Drama in the Valley

Folk Theatre

Drama  in the Valley

brave act ‘Bhand Pather’ members  rehearsing.  Photo courtesy kavi Bhansali

Most parts of our Subcontinent have a strong tradition of folk theatre. Bhand Pather is the Kashmiri variant. Some scholars say it found its way in from foreign lands, others insist it owes much to the indigenous Sanskrit theatre and Natyashastra. In more recent history, artistes would travel in winter with those who left Kashmir to seek work and perform in undivided Punjab and Lucknow. Influences from these places seeped in as the form evolved.

In the tiny village of Akingam lives a community of Bhands called the Bhagats, who claim their lineage in the profession goes as far back as the 11th century. Gul and Ghulam Mohammad Bhagat’s father Mohammad Subhan Bhagat had a dream for his art. He evolved the traditional themes and introduced the script into a largely improvised form. He did away with minor vulgarities in the humour, bringing in women and children as audiences in large numbers. Most importantly he consolidated the various groups in the valley practicing the art. His efforts were duly awarded with the Sangeet Natak Academy award and Bhand Pather began to be noticed nationally.

The glory was not to last. Kashmir had suffered subjugation in the hands of umpteen foreign rulers, but post a contentious and hurried accession to the newly-founded Indian democracy discontent had begun to simmer ominously. In 1989, the Valley came to a boil. Militant groups that took control of large areas declared theatre that was traditionally performed in the Urs of local dargahs was anti-Islam. They ravaged their set-up, destroying and looting costumes, tearing away at dhols, smashing rhubarbs and shehnais.

Under fire

The artistes were threatened and Subhan’s family members kidnapped at one point. “Those who tried to harm us suffered themselves and we managed to escape. It is hard to explain this. It is between us and Him,” says Ghulam thanking the same God who was cited by their opponents.

The group had no means of livelihood left and some were forced into beggary. “Bhagat was a shared surname between the Pandits and Muslims performers in our village,” informs Gul with pride, “the temple of Goddess Shiv Bhagvati is as much ours. We still perform a ritual dance in her honour at its precincts.” The conflict ruptured this tightly-knit social fabric too and the Pandits left in 1990, mostly giving up their inherited art forever.

Subhan was placed under house arrest and began to withdraw into a shell, shocked at the attack on his life’s labours. He succumbed to his anguish soon enough, hopeless in death and the years that followed were as dark as the Valley’s curfewed nights for Bhand Pather.

But the art that was passed down generations had a longer life than the conflict. In the last couple of years, when the violence began to subside, Subhan’s family got together to rekindle the flame of their shared passion. They knew the days when over 20,000 people would gather were long gone, but the steady turnout for their sporadic performances was encouraging.

Veteran theatre director M K Raina has a key role in this revival. He has been working with the Bhagats on and off from the 80s, calling them over to Delhi or going down to the Valley that was also his home until 1990. Earlier this year he brought along Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s translation of ‘King Lear’ in Hindi.

In the days that followed he would read it out aloud and the group would translate it into Kashmiri. “In the beginning we followed nothing but didn’t have the courage to challenge our guru. Slowly the story, simple at heart, began to make sense to us,” laughs Ghulam. They started rehearsing, adapting the script for their form and replacing Shakespeare’s songs with their own Sufiya Kalams.

In the days preceding their first performance of ‘Badshah Pather’ on the neighbouring hill front, Kashmir began to stir again in protest against the Shopian rapes and murders. On D-day a bandh was called and most invitees from Srinagar could not make it. To their surprise thousands of people from the surrounding villages turned up irrespective, and thoroughly cherished the performance.

Universal appeal

Even before the decade-long conflict erupted, Bhand Pather was known to satire the ruling classes. “Ours was the only folk theatre tradition that had nothing to do with religion because Islam does not associate with theatre,” Ghulam explains. Popularly, there would be a foolish tyrannical king who could not speak the language of the masses, brought in line by jesters, known as the maskaras. This adaptation did not fail to appeal to an audience ignorant of the English bard, at a difficult time because it retains that connect. Tragedies did not exist in the Bhand repertoire. This is their first attempt at one. The Bhagats’ Lear is an idiosyncratic autocrat looking to divide his wealth between his three sons, implied very obliquely to be India, Pakistan and Ladakh, but the symbolism is clear as crystal to the local audience. The play goes on to take improvised potshots at the system that has allowed the Valley to perish under an army regime as oppressive as the militancy.

Ghulam explains that the daughters in the original had to be replaced with sons because it is still a taboo for women to act in rural areas. But he is proud that the women in his family share the stage with men, breaking the age-old taboo when they perform outside.

Also broken are the shackles of once paralyzing fear. “Times are better now for us to speak our minds. But even otherwise we wouldn’t care. How long can one endure oppression,” he asks poignantly before resuming rehearsals in a tiny garden overlooking the family’s cowshed and fields. Next month they travel to different parts of India carrying on from where Subhan had left them. Their first stop is the Northeast; where people may not understand their language but will directly relate to their anguish.

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