The Bhand Pather of Kashmir

M. K. Raina

M. K. Raina
M. K. Raina

(A dramatic from based on mythological stories incorporating contemporary social satire within its practical theme).

While I was doing a workshop with some Bhands in Kashmir I met Ama Kak, an elderly man, a master at his art. In the evenings he would take me up a hillside and we would sit there watching the lush green valley slowly clothe itself in darkness. He would play his swarnai, unfolding one mukam after another. The surroundings echoed with the sound of his music in its intricate patterns. Often he would stop and say, "who wants these things now. It will all soon die out and no one will ever know that we the Bhands had such a rich and developed phun, heritage."

The village of Akingam in the Anantnag district of Kashmir, 45 kilometers from Srinagar is the home of a community of Bhands, the traditional performers of the valley. Spread over a number of villages at the foothills of an endless mountain range, these people move from place to place with their extensive repertoire. A short distance up one of the smaller hills in this area sits a famous temple dedicated to the goddess Shiva Bhagvati. Once a year, in honour of this goddess, the Bhands who are Muslims, perform a special ritualistic dance known as the chhok done with great devotion and faith. During this time the temple in enveloped in an atmosphere charged with a sense of timelessness, a cosmic reality. An extremely superstitious people, the Bhands perform this particular chhok at this temple and nowhere else. However, other shows are presented elsewhere, at Muslim shrines as well as at Sufi centres.

Masks used in Bhand PatherMasks used in Bhand Pather

Masks used in Bhand PatherMasks used in Bhand Pather
Masks used in Bhand Pather

The secular outlook of Bhands is reflected in their dynamic folk form that has incorporated many elements from the classical Sanskrit theatre as well as from other traditional folk forms of India. But over the years many aspects have been lost and others have undergone dramatic changes.

The plays of the Bhands are called pather, a word that seems to have derived from patra, dramatic character. Bhand comes from the bhaana, a satirical and realistic drama, generally a monologue that is mentioned in Bharata's Natya Shastra. The Bhand Pather though is not a monologue but a social drama incorporating mythological legends and contemporary social satire. Born Hindus, the Bhands converted to Islam and remain very secular in their outlook. An extremely simple, witty and practical people. The Bhand Pather unfortunately does not sustain them economically and they have been driven to other professions primarily weaving the basket work of the kangris, wolloen blankets and carpets.

Post tenth century onwards has been a time when there were foreign invasions in the valley, the social fibre was disturbed and the Kashmiri became a slave in his own land where he had to face and live with alien cultures, religious and socio- political systems. This cross exchange also come through in the folk tradition of the state. The injustice that the people suffered was expressed in the plays albeit as absurd or humourous be it the king in Darza Pather or the royal soldiers in Shikargah, who speak in Persian to the poor and illiterate Kashmiri and expect him to understand a foreign tongue and whip him for not replying. Or the English couple in Angrez Pather who speak a hilarious version of the language to a resthouse guard while out on a hunt. In the Gosain Pather which is about Shiva and the Saivites of Kashmir, large puppets with masks are used to project the sense of oppression through the characters of the king or the witch. In all the plays, the local character is the protaganist, victorious in the end.

The tradition and form is handed down through the generations from father to son. The Bhand has to train himself to be a skillful actor, dancer, acrobat and musician. The leader of the troupe is called the magun, a word taken from maha guni, a man of varied talent. He teaches his people the art and expertise of their inheritance. Today the training is virtually non-existent. A danger signal of the impending doom on this form of entertainment. The finest performers all belong to the older generation.

Acting, dance and music are an integral part of the form as a whole. In pure tradition, the performances begin in the evening with a ritualistic dance, also called a chhok but different from the one done at the Shiva Bhagvati temple. With the onset of night the play unfolds gradually and ends in the early hours of the morning with the magun doing a duay kher, a prayer or blessing.

The Bhands dance to the tune of a specified mukam and the orcehstra includes the swarnai, dhol, nagara and the thalij. The swarnai is larger in size than the shehnai with a strong and metallic sound that has arresting impact in the open air arena. This instrument attracts audiences from the vicinity. A very special wind instrument, it is made in three parts: the nai or wooden pipe made by special carpenters, the barg, a reed of a particular grass found locally and a copper disc the diameter of the pipe into which the barg is fitted. Before the swarnai player adopts his newly made instrument a ritual offering is made in dargah. The composition played is called a mukam and each Bhand Pather has its own. The music follows a set pattern, the salaam, thurau, dubitch, nau patti and the salgah. There is a highly developed system of music based on the classical mould of the sufiyana kalaam with intricate and codified patterns.

