Lost In A Laugh

A theatre festival conducted after a gap of two years lacked an adequate audience, new works and any change in respectable remunerations. But the crowds of new faces on the stage indicated Kashmir theatre is still not dead, reports Mehru N Nisa

The two main characters of the play Confession on stage in Tagore Hall on March 19, 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Theatre is an art of skilful storytelling that connects people, helps understand complex situations and trends and eventually helps in creating an informed opinion. Theatre is a social commentary offering alternative narratives and perspectives.

With easier, modern and faster modes of storytelling, the moot question is, what makes theatre stand out? And, essentially, what it needs to do more, to stay relevant in an era dominating by IT.

“As long as we continue treating theatre as an ancient art and avoiding improving the techniques and infrastructure, theatre won’t stand out,” said Junaid Rather, a student of the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi. “It will become outdated and will eventually lose its relevance. People still go to watch theatre and take it up as a profession because theatre has kept up to date with the technological and digital innovations.”

Basharat Hussain, the director of Artche Kaal, a period drama that was part of the just concluded Annual Theatre Festival of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, believes theatre will live till the end of the world because it is nothing but the reflection of the times we live in. “It has to stand out,” he asserted.

The Kashmir Scene

At places, like Kashmir, where the conflict dominates the scene and the art forms lack enough encouragement, challenges of improvement are secondary to survival. Theatre in Kashmir has gradually evolved from age-old Bhand Pather, an indigenous art of mixing satire with the story. Male dancers, musicians, singers and actors would move around in groups, seek audiences, perform and get paid in cash or kind.

A scene from the theatre play, Ser Peth that was showcased in Tagore Hall on March 21, 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

This visually appealing art, strongly rooted in culture, has grown rare but manages to exist as the base of Kashmiri theatre and literally on its margins. The Pather has always remained social but, off late, it is getting political as well.

In spite of having a rich history, Kashmir theatre is still struggling. At times, it was reduced down to mockery and slapstick with the sole objective of making the audience laugh. The just-concluded Annual Drama Festival of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages – the first in three years, was a testimony to that.

Nothing New

Most of the plays were old and re-performed. There were quite a few plays that were contemporary or involving the new playwrights. Three playwrights had seven plays to their credit – three by Dr Sohan Lal Koul, two each by Nisar Naseem and Sajood Sailani, who died last year. Most of the scripts were written much earlier.

A scene from the comedy, Tika Lal that was played at Tagore Hall on March 18, 2021. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

There were a few performances, which were appreciated and acknowledged. Syed Yaqoob Dilkash’s Artche Kaal was one such play. It had a brilliant use of subtle but strong conflict symbolism. . Well written, the play was laced with metaphors in the dialogues and in its sets. With distinctive performances from the actors, it resonated with a viewer.

Ser Peth, written by Nisar Naseem and directed by Farooq Sumbali revolved around the life story of the main character; his struggles at every stage of life, and the meaning of one’s existence. Although it was put up as a performance of physical theatre, the execution and synchronisation could have been better.

Dr Sohan Lal Koul’s Shakespeare directed by Altaf Hussain had used the meetings between Shakespeare and his characters as a metaphor of the creation being ungrateful to the creator. Though it could have done better in carrying out the story on the stage, the theme was relatable to the common audience.

At the same time, however, some performances could not manage a better impact, some for weak storylines and a few for better delivery.

While, Confession, written by Dr Sohan Lal Koul and directed by Hassan Javaid, had a huge flashy set, and had a bold theme, it went flat in its execution and creating a bond with the viewers. The theme, though interesting, was seen as outlandish by the conservative audience. Bochi, the hunger was seen a copy of a non-Kashmiri play, even though it attracted a lot of interest and was appreciated.

Another performance, Secret Plan, written by Sheikh Haneef and directed by Gul Javaid was termed unimpressive even though it was able to connect with the audience and making them laugh. It fell short of addressing the theme it revolved around.

Insiders said they had been highlighting this issue for a long time but the key deficit remains. “It’s high time that theatre is introduced as a subject in schools and colleges. And the administration must conduct workshops to impart the basic knowledge of theatre,” Junaid said. Hailing from Anantnag, he pinpointed the lack of basic knowledge of theatre and the lack of platforms in Kashmir as a reason for impacting his journey to NSD.

However, the involvement of a whole new generation of new faces on the stage indicated that the theatre is not taking death gasps. It was only passion that drives them all – on stage artist had come to the stage while mourning the death of his son and it was the fourth day of his mother when he had to perform on stage. 

Many of them work were school teachers and government employees who have take up directing, acting and other performing arts as passions and hobbies. The fad for 9to5 jobs and the taboo attached to the stage are key factors preventing artists from adopting art as a profession. There are no incomes actually.

There are a few dozen theatre clubs and groups of like-minded artists but they exist in crisis off the stage. For rehearsals, they lack infrastructure. A good theme is quite rare. If they manage everything well, it still will fetch them peanuts.

 No Returns

“In the recent festival, the Academy gave Rs 50,000 each to the 13 theatre group for producing the play,” Basharat said. “It is supposed to cover everything from stage props to the costume of actors, from paying a director to an actor. Given the number of artists and the efforts involved, how much can a person from a group of 25 people make?”

There was a possibility of selling entry tickets but it would have left the Tagore Hall empty because the theatre was never promoted. Free entry is being seen as an attraction for a better audience, but it has always proved a failure. The festival had almost a common audience. There were people who had watched these plays earlier too.

Even a bad audience adds to the discouragement of the people involved. “A better way of attracting more audience would be to invite school students as part of their co-curricular activities,” Hussain said. “It’d even create interest in them and also change their perspectives.”

Interestingly, Tagore Hall, the only venue of the Kashmir theatre is a vintage theatre lacking almost everything.

“I have been watching theatre since I was a kid and have now been part of a few plays in Mumbai,” Sarosh Kafeel, a regular to the Festival said. “The lights went out during some performances and it is so discouraging for an artist on the stage. Talking from a performer’s point of view, an artist’s concentration and decorum is all broken because of one small technical glitch and when this kind of thing happens in Kashmir’s only theatre, it is sad.”

Unlike plains, Kafeel was shocked by the vacant berths in the hall. “Academy should do a better job in promoting such festivals and even keep tickets there while giving opportunities to the new artists because it’s not like the present generation of Kashmiris does not or would not spend any money on art and live performances,” he said. Kafeel said he did a play in Mumbai that had a Rs 70 lakh budget.  

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