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Drumming up devotion

Majid Maqbool | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Breaking news: A ‘seher khan’ walks around Srinagar, beating his drum to wake people for their pre-dawn meal, or sehri, during the Ramzan month of fasting   -  NISSAR AHMAD

Generations in Srinagar have kept their faith, and their fast, with more than a little help from the ‘seher khans’, the human alarms popular in this part of the country

Each year, as the Ramzan month draws near, 55-year-old Mehraj din Khatana sets out for Srinagar from his remote village, Kalaroos, in northern Kashmir’s border district of Kupwara. In Srinagar, from the midnight preceding the start of the holy month and until its end, in a ritual he has followed for close to two decades now, he walks around lanes and bylanes, beating his drum and calling out to people to wake up for their pre-dawn meals, or sehri. Khatana is a seher khan, the Kashmiri name for the drummers who act as human alarms for the sehri during the fasting period.

“It makes me happy to wake up the faithful in time to help them keep their fast,” says Khatana. “More than material gains, I look at the reward from Allah for continuing this work.”

Before returning to his village a day after Eid, he goes from house to house, collecting the rice and small gifts of money that the families give him as thanks for his service.

“People give whatever they wish to and we don’t insist on any specific amount,” he says. He receives anywhere from ₹5,000 to ₹7,000 and a sack of rice from the neighbourhood he frequents. “It helps us feed our families back home for a few months,” he says.

Poverty is a way of life in Khatana’s village, even though Kupwara district is barely 100 km from the capital Srinagar. Not many own land, and on what little cultivable land there is, only maize can be grown, says Khatana.

There is little work for the villagers aside from irregular labour, so many of the men work as seher khans. Nearly 60 of them arrive annually in Srinagar and live in rented rooms in different neighbourhoods for their drumming work during the holy month. They cook the meals with which they break their fast each day.

Though they are appreciated wherever they go in Srinagar, the seher khans are in recent times finding it difficult to walk alone on the roads in the middle of the night, says Khatana. Amid the spurt in protests and violence in the Valley, especially since the killing of the militant leader Burhan Wani in 2016, army personnel have frequently stopped Khatana to question him during his rounds.

One night during the 2016 Ramzan month, he was stopped by army men in the Bagh-e-Mehtab area and held for a couple of hours.

“They also thrashed me for beating the drum,” he says. “I was released after two hours and asked to return to my village.” But he was back to drumming the very next day, he says.

The drum he beats is not his own, incidentally; like many other drummers from his village, he hires it from a neighbouring village in Kupwara. “We pay about ₹3,500 to hire a drum for a month,” he says. “And if the drum is damaged, we have to pay extra.”

Alarm clocks and mobile phones are, indeed, a threat to the livelihood of the seher khans, but they are not out of work yet, as people respect them and the drumming tradition, which dates back several decades.

Khatana’s 22-year-old son, Muhammad Altaf has been accompanying him to Srinagar for the last five years. Being younger, Altaf is quick on his feet and covers more neighbourhoods compared to his father. He works from about 2 to 3.15 am. He feels happy when he sees lights turned on in the houses he walks past with his drumming. “Some people don’t like us making noise with the drums, as they prefer to use their alarms and mobile phones to wake up,” he says.

“But more people appreciate us, especially the older generation who have grown up hearing our drums during Ramzan every year.”

He, too, had an unpleasant encounter with army personnel in the Nowgam area last year. He recalls one of the army men yelling at him, “Ye drama bund karo, wapas jao… (end this drama and go home).”

Ghulam Hassan, a 30-year-old seher khan from a Kupwara village, has been coming to Srinagar for eight years now. “In our village there is poverty, and we don’t own much land,” he says. “Every year, the month of Ramzan comes as a blessing and helps us earn some living for our families.”

He, however, finds the younger generation in his village less interested in continuing the tradition, as they want to take up an occupation that fetches more money.

“They look at the little material gains, not the Sawab (rewards) we collect every night by continuing this Ramzan tradition, which is worth more than any money we can earn out of it.”

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar

Published on June 22, 2018
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