The traffic is an incessant roar in the background as MK Raina talks about his new play, Kafan-Kafan Chor, in the garden of the Sahmat office in Delhi. He keeps his head tilted left, appearing to focus from the other side. “I can’t hear with the left ear. I lost my hearing when I was caught in a crossfire in Srinagar in 2005,” he says. The thrum of traffic does not bother him. “I am waiting to do something with this ear,” he says.
Raina is stereotyped as a storyteller of the Kashmir cause. This is reinforced — and refuted — in Kafan-Kafan Chor, which was staged as part of Three Arts Club’s annual theatre production in Delhi on November 11 and 12. Two short stories, Munshi Premchand’s Kafan and Kashmiri writer Amin Kamil’s Kafan Chor, are presented alternately as episodes through which the shroud runs as a common theme.
In the latter, Raina is politically eloquent against conflict in the Valley, using metaphors such as army helmets and weeping mothers to drive a story in which a man’s shroud is stolen from his grave. The crisis in Kafan is symbolised by a brazier on which an impoverished father and son, played strongly by Durgesh Kumar and Vipan Kumar, are roasting potatoes. Set in the Hindi heartland, the duo chats, even jokes, as the latter’s wife screams in pain, unseen, from the wings. When the shrieks subside, the men seeks out money to buy a shroud though it seems unfair to them that the woman “who never had rags in life demands a shroud in death”.
“Across the world, we are playing a game of shrouds. If you look at the map, it happened in Sri Lanka; it is still happening in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan. Who is doing it? I am not going into their politics, but there is this reality that people are getting killed helplessly.” The final scene of Kafan-Kafan Chor is Raina’s salute to Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war classic, Mother Courage, and features flags of nations such as India, Pakistan and the US.
Raina’s family came away from Kashmir in February 1990. He mentions it, then waves his hand to dismiss the experience, “because if you look at the world, you are one of the tragedies”. One memory seems to have encroached upon his new production —when Raina’s mother died, the family didn’t have a shroud as Srinagar was sealed that day. “It was Republic Day and a Friday. I went to the machine guns and said, ‘Listen, I have to go to a temple, where I can get a shroud,’” he says. Machine guns is his euphemism for the men who wield these.
Raina was born and raised in Srinagar, where the principal of the Hindu High School, the progressive literary figure Dina Nath Nadim, pushed him into school plays, “perhaps because I was learning classical music”. Amateur groups picked him up for a play or two every year and, by the time he reached college, the state sponsored him to attend the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, where Ebrahim Alkazi was the director. “We were 18 students and only eight completed the course. It was very tough at that time. We had Japanese drama, Sanskrit drama, Asian drama and a lot more in the vast syllabus,” he says. These were also the forms he explored after graduating from NSD and, famously, was banned by the Punjab government for staging The Caucasian Chalk Circle of Brecht during the Emergency. “It was a story in which the hero is away on duty and the girl finds a child to look after. Somebody told Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab, that it was against the government,” he says.
Raina kept returning to Kashmir. His first theatre workshops were “done quietly” and people came by word of mouth. In 1995, he did “two devastating summer workshops” with children of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslim families, who had seen their parents being shot. In 2012, Raina directed King Lear with a group of traditional wandering performers of Kashmir – bhaand – titled Badshah Pather. It was the first such performance after the last major bhaand show in the Valley where militants had decreed acting to be un-Islamic. “Today, the young boys have taken the initiative and are doing bhaand performances. The ball is with them, I am out,” says Raina.
In Kafan-Kafan Chor, the stage is minimalistic — an angeethi on one side and, on the other, three bamboos draped with white shrouds. With the blue lights, they recall the stark landscape of a sieged Kashmir and become larger metaphors of their own. “For a practical theatre person that I am, it is a design that will help me travel,” says Raina.