Reinventing stage to heal society

Kashmir’s traditional Bhands aver that social menaces can ruin any nation, and art can be a great healer
Reinventing stage to heal society
GK Photo

For these traditional Kashmiri Bhands (folk dancers), art is a battleground for winning an ongoing fight against the widespread social menaces.

Meanwhile, the traditional dying art form, Bhaand Pather, is also witnessing a revival with young artists trying their best to reinvent its originality.

Young artist, Rayees Wathori, speaking to Greater Kashmir, says while the world witnessed phased changes, the artists in Kashmir were demanding the execution of cultural policy and giving dignified life to the artists. 

“Being a young theatre activist, I feel honoured that we have made inroads to make awareness about rising drug addiction and also dowry in society,” he says. “We have enormous cultures within this territory. In the future, I think this will be called a territory with multiple cultures if a preserving or cultural policy is not formed. This is why families or gharanas who have been affiliated with the art for decades now prefer that their future generations not follow the same legacy that the family has been following for centuries.”

Donning a traditional pheran (cloak) on a misty morning in central Kashmir’s Wathora area, Bhaands are finishing their instrument including a Kashmiri musical blowing instrument, Surnai. With this instrument in his hand, a prominent Bhaand, Bashir Ahmad, says that “Our Bhands would usually perform King Lear and other such plays. But now the times have changed and we are in different and difficult situations. There are many menaces around and we have to alert people,” he says, adding “At times it is quite difficult for us to make our living but now the time has come when we are being hired to perform on the stage to highlight drug abuse and how it is impacting our society.”

Another artist and founder of Kashmir Folk Theatre, Zakir Ahmad, who has been performing Bhand Pather (Bhand is a skilful jester, Pather means drama), say that alerting people about the rising social menaces is satisfactory for them. He urged the government to work for the artists’ welfare, especially the Bhand community, which should be protected and preserved under a fully fledged cultural policy. He says that the government’s Department of Information and the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages often call them to perform open theatre plays about the impact of drug abuse on addicts and society.

“The kind of plays that we have been doing is somewhat creating an impact for the Bhand community. I remember, a few months back, we were performing in some South Kashmir villages. People came to watch the play in large numbers. The message of such plays is direct and it resonates with the audience. Art has the power of healing and we tell society what is the issue, what is its remedy through music, dance and drama,” he says. “We have been doing it for centuries,” Zakir says.

“We prefer to perform the plays according to the script. But in case of the drug addiction dramas we use a number of stories that come up on regular bases in newspapers like some addict committed suicide, some killed his mother or someone’s parents died in hopelessness seeing the condition of their child,” he says. “They know it is happening and we show them how it is happening,” he adds.

In every play about drug abuse, Bhand Pather starts with music. Zakir blows his favourite instrument Surnai. Surnai is the fusion of two words Sur and Nai. Sur is a musical note and Nai is a wooden flute around 18 inches long with a bell-shaped outlet at the bottom. It has eight outlet holes and one blowing hole. 

Surnai attracts people towards open-air theatre. The second entry is of Maskhar (joker), who in his own style tells the public what is the purpose of the play. After that other actors appear on the stage, who act as a drug addict, his father, his mother and a doctor. “We ensure to have one actor who plays the role of a friend of a drug addict in the play as most of the addicts are being lured towards drugs by their friends.”

Hailing from Akingam village of South Kashmir, which is the traditional home of Bhands, who have been performing pather for centuries, Zakir says Bhand Pather has something that instantly touches people. “In some villages, people have our phone numbers and they call us during summers to perform plays about drug abuse,” he adds.

Prominent Bhand activist and folk writer, Ghulam Mohiduin Aajiz of central Kashmir’s Wathora area, lashed out at the Jammu and Kashmir Governments for their step-motherly treatment. He says holding a single programme couldn’t bring any positive changes for the entire community. Aajiz, who represents National Bhaand Theatre, says that the government failed to provide official patronage to this dying folk form of dance.

“We have a very few Surnai, Dhool, Nagara players left now, who are very important as far as the Bhaand Pather is concerned,” he says, adding “Social menaces can ruin any nation; art can be a great healer but it needs official and societal patronage. We start working on the production. Artists are kept busy. Then there are no takers. No one comes to us. How many festivals have the government organised? Using Bhands for drug addiction menace is okay. But this has been created on a larger scale.”

He says that he has seen many UK, Washington and Polish-based scholars coming to see him as they were interested and keen to know the art. Whenever we create any production, like recently we did Heemal Nagrij, Akinund. But then the government also forgot to hire us for the events.” Aajiz has written eight books, the prominent ones include Folk Theatre of Kashmir, Soun Meeras, Bhaand Pather, and Moulana Rumi (Hikayat Rumi).

“All I want to tell you is that the government please be serious in your efforts. They can do the lip services later. This is the time to save this art.”

‘Style embedded in our collective conscience’

Prominent broadcaster and writer, Dr Sohan Lal Kaul, who has written extensively on various themes, prevalent in society, says that some of the works including Motilal Kemu’s “Manzil Nike”, “Kansi Ma Rowmut Hai Kya Gom” or his own play ‘Padshah Paether; have been critically acclaimed. He says a lot of work has been produced in this regard, which can act as a guiding force in contemporary times.

“The young generation should go through these works. I am sure one can make out how these plays reflected the socio-political condition and how these came up with strong messages on social evils,” Dr Kaul, says. “From time to time these dramas were used to educate and inform people. It is unfortunate that we don’t experiment in these forms in contemporary times. This style is embedded in our collective conscience.”

Noted filmmaker and former director, Doordarshan, Kashmir, Shabir Mujahid, says that Kashmir has been witnessing many events. However, art and several traditional art forms were always used to send out a louder message to the people. “The situation is altogether different. Today we have drug addicts around and the message is that we need to come out as civil society and send out the message and art makes it a bit easier for us to do,” he says.

“Art can bring real change. But that doesn’t mean that it is just the art that has to be a catalyst. Your art and culture can bring you to the core of any issues and also make you address them. If you are witnessing a surge in drug abuse. It is not just the art of the Bhands that can address it. But the way they are doing it, it is serving multiple purposes. They are reinvesting this art form and also sending out the message loud.”

Bhand pather, (folk theatre of Kashmir) is a popular form of folk theatre and the word bhand stands for ‘jester’ while pather means ‘drama’. It is exclusively associated with the community of bhands or folk theatre actors. The bhands enact around twelve types of bhand pather and across the valley the bhands form a well-organized folk theatre community. According to Aajiz, among the bhand pather characters the maskhars or the jesters, are important as they perform the pivotal role of lampooning anti-social and corrupt practices in daily life. He says that the band performances usually revolve around the enactment of court intrigues, exploitation by government bodies, corruption of religious leaders, social injustices and official incompetence in the face of disasters.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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