Theatre has always been a genre of resistance, says M.K. Raina

M.K. Raina's memoir 'Before I Forget' is set in the backdrop of an evolving post-independence India. (Penguin Random House India, 409 pages,  ₹999)
M.K. Raina's memoir 'Before I Forget' is set in the backdrop of an evolving post-independence India. (Penguin Random House India, 409 pages, 999)


Legendary theatre person and actor M.K. Raina says the cultural space may be subdued but creative people will not stop thinking. The language of protest will change

A couple of things become evident while reading M.K. Raina’s recently published memoir Before I Forget. One, he’s a keen observer and true to his craft as a veteran theatre director, actor and cultural activist, sets the scene like a stage. Two, he has been witness to several tumultuous incidents in post-independent India: as a young boy in Srinagar, he witnessed the mass protests when the Moi-e-Muqqadas, or holy relic, was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine in 1963; and in 1985, post Operation Blue Star, he travelled with a film team to Punjab, visiting Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s family home in Rode and meeting his father in the Golden Temple in Amritsar (the film was never made).

These observations make for an engrossing and vivid memoir, rich with detail and recollections that tend to tie into film or theatre—for instance, he compares seeing a bullet-riddled Fiat standing in the compound of Punjab Kesari newspaper office in 1985 with the scene from The Godfather where Sonny Corleone is showered with bullets in his car.

Raina, who has produced over 160 plays, including Kabira Khada Bazar Mein, Banbhatta ki Atmakatha and Pari Kukh and acted in art films such as 27 Down, Aaghat and New Delhi Times, believes theatre can be an agent of change. It is evident that this belief has driven his life. He held workshops from 2005-12 in Akingam village in the Valley, which were instrumental in reviving the traditional folk drama of Kashmir called Bandh Pather—bandh means actor/performer and pather, to play—which had been moribund for a decade with militants calling it un-Islamic.

Also read: ‘Camp memories’ from Jammu in the 1990s

He describes how in 2010, at Mudgaej village in Kashmir, thousands of people prevailed after some religious hardliners threatened violence if Badshah Lear (a Bandh Pather play based on Shakespeare’s King Lear), was performed. He recalls a boy telling him, “If you do not perform today, we have been defeated".

Raina writes that despite the struggles, defeats and triumphs, he draws satisfaction from the fact that he has stood up for what he believes in. In an interview at his home in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, Raina, 74, tells Lounge how culture is the safety valve of a community. Edited excerpts:

How did the book come about, especially the title?

The title came first as everybody was asking me to write “before it goes out of my head". Then covid happened, and we were stuck at home. One day I went out and drove around for an hour and a half; I wanted to breathe. That is when I decided to write.

I knew these stories needed to be told; they have shaped my personality. These, unfortunately, are also the dreadful chapters of post-independent India: the Emergency of 1975, anti-Sikh riots of 1984, Kashmir of 1990, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. Every knock I got, I became saner and more committed to theatre and culture. You will see, in some of the chapters, I am not doing theatre, I am just myself, (describing) a time when I learned, imbibed, let things brew inside me.

You write about a growing atmosphere of intolerance in 1989, the year Safdar Hashmi was killed in Uttar Pradesh, while performing his street play ‘Halla Bol’. How have things changed since in the cultural space?

At that time, we could see the state encroaching on the free cultural space but gradually that has become the trend. If you look at the institutions of culture that are supposed to be autonomous, they are controlled by ministries. But theatre has always been a genre of resistance, of protest, of democratic values. The cultural space might be subdued but creative people will not stop thinking or writing. The language of our protest will change. Like in Russia, the entire language of dissent came with new art forms. The same thing happened in East Germany, in Poland... avant-garde theatre, films, writing came about.

How do you keep your sense of protest alive?

There are spaces of protest. For instance, I went to Kashmir, not to fight but to reclaim my cultural space. (Starting from 2001, when the conditions were still volatile) I trained 300-350 boys and girls in theatre; they are today doing national festivals. I went to Akingam where the bandhs live, they had not performed in a decade—their masks, costumes, instruments had been destroyed (by militants). Initially, we worked with the artists under a huge walnut tree as there was no indoor space. The community got involved in the sense that we trained the tailors, blacksmiths, potters to do our work (make costumes, props, masks, etc.). People from the neighbouring five-six villages started supporting us. Our first performance had 5,000 people watching.

