The Country With A ‘Balancing Office’: Suvaid Yaseen
Guest Post by Suvaid Yaseen
Of late there has been a rising trend of Kashmiris – professionals, artists, writers, musicians et al presenting their works on Kashmir on a much wider level than before. The larger impression that comes out of it all is that the narrative has been taken up by the people for themselves. A welcome contrast to outsiders flying in and telling us what we want, how we think, and what is actually good for us.
So, every time a Kashmiri artist is presenting his/her work on Kashmir, the expectations among Kashmiris tend to go up. People start feeling that finally their narrative, of how they saw the things, what they went through, would be told to the world, bereft of the lenses of security paradigm through which Kashmir has been usually viewed – a strategic territory, with not-so-strategic, dispensable people.
This can be fortunate as well as unfortunate. On one hand there is a ready audience to appreciate and applaud your work. On the other hand there are expectations to ‘perform’. For the artists themselves, there are additional pressures of ‘balancing’ and having a ‘non-biased’ view from the other side.
Artists should ideally be given their freedom to express, create, interpret radically even with non-platable views, else creativity will be smothered. But the question that comes up time and again is that if there that kind of room to ‘balance’ when you are dealing with historical facts and narratives of the freedom struggle that has seen a hundred thousand people martyred? Is it ethical to ‘balance’ a narrative which is already up against the chanakyan propaganidist machinery of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ that has mastered the art of obfuscation and distortion of facts, both inside its territory and in the areas under its occupied control? Balancing, meant giving in to the coercive structural narratives, at such a juncture is not very different from collaboration.
Recently the film Harud by Kashmiri director Amir Bashir had raised such expectations among Kashmiri audeince. Everyone was recommending the film to everyone, without having seen the film, which ususally happens to events on Kashmir by Kashmiris whose politics is unknwon till then. All the excitement waned when the film had a limited release in a few Indian cites where many from the Kashmiri diaspora could watch it. Among other things, the film went on to show Indian army men politely requesting people to come down from buses for a security check. And mannerly appeals on mosque loudspeakers for coming out in a crackdown.
It would be naivete to imagine that Amir wouldn’t have known the reality of abuses that accompany such acts of the occupation forces in Kashmir. There are never any requests, but stern orders, in high pitched aggressive tones, like a master commanding a slave, fingers either at the trigger of a gun, or making obscene gestures, pumped up fists, sharp waves of hands, peppered with choicest of abuses aimed at the mothers and sisters of Kashmiris. But to expect him to show all that in a film dedicated to an ex-MLA of the legislative assembly was obviously naivete on part of the people. The numerous facebook posts of applauding reviews of the film seemed to go in vain.
One would understand if he wouldn’t have shown all that too, but resorted to some other way. A good artist wouldn’t be at too much loss too find one, and to show something which is completely alien to the Kashmiri experience of security checks and crackdowns is simply lying at a huge moral cost. The film showed a confused babel of noises in Kashmir and in the process acquitted the blame from the occupation that is the root of all the mess.
This January, as a part of the annual Theatre Utsav at National School of Drama in New Delhi, Mohammad Muzamil Hayat Bhavani, a graduate from NSD in 2012, showcased his NSD Diploma production, ‘The Country without a Post Office’ supposed to based on Agha Shahid Ali’s poem with the same name.
As often with an event to do with Kashmir, the screening of the play drew a large crowd. The 300 capacity Abhimanch theatre at NSD was jam packed, with a lot of people even standing. The play was well directed; some of the scenes and props used created powerful symbolic imagery, complemented by the use of multimedia slides and background music, taking some pressure off the otherwise average acting. For this, the young director, Muzamil, deserves to be complimented.
