The day his phone rang, announcing to him his troupe’s selection for the 11th Bal Sangam festival, at Delhi’s National School of Drama earlier this month, Shah-e-Jahan Ahmad Bhagat was in Kupwara. His prepaid phone worked because he was in the border area; had he been home in Budgam, he would have never received the call. The play, Gosain Pathar, that Bhagat brought to NSD, was the same that the director had acted in as a child artiste in Bal Sangam in 1998. As he and artistes of his National Bhand Theatre group were preparing to leave for the festival in Delhi, it snowed in Kashmir, blocking the roads.
The over-100-days lockdown had ensured that they couldn’t practise or perform. Blasts, in the past, have destroyed their costumes and instruments. This time, they could rehearse only for 10 minutes in the evenings, behind closed doors, keeping their voices low.
Kashmir is exemplary of its mehmaan-nawazi, says Bhagat, a spitting image of the comic and writer Varun Grover. That hospitality reflects in the play Gosain Pathar, which is also a story of unrequited love. The play — classical music from the musicians sitting at the back heightening the action playing out in the front — harks back to a time when Brahmins held sway, and saints and scholars would visit Kashmir (Sharada Peeth) to study. In one such instance, a gupali/gaupali (girl who tends to cows) would bring milk to a wali (saint), and, eventually, fall in love with him, but he remains unmoved and leaves the girl, who cries in her firaaq (separation/longing).
Bhagat’s ancestors have been performing the folk theatre form, bhand pathar, for seven generations, and National Bhand Theatre — comprising 50 family members and relatives in Wathora village in Budgam’s Chadoora tehsil — was formed in 1972, and registered as an NGO in 1980. Their Wathora gharana follows the guru-shishya parampara and the group has trained under Padma Shri playwright Moti Lal Kemmu (grandfather of film actor Kunal Khemu), among others.
Bhand pathar, much like jatra, moved from village to village, and began being performed at dargahs, weddings and mehfils when Sufi saints came, some 650 years ago, and people began accepting Islam, including Bhagat’s ancestors, who converted but retained their Hindu caste. Hence, the peculiar concoction of his name, Shah-e-Jahan Ahmad Bhagat.
Bhand (clown) pathar (meaning character) was born when there was no mode of communication. The clown-like messenger would carry messages to and from the king and his subjects.
Plays like Gosain Pathar, Raja Pathar, Darzi Pathar, Angrez Pathar are reflective of a certain historical age, and Chakdar Pathar had helped in doing away with the taxation system, says Bhagat, 36, who received Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in 2009. Men, traditionally, played women’s roles, and still do. Women don’t participate, “unko ijaazat nahin”, because male audience can misbehave, says Bhagat, who, at 18, opened a photography studio in Srinagar, did plays for Doordarshan, acted in serials, but eventually was urged by his father to carry the family legacy forward.
Bhagat’s multi-instrumentalist cousin, Manzoor ul Haq, 32, who has been singing Sufiana Kalam and playing sitar, santoor, surnai (aka shehnai), tabla, dhol, harmonium, saaz-e-Kashmir, since age eight, received the National Award in 2010. Haq laments that once being an artiste was a matter of great pride, their ancestors even received royal patronage. But today, he says, nobody cares. “Look at how shehnai legend Ustad Bismillah Khan, without whose music neither a wedding nor a funeral is complete, had to die in penury,” he says. It’s telling that Haq’s father and Bhagat’s father could work as a teacher and in telecommunications, respectively, while holding the reins of the theatre group, and, today, Haq has to do farming on the side, while Bhagat helps his wife with household chores.
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