“Artist has to reflect common man’s pain, aspirations and dreams”

After passing through a security post at the entrance of Nawai Subah complex in Srinagar, media studios of private television producers show up. Housed in the basement of the building, one of these studios looks distinct. Framed portraits of Hollywood movies are decorated on its walls. And inside it, a man is talking to his colleague in an unwavering voice. He is Arshad Mushtaq, 37, a theatre playwright, director and filmmaker, who revived Kashmiri cinema after four decades with “Akh Daleel Loolech” in 2005 and started peoples’ theatre of the oppressed with a series of award winning plays since 2004.

Wearing red jacket and black woollen skull cap, Mushtaq looks his usual self: calm and confident. In 2004, his first theatre play, ‘Su Ye’ highlighted hope in the valley marred in conflict. The play was an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It stirred up emotions among local audience and was highly appreciated. In 2005, the play became the first Kashmiri theatre play to go to an International Theatre Festivals and won awards and critical acclaim. Mushtaq was awarded as the best theatre director in State Film Festival for it. He was also awarded as best director by Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages for the same.

In 2005, he made Kashmiri’s first digital feature film “Akh Daleel Looluch”. It was after 40 years that a feature film was made in Kashmir. Set in 1887, the film focused on Kashmiri struggle against the Dogra rule.

In 2007, Mushtaq received artist in residence fellowship in a New York University and later became the International Film Fellow at George Washington University. In 2010, he wrote his first original play ‘Wattepead’ (Footprints) based on the controversial Armed Forces Special Power’s Act (AFSPA). So far, he has written five plays and four among them have been selected for International Theatre Festivals and won accolades.

In a conversation with Bilal Handoo, Arshid Mushtaq talks about his recent work and the responsibility of an artist towards his society at large.

Arshad Mushtaq
Arshad Mushtaq

Kashmir Life: On Sep 07 this year, when ‘Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir’ was unfolding in Srinagar’s Municipal Park, your play ‘bea chus shaehid’ was staged and soon invoked a gush of emotions among people present there. And later many said, the play was a “catharsis” for them.

Arshad Mushtaq: Well, it was not a theatrical presentation at all, but a lyrical rendition of the text by two boys whom I didn’t know. They had read my play on internet and wanted to do it. They themselves prepared it. But I was myself surprised when they were just reading my lines and everyone was weeping, two thousand odd people were moved to tears, it was reaffirming.

KL: As a playwright, what was your inspiration to write ‘bea chus shaehid’?

AM: From the struggle that has been shouldered by generations of Kashmiris as a responsibility and carried from one era to another, the play is not only raising questions but tries to answer them as well. It mirrors our society and the concerns that we grapple with day in and day out. It reflects common man’s pain, aspirations and dreams and at the same time lays emphasis on the duty of every new generation that has to take the responsibility, the realisation is the key. This is what an artist is supposed to do and if he fails to do that, then he is merely an cheap entertainer who remains disconnected with his own reality. Such people may draw crowds but will fade out sooner than they think.  

KL: Maybe that is the reason why you are able to strike a chord?

AM: Well, obviously yes. It is very important to tell a person what he is actually going through. Artist cannot just be a word-tailor or someone who draws flowery pictures all the time. Art is between the lines, within the colours on a canvas. This is where the role of an artist comes. He changes the mindset of people, urges them to take action but only after they have a clear understanding. See you cannot jump into the river without knowing how to swim.  You see, Charlie Chaplian in “City Lights” (1931) was so amusing and so humorous, but at the end of the day, his acting was such a big comment on the industrialization which was actually killing the humanity.

KL: You have distanced yourself from Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, by openly stating: “I do not believe in propaganda. They [Academy] are a state machinery.”

AM: You see, Academy was a setup to kill the indigenous artist and art in Kashmir. ‘Baand-e-paether’ being a glaring instance. ‘Baand’ was very famous in his village. He used to highlight the reality of society through his folklores. In return, he would get share from harvest. He was doing ‘angrez pather’ when English were here. He was doing ‘darzi pather’ when Pathans were here or Dogras were beating Kashmiris up. He was doing ‘gousien pather’ when Brahmans had taken to ritualism and exploited the poor. They talked about common man’s concerns so he was successful. He would go across the villages and enthral the people who in turn respected as well as sustained him.

But then in 1947 the Nehruvian India and Nehruvian vision to Kashmir changed it all. Soon Pran Kishore was asked to do the play ‘Boumber te yemberzal’ and Dina Nath Nadim was asked to write it. The Russian dignitaries came to watch the play at Nigeen in 1952. And next day they [Russians] offered support to Indian stand on Kashmir. The Academy is an extension of that design.

