Kashmir: Bhand Pather Artists Subhan Bhagat and Mahjoor Bhagat I
Duration: 00:20:15; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 42.898; Saturation: 0.103; Lightness: 0.474; Volume: 0.110; Cuts per Minute: 1.975; Words per Minute: 89.281
Summary: Pather is a folk theatre form of Kashmir. Bhand is the community of performers.
The plays of the Bhands are called pather, a word that seems to have derived from patra, dramatic character. Bhand comes from the bhaana, a satirical and realistic drama, generally a monologue that is mentioned in Bharata's Natya Shastra. The Bhand Pather though is not a monologue but a social drama incorporating mythological legends and contemporary social satire. Born Hindus, the Bhands converted to Islam and remain very secular in their outlook. An extremely simple, witty and practical people. The Bhand Pather unfortunately does not sustain them economically and they have been driven to other professions primarily weaving the basket work of the kangris, wolloen blankets and carpets.
Post tenth century onwards has been a time when there were foreign invasions in the valley, the social fibre was disturbed and the Kashmiri became a slave in his own land where he had to face and live with alien cultures, religious and socio- political systems. This cross exchange also come through in the folk tradition of the state. The injustice that the people suffered was expressed in the plays albeit as absurd or humourous be it the king in Darza Pather or the royal soldiers in Shikargah, who speak in Persian to the poor and illiterate Kashmiri and expect him to understand a foreign tongue and whip him for not replying. Or the English couple in Angrez Pather who speak a hilarious version of the language to a resthouse guard while out on a hunt. In the Gosain Pather which is about Shiva and the Saivites of Kashmir, large puppets with masks are used to project the sense of oppression through the characters of the king or the witch. In all the plays, the local character is the protaganist, victorious in the end.
The tradition and form is handed down through the generations from father to son. The Bhand has to train himself to be a skillful actor, dancer, acrobat and musician. The leader of the troupe is called the magun, a word taken from maha guni, a man of varied talent. He teaches his people the art and expertise of their inheritance. Today the training is virtually non-existent. A danger signal of the impending doom on this form of entertainment. The finest performers all belong to the older generation.
Acting, dance and music are an integral part of the form as a whole. In pure tradition, the performances begin in the evening with a ritualistic dance, also called a chhok but different from the one done at the Shiva Bhagvati temple. With the onset of night the play unfolds gradually and ends in the early hours of the morning with the magun doing a duay kher, a prayer or blessing.
The Bhands dance to the tune of a specified mukam and the orcehstra includes the swarnai, dhol, nagara and the thalij. The swarnai is larger in size than the shehnai with a strong and metallic sound that has arresting impact in the open air arena. This instrument attracts audiences from the vicinity. A very special wind instrument, it is made in three parts: the nai or wooden pipe made by special carpenters, the barg, a reed of a particular grass found locally and a copper disc the diameter of the pipe into which the barg is fitted. Before the swarnai player adopts his newly made instrument a ritual offering is made in dargah. The composition played is called a mukam and each Bhand Pather has its own. The music follows a set pattern, the salaam, thurau, dubitch, nau patti and the salgah. There is a highly developed system of music based on the classical mould of the sufiyana kalaam with intricate and codified patterns. M. K. Raina, theatre director.
This is an interview of a contemporary Bhand artist Mahjoor Bhagat. His father Mohd. Subhan Bhagat had revitalized the Pather tradition by playing the roles of teacher, performer, historian, archivist and reformer, rolled into one. This interview should be read in the context of the recent upheavals in Kashmir. A popular culture or a folk form always reflects and also hides the unutterables of a time in its body. The works of Pather artists can be a major source of understanding the sentiment of the ordinary people in Kashmir. This interview was conducted by filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar for the film Pather Chaujeri. The interview was conducted near the memorial structure of Mohd. Subhan Bhagat.
The filmmaker and the protagonist, Mahjoor Bhagat, walk towards a garden. Mahjoor in Kashmiri traditional Firan (an ankle length over shirt) and the filmmaker in jeans, jacket and sneakers. A quite and moist morning. Mahjoor, who obviously is the older of the two leads with his energetic footsteps across ditches and slopes. They reach near the tomb stone of Mohd. Subhan Bhagat, the legendary performer, playwright, historian of Bhand Pather.
mohd. subhan bhagat
PRK: We wanted to ask you; your father was a kind of a pioneer
PRK: and he brought in a kind of a cultural revolution.
