Samuel duPont | Kashmiri Traditional Culture | EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir

Program News | Posted Nov 12, 2007
Program: Exposure

EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir | Photo Gallery

Samuel duPont

The village of Wathoora blends into the dense oak forest that grows around it. A bumpy dirt track leads through the trees, away from the potholed main road, and as I am jostled about in the back of a truck, Wathoora emerges gradually: a pile of bricks, a wrinkled old man dressed white in his phiran, a sort of tunic. At the town’s center, a warren of stone, brick and sheet metal is home to 300 families, and on this warm summer Sunday, the village is relaxed. Women wash pots in a stream that feeds a green river, which itself plays host to a posse of teenage boys: diving, splashing, and wrestling in their underwear.

But peel back the peaceful surface of Wathoora, and a story emerges that mirrors the bloody violence experienced by so many towns throughout the Kashmir valley. Just seven years ago, an Indian military force burned the village to the ground as they hunted a small group of militants hiding in Wathoora. Men in the village describe a year of beatings and intimidation following the attack, and of a second blaze in 2005 in which the military incinerated three houses. Despite the circumstances, Wathoora has survived the conflict on a curious combination of agriculture and folk theater performance.

Bhand pather is a form of traditional Kashmiri theater, and the art is passed down through entire villages. There are some 30 such villages in Kashmir, and Wathoora is among the most well-known and celebrated of the bunch. Ghulam Ali Majboor, the leader of the National Bhand Theatre of Wathoora, takes a flowing red silk robe, woven with gold, from his closet. “This is about 200 years old,” he told me, “It has been passed down in my family, and I will one day pass it to my son.”

Bhand pather plays are satirical by tradition, and though the unwritten scripts often hearken to the days of the maharajah, when landlords were the oppressors of peasants, their political commentary has extraordinary resonance today. In a time when many freedoms are limited for the Kashmiri people, bhand pather provides a voice, however small, for ordinary people. While television, controlled from New Delhi, takes a harsh bias in favor of the status quo, bhand pather is a miniature media that raises a voice on behalf of the downtrodden common man.

Through the most intense years of the Kashmir conflict, Wathoora’s bhand pather faced an unfavorable environment for their performance, and intimidation from both sides. Majboor describes the situation as a split: The Indian army, most of who couldn’t understand the local Kashmiri language, feared they would be subject to parody. They outlawed bhand pather shows. Meanwhile, some hardline Islamic militant groups objected to the performances on religious grounds. Today, the folk theatre is under pressure from television and foreign pop culture, and depends heavily on Kashmiri government grants to survive. In this way, bhand pather is one of many forms of traditional culture under pressure on many sides at once.

Sufiana music is played by men who tend to bear a striking resemblance to bowling pins. Rotund and mustachioed, they swaddle themselves in the white garb of the Sufis, and hold court in their homes sitting cross-legged on the floor.

M. Yusuf Charie, a harmonium player and singer, explained the legendary beginnings of Sufiana. After God created the first man, he ordered the soul to enter the body, but the soul was afraid. When it finally entered, the soul fell in love with the musical notes God had put inside the body, and didn’t want to leave. Thus, Charie told me, “Music is created not by man, but by God.”

Musicians and fans alike agree that Sufiana is a godly music, for godly people. It is traditionally played in all-night sessions that last until the morning prayer; Charie describes the experience as taking people on a trip to paradise. Though Sufiana is apolitical, it, like all performance and art, has suffered greatly over the past 18 years. In the unstable and violent conditions, there was less demand for the music. Guzal Ahmed Ganie hasn’t been able to play in the Srinagar markets since 1989. Besides, he asks “People were dying in the streets; how can you expect to play music?”

A Kashmiri expression describes a person caught between millstones—crushed and ground like a kernel of corn, and spit out the side, pulverized. The phrase is often used to describe the plight of Kashmir as a whole: an innocent people crushed between the massive millstones of India and Pakistan. On a smaller scale, it applies to the traditional culture of Kashmir, assaulted on one side by the hard-line militants, and by India on the other.

Some of the conflict’s smaller militant groups are dominated by hard-line Islamist sects that believe their religion has no room for music. This became especially so during the years of 1995-98, when the Kashmiri militants were joined by a grab bag of other warriors, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere across the Islamic world. Charie and his fellow musicians tell stories of friends whose instruments were destroyed by hardliners. Still, many militants found room for this music, despite the situation. Rashid Hafiz, “The King of Sufiana,” told me a story from 1994, when a militant group summoned him to a mosque. “They left their weapons in the corner,” he said, “And spent all night engaged in my music. When the sun rose, I led the morning prayer, and then, everyone disappeared.”

