Rich art form of Kashmir

Bhande Paether is an age-old art form of Kashmir. Ehsan Fazili reports on the festival of folk theatre recently held in Srinagar.

Bhande Paether being performed by the National Bhande Theatre
Bhande Paether being performed by the National Bhande Theatre

A scene from Angrez Paether
A scene from Angrez Paether

Encouraged by the "good response" to Bhande Paether, an age-old folk theatre art form of Kashmir, in different parts of the Valley during the past few months, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages organised a three-day-long festival of the folk theatre in Srinagar sometime back.

The festival was organised by the state Cultural Academy in collaboration with the Sangeet Natak Akademi at Tagore Hall. "Bhande Paether is the most accomplished performing art form of Kashmir", says Rafiq Masoodi, Secretary of the Cultural Academy. He held that the art form suffered a setback during the past many years due to several factors and to arrest its decline the academy stepped in with a scheme to provide subsidy to Bhande theatre.

Bhande Paether kept alive the spirit of Kashmiriyat during the most trying times of its history and the artistes of Kashmiri folk theatre have ruled the hearts of Kashmiris, said Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig while inaugurating the festival. He said folk theatre had played a key role in eradication of social evils and in keeping alive the spirit of the people.

Compared to the western folk theatre, the Kashmiri folk theatre was spontaneous and free from stage complexities unlike, for instance, the English folk theatre, he added. The Deputy Chief Minister said if Jammu was known for painting, in particular Basohli art, Ladakh for the Buddhist monasteries, Kashmir had a mature tradition of theatre and literature.

The way the festival was held has led to a debate among the literary circles of Kashmir. The inaugural event was marked by the presentation of Gosain Paether by National Bhande Theatre, Wathoora. The Deputy Chief Minister announced a cash reward of Rs 20,000 for the artistes. Minister for Transport Mangat Ram Sharma praised the artistes for raising matters of public importance by way of satires and plays.

Commenting on the folk theatre festival, Masoodi said the aim was to "revive and infuse some life into the diminishing art form of Kashmir". He said modern society had overlooked certain things and hardly knew what the folk art of Kashmir had been. "This has been the only mode of communication in the past", he said, adding that it had remained confined to certain groups.

These groups hailing from different areas of the Valley were reactivated in their hometowns like Boniyar and Uri in Baramula district in north Kashmir and at Shopian in Pulwama district and parts of Anantnag district in south Kashmir. The response in these areas has been encouraging which led to the holding of the three-day festival last month. There are more than 30 groups comprising many families associated with this art form, out of which only 17 could perform in the festival.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi, extending all possible help to the Cultural Academy, has assured to hold a five-day festival to accommodate all these groups in a similar festival next year when the State Academy celebrates its golden jubilee.

The effort is being looked at differently by those associated with art, culture and Kashmiri literature and traditions. Renowned Kashmiri writer, prominent litterateur and former Secretary of the Cultural Academy Mohammad Yusuf Teng read out a paper, "Kashmir Ka Lok Theatre—Chand Khayalat."

Describing it as an indigenous art form that is portrayed spontaneously and is not bound by restrictions like that in classical art, Teng held that this rural folk theatre had a colloquial language. More than a thousand-year-old theatre, it "reflected the sufferings of the common man and gave him relief when performed mainly during the night", in the past centuries. "It is as vast as the life of a Kashmiri", he says, adding that the art form is relevant even today. He admits that there has been decay in the art form, but "today’s paether (performance) is reflective of the present-day situation. It is very relevant in our day-to-day life", he asserted.

Its performers till the end of the last century have been entertaining people by moving from village to village and earning their livelihood particularly in summer and autumn. "The Bhands (performers) were the professional performers who practised the art to eek out a livelihood out of their ancestral vocation. The art, therefore, descended from one generation to another in a section of the Kashmir society which dwelled in certain villages", says Ashraf Sahil.

He adds that the repertories of this art form, established as distinct schools in terms of themes, costumes and music, handed over plays from generation to generation through training. The plays, he adds, are reminiscent of the centuries-old legacy of the adoration of tyranny. "It was the most effective strategy, on the one hand, to glamorise the high-handedness of the unscrupulous aggressors and to laugh over their own depravity, helplessness and vulnerability, on the other", he says.

"It is good to preserve some of the fast-vanishing aspects of Kashmiri culture, but only for the archival interest", comments Sahil. He, however, disapproves of attempts in this direction in times "when Kashmiri people have silently entered the technological revolution era and when excellence, competence, knowledge and respectable living are the highest goals of our intellectual strife". "It is connected to the contemporary socio-political life of Kashmir", commented Mohammad Amin, an art critic.

Experts at the festival also pinpointed certain areas with a room for improvement in the genre, the Secretary said. It was observed that the art form "still has the audience and popularity". Secondly, a modern concept of costumes or stagecraft, hitherto unpractised, was used in place of ordinary attire of the performing artistes. Thirdly, what made it different was the introduction of women characters that had been encouraged from the artistes’ families. This was a distinct deviation from the past practice, where male artistes would perform for females.