M: This is true and everyone, and artists, be they amateurs or folk artists within the state, or even if you go outside of Jammu Kashmir, Kashmiri Bhand Pather is something that he managed to bring out of the villages, the homes into Srinagar city. And he has enlightened people by bringing forth his knowledge of Bhand Pather, because there have been times when Bhand Pather was ill perceived and it wasn't socially respectable. He has made an immense contribution to it: he's redesigned it. He researched exhaustively on the subject and after research he laid foundation for new scripts. Prior to this, you would have never found any Bhand Pather within a book format. And thereafter when he staged it in Srinagar and thereby introduced to Kashmiri theatre. So my late father Mohd. Subhan Bhagat, whose grave we are now visiting, he introduced it.
So amateur actors were very receptive and keen with regards to this new form that Bhagatji was about to introduce. So it traveled to other states as well, so much so that Bhand Pather has a mention even at the Centre (Delhi). Even now, in papers and on Doordarshan, you will notice Bhand Pather at least 2-4 times.
This is a typical 20th century story of a traditional folk theatre form being looked down upon for being non-modernist by the post-colonial hegemonic community in the city. Throughout the first half of the 20th century we have seen too many instances of relegating the traditional popular cultures into a marginalized status on the ground of being crass and pedestrians. In many cases it was a reformist like Mohd. Subhan Bhagat, who revived the old forms by altering them to suit the era of reproduction-oriented (cinema, video, digital etc.) entertainments.
It's a different matter that after the death of Bhagat sahib, no one really paid heed towards the direction and script of Bhand Pather. He dedicated his entire life to the art of Bhand Pather. This wasn't a profession for him. We had neither land nor any other means of livelihood. My brother and I both received a education; we bought this house as well as some land, this was all due to this art. Even the central government has acknowledged his contribution. In 1983, he was also felicitated by the Sangeet Natak Academy award for contribution to the development of Kashmiri theatre. His literary contributions have also received recognition by the J&K Cultural Academy. It was an arduous task approaching people, some of whom were beyond the age of 80-85 years. He would approach phankars (artists) associated with Bhand Pather or script or history and he collated his research. You might've seen the book Bhand Jashn (celebration) which was published.
Jammu & Kashmir
The son of the dedicated artist talks about his father and his contribution to the theatre of Bhand Pather. Many such forms have survived only through the painstaking research and preservation by some ordinary individuals. The culture of archiving, in India, is practiced mainly by eccentric individuals. Till the time some professional archivist finds these collections and transforms them into market commodities, the works of those individuals are considered as eccentric, useless and draining on familial resources.
jammu & kashmir cultural academy
sangeet natak academy
Kashmir till the late '80s was much celebrated for its secular culture known as Kashmiriyat. The princely state which became part of India through a treaty between the Republic and the King of Kashmir in 1948, has always been very proud of its distinct culture and autonomous status. Conservation of this autonomy was one of the major points of negotiation while becoming a part of the Indian federal system. This negotiation was reflected in article 377 where Kashmir as a state has been given certain special status. This issue, later, has become a weapon in the hand of Hindu right wing politicians who dubbed the article 377 as a symbol of appeasement of Muslim citizens (only because majority of the Kashmiri are Muslims). The situation got further vitiated as many Kashmiris felt betrayed by the Indian state as the later tried to bulldoze a Hindu majoritarian culture on them. Starting from late '80s for more than a decade the land of Kashmir was on fire around various repercussions of the above political development. Today, though a little quiet, a general air of distrust prevails. A proper patronage and dissemination of its popular and secular cultures such as Bhand Pather can play an important social catalyst in this situation. Bad politics can only be countered by good arts.
Within the last 10 years, they have created the Kashmiri Department at the Kashmir University and for the promotion of Kashmiri arts and Culture they have been teaching Bhagat Saheb's script titled "Koshur Lok (folk) theatre" to the MA students. This was his contribution. He wanted to do so much more but these are matters that only Allah can decide upon and maybe that much only (the amount of work) was agreeable to Allah. Now it is also our wish to continue his work and complete what remains to be concluded. He had taken upon another project titled "Kashmir ka lok theatre" and he would write everyday, up every night, shared a very close bond with Allah, often wrote at night. To me, his son, however, sleep was very dear. I would sleep. But after Bhagat Saheb's death I found a manuscript, which was lying incomplete in his room "Kashmir ka lok theatre" which had information on the lives of folk artists including their past, present and future and this relation across the world where the Bhands have performed and touched the lives of people.
hindu right wing
indian federal system
It is pathetic that a research such as this does not get any funding either from the state or from private sources. Whereas large amount of grant is made available to study the Conflicts in Kashmir. The policy makers still believe that a genesis and also the solution of a social and political crisis, such as in Kashmir, lie entirely outside the area of cultural practices. Fortunately the ordinary people know better.
