The Other Kashmir Problem

Bhand Pather, Kashmir's indigenous theatre that has thrived on pungent social and political satires, in now an endangered tradition

A Bhand Pather performance in Pakherpora village. ZULFIQAR KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN
01 September, 2011

GULZAR FIGHTER is the most watched TV comedian in Kashmir. Appearing on the garishly decorated sets of local cable channels dressed in Western outfits, he has come a long way from his years as a performer in the National Bhand Theatre, a repertory of Kashmiri folk plays following the tradition of Bhand Pather (minstrels’ satire). The tradition is known for taking on social, political and environmental themes, and is performed by a company of drummers, clowns and jesters. In 2004, at the age of 45, Fighter shed his pather attire—ragged phiran, skullcap, wooden sandals—and stopped performing with the National Bhand Theatre. These days, the shows on which he appears are recorded on second-rate CDs available in the pirate markets of Kashmir, and don’t depict much beyond petty marital brawls. Fighter records 25 episodes a month, each 30 minutes long. Working for TV has made his life comfortable, he says.

As an artist with the National Bhand Theatre, Fighter was known as the best maskhara (jester). Once on stage, his acts had the audience in raptures. Wearing the bhand’s typical ragged phiran, and occasionally a lambskin cap—an unmistakable marker of white-collar Kashmiri society—with an egg glued on top, he’d mock the Kashmiri elite. He started as a bhand at the age of seven, and spent his entire youth performing pather shows. Once he reached his 40s, though, he couldn’t take the financial suffering anymore, and moved over to TV.

“I was treated like a donkey, I was paid peanuts,” Fighter said in his gruff voice. “I realised it is all about money. I was poor when I was a bhand, but today I can’t say I am poor. My children are happy, my wife doesn’t complain, and I am not stressed anymore.”

After he took to TV, Fighter was dismissed entirely from the group by his teacher, who is also the head of the National Bhand Theatre, Ghulam Nabi Aajiz.

Sixty-one-year-old Aajiz is a seventh-generation bhand. By the mid-1990s, when the insurgency in Kashmir was at its peak, an ideological shift among militants from nationalism to Islamism was underway. The Hizbul Mujahideen—a pro-Pakistani militant group—had taken over most of rural Kashmir, with gun-toting militants a common sight around mosques, butcher shops and corner stores. These militants would try to influence people into believing that their form of Islam was purest. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which follows a strict interpretation of Islam, denounces cultural expressions like the performing arts as a breach of the tenets of the religion, a position that stands in contrast with the valley’s history of a tolerant Sufism. Over time such views began to percolate down to the village level, and this new attitude made the bhands nervous.

Ghulam Nabi Aajiz, head of the National Bhand Theatre, outside his house in Wathora village. ZULFIQAR KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN

Aajiz pursued his craft steadfastly in spite of the growing atmosphere of extremism. He chose secret locations to rehearse, which he frequently changed in order to train his two sons and the children of fellow artists; he was afraid that militants would recognise a Bhand Pather performance from the characteristic sound of drums. “All of a sudden people started questioning us in mosques,” Aajiz said, sitting in his office-cum-study in the village of Wathora. “They’d often tell us things like maskhari is a sin, and we should stop it.”

One night in 2005, three militants asked Aajiz to let them hide in his house. He couldn’t refuse. The next morning, the Indian Army came knocking, killed the militants and razed the house. The incident tarred Aajiz’s image in his community. The villagers started suspecting him of being an army informer. He couldn’t step into his village for the next six months. Eventually, it was his fellow bhands who arbitrated the situation and made it possible for him to return. A medium-built man with green eyes, Aajiz has vowed before theatre artists that “pather roze jaari (pather will continue).”

While Fighter has sacrificed his art for economic survival, Aajiz, who has survived militant attacks and army crackdowns, lives to recollect what he’s lost as an artist. The future of Kashmir’s Bhand Pather teeters between these two disillusioned performers.

BEFORE THE 1950S, Bhand Pather was a celebrated tradition in the villages. The bhands were the only credible and critical source of information about local and political happenings. They would enter a village in the dark, holding torches raised on long bamboo sticks, and within a minute or so the village would erupt with the sounds of jesters.

But things changed after 1987, when a rigged state election resulted in the formation of militant wings and the beginning of the mujahideen insurgency. Since then, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been the site of conflict between the Indian armed forces, militants and separatists, and the turmoil has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and serious human rights abuses.

“Who does it now?” Abdul Salam Bhat, a veteran bhand, asked when I met him in his village Wathora. “Neither king will survive nor slave. I am alive today. I will be gone tomorrow. That pather is over now.”

A lean, bearded man with an expression of pain and worry, Bhat is among the last of Kashmir’s great bhands. The satire he did in his youth was impolite and irreverent, its dark humour invariably touching upon the most pressing political and social questions in Kashmir. In the summer of 1988, he, along with his fellow performer Ghulam Ali Majboor, mocked the then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in a pather performance for being negligent toward the government’s health policy and the state of disrepair of government hospitals. After the performance, Abdullah walked backstage and told Majboor in jest, “Spare me next time.”

