability.

In 2014, Riyaz, who by now was a famous voice among music lovers, decided to turn a new chapter in his life. “I realized that whatever I am doing (as a musician and singer) is against the principles of Islam,” said Riyaz. “I started listening to speeches of different Islamic scholars. It helped me understand my religion in a better way.”

The more he learned about religion, the farther he went from music and singing. “This was the turning point of my career.”

Riyaz began spending most of his time in attending religious congregation, hoping to learn the basics of Islam. “I joined special classes to learn holy Quran,” said Riyaz.

Every day Riyaz would spend hours at a local Maktab, learning how to recite Quran properly.

One day when Riyaz recited verses from the holy Quran on a loudspeaker at the Maktab, it surprised everyone. “People were mesmerized by my voice,” recalls Riyaz.

Once again Riyaz was famous, but for a different reason and a different talent. “Now people started inviting me for religious congregation to sing Naats and recite Quran.”

Riyaz was happy to find a meaning for his life and serve his religion in a small way. “I was just doing what Allah wanted me to.”

After his transformation Riyaz now starts his day early by offering morning prayers. “I pray five times a day now.”

Riyaz now performs the call for prayers (Azaan) everyday at his local mosque. “This is the most wonderful job of my life.”

Recently, Riyaz was invited by the Doorshan for a programme titled Ham Kadam where he was asked to sing Naats.

“The platform was same but I was there for a different reason,” said Riyaz.

However being a religious singer has its drawbacks too, as his earnings slashed to a minimum since he left music. “I know it is tough, but I am sure my mother will be proud of me.”

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