Ganie told me a counterpoint to this story. He and his band risked a trip to the town of Baramulla for a wedding. Predictably, their bus was stopped at an army checkpoint along the way. The Indian soldiers, unconvinced by their alibi, demanded music, to prove they were not militants in disguise. While they played, more cars and buses stopped at the checkpoint, and their audience grew. As Ganie tells it, the Indian soldiers so enjoyed the music, the band stayed and played by the highway for hours. They were late for the wedding.

Since 2004, the situation in Kashmir has grown more stable. Though the conflict is hardly over—as evidenced by dense military presence throughout the province, and frequent reports of clashes between army and militants—there is much less violence today than there was throughout the 1990’s. For Sufiana musicians, the recent improvement is especially noticeable. Hafiz claims the music has emerged from the conflict more powerful than before. At Lal Chowk, the central market in Srinagar, CD salesmen echo his assertion. For many musicians, sales of recordings have bolstered their popularity and their income in recent years. “It’s an industry now,” says Hafiz, “It’s feeding people. It’s hard to find time to relax.”

As I sat speaking with Hafiz in his home, three old Kashmiri men came to see him. They sat on the floor opposite him, and requested a performance at a wedding in their hometown of Antanag. Hafiz nodded his assent; the men presented him with a handful of dried dates and crystalline sugar, freshly blessed at a nearby Sufi shrine, and left. Hafiz shared the dates and sugar with me, and gazed out the window, past the red brick walls to the blue mountains in the distance. “Everything feels peaceful now,” he said. And it does.

I met Aarshad Mushtaq in a dark, dank basement that serves as the studio for his film-production company. He is a sturdy-looking man, with a face that would fit in anywhere in America — such is the variety of the Kashmiri complexion. He is also a ground-breaking artist in Kashmir. A year ago he wrote and directed the first Kashmiri film in nearly four decades. He is most famous for his stage production of Waiting for Godot, which he translated and adjusted for a Kashmiri audience. As the curtain rose, the show began with a mine blast, and there the characters met, in the pall of violence. The show used Sufiana music, and drew on the mutinous traditions of bhand pather. Mushtaq credits this connection with Kashmiri traditional culture for the success of his production. It ran regularly in Srinagar for nearly two years, and was celebrated at theatre festivals around India.

One morning during Ramadan, when he was in eighth standard, 13 years of age, Mushtaq went to his mosque for prayers. After the service, he heard shouting, and remembers thinking the local army troops had caught a few gypsies. As he emerged from the mosque with his family, he watched Indian soldiers drag a boy — no older than Mushtaq himself — into the square. Grabbing the boy by his hair, the soldiers held him in front of a telephone pole, to which was pasted a “Wanted” poster. The soldiers demanded to know if the boy knew the militant on the poster, and when he denied their accusations, they smashed his face into the pole, and asked again, and again.

With the young boy’s blood smeared on the poster, and dripping down the pole, the soldiers dragged him away. He was later found dead; Indian officials downplayed the “incident.”

Mushtaq admits to being subconsciously affected by experiences like this one, which are unexceptional in Kashmir. But he is quick to emphasize their potential for inspiring Kashmiri artists. He explains that the best art comes out of post-conflict situations, and says he believes that Kashmir is now ripe for a blossoming of its artistic potential. His blend of folk performance art and modern media is representative of a broader trend in Kashmir.

Zahoor Ahmad Shah runs Music Tape Industry, which produces and sells recordings of traditional Kashmiri music in Srinagar and over the internet. Over the past three years, he has seen a gradual change in both the music and in its audience. The instruments musicians use, he says, are changing. The influence of Hindi pop on traditional Kashmiri music has been drastic, creating a new hybrid genre, and younger people have been buying these albums in droves. Many of Shah’s fellow music salesmen in Lal Chowk have given up peddling traditional Kashmiri music. With the arrival of CDs, MP3s, and FM radio in Kashmir over the past decade, alien influences have flooded Kashmiri musical tastes, and marginalized the traditional musical culture. Even Dawseef Chari, the nineteen year-old son of Yousf, doesn’t understand his father’s music, and doesn’t know anybody his age who listens to it.

Some credit for the hybridization of Kashmiri traditional music might go to Dr. Rafeeq Masoodi, the head of Kashmir’s Cultural Academy. Though nominally independent, both Dr. Masoodi and the Academy’s money have come from Delhi. The Academy supports Kashmiri music, theatre and arts through grants and by booking performances for them. He is concerned about the future. “We have to keep the youth in our pockets,” he says, and describes his goal of giving Sufiana music a “modern look” that incorporates “modern instruments.”

