Violence Down, Curtain Up For Kashmir Theatre

19 April 2009
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Theatre is undergoing a revival in Indian Kashmir where the most popular plays these days deal with the gritty reality of the violence that has blighted the troubled region for decades. More than a dozen theatre clubs from various towns have started operating in summer capital Srinagar, many staging new plays about the hardship of daily life. Srinagar's only theatre, Tagore Hall - which was closed when violence broke out in 1989 and used as a security forces' base - is presently showing seven different plays during the week, all by renowned writers. Playwrights and actors say the revival is thanks to a lull in violence since India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over control the scenic Himalayan region, launched a peace process in 2004. 'The relative calm has definitely helped in the revival,' said actor Shabir Hakak, 37, who has been performing to packed audiences at the Tagore Theatre in 'April Fool' - which focuses on politics and the environment. Kashmiri playwright and director Amin Bhat, 44, said the popularity of heavyweight plots over romance was a 'reflection of events taking place'. 'How can we detach ourselves from day-to-day happenings? It comes through in our writings,' said Bhat, whose hard-hitting play 'White Paper' won him wide praise and huge audiences. 'White Paper' touches on the sensitive issue of disappearances and custodial killings which have characterised the troubles. Police say more than 300 people have died in custody, and at least 100 have disappeared after being arrested since the insurgency against India rule erupted in the Muslim-majority region nearly 20 years ago. They say many of the missing crossed over the line of control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan to join insurgents. Local human rights groups however offer figures much higher, with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) saying that 8,000 people have vanished, most of them after being arrested by Indian security forces. The drawn-out insurgency against New Delhi's rule here has affected almost every household in Kashmir - and Bhat is no exception. 'I have felt the pain of violence and the stage is the place to give vent to my feelings,' said Bhat, whose younger brother bled to death after a grenade attack two years ago. 'The stage is a refined form of protest and it helps to debate an issue. I am glad the plays are back and the response has been fantastic.' The violence has left more than 47,000 people dead by official count, though rights groups put the toll at 70,000 dead and disappeared. Bhat's play 'April Fool' explores political issues surrounding the famous tourist destination of Dal lake, tackling corruption at the highest levels of government and the authorities' failure to protect the lake. The farce, which drew huge crowds during its run last month, revolves around rumours of government plans to fill in the lake and build houses on the land. Ayash Arif, 48, is another writer-director of the new wave of Kashmir theatre whose latest production tells of a sculptor who is forced to give up his art and carve tombstones for the victims of the violence. 'These topics are very dear to us and they touch the psyche of every Kashmiri,' said Arif. 'I could do justice to them as I have seen the turbulence myself,' said Arif. 'Our plays hold a mirror to what has happened and the present situation.' It is all very different to before the insurgency, when theatres staged saccharine boy-meets-girl storylines that helped people forget about the horror outside the theatre doors. Now the mood is calmer, theatre-goers says they are simply delighted to back in their seats. 'My favourite form of entertainment has returned. You will see me here more often now,' said Nazir Ahmed after enjoying an evening at Tagore Hall.