How A Theater Group Is Trying To Heal Kashmir’s Drug Abuse Wounds With Art
Dressed in a long blue pheran and white turban, and carrying a Kashmiri musical instrument Surnai in his hand, 26-year-old Zakir Ahmad prefers to talk about King Lear.
“Our bands would usually perform King Lear and other such plays. But the times have changed. We are now called to stage plays to highlight drug abuse and how it is impacting our society,” says Zakir, an economics graduate from the University of Kashmir.
Zakir has named his group of dancers, singers, and actors Kashmir Folk Theatre. Zakir, who has been performing Bhand Pather (Bhand is skilful jester, Pather means Drama) since his childhood, says the Department of Information and the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages often call them to perform open theater plays about the impact of drug abuse on addicts and society.
He says, “Last year, we were performing in a village in South Kashmir. People came to watch the play in large numbers. The message of such plays is direct and it resonates with the audience. People insisted that we perform the same play again. And we happily did. Art has the power of healing and through music, dance, and drama, we entertain people and also convey the devastating effects of drug abuse. We have been doing it for centuries.”
The Bhand Pather is a centuries-old tradition of Kashmir and is held in open spaces.
Zakir says, “We prefer to perform the plays according to the script. But in the case of the drug addiction dramas, we use a number of stories that come up on regular bases in newspapers like some addict committing suicide, some killing his mother, or someone’s parents dying in hopelessness seeing the condition of their child. They know it is happening and we show them how it is happening.”
In every play about drug abuse, Bhand Pather starts with music. Zakir blows his favorite instrument Surnai. Surnai is the fusion of two words Sur and Nai. Sur is a musical note and Nai is a flute of a wooden pipe around 18 inches long with a bell-shaped outlet at the bottom. It has eight outlet holes and one blowing hole. Considered as the most significant musical instrument of the Bhand theater, Zakir, considered as the master of SurNai, plays it at the start of the show.
Surnai attracts people towards open air theatre. The second entry is of Maskhar (joker), who in his own style tells the public what is the purpose of the play. After that other actors appear on the stage. Some act as drug addicts and others as parents and doctors.
Zakir says, “We ensure to have one actor who plays the role of a friend of a drug addict in the play as most of the addicts are being lured towards drugs by their friends.”
Hailing from Akingam village of South Kashmir, which is the traditional home of Bhands, who have been performing pather for centuries, Zakir says Bhand Pather has something in it that instantly touches people.
“In some villages people have our phone numbers and they call us during summers to perform plays about drug abuse,” says Zakir.