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Bhand Pather - Traditional folk theatre of Kashmir

Geeta Vaishnavi

Bandh Pather is a traditional cultural soirée that is mostly conducted in the Kashmir valley. A centuries-old genre of Kashmiri folk theatre usually performed in open areas with audiences sitting on the ground, has acted as a mirror of society when there was no media, telling age-old Mughal stories and entertaining kings, carrying tales of villages from one place to another. It spread awareness, exposed wrongdoings, highlighted issues and much more. It's a satirical theatre style that combines drama and dance in a traditional folk theatre style where social customs and evils are depicted and performed in a variety of social and cultural functions.

Bhand is a character from the Bhavana, a satirical and realistic monologue drama. Pather, a word derived from Patra, a dramatic figure, is the name given to the Bhands' plays. Interestingly, there is no predetermined script in this theatre form because it is an oral tradition passed down from generation to generation in the Guru-shishya parampara. Moreover, the topics are familiar, but the performance is always fresh as it takes place in a new environment and time and the stories are told in such a way that each performance offers something new to the viewers.

The Bhand performers deftly weave and infuse contemporary religious, social, and political themes into the common stories of the repertoire plays, ensuring that each performance offers something new to the audience. Despite its rustic style and presentation, Bhand Pather's lexicon has ties to the Vakhs and Shrukhs of Kashmir's famous mediaeval and current mystics. Bhand Pather has grown into a mature and full theatre with roots in academic, historical, and cultural contexts over time.

The Bhands expertly integrate themselves into the play, enacting current religious, social, and political themes into the main stories. These actors spent years honing their skills as actors, dancers, acrobats, and musicians.

The Gosain Pather, Shikaragah Pather, and Badshah Pather portray social, cultural, religious and political dilemmas prevailing in the state. Also, these performances are marked by existing tensions and hypocrisies through mimicry, realism, satire, and comedy. Through amusement and irony, the messages are conveyed to the audience cleverly via the medium of performing art.

In Bandh Pather, artists dressed in bright costumes travel in groups from one location to another, performing satirical plays about social, economic, and political issues. Some of the plays performed by artists mirror the chronology of events with distinct music underlining the acts, such as Haenz Pather, Bakerwal Pather, Shikargah Pather, Watal Pather, Gosain Pather, and Angrez Pather. Payment for performances is typically voluntary: one performer will often go around the audience collecting money on a "pay-what-you-can" basis while the others perform.

This traditional folk theatre differs from other forms as it features a single performer who performs, dances, and plays music. It does not use backstage sound or recorded music. Everything an artist does in front of an audience is live. The art is not restricted by age. It is passed down through the generations. Males make up the entire cast of performers. Male actors would dress up in female clothing for any female character. It is made up of three parts: music, dance, and acting. Dhol, Nagara, and Surnai are the musical instruments used during the Pather (a wooden flute with bell shaped outlet at the bottom).

The 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.”

Artists used to travel to villages and cities on Eid to perform plays filled with gladness and joy. People were so enamoured with Bhands that they eagerly awaited their performance. Previously, Bandh Pather was also a significant element of wedding rites. Without Bhands, no bride or groom would prepare for their wedding. Almost every day, Bhands would put up a show. People would gather around them to watch Bandh Pather, which was a popular source of amusement in those days.

Wathora is the epicenter of Bandh Pather and many of the families are still associated with the art. Tourists and researchers often visit this village 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 artist from All India Radio and was given a national award in 2010 by Sangeet Natak academy in Delhi.

Bandh Pather's videos have been widely shared on social media. Bandhs emphasise the usage of masks and social isolation in a recent video about Coronavirus. They have been spotted beating victims and shoving them inside their homes in a fun manner. What the old and ignorant do not comprehend through radio and television, they comprehend through Bandh Pather. We also raise legal awareness among individuals through our performances, which is otherwise difficult for a layperson to comprehend.

Bandh Pather has different themes.

Dard Pather: It depicts Kashmir under the Dards, a symbol for Afghanistan's ruling class. The performance is a clear example of the Dard rulers' violence and repression. Because the play depicts Dard ruler as a drug dictator, it highlights the negative consequences of alcohol and other intoxicants on individuals and society as a whole. The drama also illustrates Kashmiris' affection for their homeland and language.

Raje/Raaze Pather: Raaze Pather criticises the pleasure-seeking rulers' actions. It illustrates the rule of the Afghans in Kashmir. The play's themes are the monarchs' opulent lifestyles, the oppressed status of the masses, pervasive corruption, and the officials' handiness.

Gocian Pather: The drama is based on a Kashmiri folk tale about a Gosian (Sadhu) and a milk maid, Gopali, who gets smitten by the Gosian and begins to participate in religious discussions. His yearning for spiritual enlightenment appears to be linked to his contact with her. 'Gosain Pather,' a film that emphasises religious leaders' influence in Kashmiri society and their high-handedness.

