In the summer of 1954, Nasrullah Mir, former Chief Secretary who was then working as a Chemistry teacher barged into a tent full of his students and inquired from them about the programme they intend to present at the concluding campfire of major NCC camp at Pahalgam. The hurried students who had no idea what even a campfire was, expressed their ignorance. To save themselves from further questioning somebody shouted that Mohammed Shafi Mir, a fellow student can sing. Despite pleadings, Mir ordered Shafi to prepare a Kashmiri song. Shafi who used to mumble only two lines of a song every now and then, had never sung before a crowd. Unable to find a way out Shafi pleaded his friends to give him company on stage and repeat whatever he sings.
At the campfire where around 1000 students, officers, teachers and locals had gathered, sweating Shafi and his party reluctantly took the stage. So he began to sing Bagi Nishat kay guloo, Naaz karan karan waloo and then there was blank. As he didn't know further lines, so in a micro second he started to improvise. He continued with Bagh e Nishat ti tael bal, tael bal ti sael e dal, Mashteran lognas taavnas, dupnam stages peth gevoa, ami apor chum ni tagaan lo lo, Bagi Nishat kay guloo...
Those who knew Kashmiri burst into laughter and non- Kashmiris thought it was a great song. There was a huge applause. Mir was seen biting his hands and the accompanying army brigadier thought Shafi had sung some inappropriate song and was equally worried. When they came to know the reality Shafi ended up winning a cash award.
The small incident proved to be a turning point in the life of Shafi who was born in a conservative strict family in 1934 in Nawakadal. “I was like born again after this incident. All my shyness, reserved nature was gone and my reluctant love of art turned into passion,” said Shafi while narrating the incident with a glee. One thing lead to another. Back to college his fame started picking up when he was called to stage to sing he obliged. When he was offered role in a drama he accepted. Somebody told him to move his body in a rhythm on stage and he found himself dancing gracefully.
During performances he became friends with Bharatnatyam Dancer Moti Lal Keemu and Trilok Das, who was known as a film actor for enacting a role of extra in a film. They encouraged him to continue dancing. He became a regular at Theatre building Basant Bagh which was dominion of big guns in the field of art at that time.
In 1958 Shafi was invited to perform a Hindu Devotional Song at Sheetal Nath Temple Habbakadal. Keemu had already taught him few steps and he had picked rest from other performers. Shafi did the show perfectly and continued to perform with Keemu on many more shows enacting Hindu Mythological stories.
“I was fascinated wth the movement of body. It was not general dance but classical dance which caught my attention. How one expresses so many things with movement of hands, legs or even eyeballs was amazing for me to see,” said Shafi.
His legacy continued to rise. Once in a college function a teacher incidentally scattered change while taking out his handkerchief. Audience erupted in applause as they thought, he was showered with money. “Amis haa chokukh futwoat,” was cry.
Field Publicity division approached him and after that Radio wanted him to perform for youth programme. All this gave him a huge exposure and immense increase in talent. Some renowned artists referred him to Cultural Academy who had started few courses taught by world renowned professionals at their Goni Khan building. “I took drawing and Classical dance but later skipped drawing on the advice of my teacher Inder Dev Saniyal from Bengal,” said Shafi who with blind dedication completed ten month course in just three months. All this was happening even as his family had no inkling what is going on with Shafi who they thought is busy with his government job at Auditor General. “They (family) would have killed me had they known it,” said Shafi. “I used to do double the work at my office just to be on time for my dance lessons at 4 pm.”
At Radio, the likes of Pran Kishore trained Shafi and others rigorously sometimes even having to keep stones in mouth to get the voice right. “For days we had to be trained before we participated in a drama in Radio. I gained a lot,” said Shafi.
With a combination of talent he bagged the main role in a stage drama called Legend of the Lake. The show with number of classical dance forms, huge costumes, professional lighting and sound arrangements was first of its type in Kashmir.
The drama revolved around the history of Kashmir as satisar and it was highly appreciated by the people and critics as for the first time it combined classical dance. The dance troupe travelled all around India performing the drama.
Such was the dedication that he barely made it to his marriage. “On the day of marriage, the barber was waiting for me so were all relatives. At the last moment I came literally running from my dance practice. When inquired I told them that I had to see off my friend whose sister's marriage was due today,” said Shafi. On the third day of marriage the crisis erupted when his wife confronted him saying, “I have heard you dance with girls.” Shocked, Shafi had to finally reveal to his wife about his activities but told him that he dances with girls and the relation is limited to stage only. He took oath in the name of Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) and this convinced her. “After that she never asked me again,” said Shafi.
With luck on his side, he experienced immense growth in the field of art. Shafi started to make operas like Himala ke Chashme, Piya baj Piyala, Tipoo Sultan, Mughal Court and so on. With every performance Shafi used to innovate and upgrade in his expressions. “I used to consult books of eminent dancers to see how they expressed emotions, dialogues and so on. I main idea was to fine tune everything,” said Shafi. "I incorporated various facets of diverse dance forms into traditional dances like Rouf and the experiments were liked.”
Shafi’s performances and productions became regular at all major events in the state. Then started appreciation of these performers. In 1989 an invitation came from Comptroller and Auditor General of India asking every regional office to perform at a cultural event. In the entire state only Shafi and his group got selected. He worked hard and even stitched his own costumes. At finals in Delhi, Shafi found himself amidst a huge number of world renowned artists from all over India.
