Ignored by government, Kashmiri 'bhand' folk artists turn to daily-wage work for survival

Ignored by government, Kashmiri 'bhand' folk artists turn to daily-wage work for survival

Ignored by government, Kashmiri 'bhand' folk artists turn to daily-wage work for survival

Palhalan, Kashmir: On a chilly winter morning, Sanaullah Bhat prepares himself for a 30-km journey from his village Palhalan to the city of Baramulla in Kashmir. Donning a traditional pheran (a woollen cloak), the 53-year-old carries a variety of cosmetic items in a jute bag to sell them door to door in the northern reaches of the Valley. This brings him money, yes, but also embarrassment. "Wherever I go, people still recognise me as Shera," Sanaullah says.

He is alluding to the character that shot him to fame in Kashmir's folk theatre scene 30 years ago, of a man who fought for the rights of the poor. But the rise of militancy in Kashmir since the 1990s, the advent of modern means of entertainment and now, the pandemic have pushed folk performers, or bhands as they are locally known, out of steady work. These actors, singers, dancers, musicians and narrators are now selling everything from cosmetics to sand, picking apples, and working at construction sites to survive, 101Reporters has learnt.

National Bhand Theatre (NBT) confirms the development, sharing that there are over three lakh folk artists in the Valley but a majority of them are without a fixed source of income.

This is a far cry from the days of Dogra kings, when bhands enjoyed great patronage and were hailed as the custodians of Kashmiri culture, historian and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef informs. Using satire, mimicry and dry humour, they would depict social, political and religious issues facing the Kashmiri society through plays, better known as bhand pather.

With time, bhand pather moved out of palaces and found a new audience at weddings. "But as fancy cars replaced horses, bhands also lost their relevance in Kashmiri weddings,” recalls Zareef. The next setback came in the form of TV and the internet, both of which made stay-at-home entertainment possible in a region that's ravaged by armed conflicts and biting cold.

On the other hand, the bhands failed to adapt their theatre to changing times. While they did take up TV and radio shows, they stuck to their traditional format, making no upgrades to their scripts and presentation, Zareef explains.

'Pandemic made it worse'

According to shehnai player Ghulam Nabi, their situation has gone from bad to worse in the past two years. He is referring to the abrogation of Article 370 that paralysed the local economy and communication in its aftermath. Then came the pandemic, which stalled whatever little hope they had of getting back to stage and on streets to perform.

Ghulam Nabi, 65, is the only remaining shehnai player in the village of Palhalan. Credit: Firdous Hassan

Take the case of Nabi, who stays in Palhalan. The 65-year-old hasn't performed on Doordarshan, a public service broadcaster, since March 2020, when India first went into lockdown to fight the novel coronavirus. "Even the local TV channel hasn’t restored the folk performance segment yet,” he complains.

A few years ago, Ghulam Mohiuddin Bhat had switched from dancing in folk theatre to toiling at construction sites, hoping this would bring him financial stability. "But all the units shut down [during the pandemic] and I had no option but to borrow money from my neighbours," the 45-year-old resident of Palhalan shares. "Many bhands suffered during the lockdown. They had to sell their phones and other belongings to buy food and medicines," he points out.

'Youngsters moving to other jobs'

The Bhands are torn between their past and present. On the one hand, Sanaullah remembers the thundering applause that Shera, his character, first received in Wagoora in the northern part of the Valley like it was yesterday. On the other hand, he can't unsee the fact that his son has to pick apples to eke out a living than carry forward his theatre legacy, which was started by his father and popular shehnai player Abdul Ghani Bhat.  

His son, Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, 23, did foray into bhand pather two years ago but soon realised it wasn't a career he could bank on. So he found himself a part-time job as a labourer at apple orchards.

"This is the most depressing phase of my life. I travel long distances but make little money," Sanaullah says, looking back on the heydays in the 1980s when he would earn almost Rs3,000 per month from various shows. On many occasions, the audience would give him food grains.

Popular for playing the role of Shera, Sanaullah Bhat is now seen selling cosmetics in northern Kashmir. Credit: Firdous Hassan

Nabi's concerns go beyond the struggles of daily survival. He is the only remaining shehnai player in the village of Palhalan, having learnt the skill from Sanaullah's father. He fears that the art of shehnai in the village will die with his death. That's because unlike other folk theatres, the know-how of bhand pather is not only passed down to families but also villages. In Nabi's case, his sons, three of them, have already left bhand pather behind for better-paying jobs and, as far as other youngsters in the village go, they aren't interested to learn shehnai

Rayees Wathori, 27, is one of those youngsters who is looking for a government job despite having an illustrious lineage and a solid resume as a bhand performer. He is related to famous qawwali singer Mohammed Khalil, humourist Ghulam Ali Majboor and renowned TV artist Bashir Kotur. He drifted to bhand pather at the age of seven and became a radio artist later. He then went on to act in a TV commercial, win the reality show Kashmir Got Talent (2015) and do a cameo in Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijan. 

A resident of the Wathora village in Budgam district of north Kashmir, he says that over 200 artists with four decades of experience in folk theatre have been impacted by the lull, and some of his mentors can now be seen quarrying sand and selling it to dealers. This fetches them Rs500 per day, president of NBT, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Aajiz goes on to inform. “There can’t be anything more demotivating than this,” Wathori laments at the state of affairs. 

'Lack of government support'

Nabi feels the state government isn't doing enough to revive bhand pather. Only old people are now associated with this art. Our children grow up to work as daily-wage labourers rather than wait for the government-sponsored programmes to come along,” he reasons.

The state culture department had given Rs9,000 each to struggling artists to support them from March till November last year but it was a paltry sum. "That's Rs 1,000 per month whereas each artist has a family of four or five to take care of! Due to which, they had to take up other jobs to make ends meet," Aajiz informs.

He claims that he had met officials at the state culture department in July 2020 to discuss the possibility of organising digital shows, but despite repeated assurances, nothing took off.

The financial assistance from the government has been on the decline for a while now. Aajiz informs that grants to 50 registered bhand theatres have stopped and so has the pension of Rs2,500 for the elderly artists.

We'll organise folk shows: Official

When 101Reporters approached Sarmad Hafeez, secretary, state culture department, for comments, he admitted that cultural activities were hit due to the pandemic but now they are framing a calendar of events and shows for 2021, which will involve folk artists. To check the attrition of youngsters from folk art to other jobs, the department plans to hold youth festivals and provide opportunities to the new crop of artists, he adds.

Furthermore, the departments of tourism and handicrafts have also been roped in to promote bhand pather.

As much as bhand pather requires the backing of the government, it also requires 'rework', the fraternity feels. "If the next generation [of bhand artists] comprises professionals who are well-educated, who understand global trends and who can tailor their messages to reflect the issues of the modern-day society, then the theatre will flourish again," Wathori says, signing off.


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