Kemmu: Soul of Kashmiri Folk Theatre
An Interview with Kashmir Sentinel
Moti Lal Kemmu, noted playwright is a master
of his craft. He has done renaissance work in the restoration of Kashmir’s
vanishing folk theatre form, Bhand Paather. For nearly three decades he made strong efforts to give it
a distinct identity, acceptability and respectability. Kemmu himself wrote
in their form and encouraged other Bhands and writers to write in this
form. He made strenuous efforts for the preservation of Sufiyana style
of singing and playing on Surnai by Bhands. It goes to his credit that
he revived the dying martial art of Kashmir known as Dhamali dance and
founded Dhamali Dance Centre. He also arranged the presentation of Rof
dances and composed Hafiz Nagma after learning the same from Ustad Kamal Bhat. Mr Kemmu has also adopted different styles of singing, narrations
into theatre. He has written more than a dozen plays and won many awards.
His recent play ‘Bhand Duhayae’ written on the plight of Bhands in the
wake of militancy has foccused National and International attention on
Kashmir’s Bhand Paather. Shri Siddharth Kak’s documentary film “The Bhands
Of Kashmir” was produced under Shri Kemmu’s guidance.
Recently he talked to Kashmir Sentinel about
his life and work. Below are the excerpts of the interview.
How did you get interested in theatre and dance?
MLK: As a child I watched the Bhachnagma
performances of Pandit Gopi Nath (Gupa Bacha) in Mehndiraat function in
my own House. The house had a big hall in the top floor and people in the
neighbourhood often made use of it for Mehndiraat purposes. Gopi Nath impressed
me by his acting and dancing. He performed Gor, Krishen, Gosain Batni and
Moat in one character Paathers. Gupa Bacha is a superb performer, master
of expressions, comic as well as tragic. In boyhood days I learnt that
all our Gods dance, and desired that dancing should again become essential
part of our festivals.
Where did you receive your initial training in
Theatre and culture?
MLK: I got my initial training when I
was a 6th class student of National High School, Srinagar. My teachers
spotted and initiated me into different aspects of theatre. Pandit Jagan
Nath Boni (Raina) taught me nautch (dancing on rhythm), Pt Arjun Nath Bhatt
and Badri Nath Koul taught me reciting, singing and acting. Pt Badri Nath
Kaul was playwright and he wrote Taramati Harish Chandar, and other plays
during 1944, 45 and 47 in which I acted and presented dance items as well.
By this time I had developed strong dislike for traditional dancing attire.
I revolted against it. In the traditional attire males would dance in
I preferred Bharatnatyam type of dress and dance. After joining SP College
in 1949 as Arts student, one of my subjects was Sanskrit and had to study
Swapan Vasavdutta in the course. For the study of Abhigyan Shakantulam
I took up Sanskrit again in BA. Prof Balji Nath Pandita would teach Vasavdutta
orally. He remembered all the lines and shalokas and would render them
like an actor. In Gandhi Memorial College, from where I passed BA I was
editor of the Hindi sectionof college Magazine ‘Sangarmaal’.
Why has Kashmiri Pandit community disowned its
rich heritage of Sanskrit?
MLK: I feel really bad. Shocking! All
our scriptures and Shastras are written in Sanskrit. The day we cut ourselves
from Sanskrit, we cut ourselves from our culture. We have been following
a policy of linguistic opportunism by adapting languages to suit our mundane
interests. Securing a job has been our criteria for adoption or patronisation
of a language. There is no linguistic loyalty. It is a disgusting situation.
Now, we do not read and write Kashmiri. So many good manuscripts have remained
unpublished because the authors’ descendents had other priorities. This
mindest of cultural neutrality can be broken only at individual basis.
In my times, we were taught Lal Ded, Nund Rishi, Parmanand, Ramayana etc
in our Thokur Kuth (Puja Room).
Did you participate in Culture Activities in SP
MLK: Besides attending the meetings of
literary club and Hindi Parishad, some of us-Hindi enthusiasts began to
assemble a few writers and started Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. Prof Hari Krishen
Kaul, Prof Chaman Lal Sapru and Dr SS Toshakhani were the founder members.
A Hindi play “Rakhi” and my dance programme in the college was the only
theatre activity presented. Prior to my college days I had watched Kashmiri
plays, Samaj Ki Bhool, Chitra and Vidhwa and had acted in a play “Shaheed
Sherwani” Maqbool Sherwani’s heroic defiance of tribal raiders had stirred
Kashmiris. The play was perhaps written by Prem Nath Pardesi and directed
by Pt Ved Lal Vakil (Dhar). It was staged at National School. Santosh played
Sherwani, while Nissar Aziz did the role of a Kabali. Around this time,
I came in contact with Pandit Kashi Nath Bhan. He was a good director,
set designer. Watching him directing and painting sets, I learnt about
How did you react to tribal raid. Did you have
any specific poliical views that time?
