In her childhood days, Dilshad Ara would mischievously entangle the braids of women with one another as they performed the Kashmiri folk dance, rouf. With time, her focus shifted on their actions and she managed to synchronise her feet movement with that of the other women.
Over the years, Ara, 65, a resident of Karan Nagar area of Srinagar, has not only performed the folk dance but has also been singing folk songs with other women at festive occasions.
During her school days, a festivity for Ara meant wearing colourful pheran — a loose woolen gown — with silver jewelry to sing and perform the rouf, bringing together neighbours and relatives. “Rouf was performed on all occasions as a way of celebrating,” she said.
In earlier days, Rouf was not only performed on marriages but also during the holy month of Ramzan and on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr and Bakrid. “All the women would stand side by side, holding each other around their shoulders, smoothly taking one step forward and one step backward,” said Ara. “Then the women would sing songs written by poets for specific occasions.”
However, in recent years, the tradition of rouf is slowly fading away — limited to just marriage celebrations — as the new generation of Kashmiri women take little to no interest in learning or performing the art.
Recollecting the art
While rouf has remained the same over the years, the songs sung by women would be based on the occasion on which the dance would be performed. Earlier, women would perform rouf throughout Ramzan, initially to celebrate the beginning of the holy month and later to celebrate Eid.
“We would sing, ‘Reatas manz reat kusi jaan? yehe chui maahe ramzaan — Which is the best month? It is Ramzan,” said Ara.
Women, as per Ara, would perform the traditional dance on the eve of Eid before having the special lunch made for the occasion with their families. “We used to celebrate with our hearts and sing: Eid aayi ras ras, eidgah was weyi (Eid is here, let’s go to Eidgah),” she said.
In those days, performing rouf at weddings was considered to be really important, said Ara. “It was considered to be a way of expressing happiness for the bride or bridegroom,” she said.
Other than the songs performed during weddings, rouf for many women was a part of their devotion and religious beliefs, said Ara. She added: “They would praise our religion and make dua (wish) for the society through their rouf.”
Ara still remembers the street vendor during her childhood who would sell books with different versions of the rouf detailed on them while singing loudly on the streets. “Every girl would be excited to buy books from him to perform them later,” she said. “Those things are now gone.”
Samrah Mir, a 21-year-old final year psychology student loves to watch her elders perform the traditional dance but was never allowed to dance during wedding ceremonies or school events. “I even know how to do it,” she said, “but I was always told that young women should not do this.”
Mir grew up hearing stories about rouf being performed on Eid or during Ramzan. “Rouf is only performed at weddings nowadays. People meet on those occasions, talk, have wazwan [traditional Kashmiri cuisine for festive occasions] and dance,” said Mir.
The rouf dance form, like the Kashmiri language and other cultural aspects, is slowly being ignored by the younger generations who look down upon the dance form, believes Mir. The newer generations, she said, “have just made up these standards and then they discriminate on this basis.”
If women and girls want to perform the dance, said Mir, “they should be appreciated.”
Sadaf Zahra, a 28-year-old teacher from Srinagar’s Nowshera has performed the dance form several times during her school days as well as at weddings and believes that rouf is an expression of sharing joy. “Women would just come together and celebrate,” she said.
While Zahra likes to join women performing the dance, she also believes that most people nowadays feel shy while following the culture. “We just feel ashamed to embrace our culture,” she said.
The actual purpose of Rouf as per Zahra is to get together and share happiness. “For a place like Kashmir, even one moment of joy is a privilege,” she said adding that dancing together would help women to take a break from the stress of daily life.
Dr. Aziz Hajini, former Secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Cultural Academy, believes that the rouf is dying a slow death due to the intrusion of western culture over local culture. “Nowadays, people follow the concept of individualism. This is making a joke of our culture and social life,” he said.
Dr. Hajini thinks that documenting heritage can be a way of preserving what is left with the people of Kashmir. “Rouf is a cultural expression. This is our identification,” said Dr. Hajini. “If we will lose what we are left with, we will be nobody in this world.”