By 1989, Bhat had stopped performing. With the outbreak of armed rebellion against Indian occupation, he and hundreds of bhands across the Valley preferred to stay home. At the start of the insurgency they had made some attempts to continue staging pather shows, but everywhere they went they would encounter people grieving. One day in the mid-1990s, Bhat and his colleagues visited Tahab village in south Kashmir for a performance. The drums announced their arrival but nobody turned up to watch—they were scorned for being “insensitive” to the tragedy. Just days before, the village had lost two young men, allegedly killed by the army.

“We tried our best,” Bhat said, “but there was mourning all around.”

Only a handful of bhand groups have continued to perform since the conflict began in the Kashmir Valley. More than 100 groups have abandoned pather. Without an audience or money, they had no choice. Conditions were so desperate that some bhands sold their instruments. Others took on menial labour.

The few groups that remain are sustained by the state’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (AACL) and are beholden to the authorities, lauding ministers and bureaucrats in their plays; and some others have taken to commercial mediums such as TV. Lately, however, local veterans and enthusiastic expats have shown an interest in reviving the art form, but they still must overcome mounting economic and infrastructural challenges.

Abdul Salam Bhat, a veteran bhand of Kashmir. ZULFIQAR KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN

LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT Muhammad Amin, a tall, wiry man in his early 40s, is one of the few people in Kashmir who mourn the decline of pather. Every year on his son’s birthday, which coincides with World Theatre Day, he pulls together his savings and organises a Bhand Pather performance at a local auditorium. “State patronage has become the reason for its decline,” Amin says, taking a deep drag on his cigarette.

He foresees a bleak future for the indigenous art. Four years ago, on a visit to the meadows of Gulmarg to watch a pather performance, Amin was startled to see the magun, the leader of the troupe, praising a group of ministers from the pro-India People’s Democratic Party. He believes the ideological turn from critiquing those in power to flattering them has alienated audiences. “Art is basically based on truth, beauty and goodness,” Amin continued. “If these three things are not there, there is no art, there is disease then.”

For five consecutive years (from 2004 to 2008), he hired Srinagar’s Tagore Hall—Kashmir’s sole auditorium—and organised pather performances that reflected on recent history. But in late 2008, the state government shut down the venue for renovation.

“If you really have to revive it,” he said, addressing the government, “help it to become an independent institution. Make it thematically relevant to contemporary times.”

Today, the bhands have done away with themes of satire for fear of being punished if found criticising either the Indian state or the pro-Pakistan militants. They have decided to stick to the less controversial pre-1947 narrative, when Kashmir was ruled by an autocratic maharaja.

In one of his scripts from the time of the insurgency, Ghulam Nabi Aajiz attempted to preserve the tradition of parody in Bhand Pather with a story that satirised the banality of violence and torture in Kashmir. It went like this:

A Kashmiri man walking on the road is suddenly stopped by an army officer. He is questioned in Hindi, which many Kashmiris find difficult to understand: “Gun kahan rakha hai (Where have you kept your gun)?” The man gets it wrong. He has an uncle whose name is Gani, and who he calls Gun-e-Kak, a popular Kashmiri nickname. He responds to the officer in Kashmiri: “Haan, Gun-e-Kak garas manz hai (Yes, Gun-e-Kak is in the house).” The officer thinks he has hidden a gun inside his house and starts to beat him.

But Aajiz refused to perform the script. He feared the Indian government. “It is risky,” he said, with a cheerless smile.

“Now they can’t think of doing that,” said Moti Lal Kemmu, 79, a former secretary of the AACL, speaking about political narratives in pather. “They remember the atrocities committed against them. They remember Shameema.”

On the evening of 17 June 1993, Shameema, a TV artist and news anchor in her early 30s, was found dead on the banks of the river Jhelum in Srinagar, allegedly killed by militants. When her body was lowered into her grave, there were fewer than 10 people to offer the funeral prayers. She carried the stigma of being a ‘collaborator’ of the Indian state.

Bhands perform in the courtyard of a Sufi shrine in Pakherpora. ZULFIQAR KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN

IN 1998, the state government announced that the majority of militant outfits were nearly defeated in the summer capital and declared Srinagar a safe city. To demonstrate to the pubic that normalcy had returned to the region, cultural activities, including Bhand Pather, were organised. The bhands’ pather was hosted in the Mughal Gardens to woo sightseers back to the Kashmir Valley after tourism declined during the insurgency. The efforts seemed to work. After reporting death and destruction for nine years, journalists began to write happy stories, with headlines like ‘Peace Returns to Valley’. The news of normalcy spread. Tourists from both India and abroad thronged the state. It was during this period of excitement that MK Raina, a Kashmiri pandit, the community that was forced out of the Kashmir Valley during the peak of militancy, visited his homeland after nine years in exile. “It was give and take,” Raina said, sitting in the dining hall of the India International Centre in New Delhi.