Aarmen Pather: It illustrates the way of life of the Aarmen (vegetable growers) in society. The drama condemns the threat of beggar (forced labour) and mocks people who rebel against the system in order to free themselves from dictators. The practise of child marriage is also depicted and criticised.

Angreez Pather: It illustrates the subjugation of Kashmiris by the English. It also demonstrates a love for the Kashmiri language and a reluctance to respond to Englishman's questions in English.

Waatal Pather: It is one of the twelve oldest pathers still being performed. The Waatal Tribe's way of existence is discussed. The message is primarily sociocultural. This drama highlights social ills such as child marriage, polygamy, older men marrying younger females, and betrayal of trust.

Chakdar Pather: It arose from a movement opposed to autocracy. A poor farmer had become a slave Chakdaars during that time since he had to do all of the work. He lives off the kindness of his landlords. He used to work in the field for the entire day without receiving any compensation. A former is not allowed to keep the harvest or secure the produce for himself. If he did, he was doomed to be beaten mercilessly. When a popular movement against these practices was launched by offended and annoyed farmers, Chakdar Pather played a critical role in mobilising people and expressing their feelings.

Basim Pather: This is a play on Raja Biswajit's historic acts and his reign in Kashmir. Sufiana kalam, sufiana vaadas, and amusing dialogues abound. Basim Pather is a classic play that depicts the rulers' personalities.

Haanz Pather: The central focus of Haanz Pather is how Haanjies (boat movers and guides) make a living and how they interact with tourists. It demonstrates how Haajies community guides take advantage of the Angreez. Haanz Pather depicts the societal ills of cheating as well as the flaws of modern society. Band Chowk is a classic Kashmiri folk dance. People used to get together once a year in a verdant meadow at the start of spring. People form a ring with their hands and dance to the music.

Wount wali Pather: It illustrates the subjugation of Kashmiris by the Paharis. Buhir Pather and Bata Pather are two different variations of the same theme. A Pandit trader is represented by Buhir, and a feudal ruler is represented by Bata. These plays depict the traits of the most important Pandit community as it existed a century and a half ago. It demonstrates that the pandits, despite their small number, were well-off at the time, holding crucial posts in the administration and controlling much of the trade as merchants and feudal lords. The plot centres around a feud between two pandit families, the victims of which are mainly poor illiterate Muslim peasants. The play's message is pure exploitation at its finest. It also illustrates anarchy in the oppressed administrative system, in which a common man is punished for no offence while crooks are rewarded and go unpunished.

Shikargah Pather: Shikargah Pather is a dance play named after Shikargah, a large sanctuary built by the Mughals when they governed Kashmir, located in a village some 40 kilometres from Srinagar. The performance portrays the forests and wildlife's basic needs and benefits, as well as how people may and should live in peace with the forest and its species for mutual benefit. The plot centres around a hunter's hunting expedition, how he kills the animal, and how he is assisted by forest officials, or so-called forest defenders. 'Shikargah Pather' aimed to protect the environment, wildlife, and ecology. The play also emphasises the pervasive threat of corruption in today's society.

Bakarwal Pather: It depicts the life of a backward class known as the Bakarwals, a shepherd clan from the state's hilly regions. The exploitation of Bakarwals by traders is depicted here. To rob the Bakarwals, the traders purposefully demonstrate ignorance of their language. It also underlines the importance of exercising caution when communicating in another language, as the same words may have various meanings in different languages.

Luk Pather: In this, one artist plays a military officer who requests the Gun, which the other artist, playing an illiterate Kashmiri, misinterprets as 'Gane,' a common hamlet name in Kashmir. The military personnel requests him to show the gun because of this response, and he later learns that his remarks were misread by the illiterate Kashmiri.

Kashmiri folk theatre today, Bandh Pather is on its deathbed. This folk theatre, in its current form, provokes pity because it has practically collapsed, losing its intensity and dramatic force. According to John K. Babu, Assistant Professor, Department of Convergent Journalism Central University of Kashmir, the reasons for this pitiful stage include the government's shift to electronic media after Independence, a shift in public interest following the arrival of cinema, radio, and finally television, the conflict in Kashmir, and the introduction of new and sophisticated technology such as the Internet and digital media.

National Bhand Theatre, Karam Bulund Folk Theatre, Kashmir Baghat Theatre, Baba Reshi Folk Theatre, and Shah Qalander Folk Theatre were among the over 80 Bandh theatres in Kashmir, according to the artists. However, only 15 theatres are now operational. Artists say that the art is vanishing day by day as a result of government indifference and many excellent artists have not willingly taught their children the art.

M.K. Raina, a well-known theatre director from the National School of Drama, has been working hard to bring this fading art form back to life. "The government has decided to award scholarships in order to aid in the revival of this art form. We just hosted a five-day workshop in Patnitop (Jammu region), to which we invited all valley actors involved with this theatre. I hope that we can save Bandh Pather from the ravages of time and television, and that we can rekindle public interest in this form of art."



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