MLK: I was just a High School student
(middle standard) then and could not react substantially to the raid. For
us a daily routine in the evenings was to lit an earthern lamp or a candle
on the window and organise marches shouting “Hamlavar Khabardar Ham Kashmir
Hai Tayar”. Same theme dominated poetry sessions, Mushairas etc. Genrally
speaking Kashmiri reaction was one of the hostility to the raid, at least
in Srinagar city. People in general followed Sheikh Abdullah and India-Pakistan
issue did not concern them. In subsequent years things changed and people
began leaning towards Pakistan. Social relations between two communities
that time at common level were extremely cordial. In general there was
respect for Kashmiri Pandits. By the time I joined college, communalism
had started taking roots. Personally I had no political leanings, though
I admired Subash Bose and Bhagat Singh. However, I was not dogmatic about
taking up any platform, which promoted my cultural talent. I participated
in RSS Sammelans and the left led cultural conference, without owning their
political philosophy. In 1951-52 I produced and presented ‘Draupadi Cheer
Haran’ at Chattabal Bhairav Premises to awaken Pandit community.
You have been closely associated with cultural
conference? Did Marxism inspire you as a cultural activist?
MLK: I came in contact with Cultural Conference
during 1950-51. I was introduced as a dancer, and became member of Progressive
Theatre Association. Its members were S/S Mohan Lal Aima, Pran Kishore,
Pushkar Bhan, Noor Mohd Roshan, Aziz Haroon etc. Earlier founding
of the local chapter of IPTA by K.A. Abbas in 1945 had given good filip
to theatre. Prem Nath Pardesi and Thakur Poonchi, who played an important
role in radio later were associated with it. My involvement with cultural
conference was limited, as a cultural worker only. I had my own views on
helping downtrodden people. Many communist cadres were simply hypocrites.
Did you have an opportuity to work with great
Kashmiri poet, late Dina Nath Nadim?
MLK: I first saw Nadim in a ‘Kavi Darbar’,
in 1948-49 at Sheetalnath stage as Raasakhan-Hindi poet. Some years later
I danced on Nadim’s vibrant and forceful poem ‘Wavan Vonanam’ Ghani Namtahali’s
Chakari and my dance brought people to party programmes of Cultural
Conference (IPTA). Late GM Sadiq was quite impressed by my dance and nicknamed
me as ‘Wav’. Our performances, particularly in Budgam tehsl were politically
very useful for the organisers. Later Nadim wrote ‘1953’, when everything
was scarce and Sheikh Abdullah was called ‘Oalu Bab’ (Patoto Father). Nadim
was a real genius. In 1953 I performed a role in Bombur Yamberzal, written
by him. It was directed by Mohan Lal Aima and was staged at Nedou’s Hotel
and SP College. Veteran folk artiste Zoona Begum was Yambarzal. While Mohan
Lal Aima was toofan, Pushkar Bhan played as Harud, Dwarika Nath Bakaya
acted Bombur. GR Santosh, Girdhari Dass, Omkar Nath and me were flowers
and Pran Kishore was Gilitoor. In this Opera, attempt was made to show
how Kashmir was being sucked into the influence of American Bloc. The musical
had good poetry. ‘Bambro Bambro Shamrang Bambro’ became a hit song and
the opera was well received by the people. Nadim’s imagery was great. I
once made the great Bharatnatyam danceuse Indrani Rehman to dance on one
of the songs of the opera at Tagore Hall in 1964. Retrospectively, I feel
Bambur Yambarzal gave us back our Gyavan Paathar (Geet Natya). Nadim had
seen opera’White Haired Girl’ in China and was inspired to write a one
in his own mother tongue. In 1955 Marshal Bulganin and Khruschev visited
Kashmir. They were shown second production of ‘Bombur Yambarzal’.
How did your family and society react to your
role as a dancer?
MLK: Though people called us Raas Kath
and talked contemptuously about me, the reaction of my family was not hostile.
My mother never asked me why I was late. Inspite of odds, scarcity of means,
I never failed till I passed my graduation. I had my own way of revolting
against the traditional system. I once went to my in-laws houses wearing
Afghan type shelwar-kurta and with long hair. They were stunned.
What was the cultural scenario prior to establishment
of the Academy?
