The Existential Crisis of Theater: Bhand Pather

Bhand Pather Props

Bhand Pather Props

Bhand: (from Sanskrit: Bhakt, or Bhana): Spiritual Performer | Pather: (from Sanskrit – Patra): Satirical, Religious Drama/Theater

Kashmir is silent. A shadow ominously spreads through the valley. Its dark tendrils take root and grip the houses, the trees, the stones, the rivers – and ultimately, the people. Darkness is so absolute that light seems like an aberration.

And then, the valley echoes with laughter, like a cannon shot.

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Mulbekh Monastery, Zanskar Valley, Kashmir | Credits: Lethang Photography
A swarnai is heard, its metallic tones striking at the darkness. A thrum of the dhol, and the beat of the nagara begin their musical exchange with the swarnai. Figures clad in colorful phirans keep striking the ground rhythmically with whips and bamboo sticks. The maskhara opens his mouth wide and laughs. It isn’t a condescending laugh – it is a lamentation against the oppressor. His voice is not the only voice as the audience joins in, creating a murmur of dissent, and ultimately, revolution.

Let there be light again. A silent prayer is offered.

Bhand Pather is a Kashmiri theater folk art form. It is perhaps one of the most antiquated practices to have incorporated what we call ‘the theatre of the oppressed’. It combines elements like humor, exaggeration and spectacle with mythology to create a lamentation against the regime that currently holds power. The popularity and origins of this form are directly connected to the rise of tyrannical hierarchies and rulers in the valley – as early as 5th-6th Century BCE. The need for such theater is directly felt when there are no in-built checks and balances against these rulers, since this is no democracy. Who will critique, and who will ask questions?

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Shikargah Pather at the IGNCA in 2013 | Credits: Vinayak Razdan

Thus, Bhand Pather became an informal, robust medium that could give voice to the grievances of the people – we say informal because there was no education that the performers underwent. It was passed down through familial generations. The symbol of the oppressor is rather universal. The art form morphed, changed and adapted according to the oppressor at hand. The Shikargah Pather, for instance, was a commentary against Mughal rule – while Angrez Pather will show us interactions taking place during colonial rule. Gosain Pather, yet another form, is more devotional, and is pertinent to the Kashmiri Shaivites.

Before independence, Bhand Pather reached its peak. Many scholars and their works (i.e. Kshamendra – 12th Century; Acharya Abhinavagupta’s Abhinavabharati – 11th Century treatise on the Natya Shastra and even the Nilama Purana) mention this art form, indicating a long and diverse history. Satish Vimal’s reputed work, titled ‘Aalami Asarat’ suggests that this theater was performed throughout several South-East Asian regions like Indo-Tibet, Japan and parts of central Asia. Yet others consider it to be like the Greek theatre tradition, with a solely indigenous origin in Kashmir, which was then adapted elsewhere.

Bhand Pather in Public

Bhand Pather: A Public Performance | Credits: Kashmiri Life
Whatever the case, there is absolutely no denying that fact that Bhand Pather is made up of several juxtaposed theatrical traditions and linguistic influences. One can easily confuse it to be extremely rustic and hastily improvised given its similarity to street (agit-prop) theater. However, performers have shown to use languages like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Dogri, Persian and English. They blend them seamlessly in improvised dialogue to create humor, diffuse tension and heighten the sublime nature of the entire performance. Dance, drama, mimes, puppetry and even the use of masks is not something they shy away from. It is one of the most versatile theater traditions in the world. We could even term it to be a ‘complete’ theatre due to its origins and myriad forms.

The decline of the art form can be mainly linked to a lack of patronage. The artists enjoyed the patronage of the people, who wished to discuss, debate and send a message to the ruling elite – while the ruling elite also funded it in a bid to reverse that propaganda! But sadly, that changed post-independence. The art was taken off the streets and relegated to selective functions, state approved festivals and school annual days. In effect, it became a cultural relic.

A typical Bhand Pather artist needs to be trained in the realms of song, dance, acrobatics and much more. With popular media replacing such entertainment and a lack of state funding, the contemporary performer can no longer sustain – or even train and develop his art, for that matter. The younger members of the families that need to carry the lineage forward can no longer do so and opt for more economically lucrative activities instead.

Bhand Masks

A Bhand Pather Mask | Credits: Vinayak Razdan
Names like Arshad Mushtaq (prominent theater director), Fayaz Ahmad Bhat (7th Generation Bhand), Padma Shri Balwant Thakur (facilitator of Bhand in international circles) and Rayees Wathori (head of Wathora’s Cultural Society) are a few names attempting to bring it back into the public eye for both – cultural consumption and appreciation.

The crux of most of their arguments for why it is difficult to bring it back (apart from what we presented above) is also this – if Bhand Pather needs to evolve according to the current era, then it should also be able to critique the government without fear. But protest in all forms is a thorny issue in Kashmir; be it on the personal or the political front.

How, then, can it continue if it cannot reinvent? As the art form battles time, context and sociopolitical hurdles, we can only hope that a combined effort is able to not only preserve it, but also enable it to thrive.

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