So, I found this script, which was incomplete and I thought that I might take it forward. So I collected a lot of documents, approached several people, but the fundamental issue is... it is necessary to have some funds. He was a different kind of a personality, he would perform throughout the year and there wouldn't be a single village, city or street that he hadn't visited. So wherever, he would go he would perform and every time he met someone elderly he would make enquiries vis-a-vis this art. And every time he'd tumble upon any document he would collate it. But now that the popularity of this art has receded I too am confronting difficulties and I can't find a way to complete the task without making qualitative compromises (injustice) but insha-allah (god wishes) I will complete this project.
Community art practices, which are carried forward by generations as legacy, are reducing in the face of technology oriented art forms. The homogenizing effect of reproducible cultural forms severely affect the performing arts of a locale which reflect the specific nuances. This market oriented homogenizing process of popular cultures create various discontents, specially in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural country like India. Yet the govt. did not evolve any comprehensive policy to preserve these local and traditional forms. Such efforts still depend on the charisma of individual reformists.
PRK: When your father began this work, I think post 1971 he was most actively working on this project so he almost became a social worker, a researcher and also contributed to the consolidation of the identity of his community, the Bhagat so he must also have had a social vision tied to his theatre. So what was that vision?
: Maybe it's not fair for me to say but such thought, and such personality: his words had a force, a quality and I've seen several scholars and I'm always looking for someone who could be an equal to him. And this isn't something that merely I would say but anyone who knew him would say the same. So, I would even that for the Bhand as a community, throughout the valley, he was a miraculous boon! And it is due to his miracle that, although it (Bhand) is receding with time, thousands of artists have re-immersed themselves in this art form.
community art practices
The second thing is, when something becomes famous, when people praise it, it becomes the fashion of the day. So even historically, Walter Lawrence in his book "The valley of Kashmir" tells us that Bhagat community is found within J&K in Akingam alone. And you will notice that the art had gained immense popularity and hence a lot of other artists too had started organizing theatre and they too now attach the title Bhagat in their names. You will come across one called Shahawali Bhagat theatre, Lok Bhagat theatre, Fayaz Bhagat theatre and when they travel to other places they say, when asked to give introductions, we are Bhagats. So, this is quite an achievement that a small spark from an insignificant household dazzled the whole valley with this art.
This stream of Bhands that Subhan Bhagat comes from is Akingon in Anantnag district. The other place where the Bhands used to live in large number was Wathore in Badgam district. It is no wonder that in '60s and '70s the average youth community of Kashmir was found enthusiastic in revitalizing a local theatre form. Plastered either by the hegemonic cultures of the central India or by the exotic and consumerist representation of their own cultures, the youth must have been desperate to find a form that could be called Kashmiri. Infact, around that time many other states and language groups in India were going through the same phase.
lok bhagat theatre
the valley of kashmir
Also, he was a producer, a director, as well as a playwright. As you can see this plaque/tomb stone here; if I read it out to you what is written in Kashmiri... it says Mohd. Subhan Bhagat, Birth date May 1927, died on 24th June 1993. Its written that here is a memorial to one of Kashmir's most loved and popular folk artists Mohd. Subhan Bhagat, the dramaturge and chronicler of folk theatre. Through this plaque the Cultural Academy of Jammu and Kashmir acknowledges the service that Bhagat Saab had put in, both under the auspices of the Academy and at individual level, for the Kashmiri Bhands and for staging the Bhand Pathers and also to make them capable and visible.
Shbhan Bhagat was one of the few folk artists who got recognition both from the state and the people. There is chapter in his name at the Encyclopedia of Indian literature, volume 1, 1987, Sahitya Academy. Department. of Kashmiri, University of Kashmir has published Kashur Luki Theatre by Mohammad Subhan Bhagat as a text book. There is also a monograph - Mohd. Subhan Bhagat by Gh. Nabi Aatash. Besides he has been acknowledged in numerous books and articles on folk theatre or on Kashmiri literature. This is quite a lot coming from a society famous for ignoring its folk artists, specially if they belonged to a culture outside the territory of the mainland.
department of kashimiri
encyclopedia of indian literature
gh. nabi aatash
mohd. subhan bhagat
university of kashmir
A letter seeking some advice from a govt. institution or invitation to planning meetings in big cities, an occasional applause in a metropolis... so little it takes to make the traditional artists happy! Yet even that much is few and far between to come across.
