The melodious tunes of surnai, a Kashmiri traditional flute, would inform people of the different villages in Kashmir about the arrival of baands, folk artists who would perform satirical and comical performances to create societal awareness.
As the caravan of baands along with their families and horses reached any village, people would start gathering around them and the hours long baand paether, the art of storytelling through dancing and singing, would begin.
Ghulam Mohiuddin Ajiz, 71, a fourth generation baand grew up traveling from one village to another with his father and other baands, performing before huge crowds of new faces everyday.
Belonging to the Sufiyana Mosiqi Baand Gharana, a famous family of performers in Wathora village of Budgam district, Ajiz was the first in his family to get registered as an artist at the State Cultural Academy. “Till then my elders used to go to pargans (areas assigned to baands by the ruler in old times) and perform,” said Ajiz.
His love for the artwork took Ajiz to a local theatre during his childhood. Watching the baands rehearse, Ajiz was once given a role in a baand paether being performed at Tagore Hall, the famous theatre in Srinagar. “On 8 September 1965, I performed for the first time,” he said.
While Ajiz went on to work in the police telecommunication department, his love for baand paether still kept him close to the art. Ajiz is now among the few surviving baands left in Wathora where, till a few decades ago, around 150 families were associated with the art.
A satirical art
Baand paether was introduced long before the introduction of Islam in Kashmir when female singers and dancers would perform in temples, said Ajiz. With the onset of Islam in the region, the baand paether was introduced in shrines. “There were songs of unity and brotherhood in baand paether. They would give solace to the heart,” he said.
A folktale among the baands goes that there were two baand brothers, Aatish and Katish. Once returning from a journey, the two stopped in the Gurez valley where they performed in awe of God. “As per the myth, they got so lost in performing that eventually they flew away. It is said that voices of clapping and laughter resonated out of stones,” said Ajiz.
The culture of baand paether has been existing in Kashmir since the time of Nooruddin Noorani, reverently called Sheikh ul Aalam, a mystic preacher and poet, as he has written about Kaatish in one of his verses, said Ajiz. “He wrote: ‘kaatish baandas, waqtkis raandas, jashn korun zaatas, seirsi raatas. Gov wedith te gos milchaar’,” he said.
[Katish the baand, riotous of his era, whirled for the creator, through the night, flew and had a tryst.]
A combination of two Sanskrit words, bhaan or vessel and paatar or potur in Kashmiri, a hand holding weighing scale, said Ajiz, baand paether means weighing something that you say and then putting it in front of the public.
Based on secularism, baand paether is an ensemble of artists – singing, dancing and playing traditional musical instruments. “Through this, messages of peace and love are shared,” he said.
The baands are also famous for the colourful costumes they wear during their performances. “A baand wears costumes depending on the characters,” Ajiz said.
In old times, baands were assigned the role of media as they would highlight societal issues through satire. “It used to be like the dramas played on radio or television. Gulab Singh (the first Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir) had time and again said that many things happening during his rule came to his notice through baand paether,” said Ajiz.
Baand paether has been classified into several types including angrez paether based on foreigners, shikargah paether based on wildlife, duikhaer paether based on making wishes. “It is an epic drama highlighting the troubles and tyranny through humour,” said Ajiz.
After traveling to different parts of India, Ajiz found cultural theatre similar to baand paether including lambadi and kunjpadi of Andhra Pradesh, khomar and phagun of Haryana, mathuriya and brij ki holi of Mathura, ram leela and krishna leela of Uttar Pradesh and baand of Rajasthan.
“However, baand paether is better because the same person sings, dances and plays the instrument while as in other theatres outside Kashmir, the voices are often prerecorded,” said Ajiz. “Here, everything is live.”
The baand paether performed in earlier times used to be spontaneous and the exchange of dialogues would be based on the situation, said Ajiz. “If we were walking on the road and saw something happening, we could immediately perform there,” he added.
Ajiz has himself stopped performing baand paether but teaches children with the hope to keep the important cultural aspect alive. He has written around three books about baand paether including Soan Meeraas – Our Heritage. “Baand paether has helped in reviving Kashmiri language. It can be kept alive if the government tries to revive it,” he said.
