'Myon Shoosh'-My Love- Whisper the majestic Kashmir Mountains to me, opening their tessellated imposing arms, in a bear hug. I immerse into their beauty. The prickly needles of emerald hued conifers outlining their conical bodies, hurt me no more, they bring tickles at first, a smile and then a rolling laugh. It has been a quarter of a century since I last set foot in this wondrous land. 'Maayi Barut Istaqbaal' - Warm Welcome, 'Khush Aamdeed' - Happy Tidings, they murmur softly in my ear.
I raise my hand in a silent salute to the Jammu Kashmir Film Makers and Artists Co-operative Ltd (JKFMAC), the organizers who have brought the 10-day 'Kashmir Comedy Theatre Festival -2011' to this paradisiacal valley in the throes of tumult, as Shabbir Haider the Secretary General and CEO of JKFMAC puts it, "Where smiles come at a premium and laughter is in danger of growing extinct".
A whole generation of Kashmiris turning old at 23 years, growing up in lurking fear and a daily call of attending dirges along with their elders, are completely cut off from what 'normal' childhood, adolescence and teenage years meant for others in India. For this generation it is so special to feel the emotion of hilarity, few have encountered or tasted in their lifetimes.
I feel there could be no better time. The 'Amarnath Yatra' is in full bloom albeit 'under the shadow of the gun', that provides pre-set security cover for the 'laughter challenge'.
Serene, languid, doppling and dancing Dal Lake in Srinagar shows no sign of any fracas, smoothly letting the 'shikaras' or oblong romantic boats, slide on its beautiful belly, poked off and on by the paddle and rippling in mirth...
At Jammu and Srinagar airports, the almost embarrassing body search, the feel of metal detectors and human hands (even though female) feel like an amorous encroachment of privacy, not once, as at most airports, but three tier and times. Add to that, is the quick pick of a lady's 'tampon' by a security guard and askance expression of suspicion followed by giggles when explained.
Strange, but some emotions of glee are traceable everywhere. I brush aside realms of media reports on turmoil and blood-baths to a 'fake sting operation' feeling some conspiracies lurking beneath the surface to bring disrepute to this virtual heaven on earth.
The grandeur of the inaugural ceremony on June 25th can hardly be gauged from the periphery of the venue of Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Complex (SKICC) with gun-toting, quick response teams and armoured vehicles lined up, outlined with camouflaged-capped sharp shooters.
Inside, however, the cyan hued 'pedicured' lawns and lofty elusive Chinar trees are busy spreading their enchanted halcyon beauty to the surroundings, where guzzling laughter and fragrances of colors will rule for more than a week.
Ravinder Kaul, globally renowned theatre critic, has a wonderful take on comedy and satire in theatre. He puts it thus, "The man who slug out the first 'abuse' has done a great service to humanity. He has inadvertently given an alternative to human kind to vent out anger other than to invite the rival for a 'bloody-duel' to end the argument. His displeasure therefore has shed no blood or caused no bodily harm to anyone".
And continues, "In theatre, especially in 'satire', an alternate way lends itself to vent out pent-up anger against the government policies, inadequacies of administration, all pervasive corruption, excesses of armed forces and of dogged militants with their quirky logic; creating havoc, deeply affecting and attacking the lives and vital ethos of Kashmiris".
"Kashmiri-a peace loving community, is facing a whole gamut of daily life-threatening situations, robbing them of their privacy, peace and progress. The massive extent of corruption deprives and saps their 'celebrated strengths' and relegates their development in multiple spheres, to a mere trickle. For them, comedy and satire has come as a whiff of fresh mountain wind to air their grievances."
The ceremony of the book release "Theatre Akh Tarruf", authored by veteran theatre personality and Additional Director General, Doordarshan, Ashok Jailkhani is equally 'theatrical', albeit in the positive sense. Seeds of 'Issbad' are touched upon the heads and shoulders of the author, the chief guest and others at this auspicious occasion, as a tradition practiced by both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris, and then thrown over the simmering coals in a 'Kangri' or a traditional vessel kept burning for warmth in the winter chill. A 'pious' fragrance emanates from the burning seeds and envelopes the surroundings, warding off evil spirits.