I know that whenever Sahitya Akademi would receive entries for the best book award, they would then send those to a performer saying we have received all these nomination, send us your recommendations as to whom we ought to felicitate in Kashmir. I still have that file with me. And there were so many who were skilled in Folk Arts at the time that the North Zone Centre at Patiala... now that India has divided regions into cultural zones. So he was chosen/elected as a member to the governing body there. The governing body would have two meetings, sometimes in Delhi and sometimes in Chandigarh. So they would invite him (to these meetings) and solicit his advice saying we have to do this and that - please give your opinion. I traveled with him on many occasions for cultural programmes, outside as well as within the state. So, once I was in your city Bombay so there was a festival on at the time, I'm referring to 1989. You may know this performer, actor, director called Sohan Take was up at the stage at Wankhede Stadium when he announced Now I'm going to present before you, the Raj Kapoor of Kashmir. So he introduced my father to the audience and said that he was referring to my father as the Raj Kapoor of Kashmir.
north zone cultural centre
A heartening example of an artist's reaches into the lives of his audience. As the folk artists often relate to the lives of ordinary citizens, make fun of the authority and powerful people and also make subversive attacks on the system, often the audience treat them as some kind of social authority or spiritual guru. A familial problem or a financial crisis would be discussed with the artist as much as with the religious leader. A heartening example of an artist's reaches into the lives of his audience. As the folk artists often relate to the lives of ordinary citizens, make fun of the authority and powerful people and also make subversive attacks on the system, often the audience treat them as some kind of social authority or spiritual guru. A familial problem or a financial crisis would be discussed with the artist as much as with the religious leader.
Obviously interviewee Mahjoor is being cautious here. He avoids mentioning any particular incidence where his father had stirred up hornet's nest. But obviously such things did happen. With the history of Kashmir being so volatile in recent years it was not possible for any popular artist to stay clear from all political and social insinuation.
He had a versatile personality; whenever he traveled to villages people would seek his advice - Bhagatji we have this trouble, do you have a solution to it? What should we do? How should we do it? He was never politically motivated/inclined. He was always suspicious/wary of politics. He managed to keep this tradition of Bhand Pather alive since it based on our society. So whenever any problems presented themselves, be they from the government or any matter troubling the people he would present these in his Pathers (plays), we wouldn't hesitate even if he'd have to make sacrifices. I mean sometimes, even we were scared and we would tell him that it isn't really possible to present such a thing on stage in front of audience but he would say that that was his job and he would deal with it but you have to continue with work. And he continued to work in that manner.
Subhan Bhagat revived old scripts, documented them in written form, written new scripts which were more conducible to contemporary time, documented lives of other artists, collected history of Kamiri folk theatre, taught in institutions and generally brought the Bhand Pather form in vogue. Obviously he was an iconic figure, to be compared with stalwarts like Habib Tanvir, B V Karanth, Shambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, K N Panikkar and the likes.
The other thing about him that every book that he has written, every script - documenting the folk plays, and other than that 110 plays, based on folk form - the scripts that he has written himself... almost all of them have been staged to the extent that other theatre groups would also adapt those scripts to stage them. He would receive royalty for these and sometimes he would just give them for free saying do something with it. There was such a cultural revolution at the time that there were amateur clubs in every village and even those actors who had nothing to do with this form developed an affinity for it and were drawn to it. It scaled such a heights of popularity. And then during weddings or amidst general public or community festivals or there were invitations to perform at public events from various so much so that we would give them appointments.
amateur theatre groups
b v karanth
history of theatre
k n panikkar
He spent a great portion of his life in Srinagar. Once maybe twice a week or every fortnight he would come to the village. But what is interesting is that inspite of spending all his life in Srinagar he could not buy a house there for himself. Whatever money he'd receive, whether from awards or elsewhere, he would spend it on the art itself. And when I saw him in `89, then I've had a close proximity to him in between '90 and '93 and it was his zeal, it didn't matter whether he received tea or not but anything pertaining to art, artists and artistry (phan, phankar and phankari) be it on TV or radio, in newspapers or even if it appeared in magazines it was a zeal and when this zeal receded he withered away and then gave up his life.
The legendary artist who left a large artistic legacy for his progenies and yet could not even provide them with a shelter. This is a symptomatic story of artists in late 20th century, who practiced forms which were not patronized by the market. With the drying up of feudal patronage the folk artists were practically on the verge of extinction.