Dr. Sheikh Showkut Hussein is a professor of law at Kashmir University. Short, with a short grey beard and black hair, he speaks slowly and thoughtfully in accented English from behind his desk in a spartan, concrete-walled office. He takes a dim view of the activities of the Cultural Academy. “They make the performers addicted to government help,” he says, and describes how broad swathes of cultural tradition are wiped out, preserving just a few, isolated samples. “It’s like keeping a single tiger in a zoo, while annihilating the entire species.” He calls it “cultural proselytization,” and speaks soberly about a government campaign to create homogeneity throughout India. He is forced to teach the Indian legal history curriculum, which is based on the British system of law, despite the fact that Kashmir has no such history. “New generations will have no concept of being separate,” he laments. “Normally, nations create states. In India, it is the other way around.”

The eeriest thing about Kashmir today is the way violence has been utterly normalized within society. In the early 1990s, tells Dr. Hussein, a bomb blast would scare people away from the area for two or three days. Today, Kashmiris are hardened by war, immune to violence. Many Kashmiris will offhandedly refer to the conflict in the past tense, despite bomb blasts around the valley nearly every week. To the youth in Kashmir, a grenade attack is “throwing a potato,” and unemployment is Kashmir’s greatest social problem. As one 18 year-old in Wathoora told me: “Now, our heart is strong. Now, killing and violence is a routine thing. I am not afraid of anything, even being killed.”

To a foreign eye, Kashmir is anything but normal. Newspapers are regularly filled with reports of insurgent violence and army abuses, and the omnipresent, rifle-toting Indian soldiers cast a constant pall of tension over the region. With very few exceptions, Kashmiris will cite withdrawal of this army presence as their first and most important hope for the political situation here. Beyond that, there is a division of opinion: While some demand total freedom and independence, others would settle for autonomy within India or Pakistan. Nearly all, however, believe self-determination—-government according to the popular will—-is the only just solution to the conflict.

Since 1989, the rallying cry for Kashmiris of all stripes has been azadi—-freedom. The real meaning of azadi has changed over time, and means different things for different people, but at its base, explains Aarshad Mushtaq, is a desire for psychological freedom. At the center of this, he says, is a cultural azadi, which permits the Kashmiri people both to express themselves in their traditional ways, as well as to evolve in their traditions. He, for one, wants the chance to speak through his films and plays, and to depict the life and thoughts of the common man. “We have to have our say in serious forums,” he told me. “‘Might is right’ should not be the order of the day. Ideas should conquer.”

On my last day in Wathoora, I was lucky enough to witness a bhand pather performance. The show took place in front of Muain Shah, the local Sufi shrine, and in the shade of a great oak. In the audience, I was alongside a throng of children, and a number of older spectators as well. The skit, as my English-speaking friends helped me understand, showed poor, innocent people exploited by the powerful maghdams—-landlords. Surely there was no need to eradicate poverty and unemployment, opined the maghdam, instead, why not just kill all the poor people outright? The audience very nearly died laughing.
Throughout the performance, three Indian army soldiers lurked in the shade of another tree, just beyond the fence surrounding the shrine. After I made the (perhaps unwise) decision to photograph their presence, they stormed over, angry. What exactly, they wanted to know, did I think I was doing, and why was I there at all? A crowd quickly formed around me, and a few loud, tense moments followed. These men, or ones dressed just like them, had burned Wathoora to the ground, had shot women, had terrorized boys. They had ruled them for 60 years, and for 18, had fought them and oppressed them cruelly. Surely, I thought, as a shouting match began, this is how violence starts.

Thanks to some quick diplomatic work on the part of my fixer, the situation was defused, and the second act of the show could go on. Afterwards, a young man pulled me aside; he wished to share his thoughts, anonymously. Since 1947, he reminded me, India has deprived the rights of the people, and the people have been demoralized. He quoted the British poet Percy Shelley, and compared the oppression and revolution in his poetry to the plight of the Kashmiris.

Ghulam Ali Majboor, the head of Wathoora’s bhand pather troupe, has a post at the Cultural Academy, and depends upon the good favor of Secretary Rafeeq Masoodi and other powerful men. Under the tension that still blankets Kashmir today, bhand pather provides a unique voice for the marginalized, but still, Majboor and the other men and women of Wathoora must tread carefully. “In the past, when nobody would dare satirize kings, we would satirize the kings,” He says. “Today, we beat the drum, but not so loud.”

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