Kashmir stirring out of coma as a creative society

Kashmir stirring out of coma as a creative society

Most people coming into Srinagar are looking for either beauty or war. In any case they are likely to be stunned by the extent of both, such as not to notice the subtleties of either instantly. Subtleties like Srinagar has no film posters — a pan- Indian sight as common as the cow. Cinemas and liquor shops were forced shut when the Valley was seized by conflict. Nearly a decade later, the reasons why Kashmir is not actively seeking entertainment are more complex. Militancy is more fodder for imagination and propaganda in the subcontinent today than a ground reality. But cinema hasn’t come back. Nor has theatre.

Mushtaq Ali, one of the better-known theatre directors in these parts, talks about this uneasy quiet. Great theatre has often come out of periods of strife in history. But in Kashmir the sway of death was so complete, there was time for little but mourning. No theatre director wanted to take responsibility for having brought an audience together in the eventuality of a mishap.

Amin Bhat has a knack for telling stories. “Actors couldn’t perform under the stress of those   times, fearing blasts while on stage,” he recounts. Bhat himself stayed away from the stage for most part of the decade.

Another manifestation of fear was perhaps self-censorship. “Kashmir did not have much of a climate for relevant political satires in the form of modern plays. Even a Safdar Hashmi took to them after he moved to Delhi,” he points out, “But it wasn’t possible to talk of ‘Laila Majnu’, in the times either. Theatre waned because it was not representative of our unique predicament. Once the Pandits left it became even more difficult,” he says.

In 2002, he travelled to his native Baramulla and found there were a number of youngsters interested in theatre. Bhat got them all together in a room with some old colleagues of his and said, “Imagine we are imprisoned here by the military or the militants and can leave only if we have a play that speaks of our reality without being propagandist.” Within hours they had a skeletal draft of ‘Naad’, Bhat’s ode to the Valley and an entreaty to the Pandits to return home. Ever since, Bhat has regularly staged plays that use symbols to recreate the pathos of war and terror in Kashmir.
In ‘Mousetrap’, a red-taped office pets a cat to get rid of a rat in the premises. The rat explains to the cat that if it is killed, the latter’s job there is over, as are its perks. They agree mutually to stay out of each other’s way and feed on the office’s resources. Steadily, many ancillary interests get intertwined with their never-ending chase. The Kafka-esque dark comedy is an incisive metaphor for the ruinous politics of two enemy states at the expense of the Valley.

For a cause
One of the best shows of the play was performed on the evening of Bhat’s brother’s funeral, who was killed in a grenade attack. Having returned to the stage after a long spell of fearful silence, he clearly is in no mood to stop for anything now.

The pall of silence is lifting slowly. The last couple of years have seen a couple of festivals being organised and the return to stage of a number of theatre artistes who had either retired or moved on to television. The most significant development has been the reopening of Tagore Hall, the only significant theatre space in the city. From the early 90s, for a over a decade the hall had been taken over by the CRPF, scattered with their bedding, laundry and cooking stoves, a mocking impairment of the potential of art.
Today like Ali, he faces a new roadblock. With a weak audience inflow and barely any infrastructure at hand, most groups have to depend on the state-run cultural academy for funds. His play ‘Maharaaz’, on disappearances in the state was rejected by the academy citing reasons of creative incompetence.

However, a lot of directors in the Valley are taking recourse to the masters to tell their story. Plays like Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, Brecht’s ‘The Exception and The Rule’ and Dario Fo’s ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ are being reworked to find a new resonance in the psyche of the Valley.

But Ali is determined to stage his plays even if it means funding them himself. Both Mir and he have started rehearsing the ‘disapproved’ scripts and are looking to open ‘Maharaaz’ and ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ respectively, as soon as the excruciating winter relents.

Kashmir is not easy to make sense out of. And while it might be slowly stirring out of coma as a creative society, return to normalcy is still an impossible dream in the presence of an all-pervasive army in a heavily bunkered and barb-wired state. Even as theatre artistes look for their voices again and formal curfews relax, it is apparent that it will be a while before the common Kashmiri can let himself out of the curfews in his mind ravaged by years of occupation, brutality and trauma.

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