Pundits and Muslims dance to the same folk songs

The beauty of the Mehndiraat function is that it goes beyond the concept of religion

Mehndi (henna) is an auspicious item in many weddings. In Kashmir, this function is an all-night festival celebrated by both Pandits and Muslim Kashmiris.

Delhi resident Rajinder Raina has booked Kashmiri folk singers for his daughter’s wedding in Delhi. “We hired these Kashmiri folk singers for our Mehndiraat function as they represent our age-old culture. A lot of people prefer DJs to live music, but it won’t be our culture, it won’t be part of us.

This tradition of live music is still alive at wedding functions; lately, he’s been bludgeoning with DJs to entice the younger generation to attend. Since they prefer faster music and beats, these traditional musicians also play a speed number or sing along in tempo to rock with the crowd.

The function is mainly held in a wedding hall where a separate enclosure is made for the folk singers. The event begins with the application of mehndi (henna) to the palms and feet of the bride and groom; meanwhile, professional folk singers tune their instruments or host a tea party.

Sheer chai (salty tea), Kashmiri kahwa and Lipton tea are served to guests and singers throughout the night. The singers are also offered cigarettes or the traditional hukkah.

The singing group is joined by a bacchakout (a dancer who dresses like a woman). The dancer wears a long colorful skirt and a top. Bacchakout is the main host of the event who calls and persuades the guests to come on stage and dance at the wedding.

The musicians use tumbakhnaari, nott (matka), sarangi and harmonium. Almost all the top professional singers in the valley like Raj Begum, Zoon Begum, Ghulam Hassan Sofi, Ghulam Ahmed Sofi (Amma Kaandhur) Ghulam Nabi Doolwal, Ali Mohd Sheikh, Gopi Nath Bhat (Gupa Bacha) and many more were great Mehndiraat artists.

Anil Koul, who has been singing at such weddings for 27 years, says, “I live in exile and this music took me to my hometown, Srinagar, for performances.

“Due to the migration of the Pandits from the valley, the cultural heritage is slowly dying in the community and to keep this language and culture alive, these folk songs are important.”

For youngsters, Koul has created a fusion music track where traditional and hit Bollywood songs are played. His troupe performs across India and mixes songs to be relevant to audiences.

The harmony between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims can be seen in this event when the Kashmiri Muslim artist starts the mehndi feature with a Ganesh Vandana.

For them, this art is also a source of income. The event also bridges the gap between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims who lost their connection after the Pandit migration.

Mohammad Aslam Kak, originally from Srinagar, is the Bacchakout of the Koul troupe.

Kak describes how he has been intrigued by music since childhood and is now a professional dancer in Kashmir. He says “Due to activism, many lives have been destroyed and it is affecting my livelihood as well.”

He says he earns less in Kashmir than elsewhere in India due to constant militant attacks and occasional closures.

“Militancy has engulfed Kashmir but not everyone is militant. Some are artists like us who are just struggling to support their families,” Kak says, pointing out that militancy has no religion as every Kashmiri community is under attack.

He says that even though people identify with different religions, in the end only humans (insaan) lose their lives.

However, Kak is still optimistic about his livelihood as his profession gives him the opportunity to get out of his hometown and perform across India.

The beauty of the Mehndiraat function is that it is beyond the concept of religion. Pandits and Muslims sing and dance to the same folk songs.

It’s not just an age-old insight into cultural representation. These events give hope that peace and communal harmony in Kashmir can prevail, and that the two communities can live together as they did before the terror began in the valley.

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