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Growth of Opera in Kashmir

Dina Nath Nadim

The history of performing theatre in Kashmir is quite a recent one and that of a regular Kashmiri theatre in the modern sense, can be hardly traced back beyond the twenties of this century. But any attempt made to assess the growth or development of theatrical arts in Kashmir would remain incomplete, if it failed to delve deeper into the past and to draw plausible inferences from any direct and indirect allusions to these arts as they existed in the ancient history and the tradition of the Valley. So far as the historical evidence is considered one has to accept that it is rather scanty excepting for some references here and there in the Rajtarangini, and the writings of Kshemendra particularly his Loka Prakash or Kutt ani Mala. But as regards the evidence from tradition or folk lore, a lot of material which would throw sufficient light on these arts as they were then practised, awaits interpretation.

Today when I am called upon to talk to you regarding the growth of Kashmiri Drama in general and opera in particular, you would permit me to make a casual sally into the past so that we could rediscover from the past, what is not distinctly clear to us at present. I admit that such a sally could at best be based on conjecture or surmise, but with the help of these loose threads a picture, even though a hazy one, could become discernible.

Going through Kalhana's Rajtarangini you will find a number of references to dancers who won acclaim from both the Kings and the people for their exceptional talents in depicting the human emotions through the medium of their art. One of the last Hindu kings Harshadev is said to have been a great patron of dance and drama, and even the dancers who belonged to the laity, were raised to the positions of eminent courtiers by him. Mention again could be made of the temple dancers, who like anywhere else in the country, maintained a very great standard of their art. Read alongwith the treatises of poetics, aesthetics and literary criticism of great masters like Kshemendra, Mammata, Anandvardhan and Abhinavagupta. We can safely deduce that the dance could not have been an isolated phenomenon of cultural life, but must have been an intrinsic ingredient of the dance drama which narrated the story of Kings and dieties. The extraordinary genius, with which the superstructure of 'Rasa' is raised over Bharat's Natya Shastra and allied theories pertaining to aesthetics, leave no doubt in our minds that the dance and drama must have attained the same heights as of poetry.

So far as a positive reference to drama goes, it appears in Rajtarangini of Jona Raja and Shrivara, wherin we find 'Zaina Vilas' and 'Zaina Charith' mentioned categorically as the plays were written and staged then. It will be interesting to note that even before we had Zaina Charith, we find another Kashmiri genius, the great Bilhana writing his memorable Vikrama Charitha, perhaps on the pattern of Bana's Harsha Charitha. And in our quite recent literary history we have again Prakash Ram's Lav Kosh Charitha and Parmanand's Sodama Charitha in the same line. What is, however, important about Zaina Vilas and Zaind Chiratha is that they are the very fist Kashmiri dramas which are mentioned in the history. Unfortunately the manuscripts of both have not so far been found.

The next reference to the Kashmiri play that was staged during that period, is that of Banaswara Vadh which luckily is available today. It has already been transcribed into the present day Kashmiri-script by Shri Amin Kamil, according to whom it is a full-fledged opera with the 'Chhand' the tune, for each separate song given in the next. Thus we can build a factual history of Kashmiri drama from this period.

