A rooted artist

Embracing a sidestepped mother tongue, theatre director Arshad Mustaq tells Majid Maqbool that he tries his bit to revive Kashmiri language and culture through his arts.
Arshad Mushtaq
Arshad Mushtaq

As a class 7 student in Burn Hall School Srinagar, Arshad Mushtaq sang a Kashmiri song during a cultural function – something no student had done before. Others had sung Hindi or English numbers on the stage.  Arshad won gold medal for his performance.

On the road less travelled, Arshad has since then come a long way. Appreciation too has followed. Despite odds, he continues to tell Kashmiri stories as a theatre director, cultural activist and a filmmaker rooted in Kashmir. From theatre play Su Yee to Kashmiri feature film Aek Daleel Lolich, Arshad had left many landmarks on the cultural landscape of Kashmir.
Despite his success, he is restless – pained at the decline in Kashmiri culture and language. “This has its roots in our oppression, where the outside philosophies, languages and literature was patronized while as the local culture and expression was seen as something inferior,” he says.
So you could recite a poem in a musharia, he says, which was not local but you could not say the same thing at a wane pend (shop pavement). “You needed to know Persian or Arabic language to be recognised as some kind of an artist or a poet. Your poetry in Kashmiri language would fetch you no recognition,” Arshad says. “We now have come to know that Kashmiri language is deeply rooted in the latest philosophies which West came to know much later,” he says.
Arshad says that a Kashmiri could not communicate with his ruler in his language for centuries. “So you had to learn another language to ensure that you are not beaten by an Afghan, a Sikh or a Dogra soldier,” he says. And when somebody wants to abuse someone, he says, most of times they abuse in Urdu or English, a language that their oppressors preferred. “Our own language was seen as something inferior and over the years it crept into our psyche that our language is not good,” he says. “It is not true.”
And when the state doesn’t adopt the Kashmiri language, it speaks of deliberate neglect.  “So what happened was that Kashmiri language would not fetch you a job and it would not put you at some high pedestal. And the so called elite in Kashmir started speaking in Urdu and it trickled down to the other classes as well,” he says.
For embracing Kashmiri Arshad had to face challenges too.
“Ame khute anzehae parnaes manz gold medal (You had better earned a gold medal in studies),” Arshad remembers elders telling him at home when he showed the gold medal he had won for his performance at his school. “They thought it was below their dignity to indulge in such activities,” he says.
But Arshad kept going. His play “Su Yee”, a Kashmiri adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s acclaimed play Waiting for Godot, received standing ovation when it was staged at Tagore hall in 2006. The filled-to-capacity hall resounded with applause. “For 4 and half minutes, the clapping did not stop,” Arshad remembers.
After graduating from Delhi University in English literature, Arshad had come back to valley and studied mass communication and journalism from Kashmir University. But his interests in culture did not de-link him from theatre – his passion over the years.
After the success of his play in Srinagar, Arshad decided to take the play beyond Kashmir’s borders. He staged it once again, this time in Delhi in an international festival of drama. That year, the festival staged 56 plays and Su Yee was among the six best plays of the festival.
“It evoked immense response,” he says. “Unofficially Su Yee stood among the top 6 plays of the festival.” The play, Arshad says, gave theatre lovers in Kashmir an inspiration. “They said finally we have something from Kashmir.”
In 2008, Arshad directed another play “Alav”, with an all female cast. The play is about a mother who waits for the dead body of her son to make sure he gets a decent burial in their ancestral graveyard.
That, however, was just the beginning. Arshad directed “Aek daleel lolich (A story of love),” first Kashmiri film released in a digital format. It was also the first Kashmiri film to be made in 40 years.
While people like Arshad are keeping a culture and language alive, he says that there is a need to recover the lost ground. “Corrective measures should also trickle down from the elite class of Kashmir,” he says. “The very elite classes who speak in Urdu or English in Kashmir should start speaking in their own language and encourage their children to speak in their mother tongue.”
Language of expression come from anywhere, he says, but the language of thought has to be your own.
That was the idea behind making a Kashmiri feature film. He wanted to show to the people that big production houses are not needed to put your ideas across. “It was an effort to tell people that within limited resources we can put our ideas across,” he says.
In 2006 when Arshad screened his first film “Aek daleel lolich” – made with rupees three lakh budget and cast 100 actors – in a jam packed Tagore Hall, celebrated Kashmiri poet Rahman Rahi called it “a pointer to resurgence in Kashmiri nationalism”. It was for the first time that people were so eager to see a Kashmiri film made by a local filmmaker. “But it was not a cheap version of Kashmiri drama people get to see on TV,” he says about his maiden film acclaimed at idea level, if not for its technical fianc?.
