When news spread that a Kashmiri adaptation of a Shakespearean play in the traditional folk theatre style of Bhand Pather would be enacted in Akingam, a village around 70km from Srinagar, almost 10,000 people gathered to see it. “With the backdrop of the Pir Panjal mountain range, we performed King Lear in our traditional bhand style,” says Noor Mohammad Bhagat, who runs the Kashmir Bhagat Theatre.
In 2009, he teamed up with playwright M.K. Raina to translate King Lear into Kashmiri. The production has since toured cities across India, but the group holds its first performance in the village, in June of that year, close to heart.
In the last two decades, an entire generation missed out on Kashmiriyat—the liberal way of life that transcended religion, where Sufism and Shaivism coexisted, and evenings gave way to Sufiana mausiqi, or gatherings by the riverside.
Even in the recent past, before the violence started in the valley, it was common for Kashmir’s Muslims and Hindus to go to Srinagar’s famous Broadway theatre together—huddled in their woollen phirans with a kangri in tow—hooting for James Bond’s gadgets and girls. People loved to visit the 70mm cinema hall and late-night shows were common. Cinemas such as Broadway and Regal closed many years ago, with the buildings sometimes being used by the military. Neelam is the only functional cinema hall in the valley, but it goes days on end without a screening.
After 1989, the people of the valley were starved of cultural activity for many years. They were scared to go to the movies or attend public gatherings. “Dhamaka na ho jaaye (what if there’s a bomb blast?)” is a reality that had become, and is, a way of life.
Note bene: (clockwise from above) King Paul Singh, lead guitarist of pop music band Immersion; Mushtaq Saaz Nawaz plays the santoor at his home in Safa Kadal, Srinagar; and Mohammed Yaqoob Sheikh (on santoor) of the Qalin Baf Memorial Sufiana Music Institute practising with students in Srinagar. Javed Shah/Mint
Some of that is now changing. There are still spells of violence, but the last few years have seen singers, classical musicians and theatre artistes stepping out of city limits and going deeper into the valley, where there are no auditoriums or cultural centres.
Basharat Peer, author of the 2009 book Curfewed Night, attributes this movement to the evolution of a generation. “Those who were around 14 years of age when the militancy broke out in the late 1980s are in their 30s today. Only now are they starting to make sense of what happened, and finding their own means of expression,” says Peer.
Performing in schools or on streets, practising their phun, or art, in far-flung, militancy-affected areas, the big turnouts they get reflect the enthusiasm and eagerness for some—any—cultural activity.
“When more than two people are not allowed to collect in one place—because it’s banned by security forces—a gathering of many hundreds, where they meet, cheer and sing, is a welcome change. It gives people a chance to grieve, pray and celebrate collectively,” says Bhagat.
That music can heal is a belief that Srinagar-based Amit Wanchoo, a doctor by profession, lives by. Wanchoo, who leads a pop music band called Immersion, joined the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in 1997. “There were blast injuries coming in every day. Some would survive, some wouldn’t. It was depressing and I had to find a vent for myself and those around me,” he says. “Music helps us keep sane. Post-6 in the evening there’s nothing to do, no entertainment or cultural exchange. There’s cable TV and DVDs, but in the villages there’s not even that,” he adds. Wanchoo belongs to one of the few Pandit families that stayed back in Kashmir.
Formed in 2000, Immersion sings in a mix of Urdu, Kashmiri and English. Their contemporary pop sound combines traditional instruments such as the rabab and tumbaknari with the guitar. Love, lost childhood and nostalgia are themes that dominate their songs. Wanchoo’s band has done shows in Pune, Bhopal, Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar, but the band members love to play in the villages. “Last summer we were playing in Baramulla, a district in Kashmir. After the show, old Kashmiri women came out and kissed our lead singer King Paul Singh’s hands, muttering blessings in Kashmiri. It was touching. When you play in cities outside, you have to be stylish, presentation really matters. But as you go deeper into the valley, people are simpler. They only want some harmony and feel grateful for every little moment of joy,” says Wanchoo.
