A lesser-known casualty of the conflict in Kashmir was Bhaand Pather, a dramatic art form performed for centuries by wandering troupes of actors in villages of the Valley. Acting was “un-Islamic”, said the militants in the Pir Panjal range. And old bhaands were pushed into penury while the younger ones began working as labourers and traders.
It was more than a decade after the last major bhaand show that a new performance was announced in Akingam village, 70 km south of Srinagar. The play was called Badshah Pather, the first bhaand adaptation of King Lear, whose folly in dividing his kingdom left a trail of misfortune and pain.
Directed by MK Raina, a Kashmiri who had trained at the National School of Drama in Delhi, Badshah Pather was performed in in 2012 in the open and watched by 3,000 people from the hillsides. As old Lear stumbles and falls, all doors are shut on his face. The erstwhile monarch looks at the dark clouds in the sky and breaks into a classical song in Sufiana kalam, written by an unknown fakir more than 600 years ago. The deep voice of Ali Mohammed Bhagat, the great bhaand, who was playing Lear, rose up from the stage and hung over the hills where no song had played since the beginning of militancy in the region in the 1990s.
Kaza gach mo bal paanas/ Gachan yaawon kotye totu/ Yete chon te houn malun/ Soor me youn duveth ney ta/ Aavreni bal/ Aavreni bal (Autumn will descend on youth/ Where does the youth disappear/ There only/ Where your and my mother’s house is/ Sweep my ashes/ from the funeral ground). An ancient song had returned home and there was not a dry eye in the audience.
“It was not a time for the political writings of Brecht or Ibsen. Kashmir had been emotionally wrung and the only playwright who could appeal to its sentiments was Shakespeare. In his dramatic human relationships, we could find our own stories,” says Raina.
Bhaand Pather, like most travelling art forms, thrives on heightened expression, emotional storylines, impersonations or maskara and raucous humour. “In other words, larger-than-life figures, great drama, disguises and clowning — which is what Shakespeare’s plays are about. What was Shakespeare but a bhaand? Does bard mean anything else? More than 400 years ago, he was writing for actors who were not tech-savvy; they were bhaands,” says Raina.
Bhaand Pather, however, did not include tragedy in its repertoire and so Raina and the performers worked on dialogues full of black humour. “See that performing bear, who roams the villages of Kashmir?” asks the clown. “Even he keeps aside six months’ food before winter. You fool, even a bear is smarter than you.” There comes a sound of whiplash as Lear strikes the clown. “Bhaands carry whips, with which they hit clowns to make people laugh. While Lear dressed as a king of Kashmir, we had the jester in a colourful patchworked gown and a long cap that bhaand clowns wore. There was a thick cloth belt on his waist, where the whip would land with the sound of a pistol shot,” says Raina.
The bhaands, many illiterate, were not impressed with Shakespeare’s writing. “It is so bad, it is beyond belief,” lead actor Bhagat told Raina. “For instance, a daughter would never let her father suffer. A son might abuse his father but never a daughter,” he argued. So, Lear’s daughters — Cordelia, Regan and Goneril — turn into three shehzadas. “We progressed dialogue by dialogue over a month, while I downed cups of tea and the bhaands smoked their hookahs. The script kept changing as the bhaands improvised. By the end, they had made King Lear their own,” says Raina.
In Badshah Pather, Lear is a king whose sorrows turn him into a Sufi while his children squabble over property. “Every family has a property dispute. In the larger picture, what is the tragedy of Kashmir but a conflict over land?” says Raina.
News of the play spread by word of mouth and, when it opened, thousands came after their Friday prayers to watch. People kept coming until they flowed on to the stage where Lear stood before the draped body of his youngest son, singing Shunun poosh wanda hai/ Desh mo tuan/ha/Che no (I will cover you in the colour of peach blossoms/ but you are no more/ you are no more/ you are no more).
Soon, Badshah Pather also won over the elite of Srinagar. The play travelled to the Northeast, Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. “We have worn this play like a shawl over our body,” Raina recalls an actor telling him, “Not many playwrights could have achieved this.”