Thereafter, the Governor of this beauteous state Mr. NN Vohra unties the ribbon on the book, declares the Festival open with lighting of the ceremonial lamp to the flash of festoons and a swirl of colors of rainbow 'phirans'- a typical Kashmiri garment, and matching swinging jewellery, classically Kashmiri.
It is 'Bumbro, Bumbro' time, a melody, as ten lovely lasses of Kashmir roll their 'mehandied'-henna patterned hands-and lift themselves to melt into a frenzy of dance, bringing the audiences in close clasp of what one could say 'befikri'-unmindful of worries.
Jammu girls match their Kashmiri counterparts in obvious competition with gusto on a Dogri dance and song and steep the audience into an untamed, full-blooded frolic.
'Local Taxes Extra'- the opening play releases the first choking veil of curtains restricting the overenthusiastic actors waiting to showcase their talent for the Comedy Festival.
Written by Dr Sohan Lal Koul and directed by Ayash Arif of the Kalidas Theater Group, the play revolves on social issues facing a Kashmiri Pandit couple Bhushan Lal and Usha Rani who fall on the mercy of a quirky landlord out to take advantage of their plight in a series of hilarious situations wherein the servant Gash Ram too develops a taste for intrigues to create misunderstandings between the couple.
That the play in Kashmiri language sustains the attention of the State Governor, one known to have just a formal flavor of the Kashmiri language and constrained for time as dignitaries are wont to say for effect, speaks volumes about the histrionic prowess of the actors on stage. Of more significance, however, is a largely Kashmiri 'Muslim' audience glued to their seats watching the play with all Kashmiri Pandit characters. It seems to me, to be the true bearing or 'icing' of the lurking agony of separation of these two ethnic communities both of whom claim Kashmir as their rightful home and hearth.
It is this spirit of communal harmony and a composite culture that truly spells the values of the lush valley wherefrom many a Bollywood movie scripts have taken their first cues of unbridled love.
Kashmiri Pandits have been pushed, evacuated and left to fend for themselves due to hatred of alien mercenaries in cahoots with some local hawks and hardliners. Their Muslim brethren still hold them dear in unconditional love, that is what the attendance and attention at this Festival reinforces.
The Festival continues for the next ten days, bringing in fun and tears of joyous laughter. The themes revolve around overall corruption in high places and at the grassroots level. Even state run 'Doordarshan' is not spared to bring in guffaws while a play by tiny-tots takes the audiences to matchless taste of twists and turns in the 'kiddy' world.
Artistes include Bhands from Akingaam and Wathoora, the Akingaam Bhands' group being in existence for many centuries, having been elaborately mentioned in Sir Walter Lawrence's seminal book 'The Valley of Kashmir' (1895). As it began, the Festival ends with another hilarious tale revolving around a Kashmiri Pandit family. 'Dastaar', the play, has already become a part of the popular folklore of Kashmir with legendary actor Hriday Nath Gurtoo's inimitable dialogue 'Dastaaras karizam raachh' -'Protect My Turban'-albeit 'Honour'; on the tip of everyone's tongue.
That Gurtoo died in a miserable condition in a migrant camp in Udhampur soon after being forced to migrate from his happy dwellings in Kashmir, in the early 1990s, has in no way dimmed his creation but rather highlighted the plight of some of the 'Jewels of Kashmir' being ostracized from their beloved land and perishing in misery.
The Festival comes to an end, the armored vehicles and sharp shooters leave the venue, but it has successfully scattered the seeds of tangible merriment in the entire valley.
My eyes scan the picturesque landscape and rivulets flow down my cheeks, I feel a tug, as if a dear one says 'Maty'e Rozu Dama Roz Dariyam Chany'e Lol Re'! 'My love, stay a while longer'. However agony of separation from Kashmir is lesser than the wish that Almighty may shower His choicest blessings and cheer to this Land of the Gods.
In their forlorn imploration, asking me to return to the valley blooming with spring flowers 'Rosh wala myani dilbaro, poshan bahaar aav, yoori walo'-- I peer to look for smiles down from the window of the plane. The arc that begins at one mountain top and, after covering the flat valley, ends at another mountain top, seems like a broad smiley like smile. Today, even the sun has been veiled by clouds on the top to spread the huge glowing smiley that I look for in the crinkly as well as reddish lips of Kashmiris blessed with unsurpassed beauty and as I place my hand on my heart it leaps and cheers 'Aall izzz well'!
By RASHMI TALWAR