A Muslim Woman who teaches Kirtan...
On a lazy afternoon in the summer of 2000, at a gurudwara in Srinagar, devotees were listening to Kirtan when a young woman took centre stage. Initially nobody gave a second look, but the sweet voice soon cast a spell over the gathering. Everyone listened in rapt attention, and soon they joined in the singing.
After the Kirtan ended, the people were curious to know more about the young singer and were surprised to discover that the 16-year-old was a Muslim. Blessings and applause followed, and Tasleema Langoo became a mini-celebrity amongst the small Sikh community in Kashmir.
Today, Tasleema is an accomplished teacher and singer of Kirtan in the Valley, and the only Muslim to do so. Members of the Sikh community are full of praise for the young woman, saying she “takes us nearer to our own religion”.
With the current civil unrest, curfews and shutdowns restricting people's movement in the Valley, Tasleema's classes have also taken a break. But she is hopeful that once normalcy returns, so will her classes. “The students, many of whom are outside the Valley, are regularly in touch with me on phone and waiting for the next classes,” she says.
Tasleema belongs to a family of musicians. Her great grandfather used to sing for Maharaja Pratap Singh, while her grandfather, Ghulam Qadir Langoo, was a court singer for Maharaja Hari Singh, the last monarch of Kashmir. Her father, Abdul Majeed Langoo, teaches music at a women's college.
Her interest in Shabad Kirtan took root when, as a six-year-old, she watched her father's Sikh students learning to play the tabla and harmonium for Shabad Kirtans.
“Our family is closely associated with music and I get to hear all types of music but, curiously, Shabad Kirtan would always excite me the most,” says Tasleema. “I started helping the students with their instruments and they, in turn, wrote shabads in the Urdu script for me.” When she began singing the shabads in her father's class, her mesmerising voice captivated not just the other students but also their parents, who began dropping in to listen to her melodious renditions. Tasleema began teaching the music when she was just 14. As she could not read the Granth Sahib in Punjabi, her father bought her a copy of the Sikh holy text in Urdu from Amritsar. Her father also helps her in the composition of new Shabads.
It was on the insistence of her students and their parents that Tasleema first sang at a gurudwara. Her fame soon spread and she was invited to sing at more gurudwaras both within and outside the State. “I got invitations almost every week. I sang at 'Chhathi Padshahi Srinagar', the biggest in Kashmir,” she says with pride. “People also invited me for Baisakhi and other festivals.”
But her high point was when she was asked to perform at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 2007. Her sweet voice brought tears to the eyes of many. An old woman hugged her and kissed her hands, saying, “You are the voice of Sikh women and an honour to the Sikh community.” The woman then removed her gold earrings and gifted them to the stunned singer.
“That was so moving. It is one of the biggest compliments I have received so far,” says Tasleema. “But she didn't know that the girl she was praising was not a Sikh but a Muslim from Kashmir,” she chuckles.
After her recitation at the Golden Temple, the Sikh religious leader Harbans Singh visited her house to thank her. When he heard of her work over the years he complimented her, saying, “You are doing a big favor to our community.”
The girl who left studies after high school has till date trained more than 200 Sikh boys and girls in Shabad Kirtan. Residing in Srinagar's congested Shaheed Gunj area, and that too close to a mosque, she has carried on her work in an atmosphere of complete harmony, facing no opposition whatsoever from members of her family or community.
“After hearing the shabad recitation, the Imam Sahib (priest) of our mosque once came to my class, blessed me and told me that I was doing a wonderful job,” recalls Tasleema.
Tasleema has never felt any conflict between her religion and her passion. “The basics of all religions are the same as they lead to one Supreme God,” she says and recites her favorite shabad —
kareemaa(n) reheemaa(n) alaah thoo gana(n)aee ||
O beautiful Lord, benevolent and merciful Lord, You are so wealthy and generous.
haajaraa hajoor dhar paes thoo(n) mana(n)aee ||1||
You are ever-present in every presence, within and before me. ||1||
“I start my day with Nimaz (morning prayers) and recitation from the Quran,” she says. “After that I open Guru Granth Sahib, memorise a new Shabad and compose it for my students with the help of my father.”
She hopes that sometime in the future she can open an institution where Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and people from any religion can come together to learn singing.