January 2017 News

How Art Died In Kashmir

23 January 2017
Times of India
Aarti Tikoo Singh

Srinagar: Long after the Mughals built gardens in Kashmir, women dressed in 'pherans' and ornate jewellery would sing and sway on the manicured lawns of Shalimar Bagh that overlooks the Dal lake. The effect that the Kashmiri dancers had on their audience in the 19th century was described as 'sweet delusion of a never to be forgotten night', by Pran Nevile in his book Sahibs' India: Vignettes from the Raj. The 'nautch' (dance) girls, as foreigners called them, were essentially 'hafiza' (reciters) who danced to Sufi lyrics -a tradition, that is now lost. Kashmir's history of dance, music and acting is ancient. Its folk theatre, 'Bhand Pather' derived from Bharata's Natya Shastra and dedicated to Hindu goddess Shiva Bhagvati, is probably the oldest in the subcontinent. And remarkably, from 14th century's Bhakti poetess Lalleshwari to the 16th century romantic Habba Khatoon, Kashmir produced several exemplary women who led social revolutions by breaking gender taboos around art. It was this rich past that Man Booker prize winner Salman Rushdie projected in his novel 'Shalimar the Clown', the protagonist of which was a Pandit dancer, Boonyi Kaul, who marries a Muslim tightrope walker, Noman - the metaphor that represented both the age-old syncretic harmony and the new post-1990 violent conflict of Kashmir. Recently , when 16-year-old Srinagar girl and Dangal star Zaira Wasim was abused on social media, the changes that the violent conflict has brought to Kashmir's socio-cultural landscape became evident again. Many called her professional choice 'unIslamic' and many dissed her for 'collaborating' with India, the enemy state. Before the insurgency broke out, 'male and female artists from both Pandit and Muslim communities flourished in Kashmir,' recalls Ayash Arif, a veteran actor and director based in Srinagar. 'Gul Afroz (a Kashmiri Muslim actress) travelled with my father's opera theatre team across the country,' Kashmir's one of the most prominent Marxist poet Dina Nath Nadim's son Shantiveer Kaul points out nostalgically. When over a dozen cinema talkies became popular in the Valley, Kashmiri artists made their own first full-length movie 'Mainz Raat' (the night of Henna) in 1964 - a romance written by Ali Mohammad Lone with actresses Mukta and Hafiza Kausar in lead and side roles. Even though Kashmiri cinema couldn't take off due to lack of state patronage, Bollywood's hottest destination for shoots with stars like Sharmila Tagore and Saira Bano was Kashmir till the late 80s. 'Kashmiri television artists thrived too,' says Bashir Qadri, a senior film director in Srinagar. Kashmir's melody queen Raj Begum and renowned singer Shameema (who later married Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad), often appeared on television, earned admiration and applause from the Kashmiri society. 'Even despite a conservative section of society and fundamentalist organizations like Asiya Andrabi's Dukhtaran-eMillat which started in 1987, there were around 50 well-known actresses in Kashmir before violence broke out in 1990,' said a Kashmiri television producer who did not want to be named. One of the first artistes to be targeted by militants was Srinagar Doordarshan director Lassa Kaul. Soon after, almost a dozen Kashmiri girls who defied the dress-code diktat were shot in their legs for wearing trousers and jeans or leaving their head uncovered. Al Fatah, Hezbollah and Allah Tigers issued threats that defined what was religiously permissible and what was not. Cinemas were shut down, and these remain closed till today. TV actress Shamima Akhtar was killed for what the militant groups called an 'unIslamic' and 'immoral' profession. Most private schools made head covering 'hijab' mandatory. Abaya, a robe-like dress, which was unknown to Kashmir, and burqa which was rare, became a common sight. 'We couldn't find even one female artist in 1995 in Srinagar, when we were trying to revive the television and art industry. We were forced to go to Jammu where most Pandit actors had moved. With the passage of time, things however improved. Now we have around 100 female actors in the Valley,' says Ayash Arif. Srinagar-based TV actress Shafia Maqbool, for example, has been a household name in Kashmir for the last 15 years. 'I never faced any social pressure or public wrath for the kind of work I have been doing,' she told the TOI. 'I think because I have always worked keeping in view the sensitivities of my society in mind,' she said. Many Kashmiri Muslim women have moved out of the state and made a name for themselves in the acting industry. Hina Khan is a very successful television star in Mumbai. She shot to fame with her award-winning performance in the television series 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai'. 'Kashmiri society has always been liberal but it is the fringe in Kashmir that we get to see on social media. They abused Zaira because they wanted to get back at India politically,' says Rabiya Nazki, a Kashmiri film producer and director based in Mumbai.