Losing appeal

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The decline in the popularity of folk theatre in Kashmir is forcing Bhands to switch to other jobs for earning a livelihood. Nazir Rather reports

Rashid Bhat toils hard as a scrap collector but earns just Rs150 a day – not enough to feed his family. Rashid is new to this work, he switched to scrap collection after he found no work as a Bhand (strolling player). Almost all the other members of their group have taken to other occupations as Bhands don’t find any work.

“Earlier we would earn sufficiently by entertaining people, because there were many takers for our art but people have lost interest in this folk art now,” says Rashid Bhand from Lalpora Tangmarg.

A large number of people, from the Bhand community, were associated with Bhand pather, (a kashmiri folk art) but its decreasing popularity has forced many to abandon it. Most of the youth of the community are reluctant to take up the occupation. The people associated with the trade attribute its declining popularity to two decades of strife and the changing lifestyles.

Many Bhand like Rashid have taken up other jobs to earn a livelihood.

“In past years Bhand pather was considered an important and powerful medium of disseminating information among the masses, but with the advent of TV and cinema it has lost its importance in the society,” says Bhand Ghulam Bhat, 75, from lalpora Tangmarg.

The Bhand pather, which is Kashmir’s version of the street theatre, would act as interface between the rulers and the people in olden days, says Bhat. Bhat believes that Bhands would also highlight the problems of masses before the kings during live performances.

The different Bhand Pathers were the Greas Pather, Gousani pather and Dard Pather. “All these dance dramas would vehemently expose the cruelty of rulers in the times when radio, TV and newspaper didn’t exist,” explains Ghulam Bhat.

Presence of Bhands on any marriage ceremony was considered to be an indispensible exercise especially in villages. People would take it as matter of pride to carry a party of bhands  with barat (wedding part) to bride’s home, but changing life styles have reduced the importance of bhands on such occasions. “We hardly get a chance to participate in any marriage now, people think that it as an out-dated practice to invite the bhands on marriage ceremonies,” says Ghulam Ahmad Bhat of Lalpora who is associated with one of folk theatres in Lalpora.

Many Bhands say that they lost their source of income because people started to stay away from this folk art during militancy. “I lost my left eye in a blast which occurred during one of our performances in Tangmarg in the year 2005. It took me almost three years to recover,” says Ramzan Bhagat, 52, of Bhandpora Tangmarg.

The increase in literacy in the state also led to the decline in the popularity of this folk art over the last couple of decades, says Rashid.
The youth of Bhand community are also eager to give up this art as they believe that the society is looking down upon them now. “I belong to this community, my father has already given up this job,” says Wasim who is an undergraduate student. “The society no longer treats this art with respect now, that is the reason the youth are not in a mood to adopt it.”

The survival of the art needs state patronage. The members of this community believe that government is doing little to promote this folk art. “We used to receive a yearly grant from Songs and Drama division, and from State Cultural Academy earlier but it has also been stopped over the last two years,” says Mohammad Sidique Bahgat of Bhandpora Tangmarg.

He believes that organising folk festivals and cultural shows, besides establishing some institutions where Bhand Pather can be taught, which can help in rejuvenating it.

Secretary State Cultural Academy Zafar Iqbal Manahas acknowledges that the state was doing little to preserve and promote this age old tradition. “We have a limited budget of few crores the major chunk of which goes into paying salaries of employees of academy,” says Manhas. He adds that it is difficult to manage the vast heritage of folk art in a limited budget.

Dr Manahas rues the limited number of theatres and auditoriums in the valley. “We have got only one theatre here in the valley where our artist get an opportunity to showcase their talent but unfortunately that also stands closed since last two years,” he said.

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