Food

The flavours of Kashmiriyat

Abhay Sopori at Chutney Bar +Tandoor in New Delhi’s The Metropolitan Hotel   | Photo Credit: Photo: V. Sudershan

His music transports listeners to the pristine Valley. Santoor exponent Abhay Sopori has a knack for mesmerising listeners with his mellifluous music and his art of communication on stage. Whether he is performing alongside Zubin Mehta on the sprawling gardens of Srinagar or playing the ancient stringed instrument in a packed auditorium in Delhi, Abhay is immersed in the process of keeping alive the tradition of his family which has been playing santoor for over nine generations.

It is impossible to strike a conversation with Abhay without referring to the Valley as his spellbinding music revolves around Kashmiryat. Along with his illustrious father Bhajan Sopori, he is credited with keeping alive the syncretic traditions of the State. Like in music so also in life, Abhay has made his mission to take the rich musical heritage of his forefathers to the new generation.

Relishing red meat at Chutney Bar+Tandoor restaurant at The Metropolitan Hotel, Abhay agrees to non vegetarian dishes if they aremild on spices and be served with yoghurt.

Our conversation begins with yakhni soup, and a few spoonfuls are enough to take Abhay to his childhood days in Kashmir. “I grew up with three distinct styles of cooking. On a regular basis, I ate at dadi and nani’s place and my home. My grandfather, late Pandit Shamboo Nath Sopori, was not fond of spices in kaliya, yakhni and paneer. On the other hand, nanaji, late Prof. Dina Nath Madan, liked more spices in roghan ghosh. And I prefer eating our traditional food with its usual meat dishes but low on spice.”

Interestingly, Abhay recalls how heavy meat dishes were eaten sparingly even in harsh winters. “In winters, we would begin our day with light healthy food. In breakfast freshly baked rotis were procured from Fatehkadal and we would put butter and jam before polishing them off.

At home, Abhay’s mother would make sure that he did not overeat. “Rista (moon shaped ball of minced meat) cannot be eaten on a daily basis as one would fall ill as the fat and oil content is too much Rogan josh is prepared daily in our house. However, spices and mustard oil are kept at bare minimum.”

When it comes to food, Abhay says, Kashmiris come straight to the point, the main dishes. “Our cooking slightly varies. While Pandits fry mutton pieces which they call kabargah, the Muslims call it tabakmaaz. We marinate it with milk or yoghurt, while they retain the fat. We eat maats after removing the fat and they have rista. I enjoy both styles and have eaten at Muslim homes for so many years.”

Born in the Valley in 1979, when Kashmiriyat was a way of life,Abhay his childhood was the most beautiful which a child can ever get. He would play cricket and break window-panes of neighbours.

“Even then not a word was said to me. Today, after such incidents people end up calling police. At that time theconcept of neighbourhood was prevailing in sentiments and emotions. When the mother of my childhood friend Zahoor Shah started getting worried about her son’s marriage, she asked me to select the bride. The couple is happily married and my relation with his wife is such that if he speaks in a harsh tone, she calls me up and tells me what bhai was doing.”

Music soothes the mind and its message of peace was resonated when Abhay’s partnered with world famous conductor Zubin Mehta at Ehsaas-e-Kashmir in Srinagar. It made the world wake up to enchanting music of the State.

“First time in the history of music we had this sort of fusion music where folk musicians played the composition with symphony orchestra of Zubin Mehta. Kashmiri musicians are the only folk musicians in our country who have the calibre to play with orchestra. The mix of illiterate musicians and those who cannot play music without reading amazed the world. They mug up the compositions but cannot remember everything. So coordination is an art; I have to use my communication skills to make them understand.”

Abhay, who is endeavouring to take his trapezoid shaped string instrument to mainstream, is trying to elicit Mehta’s support again. “It is such an expensive affair that without government support it cannot be executed.”

While munching chicken seek kebab and shammi kabab, Abhay says when Zubin Mehta called up he was bold enough to inform him that the Kashmiri folk musicians were remembering their lines. “Zubin Sir inquired why that was the case. I told him they were unlettered and he was shocked and wondered how they would play at the venue without reading. I told him that I can experiment with them because they are outstanding musicians.”

The fact that music brings cheer and happiness into the lives of the people in the Valley was testified again when Abhay organised SaMaPa Festival in February/March this year.

“We had 90 concerts at various places including Sopore, Baramulla, Bandipur, Kupwara, all militancy-hit areas. We got an overwhelming response, people were so emotional and lapped up our music that what was a two hours event lasted for six hours.”

Abhay, whose forefathers have been eminent educationists in Kashmir, is now on a quest to unravel how santoor can help indisposed persons to recover. And to fulfil his objective, he is pursing his Ph.D. in music. “Santoor impacts human body; texture of sounds on human cells is a proven fact. When saints in the Valley were meditating they would come close to their objective while hearing my father’s music. They would tell him that what they could do in days was managed in only two hours. So I want to experiment and demonstrate the affect of sound on human body. Doctors in the U.S. are interested and know sound help patients to recover. This would be beneficial in medical science. To work with them I have to be a research scholar and am about to submit my thesis.”

Our conversation draws to a close with gulab jamuns . A few bites and Abhay tells me an interesting anecdote from his recent visit to Srinagar. “In my free time I went to Fatehkadal to see my maternal grandfather’s house. I came across a senior citizen who recognised me. When I told him my name in the next three minutes the entire mohalla came down to greet me. They roared in unison that Madan sahib’s grandson is here. So the ten minutes stay turned out to be two hours. Everyone wanted me to have kahwa at their home. Their eyes swelled with tears.”

As we part ways, I realise why Abhay eats his meal with curd. Good old habits die hard.


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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 12:47:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/The-flavours-of-Kashmiriyat/article16805812.ece

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