He is still known by his fans as Sher Khan - the character he played some twenty five years ago in one of his folk plays in his local village. Those days ‘Baand Pather’ was a popular medium of entertainment among the masses. But with the folk-art almost disappeared now, 51-years-old, Sonaullah Bhat is struggling to earn a livelihood; the Sher Khan of yesterday can roar no more.
Bhat along with some 50 folk artists from the volatile village of Palhallan in north Kashmir now have to find some other means of living after the invasion of digital media and the unfavourable post 1990s situation dented this art beyond repair.
Sonaullah Bhat, who runs Gulmarg Luke Theatre – one of the folk groups in Palhallan, was introduced into the art of Baand Pather by his father Abdul Gani Bhat, who was a famous Shehnai player (Surnai in Kashmiri) at a very young age.
“My father introduced me to this form of art and the response, at that time, was tremendous. People used to love our art and we were earning handsome money to run our lives,” says Bhat while sitting in his ancestral home that is mostly made up of mud.
He says that over 100 families were associated with ‘Baand Pather’ in Palhallan alone but now the number has gone down considerably and the younger generation is showing little or no interest to carry forward the ancestry.
“Like Hangul, this profession too is at the verge 0f extinction. I don’t know how many years it will take but I am sure if it continues like this, the end for this form of art is sure,” says Bhat.
Till 1970s, the folk theatre was ruling the minds and hearts of Kashmiris as it was the main source of entertainment. People used to eagerly wait for the Baands (artists) to perform in their villages. ‘Baand Pather’ mostly used to highlight social problems and historical events. The artists would perform in an open ground and the format of ‘Baand Pather’ comprised of songs and dialogues interspersed with humour.
Bhat remembers how he used to accompany his father to different villages and be part of the street plays. He says that with limited media, Baands used to enjoy good fame and respect among the masses.
“Earlier, Doordarshan and Radio Kashmir used to telecast 4-5 shows in a month but now they telecast one show in three months, so you can imagine how folk art is being treated,” he said.
Other than doing street shows and participating in folk festivals, these Baands use to perform in marriage ceremonies as well. But with the advent of newer forms of entertainment and music, the taste of people changed directly affecting the livelihood of these artists.
“Western music has also contributed to our fall; we don’t perform in marriages now. Apart from it, the lackadaisical approach from government as well as from the cultural academy has forced many artists to switch to other menial jobs,” says hopeless Bhat while pointing towards an old Dhol which use to be part of their street plays.
In 2008, Bhat’s Gulmarg Luke Theatre was invited by Sangeet Natak Academy to perform in Mumbai. In 2016, they performed at Tagore Hall Srinagar besides being part of many folk festivals. But all these achievements and years of hard work to keep alive the folk art have given them nothing except ‘poverty’.
Many among these artists (Baands) who were popular some 20 years ago are now either working as labourers or street-hawkers while some among those who have retired have even been forced to beg.
Bhat, who is the president of one of the folk theatres, sells needles and other cosmetic items in different villages.
“As this art started disappearing, we too started looking for other means to run our families. It is unfortunate that most of us are now going door to door and selling clothes, cosmetics and other items. While those who are weak are sitting idle,” says Bhat.
He says that Baands never had agricultural lands and they used to perform folk plays to meet their daily requirements.
“This art is 600 years old, even Sufi saint Noor-ud-Din Noorani has mentioned about Baande Pather. But now it has no relevance among the present generation and our children too are reluctant to take forward this art. And why should they when their fathers have come to the stage where they have to beg for money,” says Bhat.
(Meet famous Shehnai player (Surnai in Kashmiri) from north Kashmir Palhallan village Ghulam Nabi Bhat.Ghulam Nabi who has played Surnai for some 46 years is now jobless.)
Like Bhat, his uncle and famous Shehnai player, Ghulam Nabi Bhat’s condition in no different. Ghulam, who has played Surnai for some 46 years, is now an elderly, feeble man with hopelessness visible on his face. Though he still plays Surnai whenever he gets a chance to perform, the energy and the intensity with which he once played the instrument is gone now.
Ghulam remembers how the tunes of his Shehnai used to attract the large crowd in the villages few decades ago. But now, he searches opportunities to take out his instrument to play it and can hardly find any.
“I have been idle for years now. There is no work left as nobody is showing interest in it. I played Shehnai in Mumbai, Delhi, Manali and other places but now the new generation doesn’t want to learn this instrument as many electronic musical devices are available in the market,” says Bhat.
He said it is difficult to learn playing this instrument and people don’t have time to spend learning old instruments like these. “Over the years, I have lost that confidence while playing the instrument as I get a chance to play only once in three months. But what to do, we have to live our lives and if we think about its current state then we have to bash our heads in remorse,” he says.
Bhat believes that Shehnai as a form of art has almost disappeared from Kashmir as government is taking no steps to promote it.
“We want to train new kids but we don’t have resources and money. We need experienced teachers who can teach all these instruments, but who will support us?” questions Bhat.
Bhat says that the folk artists should have ended their lives after struggling to meet their daily requirements but the love for this profession made them stronger.
“Despite knowing that they didn’t have any future in it, we still play and keep this art alive whenever we get chance. We have three theatres in Palhallan – Gulmarg, Arnimaal and Mansabal – they all are in a same condition but we are still hopeful that government will do something,” he said.
Apart from the government’s apathy, Bhat also considers post-90s situation as one of the reasons of the ill-state their art is current in. He says that despite Palhallan emerging as the strong bed of pro-freedom protests, the Baands from this village are still popular among Kashmiris.
“Our main aim was to make people happy through our plays, but when the situation turned worse and people starting crying, we became irrelevant,” says Bhat.
He says that though Cultural academy each year provides them grants but that’s not enough to make Baand Pather breathe.
“Once in a year we get Rs 10-20 thousand but that is distributed among 16 artists that’s why it’s difficult to depend solely on this,” says Bhat.
As for the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, it claims it is trying to ‘revive’ the Baand Pather to keep the folk art relevant among present generation.
“We are organizing festivals where they get a chance to perform Baand Pather besides providing them grants. We have even increased the pension for artists from 700 to Rs 2500 per month,” said Aziz Hajini Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, culture and languages.
He said that it is the primary duty of cultural academy to preserve the folk art of the Kashmir.
“I have introduced a new scheme under which we will be making documentaries and we will cover Baand Pather in it too. In the first phase, we will be shooting some 25 documentaries besides sending registered folk theatre groups to other parts of the country in competitions,” Hajini said.
He further said that organized and sustainable steps are needed to keep this art form alive.
“During Mufti Sayeed tenure, Rs 5 crore was sanctioned for setting Sufiyan and Folk Music School and they can be covered under that. I am trying my best to do something for these people who have dedicated their lives towards an art,” he said.