Then comes the problem. And that is with the script, written by his uncle Bhavani Bashir Yasir, a well known theatre activist who has done a lot for Kashmiri theatre. When he came to Delhi last year when this play was first staged at NSD, Bashir, himself an NSD pass out in 1987, told The Hindu “my main motive was to ensure his (nephew and director’s) commitment to come to his roots and contribute to the growth of Kashmiri theatre which is struggling to restore its glorious heritage and to develop into a vehicle to reflect Kashmiri people’s political, social and cultural aspirations…”
Drawing from Shahid’s poem the play is “contextualized against a 1990 incident of Kashmiri rebellion against the Indian State – For seven months, there was no mail delivered in Kashmir and mountains of letters piled up at the post-offices.” Collectively, through different scenes referring to different events in the recent history, the play chalks out a trajectory of events in Kashmir, through a kind of fast forward sweep. And that’s where the problem lies. An attempt to show ‘all the major events’ in a 45 minute presentation gives in to creating too broad and problematic generalizations, where the aspects of the movements representation become dependent on one chosen scene. The fact that the symbolic imagery used is quite powerful, using a mix of multimedia and stage setting, most among the audience, who don’t understand the nuances of the Kashmir issue, will go home with that very image of things deep in their conscious. And here one has to be very careful as to what is being shown on stage.
The play begins with the days when post offices in Kashmir were working properly. Against the background of a melodious Pakistani song “Kitni Makhmour Hain Tumhari Aankhein…” by Jawaid Akhtar, a folk poet from Peshawar, lovers exchanged letters. The women are clad in abayas, a type of purdah which didn’t really exist in Kashmir of 1980’s, with only eyes visible.
Everything seems well in those days where school children sing Iqbal’s ‘Lab Pey Aati Hai Dua…’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana…’ with similar ease! At this point in the play, most of the audience, except most of the Kashmiris stood up. But one wonders when was the Indian national anthem played in such a disciplined manner in the schools of Kashmir? From elders one would often hear stories of students either moving their lips without actually singing it or making disinterested and mock getsures while it was being played in some of schools. That underlying feeling was present even in the theatre when most of the Kashmiris did not stand up. Even recently, back home in the Kashmir University, administration had to issue an order asking those who don’t want to stand up for the Indian national anthem to remain absent altogether, to avoid embarassing the state diginitories.
Thereafter the shouts of Azadi from the streets disrupts the class. The whole movement seems to have been triggered off by Benazir Bhutto’s speech at a rally in Pakistan that ‘predicts’ the slogans of Azadi will come out of every corner of Kashmir. And all the hell is let loose. Men come in at the doors of Kashmiri pundits pasting posters and shouting that they leave Kashmir. Froma historian’s point of view one would be very sceptical of Benazir’s speech in Pakistan being the impetus for the armed struggle by Kashmiris, and that too in the days when there was no youtube from which the grainy video could be downloaded!
Then you have a militant who forces a boy doing his homework to come with him, giving him an apple to eat. Once at the spot he throws a grenade on the street, himself fleeing from the scene after the action, while the child is thrown on the ground due to impact of the blast. After the blast you have young school girls lying on the road, shouting “ammi, abu….” portraying an attack on civilians with obvious civilian causalities. This is the only scene about militant action by the guerilla fighters, apart from a guy with an AK47 and a hand grenade asking cricket playing kids to throw a few balls at him, only to leave hurriedly after scolding one of the boys who fiddles with the pin of the grenade. Indian troops routinely attacking civilians in Kashmir and using children, old men and women as human shields in Kashmir is a well known fact. And turning that over to the other side, that too when this is the only representation of armed militant activity is an grossly mistaken generalization.
Then comes the K’naan’s ‘Give Me Freedom, Give Me Fire…’, theme song from the FIFA World Cup 2010, against a background of pictures mostly from the protests of 2008 to 2010. It’s like one of those videos that were circulating on the internet with powerful imagery.
Moving on, you hear Ravi Shastri’s commentary on some Pakistan vs India match, where Pakistan wins. When a boy is celebrating the win, an army person sitting in the bunker shoots and kills him. There is also a guy who enters the stage in chains and laments at the state of affairs.
Till then what you have is a mix of scenes referring to various events in Kashmir. And then the ending sets the tone to a very problematic conclusion if one takes Bashir saab’s intention of reflecting the “Kashmiri people’s political, social and cultural aspirations” seriously. At the end, a boy goes to the same bunker, from which a boy had been fired at and killed, and asks the army person to read out an invitation from Delhi that is written in Hindi. After initial distrust, the army guy helps him out, and asks him to come later so that he would teach him to practice for the naatak. Think about a boys selection in some theatre institute in Delhi, for which an Indian army personnel helps him out to practice for the naatak? Too much ‘balance’ for even the director’s comfort!
Suvaid Yaseen is a student, currently living in Delhi.