Culture takes max toll in conflict: Abhay Sopori

For someone who recorded his first song at the age of three and has been credited for introducing the concept of concept of ‘Sufi Music Ensemble’ titled ‘Sufi Kinship’ in 2011 featuring 35 musicians and Santoor led ‘Indian Classical Music Ensemble’ in 2014 featuring 25 musicians, award-winning Kashmiri Santoor player, Abhay Sopori, who recently debuted as a composer in Hindi cinema with the film ‘Shikara’ feels culture holds a very low priority in the country.

“And when conflict engulfs a region, culture takes the maximum toll — like in Kashmir’s case. Owing to a drastic decline in cultural activity in the valley in the past three decades, many musicians didn’t get their share of recognition, be it light, folk or Sufiana music. In this fight between earning a livelihood and musicianship / music & cultural development, the latter lost to the basic needs of survival of a musician,” says Sopori, grandson of late Pt. Shamboo Nath Sopori, hailed as the ‘Father of Classical music’ in J&K and son of Pt. Bhajan Sopori.

Working on several projects post ‘Shikara’, the musician recalls Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film as a wonderful experience. “I feel fortunate to have brought authentic sounds of Kashmiri music into mainstream cinema and the fact that the director gave me much creative freedom.”

Wanting to become a hockey player as a child, to studying management in his 20’s, Sopori ultimately came back to music. “While as a school student, I was into multiple activities like music, sports, fine arts, etc. but was always passionate about music. I have worked hard for this as my style of playing Santoor — the ‘Sopori Baaj’ created by my father, and attaining perfection in it comes only through hard work and rigorous practice. Academics and sports have definitely helped widen my outlook towards everything,” says this Gandhi Global Peace Prize awardee.

Considering the fact that in his Sufiana Gharana and family, learning music is mandatory, but the choice of taking it up as a profession is given to every individual, Sopori adds that much emphasis is also laid on formal education and that cannot be escaped as an excuse of learning music or performing. “Precisely why everyone in the family is highly qualified, lending a very different kind of refinement both to the being and as a musician,” says Sopori, who also learnt vocal, sitar and tabla as they are also part of his family lineage.

The musician, who has learnt both Indian and Western classical, Kashmiri Sufiana, Sufi, and Folk feels that his combined knowledge of various genres, has helped me both as a performer and composer. “As a performer it’s easy for me to do meaningful and innovative collaborations and as the latter, knowledge of various folk cultures always comes in very handy. Learning always leads to refinement and opens more doors to creative experiences,” says Sopori, the first Indian Classical musician to be invited at the International conference TEDx.

His doctoral thesis on the music and culture of Kashmir aims to acquaint people with musical traditions of the valley, and also help clear many misconceptions including the one about the origin of Santoor. Sopori adds, “Yes, in a way my thesis is actually like a correction of musical & cultural history of Kashmir. Many historians with vested interests have been quoting an incorrect cultural history of Kashmir, trying to prove that the valley was culturally barren, and the scenario changed only after some external influences. My thesis will prove how Santoor has its origins in Kashmir.”

Known for his international collaborations including those with the Vienna Boys Choir, Moroccan Flutist Haj Younis and Darius Saghafi, feels that such alliances are instrumental in bringing forth multiple dimensions of a musician. “For example, when I collaborated with the Vienna Boys choir, I played their music and they sang the traditional Kashmiri Tarana composition of my ancestors,” says the musician who has revived the old Sufiana compositions of his predecessors and adopted them in the Indian Classical scenario, besides writing and composing new Khayal Bandishes.

Though he represents the ninth generation of musicians in his gharana which boasts of several great names, Sopori, who also conducted along with Zubin Mehta in Kashmir (2013) smiles that he does not really feel any pressure. “For me the Sopori – Sufiana Gharana, with over 300-year-old Shaivite – Sufi parampara, is my biggest asset. Just the thought of being born into this great legacy makes me strong. I think this responsibility of centuries old legacy has given me strength as a musician.”

Talking about his ‘Music Initiative’, a policy decision, which not only focused on introducing music to children from elementary level at schools but also its inclusion as a professional stream in J&K colleges, Sopori says, “This also created major job opportunities for the youth in the field of music. We have been striving for a great cultural & educational policy for decades and this was a small step in that direction. I have always believed that music has an enormous impact on the growth and development of a child. It can go a long way in building concentration, patience and refining a person’s personality.”