Economic prosperity and social harmony were the hallmarks of Kashmir. The youth must internalise this legacy and retrieve it from oblivion
Nestled between Pir Panjal and the formidable Himalayas, swarming with all endowments of nature, a plethora of occupations and an array of cultural colours, warmth and frost in competing measures, it is here what they call paradise – for so many reasons. The vale sits as though enclosed in a painting, an exquisite land full of appeal to the senses.
Among the stunning features of Kashmir of yesteryears is its cinema culture. The youth in the '80s would bunk their classes and scrabble to buy a ticket before it was all over. The theatres were packed to the brim on the weekends and it was safe to roam the city late in the night. The iconic Palladium Cinema screened English films too, and many others even before they were screened in Delhi. Palladium Cinema tells the story of the stifled culture: the popular spot in the historic Lal Chowk and one of the oldest cinema in J&K had to close down in '89 due to the eruption of militancy. In 1990, it was gutted in a fire and even had two fidayeen attacks. At present, it is a security installation – as is with most theatres, the structures survive as places to cater to anything other than simple recreation. These venues of entertainment had also become the most dreaded places after security forces took over following the crackdown on the insurgency. Many have turned into shopping malls and even hospitals. As an effective means to reach out to people, there is no doubt about the significance of cinema to open younger people to the world outside the swathes of conflict. With the heritage of popular cinema behind, it is only expected that Kashmir is witnessing a surge of new filmmakers. Freezing cinemas and bars was the initial step to morph the vibrant region into one defined by strict religious codes. This was a society that had a discotheque, a bar and a lingerie store even before Delhi had one.
A most soulful entity to bring out the essence of Kashmir is the music emanating from their instruments. With a thriving culture of music and popular adaptation, the evolution from traditional to modern music has done little good to the entire system of traditional Kashmiri music. Among the many artistic assets brought from Persia, the santoor, for instance, is a fading legacy. There are personal aesthetics of the instrument and the ardour of manufacturing it (the shift from almond wood to mulberry, its seasoning for up to four years to enable the requisite tonal quality); qualam, the stick with which santoor is played is made of another type of dried wood that's found only in Kashmir (khatab) is said to have gone out of market. The Kashmiri santoor has had modifications with its most illustrious exponent of modern times, Shiv Kumar Sharma, but it is not just the music but also the art of crafting the instrument that is on the decline. Gulam Mohammad Zaz is the eighth generation of a family that crafted this instrument. He is also the last of his tribe left to do this in Kashmir. Adapted from Afghanistan, the rabab is another musical instrument braving the onslaught of modern influence. In wait of systemic support (and also as popular western music finds more takers for several reasons), the younger generations are distanced from folk music. The humdrum of modernity has kept them away from their treasures.
Kashmir valley is replete with snippets and tales from its glorious past, a walk through Srinagar city renders ample nuggets to intrigue the mind. With the last remaining rosewater maker of the city, Aziz Kozgar, the 400-year old legacy of the Turks is nearing its demise. The skill to manually prepare this concoction has no genuine takers as the returns from it are much less and also when the same could be done mechanically. The Kozgar distillers are believed to be the oldest surviving family business in Kashmir. In stark contrast to this is the grit of the people to beat the odds, whether collectively or individually. Two blind brothers came to limelight for how they earn their living making quilts, pillows, and mattresses after receiving formal vocational training, undaunted by their condition and refusing to let it limit or even define them. They don't wear dark glasses or carry a stick while walking, but they do have the necessary awareness and insight regarding how things could be improved and how that doesn't happen. Physical challenges are no dead end for a weaver of wagu, the environment-friendly traditional reed mat that helps keep homes warm. This weaver has no arms, he diligently makes the mats that can now be spotted in only far-flung areas of Kashmir; but his craft is fast becoming redundant with the easy and abundant alternative of synthetic carpets.
The valley also recently saw the return of another Pundit, a remarkable instance of bringing to life the remains of one's roots. The persisting understanding is that if one could afford to come back after a near-lifetime of battle-hardened survival, one definitely would. There is a Kashmir- and France-based company that manufactures and sells authentic Ladhaki Pashmina (its co-founder being a young returnee Pundit). It is a massive but not an insurmountable task to resurrect the essence of Kashmir. The post-90's times are living examples of how swiftly well-being is obliterated from the general sense of being and retrieving that must become the most uncompromising goal. It is imperative that all – and especially the Kashmiri youth – be deeply aware of what their land and people are losing. Their resilience is formidable. Their heritage is invaluable. Economic prosperity and social harmony were the hallmarks of Kashmir. Rebuilding this paradise is more than possible. If one truly knows what they have lost, they will fight to bring it back and restore it.
(The author is Senior Copy Editor, Millennium Post. With inputs from Aaditya Kitroo and Basit Zargar. Photos by Basit Zargar)