Another Pandit family is that of the Soporis. Santoor maestro Pandit Bhajan Sopori shifted to Delhi before militancy broke out, but his son, Abhay Rustum Sopori, is always looking for excuses to go back and take the santoor with him. “Playing in Jammu and Kashmir is more of a personal mission,” says Abhay, who received the highest state award, the J&K State Award, on 26 January for his contribution to classical music.
“On 13 January, we performed at RS Pura, a border town in Jammu. It was Lohri, and a holiday in the school where we were performing, and everyone told us that there’s no point going all the way, because no on would turn up. When we reached there, there was a crowd of over 700 students, parents, neighbours...everyone had come. The mood was positive. I would sing an easy dhun (tune), and the kids would repeat after me,” he says. Sopori toured the border areas of Jammu, with performances at Rajouri, Khour and RS Pura.
Kashmir’s Sufiana music culture transcends the Hindu-Muslim divide. Mushtaq Saaz Nawaz, who runs a Sufi music school in the region, explains that Sufi music is largely Persian and Urdu verses which express one’s love for a universal God. Bhagat agrees: “Bhand Pather has no religious bent either. We are there at every Urs, we sing at Shiv-Bhagwati temples as well as the mausoleum of Noor-ud-Din in Char-e-sharif.”
Historically, only boys were taught Sufiana in Kashmir. Mohammed Yaqoob Sheikh, grandson of the late Qalin Baf, one of Kashmir’s most well-known Sufi singers, runs a Sufi music institute in Srinagar called Qalin Baf Memorial Sufiana Music Institute. Its success encouraged him to open another branch in Sonawari in November. They have 15 students now, including five girls. “The beauty of music is that it spreads itself. When other children see children their own age singing so beautifully in Farsi, Urdu and Kashmiri, they want to learn. And parents are supportive, because they feel it will keep them out of trouble,” he says.
The artiste explains that 1989-96 was completely bereft of cultural activity. The years thereafter saw a marginal improvement, but the last four-five years have been better. “We get some help from the J&K Cultural Academy and tourism departments but a lot more is needed. Regardless, Sufiana mausiqi has survived centuries and it will go on. Through bullets and stones, we will not let our art die,” says Yaqoob Sheikh.
A group from the Hindu-dominated Jammu city took up theatre for peace last year. Established in 1983, Natrang, set up by Balwant Thakur, is an established drama company that has performed 250 plays and held over 5,000 shows. It has taken part in national theatre festivals, and held performances in Moscow, Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome and London. Though it confined itself to city auditoriums over the last 28 years, last year it broke out of proscenium theatre’s mould and travelled to the countryside with a play called Choona Hai Aasman. It is the story of a young boy growing up in a conflict zone and touches upon themes of communal harmony, brotherhood, peace and realization of personal aspirations.
“We publicized the play with loudspeakers and scrolls on local cable channels, but I was apprehensive if anyone would come, and worried for security reasons,” he says. When they performed in October in Kishtwar, there were over 15,000 people.
Generations pass on their traditions and heritage primarily through arts and culture. For a society that has seen a mass exodus, especially of the youth, a lot has been lost. But the young generation of Kashmiri artistes is making a determined, desperate effort to rebuild this lost heritage.
SAJAD MALIK, VISUAL ARTIST AND CARTOONIST
At 13, he was already drawing cartoons for the children’s page of an Urdu daily in Kashmir. Soon the editor told him his cartoons were better suited for the editorial page. They were more an expression and lament over the Kashmir conflict, the loss of cultural and architectural heritage. At 14, he was hired by ‘Greater Kashmir’, a Srinagar-based English daily.
Drawing a line: (clockwise from above) Malik; ; and MyChildhood; a panel from his graphic novel, Endangered Species, a painting by Malik.
Now 23, he has brought out three mini graphic novels— ‘Identity Card’ in 2007, ‘Terrorism of Peace’ in 2009 and now, ‘Facebook’. ”I get my ideas by talking to the older generation. I feel that gives me a more wholesome impression of things because it’s colloquial and visual,” he says.
‘Facebook’ is the story of a Kashmiri boy who posts cellphone videos of brutality in the Kashmir conflict on Facebook. The police make up charges against the boy, forcing him to flee the state.
To view Malik’s work, log on to www.kashmirblackandwhite.com