MLK: Sudhar Samiti Dramatic Vibhang produced
“Kashmir Hamara written by Sudhama Ji Koul which ran for about 100 nights
and was shown to Army personnel at the fronts as well. Cultural Congress
presented ‘Kashmir Yeh Hai’, Chor Bazar, Dollar Saheb, during 50,
51, 52. “Viz Chi Saney” was produced during 1954-55 by Cultural Conference
with financial assistance from the State government. A theatre was built
by SS Samiti at Chota Bazar and plays in Hindi and Kashmiri based on puranic
tales were produced alongwith Aka Nandun, Habba Khatoon, Satyavan Savitras
etc. I produced two Dance Dramas, Shiv Tandav and Govri Tandav under the
guidance of Master JD Shivpuri at Shivala Theatre. Jashni-Kashmir was celebrated
during the full month of September, 1956 and Opera “Heemal Nagirai” was
presented at the Nedous Hotel. This was jointly written by DN Nadim and
Noor Mohd Roshan. I choreographed its dances and also presented two dance
programmes named ‘Rhythm of Dal Lake’ using poems of Nadim, Chaman and
Beikas. Bhand Jashan, Bhangra, Kud Dance, Acrobats and other artists presented
programmes during the festival in the Valley.
What was the role of the Cultural Academy in promoting
Cultural Act vities then?
MLK: Academy was established in 1958 with
yearly budget of Rs 0.50 lacs. Till 1963-64 its activities were very limited.
Cultural workers had very little involvement with it. But after 1963-64
with the adoption of its constitution its activities expanded.
When did you go to Baroda University? What have
been your experiences there?
MLK: In 1956-57 I was working in Evacuees
Property Department. I used to participate in amateur theatre and give
dance performances. I was approaching GM Sadiq and Bakhshi Ghulam Mohd
to sanction loan scholarship in my favour to enable me to learn Classical
dancing. I was asked by Bakhshi Saheb to seek admission, which I did at
the Baroda University after resigning from Senior Assistants post. I learnt
Kathak dancing from Sh Sundar Lal Gangani at the College of Indian
Music and Dramatics. The financial position of my family was very bad.
Our family had the tradition of paying debts throughout since my childhood-My
application was rejected by the State General Department. It wrote on the
file-”It has no concern with development. What benefit it would give to
the state.” After borrowing some money, I continued my first year till
I passed it with distinction. After returning to Srinagar I could not go
back and join the secondyear. During my stay at Baroda, I had joined diploma
in dramatics and participated in Hindi version of a Gujarati play “Hoholika”
by Prof CC Mehta. The play was presented at AIFACS Hall at Delhi in connection
with 1957 centenary celebrations. Next day Hindustan Times carried an action
photograph of mine on the front page. The same play was presented at the
Baroda University lawns for the distinguished members of PEN-Playwrights,
Essayists, Novelists attended by Shri JL Nehru, PM and Dr Radhakrishnan,
then Vice President of India, as well. Nehruji patted me on shoulder, saying,
“very surprising, Kashmiri boy coming to Baroda to learn dance and Drama,
very good very good.” After my return from Baroda, I tried to seek a job.
I enrolled for MA in Hindi at the University of Kashmir, Magarmal Bagh.
I left it halfway and joined PWD on work charge basis., In 1956-57 I had
founded Abhinav Bharati and started presenting Upendra Nath Ashk plays.
In 1959 I produced Tagore’s Dhak Ghar and in 1960 participated in the first
Drama festival of the Academy with Qazi Ji in Bhavai Style and got Best
Actors Award for myself and the Best Play Award for the Production.
When did you go to Baroda again?
MLK: In December, 1961, after getting
the National Scholarship to study play production under Prof CC Mehta.
Who selected you for the Scholarship?
MLK: I was interviewed by a Galaxy of
top theatre experts of the country viz. Mama Varerkar, Adi Rangacharya,
NC Jain, Suresh Awasthy, Prof CC Mehta and many others.
When did you start writing plays?
MLK: Shri Adi Marzban, veteran Gujarati-Parsi
theatrist of Bombay had come to Baroda to participate in a Seminar on “What
is Farce”. As a University student I had to receive him and look after
him. Enquiring about me, my background, situation of Theatre in Kashmir
etc, he inspired me to write. Soon my guide gave me a book, theatre of
the absurd by Martin Eslin to read. I read the book with interest and after
its reading the playwright in me took birth. I wrote my first play, “Darpan
Aantahpur Ka” in two sittings. After that I wrote ‘Sandhya Beti’. My Guide
encouraged me to write. In December 1963 I wrote ‘Nangay’, which was produced
by the Drama Department in early March, 1964. Thereafter I returned to Srinagar. In April 1963 my father had expired and I had to seek a job to
look after my family. Baroda University authorities were keen to create
a job for me but I could not leave Kashmir due to domestic circumstances.
