Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bhands of Kashmir



April 2013. Delhi.



"I have seen the best companies in Kashmir, though perhaps the best —the Bhaggats of Syebug— died off in the famine of 1877, and men now sigh : ' Alas ! poor Yorick,' and speak of their excellent acting. The Bhaggats portray village life in a most vivid manner. Their dresses and make-up are excellent, and they represent most faithfully the internal working of a village community. It is said that Maharaja Gulab Singh acquired a very intimate knowledge of village administration from the Bhaggats' performances, and I have picked up some hints from them as to the methods of the patwari, the village accountant. The plot is very much the same. The Raja rides by, burning to redress injustice, and his Wazir seizes on the patwari and the lambardar and calls for the village accounts. The unfortunate villager who has brought his grievance to the Raja's notice is at first very loud and noisy in his complaints, but as he sees the Wazir and the patwari laying their heads together he becomes silent and sits as one fascinated. The denouement is that the Wazir finds that the patwari is innocent, and the complainant receives a severe flogging. Other scenes of village life are depicted, and one of the most favourite representations with the country-people is the sowing, plucking and spinning of cotton. I shall have some more to say about these interesting Bhaggats later on. They relieve the sadness of village life in Kashmir.
[...]
The minstrels of Kashmir [Bhaggat or Band) can be recognized by their long black hair and stroller mien, and although they are practically a peculiar people so far as marriage goes, they sometimes recruit their companies by enlisting a villager. They combine the profession of singing and acting with that of begging, and are great wanderers, travelling down to the Panjab where they perform to Kashmiri audiences. With the curious exception of the Akangam company, which is formed of Pandits, the Bhaggats are all Musalmans. They are much in request at marriage feasts, and at harvest time they move about the country, and in a year of good harvest will make a fair living on the presents of the villagers. Their orchestra usually consists of four fiddles with a drum in the centre, or of clarionets and drums, but the company often contains twenty members or more. Their wardrobe is frequently of great value, and several companies which I have met are said to have dresses and properties worth more than Rs. 2,000. Their acting is excellent and their songs are often very pretty. They are clever at improvisation and are fearless as to its results. They have songs in Kashmiri, Persian and Panjabi, but the Kashmiri songs are the only ones which I have heard. The story of the Akangam Bhaggats is peculiar. Brahmans considered acting to be degrading, and even now the Brahmans of Kashmir regard the Akangam players with contempt. But the Brahman players say that they took to the stage by the express order of the goddess Devi. The legend relates that many years ago Devi appeared to the ancestor of the Akangam Pandits, and, placing a fiddle in his hands, said, ' Play upon this fiddle.' He protested his inability, but on the goddess persisting, he took up the bow and played unearthly music. He was bidden by Devi to sit under the deodars of Akangam [Akingam, Anantnag (the story now)] and play in her honour. For some years he and his sons obeyed the goddess' behest, but unable to withstand the prejudices of his caste, he finally declined to play any more. On this he was stricken with blindness and wandered away to the Liddar valley. In a dream Devi appeared to the Magistrate of the Liddar, and told him to take the old Pandit back to Akangam. On reaching Akangam the Pandit recovered his sight, and since that day he and his descendants fiddle away without further protest. These Pandits never send their children to school, as they believe that Devi would resent it and would kill the children. The Bhaggats are very pleasant people and their mirth and good humour form a cheerful contrast to the gloom of the Kashmiri peasant. They acknowledge two leaders or Sardars who arrange that the circuits shall not clash. They have a peculiar argot (phirkat) which they employ in stage directions."

~ Walter Rooper Lawrence's 'Valley of Kashmir' (1895).



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