On a cold winter afternoon in Kashmir’s oldest state owned college auditorium people sat in silence adjusting themselves on iron chairs to witness Arshad Mushtaq’s play Buh Chus Sheahid (I Am The Witness). The play was originally enacted during Haqeeq-e-Kashmir, a parallel event to counter Zubin Mehta’s musical concert Ehsaas-e-Kashmir, in municipal park Srinagar catching world media’s eyeballs.
The dimly lit auditorium added to the gloom when two bhaands (Kashmiri folk artist) took to stage playing the melancholic notes on Surnai (Zurna).
As the bandhs left the stage leaving audiences in eerie silence, Mohammad Yousuf Shahnaaz, who has been part of theatre since 45 years and has worked with Mushtaq on his earlier play Wattepaed (Footprints), took over.
Wearing traditional Kashmiri attire and a headgear, Shahnaaz mapped the stage with a sack full of letters pressed to his chest. For what seemed like a long time, Shahnaaz said nothing and walked around the stage wearing a sly smile on his face. The audiences waited in silence. When he finally spoke, it was part soliloquy and part speech directly addressed to the audiences. “You must be thinking what I am doing here,” he began in a low tone. “I am on a journey. It is a long journey. But I must not stop.”
Since his first play, Mushtaq has experimented with different forms of theatre to stir the thought process of his audiences. In Bu Chus Sheahid, Mushtaq manages to ask some uncomfortable questions while keeping the stage open. Interestingly Mushtaq’s theatre is bereft of any gaudy sets. He relies on his subject to keep the audiences hooked.
With stage decorated with old newspapers and a small bench in the centre, the play sets in motion as Shahnaaz tries to shake audiences out of their historic slumber. “It is my journey. Our journey. It is a long and tiring journey but I must go on.”
While Shahnaaz questions his audience about their seriousness regarding the journey that has been undertaken by many before him, a young boy wearing jeans and winter cap enters the stage. The young boy (Malik Qaiser Mushtaq) pays no heed to Shahnaaz’s presence and walks around the stage with a carefree air around him.
Mushtaq over the years has learned the art of playing with his audience’s curiosity and at the same time keep their eyes hooked to the stage.
Mushtaq offers his audience ample time to reflect upon each dialogue uttered by his characters on stage. His characters are in no rush. They take deliberate pauses while the seriousness of the script sinks in slowly, filling the dark auditorium with hope and questions.
Even the young boy’s character takes his own time to make himself comfortable on the stage.
The central theme of Mushtaq’s play revolves around importance of memory in a conflict zone like Kashmir. He emphasise the importance of passing on the heritage of memory from one generation to another so that it stays alive.
Both Shahnaaz and the young boy in jeans represent two generation for Mushtaq. While Shahnaaz carries the burden of memories (letters) looking for a suitable heir to pass them on, the young boy represent new generation Kashmiris who busy themselves with the mundane of life. The connection between the two is collective memories of death, destruction, forced disappearances, wailing mothers looking for their loved, which Mushtaq bridges through letters kept in a sack. The letters represent memory. “It is your identity. It is my identity,” says Shahnaaz when asked by the young boy about what he is carrying in his sack.
As Shahnaaz’s character leaves the stage leaving young Qaiser alone with the letter, Mushtaq ups the pace of his play by allowing young boy to take lead.
Malik Qaiser Mushtaq, a first timer, leaves audiences in tears as he reads letter after letter and remembers people he had known in life who were consumed by conflict. “I know her. I know her,” he cries out after he reads the first letter written by a mother to her disappeared son.
Mushtaq, through his characters sets his audience free from the barriers of names, time, place etc. to draw their attention to the idea of collective misery and the responsibility of preserving its memory collectively.
The letters which depict memories of incidents happened in the past manage to evoke emotions in young Qaiser like he has been witness to them. This is where Mushtaq tells his audiences that memory is a collective responsibility. In order to sustain it and make it part of our history, it has to transcend the barriers of time, generational gaps and external threats.
The play ends on a high note when the young boy, with eyes full of tears, stands firmly before his audience and vows that, I am the witness. I am the witness.