In 2007, he was invited to India Habitat Centre in Delhi to screen his film, along with some of the best filmmakers of world. “It was a mixed crowd and it was nostalgic for them to see a Kashmiri film made by a Kashmiri. Technically, I was not there as I had to make a film under a producer. So I had to make it a commercial film,” he says. After the screening, questions were raised about the film.
“In Kashmir, we are in minuses this time and striving to reach to reach zero in the art of filmmaking, and we would not like to be compared with your cinema,” he told the audience in IHC.
When you talk about filmmaking in Kashmir, he says, it is not about making a commercial cinema; it’s about making idea cinema. “The power of ideas has to be talked about. It’s very important that we talk about issues confronting us in our films. It should have a message for people. And we want to have a cinema revolution like the Iranian cinema,” he says.
“Aekh daleel lolich” reflected the traditions of bande pather and talked about voices raised by people against the power centres. “Your work has to be reflective of your culture over the ages. My film is the crux of our Kashmiri entertainment whether it is band pather or other forms,” he says.
As a young Kashmiri filmmaker and theatre director, he says ideas or words can not be put across just by one or two means. “We have to do it by multiple means and then only our discourse will be of the people who think, who love expression, and who are for freedom of human beings.”
It is important, he says, that popular entertainment reflects the indigenous culture of the place we belong to. “What happens to many artists and writers here is that they are too much obsessed with outside world and the outer expression. So they borrow expression from television channels. They make their thought process based on an alien thought. You end up making a sop story of stupid ideas which ultimately are not your own but just cheap imitations,” he says.
Last year Arshad Mushtaq was a scholar in residence in one of the universities in New York. There he planned a package comprising of presentations, lectures, photo exhibition and films about Kashmir. A 15 day show on “letters from Kashmir” brought Kashmir to people who were unaware of the place, and its people.
“I had kept a box surrounded by a barbed wire and there were lots of letters inside the box. The idea was whoever came, the volunteers would ask them to pick up a letter and write their own names on the letter. And then they would open their letter,” he says.
This was a ‘letter from Kashmir’ to people who hardy knew where Kashmir is. “The letters contained information about Kashmir and websites addresses. The idea was that they would take the letters home and read about Kashmir, research and write back through email what they had come to know,” says Arshad.
Many of them wrote back to him, saying that they never knew that there is a place called Kashmir. “They thanked me for making them aware of Kashmir and asked me what they can do for Kashmir. I told them to keep their ears open and learn more and read more about this place which needs your attention.”
Apart from the indifference of the government, the culture, he says, has taken a back seat in Kashmir because of the attitude of the people. “Culture is the backbone of every society but when every kid wants to become a doctor or an engineer, what kind of a culture will you have?”
“How many people are ready to understand their roots? How many people can read and write in Kashmiri?” he asks. “Parents are ready to buy a Harry potter book for Rs 800 for their kids but they won’t buy a Steins book of Kashmiri short stories for them. Parents have fallen into the materialistic trap.” We call ourselves educated but we are a semi literate society, he says.
Arshad refers to people like Sheikh-ul-Aalam, who never went to school but excelled in art and poetry. “Our past has solutions for not only the future of Kashmir but for the future of the world. We have Sheikul Alam (RA) who talked about metaphysics when the West was in dark ages.”
And even today we have poets like Rahman Rahi, who might not take up certain issues that are talked about, but that doesn’t undermine his place as a great poet,” he says.
Having boycotted cultural academy theatre festival for the last two years, he says cultural academy has projected itself as a ‘backyard entertainment company for politicians and bureaucrats’.
“The academy has done some good work too but as an institution it has not come up to the quality where we could actually see our culture thriving. And it has failed to market indigenous culture so that people would feel proud of it,” he says. “The academy has indirectly killed the indigenous artist of Kashmir.”
About the competitions that cultural academy holds from time to time, he says “When they give those awards and certificates to artists, there are lobbies at work and most of the times those who have the right connections get the awards.”
As a successful theatre director and filmmaker he has a message for the youth: “Please look beyond technical subjects. We can have a good humanities institute, a philosophy institute in Kashmir where we can map our presence on the world forum. Everything can be modern but in our own language.”

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