Theater of the Wronged

Kashmiri theater is beginning to find its feet again with artists evolving original plays. Arshad Mushtaq’s Watterpaed will have a series of shows in September. SHAMS IRFAN met the Kashmiri behind the play.

(A scene from Arshad Mushtaq’s play Watterpaed)

Theater has been struggling in Kashmir for quiet some time. But one man’s love for telling the truth to the power through arts and his belief in the potential of theater to do so effectively is setting the tone for revival of Kashmiri theater.

Arshad Mushtaq, a Kashmiri theater person and filmmaker, is challenging himself and the power by showcasing his first original Kashmiri play titled Wattepaed [footprints]. The show opened to a limited audience who paid to watch the first show in Srinagar just before Ramadan.

The Kashmiri play generated special interest among the new breed of culture conscious Kashmirs who yearn to see this art form revive and thrive again.

For Arshad, Wattepaed is a reaction to the everyday struggle an ordinary Kashmiri has to undertake for survival. Wattepaed also brought out the unexplored part of Arshad’s personality, play-writing. It took him just four days to finish writing the entire play.

He sketches his characters from among the unknown faces walking on the streets of Kashmir under the shadow of suspicion and death.

The play opens with a modern-day king of Kashmir ordering that those killed the previous night in the jungle were working against the state and hence are anti-nationals. He orders his soldiers that these men should not be buried at any cost and that anybody who dare defy the order will be killed too.

The next morning when this news reaches a small village where the boys lived,it is known that they were actually freedom fighters portrayed as traitors by the king’s decree.

An old man whose son was among the killed defies the king’s orders, goes into the jungle during the night and buries them all properly, including his own son.The fear stricken villagers try to persuade him against telling anybody about what he did that night.

But the old man hands himself over to the soldiers and says “I have done my duty for God. Everybody deserves a proper burial.”

Wattepaed is the theater of the suppressed as it highlights the helplessness of the wronged people even when they know they are right. “Theater wakes you up. It mobilizes you while challenging your senses. And then it questions you,” says Arshad.

In order to make his theater a reflection of the Kashmiri society, Arshad deliberately uses the traditional form of artistic expression called Band-e-Pahter to highlight the tension felt by his characters on stage as well as by his audiences off it.

The mixing up of neo-realistic form of theater with traditional social satire is once again attracting the elusive Kashmiri audience to this art form, even though show was not free.

Arshad is quite vocal about his choice of using Kashmir as the backdrop for his plays. For him theater is the most important instrument by which an outsider reads a society. It reflects the true identity of the people. “If somebody wants to understand my society, I don’t want him to watch somebody else’s version; I want him to watch the theater which has emanated from this society. Borrowed interpretation only blurs the real image of a society.”

After the staging of Wattepaed, a friend asked Arshad, Don’t you think you are taking sides?

“Yes I am; I am taking sides for the oppressed people who happen to be my fellow Kashmiris. My theater is for Kashmiris because it is about Kashmir and talks about them,” he replied in a matter of fact manner.

However, the younger generation in Kashmir is still not fully exposed to the theater culture. The way art is used to vent ones anger on a wider platform is still in its infancy in a war torn Kashmir.

The reason people of Kashmir show less interest in theater is because of its limited reach and lack of quality content. Unlike Arshad’s Wattepaed, most of the Kashmiri theater is hijacked by the state sponsored propaganda churning machinery.

“They keep people busy with the tales from distant lands and cultures which ordinary Kashmiris cannot relate with. For me Hamlet could be a renegade or someone with whom Kashmiris can easily relate,” says Arshad.

Apparently, a majority of people of Kashmir is not yet fully aware of the importance of theater in a society. But Arshad is optimistic especially after the overwhelming response received by Wattepaed.

After Eid, Arshad is planning to stage Wattepaed at different locations across Kashmir, “I want my work to reach as many people as possible. My theater is about Kashmiris, so their participation is important for me.”

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