Academy asked Baands to do polio campaigns. They were also sanctioned with a yearly grant of Rs 1000, which was huge that time but it remains the same till this year. All this was done to keep the ‘Bhaands’ from going back to what they did the best, resist the invaders.

And soon people grew disinterested in their art. They stopped giving them a share in harvest. So ‘Baands’ slowly parted their ways with art that reflected people. And the same happened to poets. Once employed in radio Kashmir or television or colleges and universities, they were cut short to size.

Arshad Mushtaq being fecilitated with his team of artists.
Arshad Mushtaq being awarded along with his team of artists.

You see in 2010, centre pumped Rs 90 crores into the valley to counter the street protests through their brand of youth related activities like cultural and sports competitions, what has our thinking and concerned civil society doing. Our groups effort ‘Wattepead’ created a much louder message, with which we went across Indian cities, but that is not enough, we need more serious theatre, films, books, art exhibitions and other outreach activities within and outside Kashmir. See the concern of cultural suppression is lingering on all the time, realistic and responsible art hardly finds any patrons in Kashmir today.  We have to wake up.

KL: So, how different is your ‘Theatre for Kashmir’ is doing?

AM: We are trying to establish Theatre for Kashmir as a parallel platform for performing arts where the voice for an indigenous, creative and conscientious art resonates. Our focus remains to portray sensitivities of Kashmir and that is why people outside always wait for our plays. In 2011, we were invited to JNU where we performed ‘Wattepead’. Around 1200 people in an audience gave us a standing ovation same happened at Academy of Art Kolkata. But my alma mater, Kashmir University has yet to hear about our work, they are busy patronising buffoonery and cheap slapstick. Recently, I contacted five principals of colleges for showcasing a Bea Chus Sheahid there, but I was denied space.

KL: And since you are being denied the space, does that mean, State perceives your theatre as a potential threat to prevailing ‘calm’ in the valley?

AM: It is very ironic, at personal level many people appreciate my work but when it comes to their involvement beyond lip service, their love for art and their motherland vanishes. They seem more loyal than the king. National School of Drama is inviting us to perform a play based on AFSPA, and gives us standing ovation, but our own people are busy saving their prospects of another undue promotion. You see, in 1950’s when Drama Schools were opened in different parts of India, here in Kashmir, where India claims to have brought modern education, only Medical and Engineering Colleges were opened up and not institutes which humanise you in a wholesome manner. I may ask, where is our film school, our drama school? We don’t have a liberal arts college. It is very calculated, because these are the places where questions will start to rise. So, they don’t want to build these schools. I guess that should answer your question.

KL: How did 90’s changes the art scene here?

AM: The best thing that happened to Kashmir in terms of art is without doubt the peoples rising in 1990. The so-called show off darbari art that was the order of the day to appease government officials faced a reality check. Whatever was done in the name of art in Kashmir be it the Jashn-e-Kashmir or the majority of theatre and drama, be it radio or TV was part of bigger propaganda and censorship game. See, the best of the world art and literature emerged in the worst of times and revolutions, be it the French or Iranian revolution or the 2nd world war, or the age of renaissance and even in India Iqbal, Faiz, Tagore emerged from the hardest times. This is bound to happen in Kashmir also, these times are going to through up the best of the literature and art but this takes time.

KL: Few question that why a poet like Rehman Rahi didn’t write anything about nineties and Kashmirs’ pain. Your take?

AM: We need to understand that Rahi Sahab is the Mujahid of language and acknowledged by India with it’s highest literary award the Gyanpeeth which has been conferred only to a dozen of people till now. We need to appreciate that a man from Kashmir rises and gets their award and he gets this for contribution to Kashmiri language and thought. Aren’t we fighting for the very identity and the nation which can be nothing without Kashmiri language and if a person all his life contributes to that and brings laurels to that, is it less than fighting a war of strengthening the foundation on which we argue our case of Kashmir’s uniqueness and political and geographical rights. We need to think differently, resistance has different faces and different ways.

Weather he returns it or not is his personal choice and if ever he chooses to return it, he should do it the way Akhter Mohi-ud-Din returned the Padma Shree award to India when Maqbool Bhat was hanged. It created an impact. Tomorrow if Rahi Sahab returns his award or not, but no one can dispute his immense contribution to the indicator of our identity that is Kashmiri language.

By the way if you or for that matter those who say he did not reflected Kashmir in conflict should  read his poem ‘Karballa’ or ‘Aye Kashir Zevv’.

KL: What’s next?

AM: First Bea Chus Sheahid has not have a theatrical run as of now. And within a month or so we are coming with a proper presentation of this play with professional actors and proper designing. Soon after that, I am directing a satirical play  ‘Shakeligour’ (portrait maker) by  Seth Rafi, a playwright whose genius is so under rated, no playwright comes even distant close to his vision and artistic acumen. It is a personal challenge also as I have never tried comedy.


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