SRINAGAR: Bhand Pather, Kashmiri folk art that once occupied centre stage as a powerful medium of mass communication, seems to be on the brink of extinction.
Newspapers replaced the street art as the medium of communication. The lack of a theatre culture left Bhands without a formal structure to perform after the street was lost to threatening political environment. The art was never reinvented once it went off the street. The art that once thrived in rural spaces is now dependent on the patronage of the state or art conservationists who host a few performances on stage every year.
‘Bhand’ means an ‘artist’ and ‘Pather’ is the ‘drama’. Bhand Pather is a loosely scripted performance by men whose content deals with contemporary social, political and religious issues. This street art combines satire, dance, and music, to generate a debate among the masses about the governing elite. At its zenith, the art form became an instrument of cultural exchange with places in Europe and central Asia. But its death now seems imminent.
Satish Vimal, a producer at Radio Kashmir Srinagar, has been studying the art form for years. His paper ‘Aalmi Asarat’ on Bhand Pather was published by the Sahitya Akademi Publications. Vimal argues that Bhand Pather is an indigenous folk art which has some foreign influence too. He says the interaction between artists was vibrant and left a mark on each others’ art.
“Artists from Japan and Tibet used to come here to perform this folk art,” says Vimal. “Even artists from Kashmir used to go to parts of Central Asia and Europe to perform Bhand Pather.”
Vimal says that several books about art in Japan, and the Tibetan manuscripts, narrate how artists from Kashmir and their counterparts from central Asia used to perform in each other’s places. “This practice of performing theatre in each other’s territory was common between 3rd to 6th century A.D., that’s why a non-local effect is there.”
Arshad Mushtaq, a filmmaker and a prominent theatre personality, differs with Vimal on influences of the art form. Mushtaq is credited with helping revive Bandh Pather in Kashmir. He says that Bhand Pather was the prime source of information in Kashmir and the art form is completely indigenous, which has lived for two thousand years in Kashmir and rivals the Greeks theatre.
Mushtaq believes that the art form reached lands afar and left its influence, which can be witnessed even today. “These days we can find the influence of it (Bhand Pather) in Japan, China and other countries which fall on the Silk Route,” he said.
The filmmaker believes that the art performed at religious places like temples and monasteries and, with each passing year, evolved many forms that “connected to people’s day to day issues”. But we have “not updated the Bhand Pather”, he says.
“It is the same as it was 150 years back. No new scripts or drama have been added, so people have lost interest in it. They don’t enjoy it anymore and artists are either moving towards the modern theatre or towards lucrative jobs.”
Mushtaq says he doesn’t “see any future” for Bhand Pather. He says artists don’t get the respect they deserve, and the art is being reduced to antiquity.
But how did the art survive for 200 years to disappear suddenly over the past few decades?
Mushtaq says Bhand Pather was patronized by the people in early times, as it used to highlight the public issues. “People funded Bhand Pather. Artists in villages were landless people, but were respected and always got their share (of harvest),” he says. But the lifeline was severed after 1947.
“After Kashmir was occupied by India in 1947, government put its foot into it and started some Sarkari (government) schemes of funding it, which limited Bhand Pather to government functions and annual days,” he says.
As the art died, so did the purpose it served. “It was not possible for them (artists) to highlight the issues which would go against the government that funded them. It was a plan to curbing this traditional art so that it will not highlight the genuine issues related to government.”
Mushtaq says Bhand Pather evolved different themes under different reigns to criticize the rulers. “During Afghan rule, Bhand artists performed Darza Pather, Gosem Pather was performed during Hindu reign and the English Pather for English men. If we will look at the present situation, the Bhands have to perform curfew or shut down pather, which is not possible as the government will not allow it. That is the major reason Bhand Pather lost its popularity among people.”
While no new content was produced, the space that Bhands used to attract people to became precarious. Mushtaq says that after 1990, the “Indian military occupied the very centres where Bhand Pather was enacted. It was exactly between 1990 and 2003 that this folk art disappeared from the streets of Kashmir,” he added.
After 2003, Arshad Mushtaq helped revive this art. He says nearly 500 plays were enacted since then. Buit he is aware that the script doesn’t connect to the masses anymore. “It does not highlight public issues anymore,” he says. “Wherever state puts its feet into free speech art, it gets ruined, that’s what happened to Bhand Pather”
Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, 46, is a seventh generation Bhand, whose father, Abdul Ahad Bhat, from Bomai village, played a lead role in famous play Heimal Nagrai in 1988. The junior Bhat continued the tradition that most families in this village inherited through generations, and is the member of “Wular Theater Zaingeer” established in 1972.
Bhat says most Bhands in Bomai, 15 kilometers from Sopore town in north Kashmir, find it difficult to survive from the performances, which are few and far in between. “Our community is shrinking and the art is vanishing. I feel we are bearing the brunt of government’s negligence,” he said.
In their effort to keep the art form alive, Bhands have tried to garner incomes from other professions while performing whenever the opportunity came.
Bhat feels that successive governments in Kashmir have made tall claims “of saving Kashmir’s tradition, language, and culture”, but no impact has been felt on the ground. “In present times, we do Bhand Pather once a year,” Bhat says. “Last we performed was at a cultural program in Doda on 24th of April, and we were paid 15 thousand rupees to distribute among 15 actors. It is a joke. So the new generation is not interested in this art.”
I wish we received some encouragement. The very thought that the coming generations might not get to see this traditional art form is very distressing, to say the least.”