That much for the ancient historical evidence which is sufficient for the scope of the present talk. Let me now make a venture to interpret what is extant in our tradition and folklore. So far as our folk dance forms of today are concerned the only popular one is the 'Rof', which has usually been referred to, by those who wrote about our folk culture. This form no doubt is very much in vogue, perhaps because of its racy tunes marking the highest pitch of our very popular 'Khakkri'. Although 'Rof' is mainly danced by women of festive occasions or by boy danseuses in Bacha Nagma, it is clearly an offshoot of Chakkri which is a form of collective singing of both men and women. It is therefore evident that 'Rof' must have been a dance form of collective folk jubilation in the days when singing and dancing was not a taboo. Besides 'Rof' there are some other forms of folk dances which have not so far been mentioned very much anywhere. The most important is 'Dambaeli', which is a deteriorated form of collective folk dancing that has lost most of the cadence of step and lilt of music. Danced with the accompaniment of 'Naghara' drum, and 'Suranai' shehnai, it is in vogue in the backward caste of 'Watals' only. You will permit me here a little digression, to talk about these 'Watals' and there love for music and dance, as it has some bearing on talk today. The 'Watals' constitute the subcaste who pursue the profession of sweepers, scavengers and cobblers. They are mentioned as low castes subcastes in Rajataringini as well together with 'Dooms' they have originally devised our drum 'Watal Nagara', our 'Sarang' the 'Watal Sarang' and our dance 'Watal Damaehl'. Even in our present times our danseuses and musicians hailed mostly from this subcaste. These danseuses are called Naag Koor in Kashmiri which means a Nag girl. Stangely enough, Nagiray of the famous folk tale 'Himal Nagiray' is also revealed in the story as Nagi Watul. I wonder if these people are not the descendants of the aboriginal Nagas of Kashmir, whom the Aryans, when they came to Kashmir, treated as outcastes, and who later migrated to Himalayan Terai, Nepal and on to Nefa. Interestingly enough, the people in East Bengal and borders of Nefa, have a dance similar to our Dambaeli and they call it Damail. Yet another lesser known dance form is the Weegi-Nachun, which is common among the Kashmiri Pandit women folk who dance round the bridal circle after the bride leaves for her husband's home. The song, to the tune of which Weegi-Nachun is danced, is usually benedictory, but the interesting aspect of the dance is that the Chhand used is the same that prominently recurs in Banasura vadh in the lyrics woven into that tale. The other two dances of benedictory type are the Sidda Guru and the Bhandha-tchok. While the former is an "after the marriage" dance, blessing the groom and the bride, the latter forms the prologue to the folk opera-cum-ballet popularly know as the traditional Banda Paather. And here I come to the real folk theatre as it exists at present in our countryside. The Banda Paather appears to be of a very ancient origin because of the many terms associated with it. The Bhandas popularly known as Bhagats in some areas, have probably been attached to the place of worship in that area. At least this is positively true of the Akingam Bhagats where the institution and performance were solely dedicated to the local diety. The terms Magnn for Mahaguni, Dirga Sutar (present Ladishah) for 'Dirgha sutradhar' who narrated the tale, mukhot for the mast etc. testify to the ancient history of Bhands. The repertoire of these Bnands includes Raaza Paather, Darza Paather, Gosani Paather, Shikargah, Backarwaal Paather and many more. Almost all the Paathers are dramatised anecdotes which must have been very popular as the performance always lampooned the oppressive agents of beaurocracy. The burlesque has, however, degenerated into vulgar dialogue and ribaldry and it is only through the bold endeavours of the Akingam Bhagat now that this ancient folk drama is being revived in its originally chaste form. What concerns my topic today is the fact that all the Paathers are intrinsically folk-operas which have lost their musical chores but are even today played with the accompaniment of Surnai, and the orchestral squad is known as 'Kantils' meaning 'pipers'. With this background of a popular folk opera, we can be able to assess the epic poems, Ramayana, Shiva Lagna, Sodama Charith, Radha swayamvara. Gulrez, Akanundan and Himal. All these narrative poems are interspersed with songs and dialogues in verses and can be safely rackoned as operas in the tradition of both. Banasura Vadh and Bhanda fashan. It would be interesting to note that Parmanand and Krishan Dass used to dance in costumes, when they recited Radha Swayamvara or Shiv Lagna. This kind of performance was called 'Tseth' and provided the link between the Jashan and the Raas.

The story of the evolution of stage drama, as it came to Kashmir in the beginning of the century, begins with the seasonal visits of the Raas mandlis from U.P. and Punjab who performed in any available open space in a mohalla. These mandlis would begin their performance in the traditional style of Krishna lila and ended with the cheap ghazals in the vulgar key. As in Bacha Naghma, here also the boy-actresses played the female role and the performances would usually end in skull-breaking and hooliganism, because of the two vying sections of the listners. As against the Raas Lilas, the Ram Lilas were very popular and through the patronage of Dogra rulers, attained a large measure of artistic perfection. The two parties who performed Ram lilas were the Punjabis and Bohras. Both vied with each other in achieving excellence.

Then we come to the advent of drama played on the stage. Here also the beginning was made by the ruler. Maharaja Partap Singh, who patronized the first dramatic club, known as Amateur Dramatic Club. The stage was erected at Basant Bagh and the then famous plays, Bilawamangal, Veer Balak, Chandravati and Mahabarat were staged there. The doyens of the theatrical movement then included Ram Krishna, Jeevan Nath Matoo and later on Shri Chet Ram Chopra. Soon after, another batch of youngmen created Saraswati Dramatic Club where Mahabarat, Krishna Sudhama, Safeed Khoon, Khoobsoorat Bala, Khwab-i-Hasti and many more were staged. The female role, as usual, was played by boys. The plays were either from Agha Hashar or from Betab and would be performed for the whole nights. The music for these dramas was composed by a talented artist Master Hari Vilas. The metrical prose dialogues would be declaimed rather than spoken as dialogues.

