Gull Mohammed Bhagat and the Endangered Kashmiri Theater

December 21

Historians believe that the Bhaands of the Mughal period successfully symbolized the aspirations of general public through different acts or Paethers (plays) which include Buhir-Paether, Dard-e-Paether and Raaz-e-Paether. It is also reported that Maharana Partap Singh sent his underground agents who would watch the Bhaands performing in the villages to collect information about his administration. The artists would raise issues of mis-governance, corruption and biased unjust policies that made the society unhappy. Bhaands also performed sad plays based on the immoral practice forced labour. This form of art flourished during the period of Sultan Zain ul Abdin (Budshah). To perform Paether, they use masks, and colourful costumes. Bhaands are quick witted people.

Bhaands of Kashmir hail mostly from Anantnag district’s Akingam, Mohripora, Shangus, Achabal, Kokernag and Gondpora area.  Various sources say that more than 150 families from the Southern Kashmir district have been a part of this theater.

Here in Akingam in Southern Kashmir’s Anantnag, the Bhaands called the Bhagats claim that their roots in the profession date back to the 11th century. Gull Mohammad Bhagat’s father, Mohammad Subhan Bhagat was a renowned director, writer and a performer to take the theatre and profession to glorification. He developed the traditional themes and pioneered the script into a largely improvised form.

Gull Mohammed Bhagat was 9 years old when he performed for the first time in Tagore hall in 1967 in a play directed by his father titled “Yeti Cha Mumkin” (Is this too possible). Since then, Gull has performed in more than 37 plays and he has earned a great name as an actor of this folk art. However his career came under a limelight when he performed Angreiz Pather, and played the Shakespearean dramas. The show became a major hit and was played on several occasions from 2009-2012. They were also invited for William Shakespeare Festival in Europe.

“When my father spoke, reality became magic, fiction became fact, and everyone listening was absorbed. The humorous stories he told and retold made us think and want to hear and see more. A wonderful impersonator, he could switch accents at will, sometimes sounding like a man born and raised in Srinagar, and sometimes like a south Kashmir man” Gull Mohammed told The Kashmiriyat.

The art is witnessing a decline and now the artists have taken up alternatives to earn their livelihood. The artists who have been a part of parcel of the great Kashmir history are now left to the mercy of a few institutes. “The worst thing a father can hear from his child is, ‘you have done nothing in your life’ and we are pronounced as nothing-ers by our own children” Gull Mohammed says.

The pattern of urban influence on folk art was intensified to outright destruction, as soon as the capitalist economic system had developed to the point that culture could be widely bought and sold. In West, It was around Victorian times that the common people of the Western world were offered music as a commodity which they could purchase, for example, in the phenomenon of Music Hall. The commercialism forces made sure that they persuaded people to the need to buy their commodity; and between these commercial pressures, and the migration of the old agrarian communities to become the new industrial ones, the process of folk creation became lost to the people.

“Nobody is against us, but the local population and the Government has provided less assistance. The love for the art has shrinked due primarily due to the growing political uncertainty in Kashmir post 1989. We are against any culture or tradition, but the irony is that local culture is seen as coming from a lesser mother. We have to be at Par with the global trends, but not at the cost of drowning our own culture. Then there is the problem within us, we converted the art into something funny which actually was a social and a political message” he feels.

Gull Mohammed Bhagat remembers how during the early times Bhaands highlighted the oppression and injustices the Mahrajas had committed against common Kashmiris. “We have always tried to highlight the Political and social history of Kashmir through our plays.”

The newer generations have been persuaded with ever more accessible and desirable forms of the commodity of art. Gramophone records became LPs and then CDs; the Music Hall gave way to radio, followed by television. The marketplace kept expanding and it generated an industry dedicated to the creation of artistic product by a paid elite of performers. This is the diametric opposite of ‘folk creation’, because its motivating force is individual or corporate profit rather than communal need, and also because instead of reflecting the lives of the people, commercial art tends to shape those lives. But Gull says “One has to be at par with technology and global culture. We performed ‘Angrez pather’ in 2009 and it became a big hit, it was only because of the advent of technology. We were invited to Europe, all credits to technology that our shows were viewed through internet in Europe and all over the world.”

Our folk art and traditions cannot be kept aloof from our remarkable history. They provide a vast scope for research. But the one terrible truth is there is no such agency which could take care of them. And they are in the meantime gradually fading away creating a vacuum in the local sphere of art and traditions. “It is a tough survival. Some cultural academies, NGOs individually support us but not the government. We have shows happening in a quarter, which obviously means very less money and the escalating inflation, all factors contribute to the decreasing interest of our coming generations in what we have been doing since ages.” Gull Mohammed states.

Gull Mohammed says, “In the brewing political atmosphere, we do not perform. You see, when the family is disturbed, you want to resolve the fight. When the heart is at peace, only then one can sing and perform, the conditions outside do not matter. Our fates have darkened, the conditions outside have disturbed our hearts. There can be a hope, peace will mean to be in love with everything that is our own.”

Author: Qazi Shibli

Qazi Shibli is a News Editor with ‘The Kashmiriyat.’ A Documentary maker and writer, Qazi Shibli is a Journalism graduate from Bangalore University.