Bridging Reality and Art: Standing Over The Troubled Waters of Consciousness

By Ali Saffudin

In college, I studied a book on the various aspects of journalism. It explained, intriguingly, that the ‘news’ does not constitute reporting what happened but is actually about describing what happened. That definition challenged several of my beliefs. Following that, I asked myself some questions: for a few I was able to find answers, for others I am yet to. Is it the society we live in that shapes the arts, or do the arts shape the culture of a society? Does an artist reflect society deliberately in their work? Or is it a subconscious manifestation — does an audience just happen to find the society it inhabits, glancing at works of art?

We immerse ourselves in music early — it is a fundamental part of a society’s culture. We inherit a certain entitlement to musical experiences, without actively selecting them during our upbringing. It is only during adolescence that personal preferences start to shape musical choices. Exploring diverse art forms that resonate with their personality, individuals establish meaningful bonds with multiple artists, forging deep connections with work that transcends superficial judgements.  

I found this connection for myself in 2008. I was in my teens, and the internet had started to take root in our daily routine. Researching, ‘surfing the web’ and browsing the internet had reached my corner of the world. Although it had been around for a while, it had only now become the norm. And 2008 was also a crucial year in my artist’s journey because of the series of realizations I experienced. The political unrest which overtook Kashmir revealed realities about the place I was born and brought up in. The turmoil made me acutely aware of the conflict in the place I had always called home. During this period, I became more aware of the socio-political tensions in and around my surroundings, and started to recognise art forms that conveyed meaningful messages relating to my circumstances, like music that tends to illustrate and depend on a certain kind of self-expression. As a result, I felt the beginnings of an internal process: the forming of an artistic M.O. inside of me through which I would inextricably link art and emotion together. 

I do not recall precisely when I first heard Pearl Jam’s “Alive” or watched Into the Wild but that fine detail hardly matters. What does is their lasting impact on my consciousness. I also do not remember the playlist I was listening to the day I got my first beating from the police. They were chasing down a group of protesters and happened to catch me, a hapless bystander, and then proceeded to beat the everloving pulp out of me. All I remember is listening to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and System of a Down’s “Prison Song” that night, and thinking about a lot of things I hadn’t thought of before. 

I remember discovering bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down — their songs were beautiful articulations of pain and rage set to wonderful rhythms. Listening to their music was hard, and I was often disconcerted; but it evoked so much emotion, and gave me a sense of joy and pleasure I hadn’t experienced before. With that delight of discovering such artistes came a deep sense of introspection that tapped into a new part of my consciousness. This unlocking, if you will, changed me irrevocably. I was experiencing storytelling through the craft of songwriting. Prior to this discovery, the music I listened to was a trivial means of entertainment; now, I found that a song was a blank canvas onto which everybody could paint their emotions, music was a medium in which one could write their heart out. I learned that any song anybody had created was an extension of their personhood. It would reflect their state of mind, their faith, their beliefs, and their politics. Different people have different understandings of art, and this is mine. Art is my mirror and art is my window. 

There is a saying that there is a method to the madness of the universe, and there are moments in life when the notion of cosmic destiny makes eminent sense. So 2008 was the year when Coke Studio Pakistan launched. It was a milestone in the South Asian music community. As a teenager, I was mesmerized by Hendrix’s caterwauling guitar and spiritually elevated by the spell-binding vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali music. Coke Studio unified both ends of the auditory spectrum. I lost myself in it. Besides Coke Studio, bands like Indian Ocean and Junoon also spearheaded the idea of using the rock ’n’ roll flair of the West and blending it with the rich plethora of folk sounds of our part of the world. As a Muslim growing up in a highly militarized zone, Nusrat’s music gave me the courage to express my faith and spirituality through the art form that belonged to my home, while rock lent me the audacity to express my views freely on politics, conflict and culture. 

I could name a lot of other artists from different genres and art forms whose work spoke to me personally, but that’s not the point here. It is about identifying the empathy in art. It is about the art of rousing an emotion through the craft of a song. For every part of my work — be it recording or performing live — the intent has been to touch the heart of a fellow human. The reason I do what I do is because I have felt the power of empathy and human connection through music. As a race, we developed music as a means to temper the exigencies of our existence. Music, at times, becomes a medium which holds us together, and can act as a catalyst that helps us break asunder the unfair status quo.  