The Saraswati Club was followed by National Dramatic Club and Kashmir Dramatic Club. The last performance Patni Pratap was staged by Kashmir Dramatic Club and the female role was played by ladies for the first time.

It was however in 1928 when the first Kashmiri play Satch Kahwat was staged. The play dealt with the theme of self-sacrifice of Harishchandra for Truth. This play followed the pattern of the Urdu plays already mentioned and could be classed as a verse-play, in a way akin to the opera style. The youngmen who performed in this play could not carry on for long as they became traditional Raas Kath or Raas boys a nick name which all the theatre workers earned for themselves then. Since that pioneer Shivji Purbi started performing Raas and Ram Lila in Kashmiri style in the second decade of the century, the social taboo associated with the dramatic activity spelled its own death knell rather than the advent of the cinema, as often argued.

It was however in early forties that two Kashmiri plays Greesi Sund Ghara by Hijini and Batahar by Pardesi were written. Neither of them could be staged. But soon after 1947, with the great cultural upsurge unleashed by the success of freedom stuggle, the dramatic activities were revived. The Cultural Front, which became Cultural Congress later on, started writing and staging Kashmiri plays regularly for sometime. And both on the stage and in the open air, these plays were witnessed by tens of thousands people.

It was in these crucial years of a cultural renaissance that an attempt was made at the instance of the Late Com. Dhnwantri to integrate some of the virile dance forms like Bhangra of Jammu with those of Kashmiri forms. Besides, a conscious effort was made to lend such content to plays which could depict the life, and voice the aspirations of the people. Consequently a ballet sort of Bhangra titled Land to the Tiller was composed by your humble speaker, in 1949, and staged with success.

It was however in our quest for a suitable form in line with our legacy of lyrics and popular taste that Bombur ta Yemberzal, the first opera in the real sense of the word, was composed and staged a number of times in the state. In this opera the whole music was systematically composed on folk tunes and orchestrised properly. The story of the opera is based on a folk-saying that the Bumble-bee and Narcissus, though in love with each other, never meet in life. Another opera Rava Rupee was composed in 1955 by Shri Amim Kamil but was not staged. Then in 1956 the folk tale of Himal Nagirary was composed by Roshan and myself and was staged. Yet another opera Neki Badi was composed and staged that very year. The other four operas composed by me since then are Meghdor, based on Kalidas's famous poem, Shihil Kul, based on the theme of National Integration, Safar ta Shehjaar and Vyeth. Of these four, one only viz, Shihil Rul has been staged last year, and the other three have been broadcast from the Radio Kashmir, Srinagar. Yet another opera Gulrez, besed on the famous masnavi of the same name by Maqbool Shah Kralwari, has been composed by Sh. G. R. Santosh and broadcast from the Radio Kashmir, Srinagar. Excepting Himal Nagirary and Gulrez, all the rest are based on symbolic technique with the Kashmir landscape serving as a live dimension to the themes. The characters are drawn from among the flowers, the song-birds, the breezes, the trees, the rivers and the lakes of the Valley. The beauty of the landscape together with the lilt of the haunting folk tunes and the cadence of soft Rof style steps, have to some measure. Justified the choice of this form of drama, as the one which on the one hand is rooted in traditional folk style and on the other guarantees a progressive growth of this particular are in the Valley.

With the new experiments in theatre art on modern lines conducted by many amateur clubs under the patronage of the State Cultural Academy, on the one hand, and the revival of Bhand Theatrical Movement, on the other, a sustained effort at opera composition and production is bound to complete the triangle so emphatically needed for the growth and development of Kashmiri drama today.

[Excerpted from "The Culture of Kashmir." Edited by S.M. Iqbal and K. L. Nirash. Marwah Publications

[The author, (late) Dina Nath Nadim is the tallest among the modern Kashmiri poets who revolutionized Kashmiri poetry. He is recipient of 1986 Sahitya Academy Award.]
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