Few years ago, as several NGOs started work towards making people aware of the benefits of Right to Information (RTI), they often faced difficulties in making people understand the entire process. Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement engaged a budding theatre artist Rayees Wathori to help in disseminating the information using art. At a function Rayees did a short play, weaving a plot around a situation in which a commoner uses RTI Act for huge benefit to himself and community.
"It was a long programme but what we couldn't do in our hours of speech, Rayees accomplished the task in just few minutes of acting," said Raja Muzaffar who had convened the event. "It was amazing that people came to understand everything with such a street play."
The event is just one of the many examples affirming the fact that how Kashmir's indigenous theatre still holds its position as a powerful medium. Though the Band Paether as the folk theatre is called, has lost much of its charm but there are still some diehard fans who want to keep the fire going, despite bleak future prospects.
"It needs passion and dedication to be in the field. I am fortunate to have both," said Rayees 25, who has been associated with the art since the time he was seven.
Though Rayees was born in a family that boasts of some of the legendary names in the field of art like qawwali singer Mohammed Khalil, humourist Gh Ali Majboor and TV and Theatre artist Bashir Kotur, but his brush with acting is as early as school.
"I have become what I am today largely due to my teachers. They identified acting talent in me and I was always encouraged to take part in cultural activities," said Rayees. At Higher Secondary Institute Wathora, Rayees along with his friend started taking steps towards professionalism in theatre and he garnered praise from everyone.
One of the biggest USPs of Rayees has been his constant research and updating of his knowledge regarding the theatre. "I am of the opinion that if next generation comprising of professionals who are well educated, acquainted with global trends and can mould their message in tune with the needs of the society, enters into the field then the theatre will again flourish," said Rayees. "No doubt we have some of the best talented and creative minds in theatre, but the issue is many of them have not aquatinted themselves with modern trends. They have not changed the theatre and it is same as it was say 200 years ago."
Band Pather (Bhaand means Artist, Paether means Drama) has rich history in Kashmir and according to some sources it is around 2000 years old or more. Be it Kalhana in Rajtarangini or Abdhinavgupta, everybody has mentioned it in their writing.
Sheikh-ul-Alam (RA) in his writings has also mentioned Band Pether
Yus HaIye tuhunde bartal zaagun
Tass panin sharbat paane chyaavay
Chis Paether beon beon ti kunie maagun
Yass su toethe ad sui traavay
Legendary poet Shamas Fakir too has also vividly described the folk theatre prevalent ind his times in his writings.
"There is ample history written about the Band Pather. Be it muslim writers or hindu writers everybody has mentioned it. And contrary to some perceptions nobody has said anything against it," said Rayees, who keeps on researching about the subject and has a PG diploma in Folk Lore and Culture.
Rayees professionally learned acting at Actors Creative Theatre, which he joined right after finishing his schooling.
Currently he is learning Sufiyana music at Saznawaz Sufiyana Training Institute. "Band Paether and Sufiyana music are closely related. Even the musical instruments like Surnai are same in both," said Rayees, who grandfather was a Sarangi player.
In theatre Rayees has worked with most of the leading actors in six major plays. In addition to it he has acted in 20 smaller plays.
He became a radio approved artist in 2015. He had his small moment in Bollywood too when he did a small role in Salman Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijan. He also did a national advertisement for Idea cellular company – You are my pumpkin pumpkin.
With his talent he also emerged as winner in Kashmir Got Talent under acting category. He has received number of certifications and awards attesting to his calibre.
One of the biggest achievements of Rayees has been his use of folk theatre in tasing awareness about social issues. Be it dowry system or current situation he has tackled all.
He did Waqtuk Aalav against dowry menace and in Yath Waav Haaley the group tried to show the worth of a scholar and his pen in society.
"Folk Theatre is an X-ray of the society. It shows them mirror so they can introspect what is wrong with them. When there was no media Band Pather filled the vacuum. It took the message from society to the rulers and vice versa," said Rayees.
His protest art highlighting the problems of farmers whose thousands of kanals of land are being acquired by government for Ring Road construction at low rates, became a talk of the town. He sang an emotional song showing how the acquisition of their land can have devastating effect on them.
As everything gets entangled in politics and all sectors seems to be viewed through the situation, the theatre artists too often have been questioned with whether they have done anything to highlight the issue. "Though we are completely apolitical but we live in a society which we cannot ignore. There are so many sensitivities which we have to take care of. I did a play titled Zaal (trap) in which I showed the plight of disappeared persons and their families. I tried to show their sufferings. It was an emotional play for me and audience," said Rayees who later came up with a play titled Election Pather, showing how politicians exploit common masses with their own drama and fake promises.
Using his art he also did protest against the gruesome rape and murder of Asifa.
He has done over 100 street plays all around Kashmir and he feels his achievement to be bagging praise everywhere.
He also is recipient of Guru-Shishya scholarship from North Zone Cultural Centre.
Despite the achievements and work, Rayees feels if steps are not taken for preservation of folk theatre it may go extinct.
"Not a single theatre artist is sustaining his family through his art. Some are selling clothes and others have taken up the work of coppersmith or carpet weaver to sustain their homes. For them acting is just part time work," said Rayees. "I have given everything to this art. I have few years before I too am settled and my expenses increase. I may also shift performances from full time to part time."
With low or ill-planned government support the folk theatre is dying a slow death. After qualifying as radio artist in 2015, he has received just four bookings. Government remembers them when they have to welcome a dignitary from outside and show to them the culture of Kashmir.
The once hotbeds of folk theatre like Wanpora and Rohmoh in Pulwama are almost bereft of artists now. Wathora was epicentre of Band Pather in Kashmir, with many groups performing almost daily all across the Kashmir and outside. Now there are just two to three groups who collectively do just five to six shows in a year.
"Government can do a lot by way of scholarships, training workshops, skill enhancement programmes and so on. Even TV and Radio can encourage the new talent but giving them space. But nothing of sorts is happening," said Rayees.
At his Tulkul Arts and Media Collective, he tries to teach the younger passionate children the various forms of art and methods of acting. He knows it is just few years before the children will come to realise the harsh reality facing them. Recently a senior theatre actor barged into his workshop and caught hold of his son threatening his dire consequences in case he takes up acting.
"Theatre is a medium that can be used for betterment of society. Earlier government used to acknowledge artists and provide them employment in information department or other places. Having secured their future they could work for the promotion of art," said Rayees. "The situation is that Agriculture, Floriculture, Aquaculture, all cultures have progressed, but it is the only real culture which is in loss."