It is at this point that I reflect again on my original question: what role did the conflict-ridden society I was born in play in shaping me as an artist? As a young Kashmiri, post-2008 I could never avoid the politics of my place and station, once I was aware. I could never really escape the mammoth impact of politics and violence in our personal lives because we were and are Kashmiris. Deaths, disappearances, torture, tales of loss, the crumbling aspirations of a nation, false dreams, wrong roadmaps, and various other tragedies befall Kashmir all too often. My art, reflective as it is, could never escape it; rather, it grew entwined with it.

To be honest, sometimes I envied the carefree musicians I often came across who made music as little more than a hobby. I tried doing it but I could never quite find my place there. I also couldn’t sing about heartbreaks in a relationship because, somewhere in my mind, it was the upset of conflict that affected me far more deeply. Mix these private emotions with some larger crisis of existence and the situation became bleaker than I had thought possible. Kashmir is a stage that has long endured the brunt of perpetual political turmoil and I have seen and experienced the violence of the conflict up close. It is a place where there has always been friction between what the people feel, and the ruling regime. It constitutes a conundrum with ramifications of the issues of identity and belonging, of existence, at various levels. The people of the Valley feel a collective pathos rooted in the loss that is inflicted on a daily basis by the conflict around them. This sense of loss reflects in our language, our culture, customs, and lifestyle. 

Music might be a medium of escape for some but for me, it is my connection with my truth. It is what I have sought in artistes who have been my inspiration. As a young musician, when I discovered blues music, it opened up a new universe for me. This music was created by oppressed African-Americans with the purpose of chronicling their hurt, and the torment of those who have lost their identity. The series of renditions I did of Kashmiri folk songs like “Chol Hama”, “Mayo Chani”, “Gah Chon”, “Karyo Maz Jigars” were all based on the ethos of blues music. What the blues meant to an African-American, Kashmiri folk music meant to me. I envisioned my identity, my culture and the shared tribulations of my people in my folk music. I wrote a song called “Asaan Gindaan” which is directly inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream”. 

Music by various artistes that contributed to the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s inspired me to write songs which reflect my past, present and future as a Kashmiri. When I got the chance to record my debut full-length album, Wolivo, I felt an obligation to speak about Kashmir and the conflict. It was not an album portraying dramatic revolutionary intent but, rather, personal investment in the circumstances of my homeland. The Kashmir story is to do with my personal heartaches. I have inherited the conflict. I believe this comes from the learning of an artiste who takes the art of a place of conflict soulfully, someone who believes that music is a form of discourse. I always ask myself these two questions: “What would Bob Marley write if he was a Kashmiri?” and “Against whom would Tupac rage had he been from the Valley?”

In its traditional sense music is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to make you move, groove and at times, rise up — elated. However, while making music, I can never forget that there’s a story to tell, there’s a statement to be made. Lately, it feels like the arts in general, and artists, avoid having a social philosophy in their art form. To work for commerce is a necessity which an artist cannot escape, and it is unfair to call art created for commercial purposes wrong or unethical. 

So what happens if the arts lose the storytelling flair and the canvas of self-expression? It will still be called art, no doubt, but it will cease to have human emotion. The advent of AI-generated art is an interesting example. It would possess all the elements of an art work except the quintessentially human element of storytelling. It would lack a story that has been lived in real life, and the expression that has been experienced beforehand. In an era when the parameters to gauge music depend on numbers shown on a website as ‘views’ and ‘streams’, it is important as an artist to pay attention to the non-algorithmic accomplishments of music — establishing a connection with your listeners, when your music creates a personal space in the hearts of listeners. That is where the true triumph of the artiste lies. 

I recall performing at an event in Pahalgam, that had been organized to promote tourism there. I was trolled heavily on the internet for agreeing to perform because the event was perceived as state propaganda. But I saw it as an opportunity to use that stage to communicate what I felt as a Kashmiri. Towards the end of my set, I sang a song called “Inqlaba-O-inqalab” in which I performed a Kashmiri poem by Abdul Ahad Azad, interwoven with Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” and ending with Junoon’s “Meri Awaz Suno”. The crowd erupted; people hoisted me on their shoulders. Some non-Kashmiri tourists came up and said that they had enjoyed my performance, particularly the song at the end, as it seemed to reflect a hidden sentiment which had resonated deeply with the audience. 



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