When Shafi’s turn came audience was bowled over by his performance. He was in changing room when he was called to meet eager judges. Shafi won with flying colours and few days later the winners had to perform again. This time the organisers got Shafi new costumes ditching his self made costumes. “When asked about my performance, the judges said that they felt like legendary Gopi Kishan had come on stage,” said Shafi. “It was huge compliment for me. A Kashmiri winning the competition had happened for a first time and everyone was shocked.” Shafi became the first Kashmiri to bag a Gold Media for Bharat Natyam at this event. His teacher too got a gold medal for the first time for the performance. Prior to it Shafi received Silver Medal by Sahitya Academy Bangalore and awarded best artist in 1983-84.
A Kashmiri Muslim performing Bharat Natyam on a hindu religious song Mayya Mori Me Nahi Maakhan Khayo met with huge applause and was widely covered in press at that time. His fame reached the state too and Chief Auditor General himself came here just to see the same performance at SKICC.
The work never ceased to come him. Shafi became a renowned choreographer and choreographed more than 200 songs for Doordarshan. He also choreographed a song for documentary film Kashmira. As the situation turned violent in 90s, Shafi’s performance dramatically got scaled down. A Mumbai film crew asked Shafi to choreograph songs for their documentary Bub, Shafi agreed on the condition that the Kashmiri style has to be maintained and men and women cannot touch each other during dance. They agreed and some memorable songs were made.
A valuable contribution by Shafi, according to many has been production of five episodes of Soaz-i-Yendraaz, wherein he has documented classical and folk dances of Kashmir. “Those five episodes drained me. I spent months of research brought original jewellery and costumes, researched and dance moves of those times, taught the performers, searched for locations and ultimately recorded them,” said Shafi. “I documented dances like Hafiza Nagma, Bacha Nagma, Persian Sufi and Baand Pather. It was my dream project as I wanted to document it for posterity how traditional dance of Kashmir in original form was.”
The episodes were shot in ruins of Martand, Karewas of Budgam and other historical locations. Soaz-i-Yendraaz still continues to be in demand from experts, students and filmmakers. “I worked a lot on the expressions,” said Shafi, who is an expert in Navras, expressing nine emotions in classical dance.
Shafi even did first every Russian Ballet combination with Kashmiri opera. Had it not been untimely death of Rajendra Krishan, Shafi would have gone to Russia too.
He also directed tele-serial Song of the Valley for DD national that was later selected for Uzbekistan too.
Two things which Shafi never compromised on were commitment to Kashmiri culture and adherence to Islamic principles. Being a conservative society Shafi had to face numerous challenges. Offering Nimaz during shooting sessions for dance programmes or reciting Ayat al Kuris while in costume of Hindu deities presented an unlikely combination. “This is a slippery field and one has to always safeguard the character and Alhamdulillah God always helped me in it,” said Shafi.
But the opposition from society continued. Once a friend saw Shafi performing at Tagore Hall, he left midway mumbling Astagfirullah Astagfirullah. His relatives and friends tried to discourage him, but Shafi was too blind in his passion of classical dance to see anything else.
The journey of dance came to an end in 1998 in a dramatic way just like it started around four decades back. A high ranking Non-Kashmiri officials once called him to teach his daughter the classical dance. When Shafi asked the small school going girl to perform few steps, he was shocked at the dance which bordered vulgarity. “It was like an electric touch to my heart. I started thinking what am I doing. What is the child doing, what if she enters the world of dance and ends up exploited,” said Shafi. “I had worked throughout my life without caring for anybody's opinion but here something got hold of me and I decided enough is enough.”
In the late 90s he was approached by IGNOU to teach their students History of Music and Dance. Shafi did it for two years and overtime found his class full of students. He taught them from their own experience and culture of Kashmir.
Shafi who sports a long white flowing beard performed Hajj and immersed in his new found love of writing. He retired as senior auditor and had more time for his passion. Shafi started translating Holy Quran in poetic rendition in Hindi. The lines rhyme with each other and present an altogether new experience for listeners. When he first recited the lines in Kavi Sammelans, audience and poets loved it. “For Bismillah I translated Ishwar Ke Naam Se Aarambh Karta Hu Bakhan, Jo Dayyalu Hai Bada Hi Aur Upkari Mahaan,” said Shafi while conceding it is very difficult and painstaking process to get the right words. “We have to be careful about the meaning too. It has to be exact and nothing more or less.”
He has finished 11 Chapters of Quran and working on more. “It is a slow process as I don't have resources or help from other experts,” said Shafi who wrote many organisations and experts for guidance and help.
When Shafi recited the Hindi translation in front of former Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma at Khyber Hospital, he was stunned. “He told me that he never has heard such a translation of Quran,” said Shah. “It was a hit and got broadcast on TV and Radio too. I was encouraged and thus started my new journey.”
When Karimudin Siddiqui, Chief of Tableegi Jamaat heard Shafi recite Naat Sharief in Hindi, he pleaded him to continue doing so.
Chalo re chalo re Nabi ji (SAW) ke daam,
paawan jiske saanj ki bela,
paawan hai jis ki shaam
Chalo re chalo re Nabi ji (SAW) ke daam
Shafi also authored Arkan-e-Islam, touching various facets of Islam, but unfortunately it is yet to get published.
On his journey from one end to another, Shafi feels these are the ways of God to help a man realise his original destiny. “Even in dance there was element of God in one way or other. And in my current phase I am on a journey that makes me tread the path of God. As human we are always searching for truth and propagating the same,” said Shafi who at 83 is still active and even leads prayers.
A Kashmiri Muslim performing Bharat Natyam on a hindu religious song Mayya Mori Me Nahi Maakhan Khayo was met with huge applause and was widely covered in press at that time.