The Band Show: The Quiet Return of Theatrics in Kashmir

 Folk artists at Play. KO Photos by Special Arrangement.

At a time when efforts are being made to revive the obscure theatre in Kashmir, a cultural campaigner camp has been working to strengthen the folk dramas and the discourses from last 26 years.

By Saqib Jameel

A year before the “return of democracy” in Kashmir’s trouble theatre, its folk playhouse resurrected from the belt which would be declared as the first “militancy-free” district in Kashmir during its “healing touch” years.

By 1995, the band known to “enlighten and entertain” the grassroots was back to revive the cultural pulse left paralysed by the political arising in the valley.

26 years later, on the occasion of the World Theatre Day, as the raging strife is still at the centerstage, the cultural forum remains work in progress.

Their efforts, however, have revitalised some of the folk activities when Kashmir over the years has failed to produce a prominent theatre artist like Shadi Lal Koul.

While many young and talented artists — some of whom are forced to give up on their passion pursuits — blame the lack of forums in the valley, Gulshan Cultural Forum Kashmir (GCFK) is keeping the artistic promise intact.

“For the first four years [since its inception in 1995], GCFK played it quiet, as the valley was still in the middle of a raging phase of insurgency,” says one of the band members from Budgam.

“Most of us were caught in quandary, as one group was against our pursuits, while the other would warn us: the show must go on.

The hint was purportedly heaved at the erstwhile folk-artist who would then play a ringleader of renegades. Seasoned sleuths and scribes in Srinagar call the chieftain—backed by the martial-muscle matrix—as someone who set the stage for the ‘political theatre’ in 1996.

“But before that,” says a senior scribe, then actively covering Kashmir, “the gloom had to be uplifted from the valley.”

A certain Indian premier, the scribe states, was then talking about implementing Punjab model in Kashmir. “It was in this backdrop that cultural activities were restarted in the desolated valley.”

As some of these fork-artists regrouped under new banners, they were hailed as the ‘band ambassadors’ of Kashmiri culture.

“While some of them showed up in propaganda programmes of Doordarshan, others took the folk theatre where it was rooted — grassroots,” the scribe says.

A cultural show.

Amid this show of optics in the valley, GCFK oiled its cultural canons and consistently organised events on Art, Literature, Music and Drama.

The group would initially operate in the rural pockets of Budgam—known to house Kashmir’s iconic folk-artists—with an objective of encouraging theatre as a medium of conveying social and cultural, if not political, messages.

But as the landscape was still exploding with the deafening defiance, the forum had to wait for regularizing their troupe.

The formal recognition came when 1999 Kargil War almost threatened to devour the “uneasy calm” in the valley.

“Back then, the folk-artists were badly bitten by the political paralysis in Kashmir,” the senior scribe continues in his Srinagar office. “For most of them, the Gulshan Forum only became a much-needed platform.”

Among its pioneers was a native of a nondescript Budgam village, Mohammd Akbar Dar.

Dar is seen as a doyen in his cultural cabal consisted of some prominent citizenry and civil society members. Years of campaign for strengthening the folk shows in Kashmir have earned him a name—Gulshan Badrani—a blend identity carrying his roots and role.

 Gulshan Badrani speaking on Gandhi Jayanti.

I met Badrani in a frozen February morning at his home in Bedran, a sleepy village nestled on the Baramulla-Budgam boundary. The bespectacled man sporting trimmed salt-and-pepper stubble was getting ready for his Jammu cultural tour.

“What we do is beyond the rustic show derided for its outlived utility,” Badrani said akin to a college lecturer. “We’re promoting the cultural capital of Kashmir.”

As the ‘bandmaster’ of the band, Badrani can be often seen attending cultural programmes in different campuses and forums of the valley. His tribe is driven by the belief of taking the theatre to the next-generation.

“Our educational campuses are our thinking spaces,” the forum founder continued while guiding his members for the upcoming tour.

“One of the reasons behind the fall of the theatre is our inability to take it to classrooms. But this is where we’re focussing on and trying to create a difference.”

 The forum organises cultural programs in different campuses in Kashmir.

Nearly a month after our meet in his hometown, Badrani is back in the valley. His band is now preparing for another tour — this time in “Naya Kashmir”.

However, cynics of these cultural shows see them as “normalcy projects”. Behind the dismissive rant is a barking history — wherein different regimes have conveniently used these cultural shows to conceal Kashmir’s conflict countenance.

“These ‘baand’ [folk-artist] shows only make many people paranoid in Kashmir today,” says Showkat Malik, a history lecturer.

“Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad used these cultural activities to create the so-called ‘Jashne-Kashmir’ pomp and show, and so did his successors. But the problem with these cultural programmes is that they eventually fail to erase the larger reality of the land.”

Such programmes—theatre, symposiums, book launches and folk-singing—have been weaponized to an extent that, Malik says, the poor performers often become clowns in the conflict theatre.

“We’ve already seen instances in this regard when our young and politically naïve artists end up drawing online flak for their participation in the state-sponsored events,” the lecturer says.

“While the lack of artistic opportunities drives most of these young towards such events, they only become a political casualty in a highly-sensitive place like Kashmir.”

But the movers and shakers of these troupe shows are unfazed by the denigration. They call themselves as ‘cultural crusaders’ who have a job to do — revive the roots.

And for that, the Gulshan Forum is already involving big names.

Some seasoned faces after their retirement from government services can be seen in the forum events. A few of them call their participation as the much-needed initiative to safeguard the signs and symbols of what collectively make the culture of Kashmir.

Some prominent Kashmiri faces participate in the Gulshan forum’s programs.

But while many of these ‘big faces’ declined to come on record, some of them anonymously said that their cultural campaigner role is resisting the recent events threatening the identity of the place.

“When you open floodgates in a region, its first casualty becomes its culture,” says a former bureaucrat known for his post-retirement art-patron image.

“One can see that happening in the Indian metropolitan cities which have become melting pots, when they were once celebrated as the cultural capitals of India. Culture defines the identity of the communities, and one has to make every effort to safeguard it for future generations.”

At his home, while making preparation for another cultural tour, Badrani says his forum is already working on this front. “We’re doing our best to revive the cultural moorings of the region.”

Some of these efforts, he adds, have taken the theatre tribe out of their self-imposed suspension mode.

“Over the years, as platforms became useless due to paucity of opportunities, many of our cultural icons faded in obscurity,” Badrani says.

“But from the last 26 years, we’re trying to create more opportunities, avenues and engagements for these unsung heroes who define us and represent us on many fronts and forums.”

Kashmiri folksingers.

In this regard, Badrani’s band is also conducting regular theatrical activities to recreate pride in the Kashmiri culture and bring it back to its ‘old glory’.

“While we’re exploring the hidden talent these days, our motive remains to transmit our cultural heritage to the next generation,” he says.

“And that’s why we organize various campus competitions, musical concerts and symposiums from time to time.”

Among the art-forms, the forum mainly banks on Baandi Pather — the traditional band performance delivered with drums and oral storytelling. It’s known for its amusing flash mob engagement.

“Till 1970s, the Baandi Pather was ruling the minds and hearts of Kashmiris, particularly in rural areas,” says Syed Bashir Kausar, President GCFK.

“It was the main source of entertainment and enlightenment for the simpletons. The country dwellers would eagerly wait for the ‘Baands’ to perform in their village. But now the art is dying a slow death and needs some attention and intervention.”

But while the efforts are being made to contemporise the band show, many in Kashmir believe that the “stale content” and the clichéd performance is only turning off the tech-savvy new generation.

“Selling old wine in new bottles is fine as long as it retains taste and charm,” says Munazir Lone, a young playwright from Srinagar.

The Cultural Forum.

“Problem with these cultural campaigners remains their lack of imagination and innovative narrative technique. They’re only killing the art by adhering to the same old methods.”

In fact, when Kashmir is witnessing resurgence of some forgotten folk artists, like a “lady shah”, many dismiss the renewal as a ‘distasteful comeback’ bereft of a compelling plot.

“And this is where it truly becomes a challenge for these cultural campaigners,” Lone says. “They need to become a bit creative just like those new restaurateurs in town who’re coming out with these creative-themed eateries in the valley and getting the right traction.”

But Bashir Kausar argues that the creative phase will follow once the cultural resurgence becomes pervasive.

“As of now, we’re working on the multiple fronts,” he says. “And one of them is to restore the status of Kashmiri language, as it losing its charm. We can’t popularise the Kashmiri culture without strengthening the local language. A glaring absence of the local language from hoardings, signboards and advertisements is already setting a bad precedence in the valley.”

Apart from distributing Kashmiri literature, GCFK comes out with a bimonthly literary magazine—“Faryad”—to encourage the literary trend and language.

“Technological advancements and fast-changing lifestyles have been proving to be a death-knell to traditional folk-arts in the valley,” Badrani says. “We’re trying to keep the old promise intact when the new and sweeping tech-driven engagements are only dictating our new tastes and lifestyle.”

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