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After 1990: An illiberal fringe in a liberal Valley
Theatre, arts, music once flourished in the Valley.
Now, young talent has to move out to be successful
Long after the Mughals built gar dens in Kashmir, women dressed in `pherans' and ornate jewellery would sing and sway on the manicured lawns of Shalimar Bagh that overlooks the Dal lake. The effect that the Kashmiri dancers had on their audience in the 19th century was described as “sweet delusion of a never to be forgotten night“, by Pran Nevile in his book Sahibs' India: Vignettes from the Raj. The “nautch“ (dance) girls, as foreigners called them, were essentially `hafiza' (reciters) who danced to Sufi lyrics -a tradition, that is now lost.
Kashmir's history of dance, music and acting is ancient. Its folk theatre, `Bhand Pather' derived from Bharata's Natya Shastra and dedicated to Hindu goddess Shiva Bhagvati, is probably the oldest in the subcontinent. And remarkably , from 14 th century's Bhakti poetess Lalleshwari to the 16th century romantic Habba Khatoon, Kashmir produced several exemplary women who led social revolutions by breaking gender taboos around art. It was this rich past that Man Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie projected in his novel `Shalimar the Clown', the protagonist of which was a Pandit dancer, Boonyi Kaul, who marries a Muslim tightrope walker, Noman.
Recently , when 16-year-old Srinagar girl and Dangal star Zaira Wasim was abused on social media, the changes that the violent conflict has brought to Kashmir's socio-cultural landscape became evident again. Many called her professional choice “unIslamic“ and many dissed her for “collaborating“ with India, the enemy state.
Before the insurgency broke out, “male and female artists from both Pandit and Muslim communities flourished in Kashmir,“ recalls Ayash Arif, a veteran actor and director based in Srinagar.When over a dozen cinema talkies became popular in the Valley , Kashmiri artists made their own first full-length movie `Mainz Raat' (the night of Henna) in 1964 -a romance written by Ali Mohammad Lone with actresses Mukta and Hafiza Kausar in lead and side roles. Even though Kash miri cinema couldn't take off due to lack of state pa tronage, Bollywood's hottest destination for shoots with stars like Sharmila Tagore and Saira Bano was Kash mir till the late 80s.
“Kashmiri televi sion artists thrived too,“ says Bashir Qadri, a senior film director in Srinagar.Kashmir's melody queen Raj Begum and Shameema (who later married Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad), often appeared on television, earned admiration and applause from the Kashmiri society .
“Even despite a conservative section of society and fundamentalist organizations like Asiya Andrabi's Dukhtaran-eMillat which started in 1987, there were around 50 well-known actresses in Kashmir before violence broke out in 1990,“ said a Kashmiri television producer who did not want to be named.
One of the first artistes to be tar geted by militants was Srinagar Doordarshan director Lassa Kaul. Soon after, almost a dozen Kashmiri girls who defied the dress-code diktat were shot in their legs for wearing trousers and jeans or leaving their head uncovered. Al Fatah, Hezbollah and Allah Tigers issued threats that defined what was religiously permissible and what was not. Cinemas were shut down, and these remain closed till today . TV actress Shamima Akhtar was killed for what the militant groups called an “unIslamic“ and “immoral“ profession. Most private schools made head covering `hijab' mandatory .Abaya, a robe-like dress, which was unknown to Kashmir, and burqa which was rare, became a common sight.
“We couldn't find even one female artist in 1995 in Srinagar, when we were trying to revive the television and art industry. We were forced to go to Jammu where most Pandit actors had moved. With the passage of time, things however im proved. Now we have around 100 female actors in the Valley,“ says Ayash Arif.
Srinagar-based TV actress Shafia Maqbool, for example, has been a household name in Kashmir for the last 15 years.
“I never faced any social pres sure or public wrath for the kind of work I have been do ing,“ she told the TOI. “I think because I have always worked keeping in view the sensitivities of my society in mind,“ she said.
Many Kashmiri Muslim women have moved out of the state and made a name for themselves in the acting industry . Hina Khan is a very successful television stars in Mumbai. She shot to fame with her award-winning performance in the television series `Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai'. Kashmiri film producer and director based in Mumbai Rabiya Nazki said, “Kashmiri society has always been liberal but it is the fringe in Kashmir that we get to see on social media. They abused Zaira Wasim because they wanted to get back at India politically .“
Bhand Pather is one of the most satirical and realistic dramas, one which incorporates mythological legends and contemporary social satire; a traditional mixture of art.Bhand Pather is a popular folk art of Kashmir. It is a form of traditional Kashmiri theatre that is passed down not just through families, but through entire villages.
It is a traditional folk theatre, a mixture of play, music and dance in a satirical style, where social traditions, evils are depicted and performed in various social and cultural functions.
The musical extravaganza is based on a central theme that is usually a satire and laced with wit and dry humor. The satires are full of irony and more often than not depict the triumph of the good over the evil. People celebrate the victory of the good by immersing themselves in loads of revelry. The Bhand Pather plays are satirical by tradition. Although the unwritten scripts often describe the days of when landlords were the oppressors of peasants, it plays political commentary which has great resonance today. Bhand Pather provides a voice, however small, for a people who would otherwise be silenced. A beautiful blend of song, dance and drama makes up this highly fascinating folk theater a living cultural tradition of Kashmir.
Bhand Pather has the power to connect with the masses. The people enjoy this form with the relevance of present situation of Kashmir and love the way Bhands educate the people. However, these artists suffer due to financial constraints. Mohd Sultan Mir President of Gulishtan Bhagat Theatre says that due to non availability of funds, Bhands of Kashmir have been driven towards poverty which cannot help them make their livelihood.
Lt. Ghulam Ali Majboor, Lt. Sh. Subhan Bhagat, Lt. Moti Lal Kemmu, M.K. Raina, Balwant Thakur, Sh. Ravi Kemmu and Sh. Ghulam Mohi-u-Din Aijaz worked tirelessly to revive this dying traditional art back to its glory but unfortunately the government and other agencies never paid any attention towards the form which is one of the most important tools of peace and prosperity. A project ‘Revival Bhand Pather’ which was supported by Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi in the year 2011, 2012 and 2015 has played a key role to engage traditional Bhand performers from all over Kashmir. In the year 2011, a 10 day residential workshop was organised in Gagribal, Srinagar in which 20 representatives from 20 different theatre groups from 20 different villages in Kashmir were involved. 20 new concepts related to the current scenario of Kashmir come from the participating playwrights. The themes were mostly associated with people’s suffering and concerns about educational system, drug menace, corruption, normalcy, peace and prosperity etc. These themes came in a form of theatrical productions in Bhand Pather style and were staged in twenty different places of Kashmir for huge crowds in the open air. In 2012 and 2015, again, new 40 plays were produced and staged covering the entire length and breadth of Kashmir valley.
“Due to the sudden decline of this form of art in Kashmir, artists have shifted to other professions, such as weaving wicker baskets for kangris (firepots used in chilling winter), woollen sweaters, and carpets. The other part time jobs that attract them now are of masons, carpenters, and shopkeepers” says Shah-e-Jahan Ahmed (National Awardee) Director of National Bhand Theatre, Budgam.
“Theatre is a reflection of society. One must understand the fact that without engraving and promoting the cultural ethos of Kashmir, we cannot change the theatre scenario in Kashmir. We stand nowhere and will have identity crisis one day as we are leaving our roots” says Bhand artiste of Wathoora, Budgam.