Raina, a graduate of the National School of Drama and a well-known theatre actor and director, was in Kashmir to meet bhands and persuade them to work with him in reviving the art. He wanted to share with them contemporary ideas and learn from them the traditional practice. On one of his early visits, he met Aajiz, but the traditionalist wasn’t amenable to the idea of ‘modernising’ the pather. Raina continued visiting Kashmir, meeting bhands from different districts, and by 2007 he had selected 35 boys to train from the families that had quit pather. In the meantime, he received a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts: each child artist was to receive a monthly stipend of `1,000.

But the boys needed a teacher, a bhand. Raina visited south Kashmir’s Akingam village, 70km from Srinagar, where he met the bhands of the Kashmir Bhagat Theatre. Two years later, the head of the theatre, Noor Muhammad Bhagat, was leading workshops for the boys at a house Raina had rented in the village. Raina and Bhagat began to adapt the Shakespearean play King Lear to the format of Bhand Pather.

“I knew they were great actors,” Raina said. “I knew if they understood the undertones of King Lear they would perform it really well.”

News spread of a pather adaptation of a Shakespearean play, and on 29 April 2011 the Kashmiri adaptation of King Lear was performed in front of a crowd of almost 10,000 people in Akingam. Raina had made some changes to the original story: the three daughters were replaced by three sons. He believes that Lear’s grief after losing his daughter Cordelia resonates among the Kashmiris who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence that has become all too common in the region.

Raina may have reignited an interest in Bhand Pather in Kashmir and beyond (the play is going to travel all over India), but he has no answer to the question of its sustenance. Out of the 80 traditional folk stories in the Bhand Pather tradition, Kashmiri bhands are left with only seven; over the years the texts have either been forgotten or lost. But this fact doesn’t seem to alarm the cultural authorities in the state. As far as Raina goes, the state government is not concerned about any pather revival. “There is not even a proper stage to perform on,” Raina said.

A dancer from the National Bhand Theatre entertains the audience before the start of a pather. ZULFIQAR KHAN FOR THE CARAVAN

A few troupes that have contacts in the government have an opportunity to perform once in a while, and when they do, each bhand is paid `1,000 for a day’s performance. Troupes registered with the state’s AACL are entitled to receive annual support of `100,000, but for the past three years, the AACL has not made the grant available. Tagore Hall, built in 1960 to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary, is in ruins. Four years ago, the government decided to renovate it. The first three months went well; the labourers had begun recondition the flaking plaster when the work was suddenly put on hold.

Kashmiri artists, including bhands, are left with little else to do except perform at a handful of Sufi shrines once a year.

I MET ZAFFAR IQBAL MANHAS, the secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir AACL, on 21 May when he told me that the institution had “meagre” funds.

“We organise a yearly folk festival,” said Manhas, a plump and light-skinned man with a dark moustache. “That is the best we can do for them.”

The annual budget for the AACL, which looks after language, painting, music and theatre, is `100 million, out of which `80 million accounts for employees’ salaries. The remaining `20 million is meant to be spent on cultural activities across three regions—Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh,  and covering nine languages in all.

“This is the only academy which is three-in-one,” Manhas said, looking agitated. “Literature, painting, music and theatre, we are for everything.”

Manhas finds it difficult to strike a balance. If he focuses on music and drama, painting lags behind; if he concentrates on literature, the revival of theatre must wait: “And then we have no money.”

The paltry financial support the government was providing the bhands and other artists through the AACL has been blocked in a tussle between Manhas and the ministry of culture. Nawang Rigzin Jora, the state minister for culture is lobbying to the government to be made the AACL’s vice-president. The AACL is inherently autonomous. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is the current president but all administrative powers lie with Manhas. Jora is contending that since Abdullah can’t handle the affairs of the AACL because of his tight schedule, its charge should be passed to him. “It is unconstitutional,” Manhas says, quickly adding, “We cannot afford to have one more boss. If it happens, things are going to get more complicated.”

Manhas is hopeful about the release of funds but feels pessimistic about the future of the bhands. He feels nothing much can be done for the revival of Bhand Pather unless the financial issues are resolved.

“Let’s see what happens,” he says, sighing with disappointment.

The next day, the bhands of the National Bhand Theatre were at the Sufi shrine of Monisha Sahib, in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, for a performance. The jesters, wearing reindeer masks, danced to shehnais and drum beats, twirling in a steady circle, pushing and nudging each other. But the fun was cut short when the hunter appeared, freezing them in their spots. The drums went silent and the crowd with them. The hunter raised a bow, aimed an arrow at one of the reindeer and all of them fell to the ground and died.

Hoshiyar! Khabardaar! (Wake up! Be alert!),” the hunter said in mock anger. “Anyone else?”

The audience of about 100 people broke into laughter.

At the end of the performance, all the bhands formed a circle. Ghulam Nabi Aajiz and Abdul Salam Bhat stood next to each other, and Shah Jehan, the magun, raised his hands in the air. He asked people to raise their hands and follow him in prayer. When he prayed for peace in the Valley, the people said together: Amen.