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The Arts

Meet the Rapper From J&K Who Is Trying To Keep a Remote Language Alive

Vicky Manhas is perhaps the only rapper in Bhaderwahi – a scriptless language which is slowly fading into extinction.

Lok Pu’zay Zem’mu Té Dilli,
Tu Me’ri Gai’ta Bhalesh’shere Chilly

People have reached so far forward like Jammu and Delhi;
you are still lagging here in the remote region like Bhalessa’s Chilly village

Pent’ann Te Talli, Te Rubber’ere Boot
Saa’lay Ma Mel’tu Thu Khali Eak Suit,
Gishi Gishi Boota Keri Kad’tay Thi Jaan,
Yaad Mi Ajjay Az Mere Bhagwan.

Patching the pants, using rubber shoes,
when we get only a single suit in a year.
I recall wearing the rubber shoes over
and over until they were worn out, Oh My God!

These lines in Bhaderwahi language – a native language of Jammu’s Chenab region – sound like a poet’s lament about remaining stuck in a landlocked world. But they don’t belong to a poet. 

Meet 28-year-old Bikram Singh Manhas, better known by his stage name Vicky Manhas, who’s perhaps the only rapper in Bhaderwahi – a scriptless language which is slowly fading into extinction.

According to the 2011 census, 1.2 lakh people spoke Bhaderwahi as their first language in Jammu and Kashmir’s far-flung Chenab region. But if recent local survey estimates are to be believed, there are only about 50,000 people who speak the language. 

It’s this concern which has forced Manhas to blend his unique skills of composing and producing songs in Bhaderwahi and present them to the world. Be it ‘On The Road’ or ‘Pahadi Jawala’ or ‘Bhaderwahi Mashup’, Manhas’ songs are not only on YouTube, Amazon and various other streaming platforms but are sung at weddings and birthday parties too.

Vicky Manhas recording the video for his new song, “Ish’hi Bhad’layi Bha’sha”(Our Bhaderwahi Language). Photo: Anzer Ayoob

From habit to passion 

Even though he was passionate about music since his childhood, Manhas did not think of pursuing it as a career. His brush with rap started when he was in his sixth class. But it was a tragedy which made him commit to music.

During his school days, Manhas would simply jot down lyrics and then record them on his phone. His raw attempts at music would then be shared among his friends – there was no YouTube or WhatsApp then. “I used to listen to rap and was also writing for a long time, but I didn’t take it seriously until my younger brother passed away due to a motorcycle accident in 2014,” he recalled. “When I checked my brother’s mobile phone after his death, there were only my songs. That day, I promised myself that I would fulfil my brother’s dream of becoming a rapper.” 

Manhas, a native of Thathri village in Jammu’s Doda district, shuttles between a shop and the makeshift studio in his bedroom. After his brother’s death, Manhas left his post-graduation course in Management midway to take care of his family. But the flame of his passion didn’t die. The father of an 11-month-old daughter, Manhas’ music production skills are self-taught. 

“I come from a region where we don’t have any music institute where I can learn to make beats or edit videos. And if I needed to learn at an institute outside my region, it would cost me lakhs of rupees,” underlined Manhas. “I simply watched tutorials on YouTube, but at first I was unable to practise them, but slowly I bought some instruments so that I can at least practise.” 

Manhas recorded his first rap in 2015 and named it ‘On the Road’. The rap is about Vicky’s lifestyle and personal life, his culture. It was mostly in his native language. He shared the song via WhatsApp with people in his native town. The audio became viral in the locality overnight, earning him appreciation calls and messages from locals. 

“I was surprised that my freestyle rap audio went viral,” he said. “Even more surprising was that it was the first time the Bhaderwahi language was used to rap.” 

From that day, Manhas decided to promote his native language in his rap songs. Currently, he has around 60 videos on his YouTube channel, which includes mostly Bhaderwahi rap songs and some other Pahadi and Hindi rap songs also. Manhas has more than 5,000 subscribers on YouTube and about 4,000 followers on Facebook. The most popular songs – at least going by the number of comments – are the ones in Bhaderwahi.  

Also Read: For Kashmir’s Only Female Rapper, the Anguish of Her Generation is Her Inspiration

A blend of lifestyle and culture 

Manhas raps mostly about lifestyle and local culture in his songs. 

