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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Now Playing Theatre of the Valley

Political commentators with an eye on Kashmir aren’t using the term “Paradise Regained” just yet.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi |
July 29, 2012 9:07:22 pm

Political commentators with an eye on Kashmir aren’t using the term “Paradise Regained” just yet; instead,they have cautiously labelled the current period of peace a ­“healing process”. There are several signs of ­optimism — the honeymooners are back on the Dal Lake,the markets of Sonmarg,­Gulmarg and Pahalgam are bustling,and a construction boom looks imminent.

A mason from Akingam in Anantnag district,Bashir Ahmed,however,uses his own meter to judge change. “The occupation of my forefathers,a folk theatre form called Bhand Pather,which was almost dead for several years,is showing signs of a new life,” he says.

Ahmed had been a Bhand performer since childhood. “But the gunshots and blasts began in Kashmir when I was in my teens and militancy changed our lives forever. Bhand performances stopped and I found work as a mason,” he says. He last acted in 2005,when Delhi-based Kashmiri theatre person MK Raina held a Bhand workshop in collaboration with the India Foundation for the Arts in Srinagar. “I was looking for a small opening to bring back Kashmiri culture,” says Raina.

Ahmed remembers how “a kind of fire began to spread through my veins as I started to perform again. By the end of the workshop,I had decided to pursue theatre”.

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That month-long workshop was followed by several initiatives down the years,including a major play by Raina called King Lear which cast several Bhands and was staged in Delhi and across Kashmir. Ahmed reprised the role of a traditional jester by playing the Fool,and Gul Mohammed Bhagat,a well-known Bhand,played the Earl of Gloucester. The public performances,mostly held in the open,were packed,with people standing on surrounding hill slopes to watch. Ahmed says that Bhand Pather is back in demand at concerts,weddings and marketplaces. Even news reports have suggested that the revival of Bhand Pather is one of Kashmir’s biggest success stories of recent years.

In Kashmir,where the theatre of war played out for more than 20 years,obliterating all entertainment and cultural activities,the stage is among the first to have kicked back to life. Scattered across the region,groups of varying sizes are acting out their stories — from adaptations of William Shakespeare to scripts by Kashmiri writers such as Syed Yakub Dilkash. “Our latent emotions have come to the fore and we want the world to know our stories,” says Mir Manzoor,a writer who has adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s Daakghar into a play called Daakkhana.

Nobody is quite sure of when the turnaround in theatre began. But Raina does remember a monsoon day 13 years ago. Against the advice of well-wishers,he had decided to hold a workshop in Srinagar. “I was standing outside in the rain,waiting for the actors to turn up. For two hours,nobody came. Then,two boys turned up,then another boy arrived and then,nobody else. We started the workshop with three boys. The next day,more boys came and soon,we had 30 budding actors,” he says.

They trained against a constant soundtrack of gunfire and blasts,often being assaulted on the road. For the next five years,he and his troupe from the National School of Drama (NSD) trained 30 artistes every year in Kashmir,from Srinagar to Akingam. “Many of them have theatre groups today,” he says with quiet satisfaction.

Despite the infusion of young blood,theatre in Kashmir doesn’t paint an upbeat picture of life. It’s a medium that draws its stories from harsh truths. “Our works highlight the plight of the people because theatre isn’t only for entertainment,” says Srinagar-based director Arshid Mushtaq. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and mass graves have been the subject of his productions. In his play Wattepaed (Footprints),for example,a modern-day ruler directs his troopers to gun down “anti-national” men in the forest,and not to bury them; anyone burying their bodies would be executed. The villagers do not disobey the ruler,but an old man,whose son was among the dead,defies the order,goes into the forest,buries all those killed,including his son,and surrenders to the soldiers. The play reflects the recent controversy over unmarked mass graves and the special powers enjoyed by the troopers under the AFSPA. Even Manzoor’s Daakkhana,a picturesque period play in which the clothes and sets reference the designs of the golden age of Kashmir,cannot escape a sense of loss.

Of the state’s up-and-coming theatre names is Rashid Reshi,who was trained by Raina and his NSD troupe. His plays reflect how most Kashmiris dislike the militants and the army in equal measure but there are nuances even in negativity. His Ardh Kaal,for instance,culminates in two deaths,of a civilian and of a soldier,with a third spotlight on a wailing mother. “It doesn’t matter if a jawan is killed or a civilian,it is the motherland which loses a child,” he says. His latest play,Phur Thur,likewise,is a satire on the state. The narrative revolves around a man who wakes from the dead after 200 years and travels to Kashmir,only to realise that “this is not my Kashmir,this is another Kashmir”.

But,beyond the staccato sound of gunfire,the plays are also full of music as directors showcase the region’s heritage sounds of the sarangi,rabab,matka,shehnai and other instruments. “We stress upon three elements in our plays — costume,language and music,” explains Reshi.

Despite the fervid theatre activity,the state has few halls to stage plays. The prestigious Tagore Hall in Srinagar,where Begum Akhtar,Mohammad Rafi and Pandit Birju Maharaj once held packed concerts,was occupied by the CRPF for many years and is now under renovation. Many directors say that they’ve rehearsed and performed under walnut and chinar trees or in the halls of Kashmir University and Radio Kashmir,Srinagar,among others.

Auditoriums in other states,of course,have opened their doors to Kashmiri troupes. King Lear,in which the old protagonist takes on characteristics of the Sufi mystics of Kashmir,was staged at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi last year and then travelled to the Northeast,while Ardh Kaal did the rounds of prominent festivals such as International Theatre Festival of Kerala and the Nandikar festival in Kolkata in 2007. “This also gives us the opportunity to watch other plays,” says Ahmed. “I noticed that troupes from other states pay a lot of attention to costume. We should do the same,” he says. Gul Mohammed Bhagat,on the other hand,says that Kashmiri theatre needs to travel more because “audiences in other states like our music but cannot understand our language.”

Kashmir’s own history could make for a heartrending drama but dreamers are hoping for a happy epilogue. Ahmed,the mason,might yet go back to being an actor.

(With inputs by Mir Ehsan)

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