Revival, reclaiming of a cultural space happens at a snail’s pace—I can’t tell you how many times I was caught in a crossfire (stone-pelting, violence, cordoning-and-search operations, police firing was still rife; he was beaten up by cops once). It took us five years to bring Bandh Pather to a level where they could even handle Shakespeare. That was the high point. Our first performance of Badshah Lear was in 2008.

Bandh Pather play 'Badshah Lear' based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear'.
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Bandh Pather play 'Badshah Lear' based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear'.

Kashmir has a rich culture, which took a knock during militancy. What is the scenario today?

Ignorance, and then militancy, have killed that rich culture. Nobody is interested in keeping the legacy alive. How many people know Rehman Rahi or Dinanath Nadim’s poems? It’s not part of the school curriculum. Sufiana Kalam, the classical music of Kashmir, is almost gone. Nothing about the bandhs is documented. There is only one santoor maker, and nobody after him to keep this instrument alive. It’s very easy to say “Abhinavagupta hamara tha" (the Kashmiri philosopher who lived between approximately 950 and 1020 CE). It means nothing. It’s just lip service. There used to be a bookshop below the coffee house in Srinagar. We used to buy (Jean-Paul) Sartre, (Albert) Camus, all kinds of literature from there. When I visited the shop in 2001, it was practically empty. The old salesman there said, “Those who used to read have left".

We are not looking at culture as a soft synergy that keeps your mind healthy. Even if there are people ready to reclaim that legacy, they are isolated cases, on the periphery. Anger, resentment, complaints have taken over. I don’t blame the people… but how does a community save itself? Culture is the safety valve for any community. That is not being realised, or they are not conscious of it.

You say you are a product of Indian socialism. What do you mean by that?

Growing up in the 1960s, any poor kid in Kashmir could dream. I went to the National School of Drama on a state scholarship. I am a product of the progressive culture of Kashmir. How can a poor kid dream today (when) you have to pay through your nose for education? Even then they learn nothing. Students today are culturally illiterate. They do not know what Kabir is all about or the Upanishads or (Mahatma)Gandhi.

Why does the book end at 2012, leaving out the last decade or more?

To me ending at 2012 was important, it’s the point where my father’s friend was also planning to leave the mohalla in Srinagar, where our joint family lived till 1990. He said the neighbourhood had changed, it felt alien without us. Maybe there will be a part two to the book. I need time to understand these 12 years. Sometimes I read a play for two years before it comes on stage. Some things become clear when you wait.

Dinanath Nadim was your school principal in Srinagar and Ebrahim Alkazi was the director of the National School of Drama in Delhi when you were a student there. How have these people shaped you?

Nadim would read poetry to us—in a sense, that was my introduction to Kashmiri poetry. I was perhaps in class III or IV, when we performed in his children's musical Naeki Badi. Later (as a grown up), I would always make it a point to meet him. The last time I met him was in 1986 in Delhi. I asked what he was writing and he said something prophetic: “Hyaetir". He said the depigmentation of Kashmiri was taking place. We did not understand it then, and see what happened within three years.

Alkazi was my guru. He would tell me that if you have to achieve anything, you have to lead it yourself. Don't wait for someone else to lead you. Despite being this towering personality, he had a soft side to him; he could exchange ordinary things with you. He was the only one to ask about my family in Kashmir in 1990.

What are you currently working on?

Two things simultaneously. One is a book on my theatre work, and another on Bandh Pather. In terms of theatre, I am working on three short stories this year: One is by a Punjabi writer, it’s about dolls, then Maxim Gorky’s 3 Interviews in 1906 and The City of the Yellow Devil. There are two other projects, which will take time to raise funds: I am working on adapting Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as a play using the elements of Japanese classical Noh theatre, and Kalidas’s Meghdoot as a contemporary musical rock production.

Also read: Kashmiri Pandits and stories of the state of exile

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