In his first Bhaderwahi rap, he said, “Hey! Bhadlayi Lagtay Tere Pat Mel’ow, Pi’ta Na’chay!” Kuyi Ze’ra Shiva kero Chaylo, Kuye Pasand ann Dhauns’ere Taal, Ba’jai Mi Nach Ha’thay Bendh’ta Rumaal“. This line discusses Mela Pat, a festival which dates back to the 16th century, when Mughal emperor Akbar was impressed by the miraculous spiritual power of Raja Nagpal, the ruler of Bhaderwah principality, at the Mughal Court. His powers were attributed to the blessings of the serpent God Nag Raj Vasuki. 

In another line, he says, “Tere Saam’ny Su’baar, Mere Jant’leri Dhar, Tes Pa’say Duggay Na’lay Ra’tay Tero Yaar,” which promotes “Jantleri Dhar,” an unexplored tourist place and a large meadow in Doda district commonly known as Jantroon. In his rap, ‘Saran Kara Alagg’, he says, “Hu’ny Manhasa Kad’ay Pu’ray Panch Dha, Jant’lenay Chinj, Badi Mali Azma,” discussing the annual traditional three-day dangal (wrestling) competition at Jantroon.

In, ‘Choora 90’s Ka’, which is also a Bhaderwahi rap, he says, “Yaad Mi Ajjay Te Nab’bhay Kae’ro Daur, Dal Nihanay Siddi Thakki Bharmour.” This line speaks about the Manimahesh yatra, a Hindu traditional pilgrimage for which local Bhaderwahi people visit Bharmour, a place in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. 

Interestingly, more than any other part of Jammu and Kashmir, the Bhaderwahi language finds a striking similarity with the culture of Himachal Pradesh – which shares its borders with the region. 

“In most truck or minibuses, the songs that are played are Himachali,” said Manhas. He connected with different artists of Pahadi culture in Himachal Pradesh. His next song is a collaboration with Himachal’s Sirmur-based singer Rajesh Tyagi. The song aims to connect Himachali and Bhaderwahi cultures.

An ignored Language

Zargar Adil Ahmad, a linguist and researcher who has worked on the Bhaderwahi language, said that it is a Pahari language. Quoting 19th-century Irish linguist G.A. Grierson’s work, Ahmad said that the word ‘Pahari’ applies to the group of languages spoken in the sub-Himalayan hills extending from Bhaderwah, north of Punjab, to the eastern parts of Nepal. 

Besides Bhaderwahi, according to Ahmad, the group of Western Pahari languages also included Bhalessi and Paddari languages. But the distinct identity and culture of the region never got due attention from the government. 

In September 2020, the parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill, which made Hindi, Kashmiri, and Dogri the official languages of the Union Territory. With this, locals in the Chenab valley felt ignored. 

“The Chenab region’s culture, literature, and history were almost completely obscured so that they could rule us by imposing their own culture. But the reality is that our region has a distinct culture and history from both Jammu and Kashmir,” said Jalal Din (70), popularly known as Taskeen Badanvi, a prominent poet and writer from the Doda district. 

Din also rued the lack of efforts in promoting the Bhaderwahi language at the social and institutional level. “There was a time when there were mushairas in the Bhaderwahi language. Many Bhaderwahi poets attend them to promote the language with their poems. But now we rarely see these types of programs,” said Din, who’s affiliated with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture, and Languages, a cultural organisation of the government. 

Perhaps, that’s why Din is all praises for Manhas’ peppy songs in the language. “He writes well,” Din explained. “He is doing a good job of promoting Bhaderwahi. His songs resonate with the pulse of our youth.” 

The Chenab passing through the Doda district in Jammu & Kashmir [image by: Raqib Hameed Naik]

The Chenab passes through the Doda district in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Raqib Hameed Naik

A long road ahead 

Meanwhile, Manhas is still figuring out the trajectory of his career. While he’s yet to make any money from his work, he’s sure someday he will. 

As of now, he’s content with the love he’s getting from the people of Chenab valley. His father, Ishwar Singh Manhas, a retired veteran of the Army, feels the same. “I feel so proud of my son when someone praises his talent in front of me,” he said. 

But for Manhas, the road ahead is literally as well as figuratively full of challenges. “I come from a remote area where I don’t have many options or opportunities here to grow my talent,” he shared. 

It’s this reality which has compelled Manhas to choose social media and video-sharing platforms to make his music audible to the outside world. 

“I want my region to get some recognition from government officials,” he pointed out. “I also want tourists to have a glimpse of our culture and region so they travel to this region as well.” 

Anzer Ayoob is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir and is the founder of The Chenab Times. He can be reached @AnzerAyoob on Twitter.