From narrating age-old Mughal stories to creating awareness about the novel Coronavirus, Bandh Pather, a centuries old folk theatre of Kashmir, has acted as a mirror of the society.
The artists who perform in Bandh Pather are Bandh and the plays performed by them are called Pather. In Bandh Pather, artists in colorful costumes move from one place to another in groups and perform plays highlighting the social, economic and political issues of the society in a satirical manner.
The vocabulary used in Bhand Pather has connections to the Vakhs and Shrukhs of great medieval and modern mystics of Kashmir.
Over the period, this theatrical experience has evolved as a mature and complete theatre with roots in academic, historical and the cultural backdrop.
Haenz Pather, Bakerwal Pather, Shikargah Pather, Watal Pather, Gosain Pather, Angrez Pather are some of the plays performed by artists reflecting the chronology of events with different music accentuating the acts.
“Bandh Pather is as old as Kashmir. It acted as a mirror to society at a time when there was no media. It spread awareness, exposed wrongdoings, highlighted issues and much more,” said Ghulam Mohidun Aiyaz, who has written seven books about Kashmiri folk theatre.
“What makes our folk theatre different from the others is that a single artist acts, dances and plays music. It doesn’t involve backstage sound or recorded music like any other theatre. Everything an artist performs is live before the audience,” he said.
The art is not age bound. It passes on from generation to generation. All the performing artists are males. For any female role, male artists would dress up in female clothes. It has three components- music, dance and acting. The musical instruments played during the Pather are Dhol, Nagara and Surnai (a wooden flute with bell shaped outlet at the bottom).
Awarded with a senior fellowship by the Ministry of Culture, Aiyaz said that mention of Bhand Pather was made by Kashmiri Sufi Saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani (RA) in his verses and travel book of English writer, Sir Walter Lawrence.
He stated, “Many researchers from India and foreign countries are working on Bhand Pather and take help from me for their work.”
Learned from his grandfather and father, Mohammad Sidiq Lolpora is associated with the Bandh Pather from the past 60 years. He recalled the time when, on Eid, artists used to travel to villages and cities and perform plays in happiness and joy.
“People were so fond of us that they would wait eagerly for us to perform. Earlier, Bandh Pather was an important part of marriage ceremonies as well. No bride or groom would get ready to marry without us. Every day we had a performance to do. Such an important position we held in society,” he said.
Besides playing Surnai and Dhol, Sidiq acts as a comedian in many plays.
Bandh Pather being the good source of entertainment those days was done in open space and people would gather around them to watch. “People used to stay healthy too back then because they would get entertainment in pure form,” he sarcastically said.
Having performed in other parts of India, he said, “people give good responses. Places get filled in no time. People don’t care about anything and come to watch our plays.”
Rayees Wathori, a young artist from Wathora area in central Kashmir’s Budgam district has been associated with the art since he was 11 years old. “Our elders used to entertain kings, carry tales of villages from one place to another. Bandh Pather is a history telling. It is known as the Bollywood of Kashmir. Contemporary issues like malnutrition, dowry is also presented in these plays,” he said.
Wathora is the epicenter of Bandh Pather. Many of the families are still associated with the art. Tourists and researchers often visit this part of land to enjoy the plays. Earlier, there used to be no scripts for the plays. The artists used to learn the drama but today it is well scripted.
A 7th generation bandh from Budgam, 34-year-old Manzoor ul Haq has performed in almost all the states of India. He said, “There are very few states where I have not performed. I have performed in all the metropolitan cities and received a huge response. I have done Sufiana Mosiki in foreign countries too. We have a passion for art.”
Manzoor plays Santoor, Saz e Kashmir, Kashmiri Sitar, Tabla, Harmonium, Dolak, Shehnai and Dhol. He is an approved artist from All India Radio and was given a national award in 2010 by Sangeet Natak academy in Delhi.
A special form of Pather called Shikargarh Pather shows stories related to wildlife. “Through the act we give a social message that we should not cut forests. Due to deforestation, animals come to cities and kill humans. Recently a little girl was killed by a leopard in Budgam. We performed the act and it made everyone emotional,” he said.
Many videos of Bandh Pather are uploaded on social media. A recent video about Coronavirus shows Bandhs stressing on use of masks and social distancing. They are seen playfully hitting people and pushing them inside their house.
“What elderly or uneducated people don’t understand through radio and television, they understand it through Bandh Pather. Through our plays, we also create legal awareness among people which otherwise is difficult to understand for a layman,” he added.
21-year-old Tanveer Gulzar, son of famous comedian of Kashmir, Gulzar Ahmad popularly known as Gulzar Tiger, said he manages both studies as well as theatre. “I am very enthusiastic and want to perform more. I have been to Delhi and the crowd appreciated us very much. They didn’t understand Kashmiri but they understood the play with our acting,” he said.
As per artists there were almost 80 Bandh theatres in Kashmir including National Bhand Theatre, Karam Bulund Folk Theatre, Kashmir Baghat Theatre, Baba Reshi Folk Theatre and Shah Qalander Folk Theatre. However, only 15 theatres are functioning at present.
Artists believe that the art is fading day by day due to the negligence of authorities. Many talented artists have not taught the art to their children, willingly.
Rayees said in his hometown Wathora, earlier the number of families associated with the art was above 300. “Now, members of only 70 families are associated with this art. In Rohmo and Wanpora villages of district Pulwama, the art is silently dying,” he said.
“Our government has to make the artist alive only then the art will survive,” said Manzoor, who is a full-time artist. “The art has not died. Artists have left the art because they couldn’t afford a decent livelihood through this. Our state has no policy for the artists.”
To make ends meet, many artists take up other meager jobs to sustain their families.
“We had an artist who performed a day before he died. He used to work as a laborer to support his family. He did every role to entertain the audience but now his family is living in poverty,” he lamented.
Tanveer too feels that the art is dying. “My other friends work as carpenters and laborers and earn more than me. Once in a while, we get a show to do and the payments come late,” he said.
Artists said that last year during covid, compensation was given by the government but this year no help is received by artists so far.
Despite struggles these artists are carrying forward the legacy and trying hard to keep the art alive.
Tulkul Arts and Media Collective is an organization started by Rayees and his young folks. “Our effort is to save the art,” he said.
“Wherever we are called, we go and perform with full zeal and energy. We wear our costumes to hide our poor body and stressed mind but never fail to make people laugh,” said Manzoor.