Scenes from Bhaand pather
Scenes from Bhaand pather
Scenes from Bhaand pather

The man who plays the dhol is the central figure in the orchestra. Many taals in various combinations are played on this drum but unfortunately today very few remain. The nagara is an ascompaniment to the dhol and the rhythm doubles in intensity as the play proceeds. More than one nagara is used in the performance to emphasize the sound of the instrument. The thalij is a metal cymbal a little larger than those used in other musical forms. To this music are added Kashmiri folk songs, sung throughout the play.

The two properties that are a must for every pather are a whip and a short bamboo stick. The koodar, or long whip is crafted from the dry stem of the bhang plant and looks like a thick rope which is forked at its tip. When used it emanates a sound similar to a gunshot. During the performance a character can be whipped a hundred times without being hurt because this property does not have the impact associated with a whip, it just looks deadly. It is used to transform all the elements that represent oppression into strong dramatic images. In sharp contrast the bans are used by the jester or maskhara. These are split bamboo sticks that make a sharp sound. In his pantomime, the maskhara uses the bans emerges as the total opposite of the oppressors whip.

The kaper chadar or sheet of cloth is used as a curtain. Some of the actors make their entrance from behind this chadar. The same cloth is often used as a canopy for the king when he holds court is some other scene. The use of the kaper chadar is reminiscent of the yavanika described in the Natya Shastra and which is also used in Kathakali and Yakshagana.

The Maskharas are one of the most important characters in the Bhand Pather. They lampoon the king and the upper classes by exposing their corruption. The jester is the constant factor in the performance, the link of the various episodes. The elements of homour, be it hazal (mockery), mazaak (jokes), tasan (sarcasm) or even finding fault with the other characters is the forte of the maskhara. They do very accurate caricatures of society using a great deal of pantomime. Finally, the maskhara emerges as the rebel, the character who does not cow down to the oppressor. The message that comes across through the performance the message of the political and social scene, makes the Bhand Pather a very relevant and contemporary traditional folk form - a political and social review.

Performances take place in the open air and there are no clearly defined acting areas. The actors can move about climb the roof of a house or even a tree if they so choose. In the Watal Pather a satirical play about the profession of sweepers who in Kashmir are not considered untouchables, a wedding procession that is part of the action comes through the village drawing crowds along with it and ends up at the point where another episode of the performance has already begun. This simultaneous action is an interesting aspect and is done in other patheras well. Another example is a king may be seen holding court at one point and farmers are ploughing the field at another. These instant juxtapositions give another very subtle and sensitive dimension to this form.

The predominant language used is Kashmiri but there is also a use of Gujjari, Punjabi, Dogri, Persain and sometimes even English, Non- Kashmiri words are used to accentuate the humourous and absurd situations to create dramatic effects and totally incongrous expressions.

The style of acting swings from the purely realistic to the highly exaggerated. The pantomime achieves an abstract, graphic quality making it a strong element in the fabric of the Bhand Pather. A good example is from the Arim Pather or the vegetable gardeners' pather rarely done today, where the maskhara as the gardener carries a teeshaped wooden contraption on which is tied a rope and an earthern pot. He mimes putting the pot into an imaginary well and draws the water to water his vegetables. Later the same pot becomes the well and he talks to a ghost that lives within it. Eventually, frustrated that the owner of the garden will not permit him to marry his daughter he breaks the pot and runs away.

The narrative of this form moves fairly rapidly from episode to episode with no elements of suspense. It is epic in its quality and the audience knows the action well. They know what is to come but do not know how the event will happen. Though the story line revolves around old stories of kings and their times the message projected is loaded with contemporary statements. All the performances end with the recitation of the duay kher, praying for the betterment of the land and people protecting them from disease and death. Very auspicious, the duay kher is spoken by the magun and repeated by the audience.

The Bhands are found in almost all of the districts of Kashmir and performances are a regular feature of life there. Some of the pathers have died, other are becoming rare, the form takes on new elements and continues to survive but alas precariously. The music has changed and unfortunately the traditional mukams, ragas are not played as much.

The Bhands in their day to day living reflect their firm belief, in the faith of a unique fusion of Kashmiri Shaivism and Sufi traditions of the valley.

Kashmiri Overseas Association