The Bhands of Budgam and their cultural crusade

Beyond the jester’s play, Bhand Pather is known as an expression of the feelings of hostility, isolation, oppression and tyranny at the hands of the rulers. But amid societal amnesia and official rebuff, the Budgam duo is toiling hard to revive the Kashmir’s traditional form of entertainment.

WATHOR, Budgam — Despite their sight sending onlookers into a fit of hilarity, they come across more of the rustic humorists. Beyond the clown image that Bashir Ahmad Bhat and Ali Mohmmad Bhat proudly wear on their sleeve, the Budgam duo is being hailed as the cultural icons cum crusaders in this pastoral land of artists.

Since many years now, their life goal remains to revive the failing Kashmiri traditional art-form: Bhand Pather.

Alongside making regular TV appearances in Kashmiri comedy serials, the Bhats of Budgam are the movers and shakers of the Karam Bhuland Folk Theater (KBFT) — the cultural outfit working for the resurgence of Bhand Pather.

It was on Oct 19, 1989—with Kashmir passing through massive armed upheaval—when the cultural outfit found roots in Budgam. The idea, says Ali Mohammad Bhat, flashing frown-funny facial expressions in one go, was to revitalize the society’s ‘cultural mindset’ towards the dying musical form. “By then,” says Bhat, chairman KBFT, turning thoughtful over reminiscence, “we had begun to understand that one of the major reasons behind the Bhand Pather’s downfall was the societal taboo tag attached to it.”

That Bhands aren’t the “real artist substance” notion was simply killing this art-form. Bhat wanted to change this perception.

To begin with, his pressing challenge was to flip the ‘outcast artist’ image linked with his tribe. The Bhands, he says, were being looked down upon and the only way to change it was to uplift the otherwise downtrodden community. “What many people didn’t understand then,” says Bhat, “was the fact how we were attempting to salvage our history.”

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid

Having its origin deep in history, Bhand Pather (Bhand, locally, performer; while Pather means dramatic performance) is a traditional Kashmiri play-act where the Bhands give vent to people’s feelings of hostility, isolation, oppression and tyranny at the hands of rulers. The tribe was always seen as the vocal voice against the different oppressive regimes in Kashmir.

So, is the ‘anti’ posturing of Bhand Pather somehow responsible for its apparent demise?

Bhat says, he isn’t sure.

But then, as he explains it, certain things are too obvious to comment upon—like, the way this traditional folklore has reached on verge of extermination, right under the nose of the state cultural department. This sorry state of affairs, however, wasn’t always the case.

In their heydays, these Bhands were well-sought after artists. They would usually perform around shrines and temples—travelling from village to village during harvest, festival and marriage seasons. But once the slump set in, the likes of Bhat heeded to their ‘conscience call’ and tried mobilising his tribe in Budgam’s Wathor village.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid

The village has a distinction of producing some renowned folklore artists of Kashmir. But after many of them outlived their prime and scores switched to different jobs in the face of dwindling public interest and support, only a few were left to fend for themselves.

The lacklustre show that the Bhand Pather had become over the period of time hardly found any new fans. It also struggled to retain some old admirers. But this hardly discouraged the Wathor’s handful jesters.

They continue put up both satirical and homourous performances on social issues, environment or statecraft. The idea was to attract the larger audience through their back-breaking performances. But in the face of society’s deep-rooted snub, they were finding themselves at crossroads.

They were equally left disappointed when their own progency shunted out their legacy. Their kids explored other means of living than stepping in their parent’s shoes after witnessing them struggling through their noses for something that hardly “brings home anything”. The Bhats, however, stood their ground.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid

Among the duo was the celebrated comedian of Kashmir, Bashir Ahmad Bhat aka Bashir Kothuer. He motivated his tribe to fight on. And it was because of such efforts that the KBFT’s membership eventually reached to 16.

All its members are upright professional folklore artists, who have performed in the International Drama Festival in Mumbai in 2012 besides making regular performances in and outside Kashmir.

Their rooting for Bhand Pather amid evolving auidence, new music forms and paucity of funds proved it a herculean task for them. But they made it sure that the show must go on. And of late, demonstrating this very spirit, they surfaced in the garrisoned Gurez where they performed in the Gurez Festival 2017.

Amid applause and admiration, Bashir Kothuer took a pledge in the backdrop of mesmerising Habaa Khatoon peak, “we will try our best to save our culture and tradition in the form in which it was passed onto us by our ancestors.” For that, they are counting on the official and societal support.

The outfit wants the government of the day to declare its tribe as a reserved category. The move, they believe, will help them to sustain their passion project while continue working as sanddiggers, construction workers, drivers for the living.

The art alone, they say, can’t keep their kitchens running.

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