Exactly a year after Ali Safuddin channelled passion and prowess into ‘Wolivo’, unarguably the best rock album of its year, a young band comprising three not-so-young Kashmiri men has dived straight for the deep end with their debut album. Gaekhir Republik unabashedly demonstrates that their home, a place historically described as both a paradise and a hell —or even a social experiment depending on the prevailing sentiments of the time— has now turned into a fertile ground for unrestricted creativity. But, of course, the notion of transformation is misleading, as is the lack of restriction on anything in Kashmir. The truth is, Kashmir has always been a crucible for evocative and passionate expression, the blunt realities of the last four years notwithstanding.
Not too long ago, Gaekhir Republik was just a group of friends, grown men with grown-up lives, who cheekily revelled in the irony of strumming and singing under the open sky in a place deeply acquainted with arbitrary and enforced lockdowns. Between late 2020 and early 2022, while the rest of the world was catching up with the idea of being forced to stay indoors, Sarfaraz Javid, Suhail Ahmad, and Mohsin Hassan got together and jammed. And created an expression for the stasis which is life in a severed, remote-controlled part of the world. Drawing from their collective experiences and melding genres of rock, blues, prog and jazz with Ladishah, a whimsical folk storytelling tradition, they crafted something truly unique in sound and staggering in quality.
When Mir Kashif Iqbal, co-founder and former member of Bangalore-based rock outfit Parvaaz and a childhood friend of Suhail and Mohsin, took the helm of production and recorded a demo of Gaekhir Republik’s original compositions, the magic was instant and undeniable. The alchemical collaboration bore ‘Mandnyan Shaam’, an album firmly anchoring Kashmir as a foremost wellspring of extraordinary music from the subcontinent. Besides Kashmir’s haunting omnipresence, any further attempt to pigeonhole the diverse songs on the album into specific categories would be a futile endeavour. Musically, the wide range of moods makes for a powerful and intense experience, not just a whirlwind, but a full-blown storm. And a storm is what the hour demands.
The opening track, ‘Poanso’, a bluesy rock ballad, satirises the corrosive influence of money on human bonds and purity from the perspective of a shopkeeper observing the world from his cash counter. It draws parallels to its corruption even in supposed paradises, much like Kashmir. An obvious contender for the coolest title aside, ‘Jazz Ahmad Jazz’ gives an absurdist flip to a Kashmiri rhyme, lamenting the insidious deception that has infiltrated society through political machinations. Up next, ‘Zaagaan’ is deceptively soft as it does not hold back, diving headfirst into the trauma of enforced disappearances and the enduring pain they bring. Beneath the overarching sadness, lies the perennial anxiety of being Kashmiri, a theme poignantly explored in the title track, ‘Mandnyan Shaam’ while ‘Nundkol’ deepens the pain of separation and longing with its sparse arrangement, underscoring the universal yearning for love and spring’s beauty.
In a world marred by despair and isolation, hopelessness is natural, which is hauntingly portrayed in ‘Khauftan Baange’. ‘Wobah’, a prog rock gem, explores embracing pain as a constant companion, evolving into a groovier and more psychedelic texture. ‘Gamut Matsar Shahras Manz’ introspectively revisits the past, offering a gentle pause to reflect on the many changes and their impact. In ‘Tse Be Te Blues’, Ladishah is most masterfully entwined with rock, lamenting materialistic pursuits and the erosion of Kashmiri purpose.
The fusion of Ladishah lends the compositions a cinematic narrative, occasionally offering a satirical edge that softens the underlying melancholy somewhat. Primarily credited to Sarfaraz, a man of few words, the poetry eloquently conveys the challenges and upheaval of conflict, as well as universal human experiences, with a defiant and urgent tone. Beyond the lyrical brilliance, the overall production underscores the album's immersive and expansive soundscape. Kashif adds a raw, visceral edge to the band's unique voice through his production, creating high-art that embodies the true spirit of Rock and Roll at its exhilarating best.
Kashmir’s renaissance in music over the last decade is undoubtedly about more than recent events. After all, the musicians have over a thousand years of history to draw from. But then, it is emphatically about those events too, because art evolves in continuity, remaining in sync with society and politics. Gaekhir Republik’s debut is a radical fusion of cross-cutting genres that ultimately serves as an indispensable testament to all that should never be forgotten. Kashmir may hush its voice, but the fervour of Kashmiris only grows louder.
(Mohit Kilam is a screenwriter and producer, based in Mumbai. A Kashmiri Pandit, he was born in Srinagar and raised in Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)