Amidst animated conversations on the lawns of Ganga Dhaba in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, my friends and I were discussing about theatre and art in Kashmir. All of us agreed that Kashmir itself has turned into a real-life, blood-soaked play.
The conversation was still going on when another friend joined the discussion. He showed us a short video titled Forgotten Showmen about two outstanding Kashmiri comedians – Bashir Kotur, who now hawks shoes for a living, and Shabir Hakaak, who works as a shawl weaver.
Theatre Dying in Kashmir
The video doesn't just focus on the changed fortunes of these two actors. It inadvertently turns one's attention to the story of the decline of art in Kashmir in general and theatre in particular. It highlights the hurdles that theatre now faces and it exposes the sheer waste of talent.
It also took me back to my childhood, bringing back memories of the time when I would cycle down to Amira Kadal to fetch CDs of Kashmiri comic plays that I would later spend hours watching.
I also couldn’t help thinking about the electric atmosphere in Srinagar’s Tagore Hall, where you could simply walk up to and chat with the actors and directors.
I recalled the sparkling performances, the ‘comedy evenings’, and the cathartic nature of the theatre festivals I attended.
But with actors from that era now being forced to pick up petty jobs, does it mean the death of theatre in Kashmir? The thought makes me shudder.
Political Discourse Has Taken Centre Stage
The older generation of Kashmiris might have fond memories of nights spent at Neelam and Broadway Cinema.
However, a generation that was born amid the chant of slogans for azaadi hardly has any idea of theatre. Instead, it has seen Kashmir itself turn into a blood-soaked play. A play with the Orwellian Big Brother as its director, where the actors are real, and bullets kill and pellets maim.
Political alienation is the main theme of this real-life play and the characters are in search of peace in uncertain times.
And Kashmir has also become a political laboratory where people are the victims of murky machinations. The state is lost amid skilfully-crafted political rhetoric.
As for theatre itself, the occasionally organised Bhand Pather (Kashmiri folk plays) and theatre festivals should not delude us into thinking that a vibrant theatre culture still thrives in the Valley.
Political Troubles Killed Creativity
But the decline of theatre is not just about the unemployment of once-loved actors. Instead, it is more about political mismanagement and the troubled present-day state of Kashmir.
For liberal arts and free thinking to take centre stage, peace is vital. But unfortunately, Kashmir is devoid of it.
Perhaps the current attitude towards comedies speaks volumes about the mental state of the people. Tragic stories are now more popular in Kashmir than comic ones. Tragedy echoes the tough times the people of the Valley are themselves confronted with.
One wonders whether it will again be possible and viable to hold shows like the Kashmiri comedy nights, where people are free from all forms of violence and sorrow – both real and in art.
Until that time comes, Kashmir is faced with the question – should it laugh with the comedies or mourn with the tragedies?
And then, there are some more questions that continue to trouble me.
How long will we continue to live in an uncertain peace? How long will it take for theatre to thrive again in Kashmir? When will we stop writing about the blood and troubles? When will works about Kashmir’s mountains and meadows replace the tragic tales? And how long will it take for the state’s once-famous comedians to take the stage again?
(The author is pursuing a gender and women studies programme at Delhi University. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)