Lifting the Vale: Gasha in Timeout Mumbai

Lifting the vale

A new play looks at Muslims and Pandits from Kashmir


Director Abhishek Majumdar’s new work, Gasha, which opens at the Alliance Française this fortnight, expresses a desire to protest against our written pasts while at the same time recollecting with fondness these narratives of antiquity. This play, which completes Majumdar’s trilogy on the beleaguered state of Kashmir, is an assertion that, as theatre scholars James Thompson, Jenny Hughes and Michael Balfour wrote in their 2009 book Performance in Place of War, “the aesthetic project is a political project”, and that the “demand for creativity and imagination can become at the same time a statement of resistance”.

The play features Gasha, a member of the indigenous Kashmiri community of Pandits, played by Adhir Bhat, and Nazir, a Muslim, played by Sandeep Shikhar. The two men, once schoolmates, have lived through the internecine strife that the state has witnessed. As adults, they attempt to reconstruct the past using their friendship as scaffolding. “It is a tricky tale to tell and a precarious state to document, where millions of theories are entangled, involving the state, authorities and suppressed feelings of years,” said Irawati Karnik, the young Mumbai playwright who composed Gasha.

The 65-year-old territorial conflict between India and Pakistan that frames the Kashmir issue is a thorny tangle of factions – involving Pandits, Kashmiris, Pakistan-sponsored insurgents, the looming presence of Indian armed forces, and the diminutive voices of the ethic tribes of Ladakh, among others. Karnik very judiciously avoids aligning herself with any one of these groups. Instead, she turns to their stories as a surrogate for political commentary. “History has only ever been dictated,” she said. “[To avoid this] we wanted the play to be about experiences.” The twin narratives tell of the exodus of Pandits from the Kashmir valley beginning in the ’50s: they fled fearing persecution by the majority Muslims. Having found domicile in several pockets of urban India, these refugees reflect on the “failure of civil society and their neighbours who did not stand up for them”.

The Muslims who stayed back had to face the prospect of life in a land riven in two – a third of the state, including Azad Kashmir, is administered by Pakistan while India tends to the rest. Gasha, which means light in Kashmiri, concerns itself with the relationship between the Muslims who remained and the Pandits who left. “Kashmiri Muslims often believed that the Pandits were fortunate to have left and were convinced that they would return in good time,” she explained. “Today the government has arranged for rehabilitation, but only in ghettos. Even when they return, it all trickles down to the question, ‘Whose land is it, anyway?’”

“The two actors in the play will essay multiple characters; this is a theatrical device that we have used,” said Majumdar. “Fuelled by memory and expectations to forgive and forget, they will ask questions about who is finally the ‘other’.” Pouring anima into these memories and expectations embodied in the two actors involved significant research. “We first conducted a workshop and after this we realised how we all had our own perceptions and planned a trip to Srinagar,” said Irawati. “There, we interviewed journalists, intermediaries, policemen, the head of the Pandit sabha and people working for rehabilitation. The biggest challenge was narrowing down on the facets that we wanted to concentrate on. There was a constant urge to include more.”

For one of the two actors, Adhir Bhat, the material that eventually wound its way into the play became a narrative that, in a sense, mirrored his own life. Bhat is a Kashmiri Pandit. “This is the most personal performance I have worked on,” he said. “I can identify with and feel so much of what I will be playing. There was a time when we lost everything and faced threats. I still don’t know whom to point fingers at.”

By Ria Basu on December 07 2012 7.14am


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