Noor Mohammad Shah had always happily lived a life of obscurity. Born in a small village in the conflict-ridden state of Kashmir in India, Shah had been introduced to the mystical world of Sufi music as a child and for decades since had made a meagre but fulfilling living singing traditional songs and performing on his rabab, a lute-like music instrument, at weddings and village festivals.
Yet it was a chance encounter between Shah and a group of young men, who happened to pass by as the god-fearing musician was playing his instrument on a dusty street corner, that would propel him into becoming one of Kashmir’s most famous modern rabab musicians.
That day, the men asked Shah to perform for them, and as he leaned against a car wheel and began to sing, in his raw and soft voice, a traditional Sufi song of lost love and cups of wine, one of the group filmed it on their phone and uploaded it to YouTube.
“It was my first video,” said Shah, 55, who had previously had no interaction with the online or digital realm. A man of few words, he added: “Since this mobile thing happened, my life has changed.”
Unbeknownst to Shah, the grainy clip went viral and caught the attention of several Indian record labels and musicians. Among them was Muhammad Muneem, an engineering graduate who co-founded one of Kashmir’s most popular bands, Alif.
Muneem and Shah recorded a duet together, Ride Home, released in December 2018, which has had more than 3.5m hits on YouTube. It was to change the course of Shah’s life, and was the first of several hugely popular releases since. He became an overnight celebrity in Kashmir and began to be invited to perform across India, in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur.
“When Ride Home released, Noor called me a few days later and said people on the street were stopping him and wanting to take pictures with him,” Muneem said.
Shah’s rise to fame across India was extraordinary not only because of his background but because of the music he was performing.
The tradition of Sufi singers in Kashmir who perform in mehfils, the gatherings of dervishes, dates back many centuries. However, the music and songs had gradually been fading into oblivion, as a violent separatist insurgency enveloped the region from the 1990s onwards and a stricter form of Islam took hold, putting an end to much of the nightlife and gatherings where the songs were traditionally performed.
Most of Shah’s generation of Kashmiri folk artists and musicians had retired and the government-run television channels and radio stations had stopped playing the songs, which were considered archaic and outdated by the next generation.
Yet Shah’s rise to fame has been credited for giving this traditional music a new lease of life by pushing it back into the mainstream and attracting a new, younger audience. His most recent song, Janaan, was released on Zee Music, one of India’s biggest entertainment companies, and the video, featuring him playing his rabab, has had more than 2m views on YouTube.
The popularity of Shah has also inspired Muneem to track down and document more musicians who once performed Sufi songs in Kashmir and put videos and recordings of their music on YouTube in order to preserve and promote the fading musical traditions.
“We are documenting these old-school artists, who are our gems and have been around for a very long time,” said Muneem. “If we don’t, we will lose them.”
His fame has barely touched Shah, who still lives a simple life and said he was grateful that people now wanted him to perform in places outside the remote villages of Kashmir. “When I started, the Kashmiri folk was forgotten by many, the language was forgotten,” he said. “Now it feels good.”