On verge of extinction
For Rayees Wathori, 27, baand paether is in his blood. Coming from a family of baands, Wathori grew up seeing his family members perform baand paether. In 2005, Wathori joined a local theatre.
“Until then I had learned playing traditional music instruments but then I started performing baand paether,” he said.
Growing up, Wathori had often seen the art being performed in a shrine near his house in Wathora and was always inspired by thousands of people joining to see the baand paether. “People used to see the same baand paether so many times that they had even memorized the dialogues,” he said. “They still enjoyed it.”
In the theatre, Wathori was taught learning from the script, a recent innovation in the art of baand paether. “That made it much easier,” he said.
Over the years, Wathori played different kinds of roles as a baand and that increased his eagerness to learn more and act more, he said. “Once, I played the role of a beggar. When I was called for that role everyone else was ashamed to play that role. I raised my hand and said I wanted to do it. I played the role of a father and a husband,” said Wathori.
Wathori regrets not being able to go to different villages to perform baand paether just like his elders and believes that the situation in Kashmir has pushed the artists “into dark”, unable to perform in the open.
“The baand paether should be done in a happy environment. When we go somewhere to give a message, we play music and we dance. How can we perform at a place where a mother has lost her son or a wife has lost her husband?” he said. “The situation in Kashmir drifted artists apart from this art.”
The several months-long shutdowns nearly every second year since 2010 and the recent Covid-19 lockdowns have left an impact on the baand community, said Wathori as there has been a fear among the artists. “How can we show what is happening in Kashmir? And if we do, are we safe? Artists are scared. Maybe we will be killed too,” he said. “Many artists left art completely because this became a barrier in their creativity.”
Many others are leaving the profession due to the financial problems caused over the years as the baands are not paid enough, said Wathori. “A baand is hardly paid around 1000 rupees for performing baand paether. And he gets to perform at an event after two or three months. What would an artist do with that little amount of money? Survival is difficult,” he said.
Sornai is considered as the most important musical instrument in baand paether other than dhol and nagara – two types of drums. Nowadays, there is no baand left to play the instrument as they are working as daily wagers, Wathori said. “For someone who gave his life to playing this instrument, today he is left with nothing to eat. This is a challenge for the government,” he said. “If they want to save the art, they need to save the artist first.”
For the diploma degree holder in folklore and cultural studies, the biggest challenge at present is to decide whether he should continue with the art or not. “A performer literally forgets about the money when he receives the love from people. An artist is hungry for love. But the praises don’t last longer. When he reaches home, he realises that he has nothing for his family,” he said.
Wathori has been suggesting the youth to continue baand paether as a mere hobby and not as a full time profession. “If we suggest the youth to opt for this, it will be a betrayal for them because there is nothing left,” said Wathori. “There is no money at all.”
Unlike Wathori, Manzoor-ul-Haq, a 34-year-old artist from Wathora has made his decision and has been working full time as a baand. But every new day is a struggle, he said.
A tough choice
Married recently, Haq, a seventh generation baand in his family has not been able to earn anything through his performances. “I don’t have a job and my family runs on my father’s pension money. The condition of artists is such that they are forced to sell their musical instruments now,” he said. “Continuing baand paether means having no food for my family.”
The choice of leaving the art and doing something else would have been simple, he said, but the love for baand paether stops the artists who are left. “If I leave, I will have to shut my musical instruments and costumes in a cupboard forever. My heart doesn’t agree to that,” said Haq.
In old times, the baands used to be given food items for their performances, said Haq, adding that the baands were given extra food as there was other source of happiness for people other than baand paether. “But times have changed, so have the needs,” he said.
Being in the profession since his childhood, Haq has lost hope in the administration and believes that nothing has been done for the baand community. “For someone who has served the art for so many years, it is his turn to get something from the art now but that is not the case here,” he said.
A baand is a simple person with a simple life and his goal has always been to make people happy, said Haq, but something needs to be done for him now. “Sometimes he is a king and sometimes a beggar,” he said.