The Other Kashmir Problem

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

01 September 2011
A Bhand Pather performance in Pakherpora village.
A Bhand Pather performance in Pakherpora village.

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.”

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    Mehboob Jeelani  is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University.

    Keywords: theatre tradition Kashmir Bhand Pather satire social and political satire jester militancy Sufism