The grandeur of Kashmir Valley rests not only in its bewitching landscape but also in its literary and cultural accomplishment. From the earliest times, the Valley has served as a vibrant centre of learning, philosophy and art and culture. It has played a significant role in disseminating to the entire globe the canons and doctrines of diverse religious philosophies, among which include the Mahayana doctrine of Buddhism, Trika Shiv philosophy and the Kashmiri version of Islamic Sufism known as Reshut.
Amidst this seemingly diverse religious landscape, the distinct aspect of the people of Kashmir has been the time-tested belief in social togetherness, religious cordiality and a deep sense of belonging to the language and the soil.
This deep socio-cultural adhesiveness was evident even during the 18th and 19th centuries, when Kashmiri Muslim Sufi poets of prominence like Socha Kral, Nyma Sahab, Shams Faqir, Rahman Dar, Wahab Khar, Ahmad Batwari, in order to express their inward Sufi experiences, made use of terms from Hindu Shastras. In the same manner, there were jubilant readers among Muslims who kept the leelas written by Parmanand, Master Zinda Koul and others so dear to their eyes.
This rich legacy of literary fertility and cultural maturity was carried down to our own times particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, when theatrical activities reached exemplary heights in the Valley. The Kashmiri theatre with its deep commitment and dedication to both — the artiste as well as the audience — not only staged plays in vernacular language but also enacted famous Hindi and Urdu adaptations. Amateur theatre groups of Kashmir also relied on translated versions of internationally acclaimed dramas. Some of the prominent theatre groups during the ’70s and ’80s were the Kala Kendra, Rang Manch Theatres, Vasant Theatre, Sangarmal Theatre, Sangam Theatre, Kali Das Theatre, Shah Theatre, Mansoor Dramatic Club, Kashmir Valley Theatre, Navrang and Navrattan Natsaar.
This beautiful shade of theatrical activity wasn’t just confined to the four walls of urban Srinagar. Periodical theatre festivals were organised at district headquarters as well, and it was during this time that a few theatre clubs, without seeking any financial assistance from the government, even managed to arrange cultural tours to different parts of the country. Kashmiri plays enacted at Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were highly appreciated. The lead in this direction was taken by Rang Manch Dramatic Club and it was carried forward by other theatre groups of the Valley.
This favourable clime, required for the overall bloom of cultural accomplishments in general and theatrical art in particular, was fabricated not only by the unfractured zeal and dedication of theatre practitioners but by the immense love and respect that the august members of the theatre fraternity showered on each other, irrespective of the diverse religious backgrounds. This cemented bond generated by a secular socio-cultural sentiment acted as a true and dynamic force for the theatre movement in Kashmir.
But things radically changed by the unending period of insecurity, pain and gloom in the Valley. Culture, particularly theatre activity, was reduced to the point of almost annihilation. There was a loss of connectivity between the fraternity of actors and the audience — a prerequisite for the success of theatre. Performers who had given their toil and blood for the promotion of theatre in Kashmir found themselves scattered in alien lands struggling to earn a livelihood. In Kashmir too, people associated with the theatre movement lost a good number of well-wishers and the very clime was not favourable enough to pursue the performing arts. Amid the choking environs, the enthusiasm of theatre lovers did not die out completely in the Valley; instead, good efforts were made by some of the theatre practitioners to keep drama alive through staging of plays in and around Srinagar. New themes and new techniques were introduced in tune with the latest canons of dramaturgy. In spite of all these relentless efforts, the discipline of drama could not be carried back to the highs it reached in the ’70s.
In Jammu too, the Pandit Theatre Group continued to stage dramas on the latest themes amid terrible psychological strain and financial distress, but despite these humble efforts, the cheerful and pleasurable theatrical clime could not be regenerated and regained. The present effort of organising a joint theatre festival marks the humble beginning of bringing together scattered artistes and actors of the Valley, enabling them to sit together and work out a strategy to restore the previous glory of the performing art. The festival further intends to provide a platform for enthusiastic drama lovers to showcase their talent and to play a vibrant role in the revival of the theatre movement in Jammu and Kashmir. If we succeed in our modest attempts, we are sure that this humble beginning will create history in the annals of theatre in Kashmir.