No recognition, no respect, not enough money to feed his family, still Noor Mohammad Shah sings to keep the art alive. Bought to life by a youtube video Noor now hopes for a miracle and recognition. After a week’s search Zubair Sofi traces him in Handwara to tell his story
It was an odd sight for summers, when a Pheran clad person, with henna dyed beard, walked through posh-Rawalpora locality in Srinagar, carrying a wooden Rabaab – a traditional musical instrument of yesteryears. It caught a few youngsters attention, killing time on the roadside.
“Hey you!” shouted a young boy. “Can you play this thing for us?”
The odd looking man, Noor Mohammad Shah, 55, who visits Srinagar regularly to earn his livelihood by singing traditional Kashmiri songs at small gatherings in affluent localities like this one, agreed readily.
“I sat against a car tyre and began tuning my Rabab,” recalls Shah while sitting at his modest two room house in Wadipora, Handwara, some 100 kms from Srinagar.
The first song Shah played was an elegy written by Habba Khatoon, a famous poetess known for her spiritual writings.
“The song touched their young hearts instantly,” said Shah. “I could see them moving their heads in rhythm.”
One of the youngsters took out his mobile phone and began recoding Noor. “They contributed amongst themselves and paid me a little sum afterwards,” recalls Noor.
The guy then posted the video on Youtube with Noor’s name. The video became an instant hit with people seeking Noor’s whereabouts.
“My life as a musician started from a sufi saint Samad Khan’s house,” recalls Noor. “I was at his place where local singers were singing Kashmiri poetry for the saint.”
Noor, who was nine then, recalls, how he fell in love with the singing and decided to become one soon. One night, when a local singer was singing at Samad’s house, the saint suddenly pointed towards Noor and asked him to join them. “When I began singing, everybody, including the godman was mesmerised by my voice.”
It was then, recalls Noor, he decided to take singer as a full time career. “Radio became my first teacher,” said Noor. “I would play nout (earthen pitcher used as musical instrument) trying to follow the beats playing on radio. That is how I learned.”
One day, a local singer named Mohammad Yousuf Shah, heard Noor practice on his nout. He immediately enquired about Noor and offered him a slot in his troupe. “He sought my father’s permission promising him to make me a great singer one day,” recalls Noor.
Noor’s father was reluctant to let him join Shah, thinking his son is too young to stay awake entire night and sing. “It will affect his health,” Noor remember telling Shah.
But eventually Noor’s passion for singing triumphed over his father’s concerns. “I left my studies and joined Shah,” said Noor, who was eager to earn some money and help his poor father financially. “I was the youngest member in my group.”
Soon, recalls Noor, his talent earned him equal wages, irking his senior colleagues. “But Shah silenced everybody telling them that I work hard and deserve to be paid at par.”
Noor, who was originally inducted in the group as a nout player, got elevated to play rabaab when a senior member fell ill. “I was asked to take his place.”
With little experience in playing rabaab, Noor would use just one string during mehfils (gatherings). “Because of this mehfils would end sooner than its usual time.”
But within a year, Noor mastered the art of playing a rabaab, to overcome his shortcomings. “I have mastered rabaab, harmonium, sarang, nout, and duff.”
A few years later Noor left Shah’s group and started his own journey as lead singer. “Soon I started getting offers to sing at marriage parties and big mehfils.”
Noor was a permanent face at gatherings for late sufi saint Ahad Sahib of Sopore. “This helped me reach a wider audience,” said Noor. “Ahad sahib would enjoy my singing. I might have sang for him over a two dozen times at least.”
These mehfils helped Noor get offers from across Kashmir. Then, with an aim to earn some extra money, Noor decided to try his luck in Srinagar. The first stop was at Mirak Sahib’s gatherings in Shalimar area of Srinagar. “Soon people started asking my contact details,” recalls Noor. “I would sing at marriage parties, religious gatherings, sufi events etc.”
But despite his talent and popularity, Noor rues how some affluent families would ask him to sing in their lawns, instead of letting him inside their houses. “It is humiliating for a singer, but I have no choice. I have to feed my family.”
During difficult times like curfews and shutdowns, Noor had sung at the roadsides, so that he could earn some money. “I have no other talent other than my voice and rabaab.”
Noor is sad that despite people loving to hear him sing, he is not respected as a singer. “There is no value for talent in Kashmir,” said Noor. “But I never lost hope. I am sure one day people will respect me for my talent.”
Despite little earning and no recognition Noor wants his son to follow his footsteps. “I don’t want this art to die with me. I want to pass it on so that Kashmiri sufians music stays.”
Noor, who boosts of memorising more than two hundred Kashmiri sufi songs, feels humiliated when he has to travel hundreds of kms just to feed his family. “One of my sons recently purchased a guitar and asked me to help him play. It made me very happy,” said Noor. “At least someone will carry on my legacy.”