And you joined Cultural Academy?
MLK: Yes, after getting selected in an
interview at the Tali Manzil by the Sadri-Riyasat, Chief Minister and the
Secretary of the Academy.
When did you write in Kashmiri?
MLK: In April, 1964, I wrote my first
play “Trunov” in Kashmiri at Srinagar. It is a semi absurd play, Tshai
in 1965-66, and Mangay in 1966. I published my three Hindi plays in 1968
and received Best Book Award for it in 1969. Thereafter I published my
first Kashmiri book “Trunove” in 1969 and got an award for it also.
You are regarded as the soul of Kashmir’s folk
theatre, called Bhand Paather. What have you done for its restoration?
MLK: Kashmir is predominantly populated
by Muslims. Bhands are also Muslims. Yet folk drama has survived amongst
them. I had seen Bhand Chok and Wattal Pathar prior to 1947. The former
impressed me. I was disappoined with Watal Pathar then, because of its
crude vulgarity and obscene language. After joining the Cultural Academy,
I motivated Mohd Subhan Bhagat and party to take up Paather seriously and
present Bhand plays. I gave them my play Trunove to read. It was presented
at the Exhibition Grounds the same year. I used to visit Akingam very often
and trained the actors of the party. I separated Bandil (Vulgarity) from
Bhand Paather and laid stress on acting. Subsequently they proved to be
very good actors. I spent two years to motivate them, train them and in
1966 they participated in the Academy Drama competition and it was the
first rural group to present a play in a modern proscinium theatre. I encouraged
Mohd Subhan Bhagat to write plays for his party and produced his plays
at Tagore Hall. For 3 consecutive years, Best Play Production Awards, two
Acting Awards and Set Awards were received by the party from the Drama
Competition of 1967, 68 and 1969. In 1968 a constitution was framed for
the party and the theatre was named Kashmir Bhagat Theatre and got registered
the same year. From 1971 I worked with other Bhand Parties and thus revived
the Bhand Paather. It had lost patronage and much of old rhythm and rhythm
by then. I wrote constitutions for many a groups, got them registerred
so that they were able to receive petty financial assistance from the Academy,
to sustain their activities. From the year 1970 the Kashmir Bhagat Theatre
began to receive non-recurring subsidy for its artistes against presenting
of 15 play performances during a year. Their performances in the rural
areas encouraged other Bhands to present their Paathers as well.
How many plays have you written in Bhand Paather
MLK: All my plays are not in Bhand Paather
form. I have created a form suitable for my theme. I am a modern playwright.
I have evolved a distinct style of my playwrighting. Bhand Paather is always
humorous. My earlier plays are humourous but now I have added many more
dimensions, much more variation, My plays have contemporary relevance.
Do Bhands present your plays ?
MLK: Yes, My play Heemal Nagirai must
have been presented by the Wular Theatre more than 1000 times. So is Nangay,
Maznil Niku, Laila Majnoo and Zin-e-Mazoor being staged. Recently there
was “Festival of Moti Lal Kemmu’s plays” at Wathora, Bomai and Tangmarg
organised by Wullar Theatre. It my interest you to know that from 1980
myself and my son started organising workshops of Folk Theatre at different
centres of Wathora, Bomai, Takia Imam Saheb and we had to evolve play-scripts
for productions. If Bhand Paathar has to survive it has to face many challenges.
It should always be attractive than any other performing art. I introduced
musical plays and Daastan plays in Bhand Pathar which are proving very
What has remained your unfinished task in relation
to Bhand Pather?
MLK: I tried my best to open a Bhand Training
Centre at Wathora or Akingam. But Subhan Bhagat did not show much interest.
I am still pursuing the idea with National Bhand Theatre to start such
a Centre at Wathora.
Has exile affected your work?
MLK: To some extent. I am not directly
in contact with the performers. Yet I am still guiding Bhands from this
place. After retirement I wrote plays for theatre; Dhak Yeli Tsalan (Bhand
Duhayee), Shah Paathar, Nagar Udase, Shaap, Akanandun and Heemal Nagirai
is being re-written and revised. I am engaged in writting a comprehensive
book on history and form of Bhand Paather entitled “Bhand Natyam”. I hope
to complete it by the end of 2000.
Your “Pashugatha”, is being currently serialised
in ‘Koshur Samachar’. What you want to convey through it?
MLK: It is a satirical writing in
allegorical form. Through Pashugatha I am trying to portray political vandalism
and exploitation of simple folks during the last fifty years experienced
by us in the name of “democratic rule”.