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A Bhand’s Monologue In ‘Praise Of Cowardice’

The Kashmir story—It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of bravery. It was the age of cowardice.

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I met an elderly bhand (traditional folk entertainer) from yesteryears who believed in the power of cowardice. He recalled that in days long gone, the life of bhands was fraught with hardship. And during those challenging times, only those bhands who preferred cowardice managed to survive, and they were the ones who lived on to pass on their tales. “I count myself among them,” the bhand told me.

First, let me tell you about Bhand Pather. It is an ancient traditional folk theatre of Kashmir, typically performed in open spaces. The performances by bhands are known as pather, and a bhand is a character in the pather. What does a bhand do? He does a satirical and realistic drama, and often presents it as a monologue. In Bhand Pather you use music, dance, and acting. The musical instrument used in Bhand Pather is Surnai, a wooden flute with a bell-shaped outlet at the bottom. It has seven outlet holes and one blowing hole.  

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After giving a brief introduction about Bhand Pather, the elderly bhand began his monologue. 

Bhand’s Monologue 

Those were strange times and everyone started behaving strangely. Only bhands were held accountable. Everyone would give sermons to bhands.

We would often meet people who would tell us about our performances, saying it was decaying. And as a bhand, you thought it was part of the job to listen to all this and move on. There was already so much on the platter of a bhand that he didn’t want one more discussion to ruin his day. All we were concerned about was our pather.

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In those days, you would meet such characters every day. One group would wonder why you hadn't ended up in jail yet, while the other group questioned why you hadn’t been incarcerated already. The concept of going to jail had become a new norm for bhands. For one set of people, a bhand being in jail was a mark of an honest bhand, while for another set, not being in jail implied that the rulers were benevolent enough to let the bhand live. The status quo of a bhand that he was alive, smiling, and doing his performances was a problem. Nobody liked this status quo.

If you weren’t in jail, some assumed you weren’t honestly reflecting the situation in your open theatre shows and had lost your credibility. In short, for them, you were sold out. Those who accused you of losing credibility often led comfortable lives and continued to thrive in their jobs. They were a part of happiness drives being spread by the government. They lovingly participated in happiness programmes. However, when they met bhands, they expressed how bleak the state of affairs was and wondered why bhands weren’t doing theatre and sarcastic shows on such bleak issues. “People are facing existential crises, and you bhands have chosen to be silent,” they would say with all sentiments and emotions as if the whole burden of the world was on their shoulders, and bhands were the only tribe who refused to take their share.

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These people would also point out that some brave bhands who did some serious theatre were put behind bars. Once they were done praising the bravery of jailed bhands, they took the discussion to the next level. “Are you still doing theatre? Haven’t you resigned yet?” Now, how would a bhand respond to it? As if the bhand was duty-bound to resign from his theatre company to prove that he is not sold out.

At times, you thought they wanted to say: “I am surprised to see you alive. You should have died long ago, why are you unnecessarily increasing the burden of this earth? You are a bhand, and your job is either to be dead or in jail.” They would conclude their talk while looking at the hand with disgust saying: “Sab yaad rakha jayega.” And as a bhand you would start wondering how wretched you were.

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In such times, you find yourself in a youthia situation. You imagined yourself behind bars, while the complainant, a well-wisher of people, was singing songs of happiness in praise of the ruler of the day. You pictured yourself without a job and out of the theatre company, while the complainant enjoyed life. To him, your imprisonment appeared necessary for his own happiness.

Now, let’s consider another group. They had been vehemently arguing that there was abundant happiness and progress all around, and it was only the bhands who were spreading despair and hopelessness through their theatre and sarcasm while living comfortable lives themselves. This group asserted that bhands should have been imprisoned long ago for disseminating negativity and inciting people. 

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When everyone was happy, why were bhands jealous of this happiness? This section also had objections to the attire of bhands. Why do they dress up in female clothes for any female roles? Why do they visit gardens and graves? They would argue that bhands live a good life, wear good clothes, and, at the same time, peddle anti-ruler narratives in their theatre shows and thus mislead people.

However, they would argue that bhands must question previous kings and dead kings. They must do sarcastic theatre on them to aware people of the past blunders that have kept people backward.

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Then there were others. They said bhands were cowards and caved in easily. They would advise bhands to be brave and would tell them that they shouldn’t give their Surnai (like today’s phones) to the police and instead call a vakil. Kashmiri bhands, however, knew their limits. They believed in handing over the Surnai whenever they were asked to hand it over. That was how life was. Other bhands learned this later on.

However, some bhands often took refuge in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry, especially this one: “Hum dekhenge. Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge. Hum dekhenge.” (Inevitably, we shall also see the day). And I liked the Twitter response to it when some exasperated soul had abused the very poetic verse, “ab kab dekhenge Faiz, aur kya kya dekhenge (Now when will we see and what else will we see?).”

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At times, when bhands complained of harassment and joblessness, another group propped up which argued, why do bhands crib—After all, isn’t doing theatre and holding the government accountable, part of their job and they are earning out of it? It is their duty to reflect the situation as it is. They would say: “When asked to bend, the bhands crawled”. Yes, there was no problem with doing one’s job. But going to jail was never a part of bhand pather’s job description. No pather was and is worth dying for or going to jail for.

Then there was another group that had a problem with even brave bhands. They would accuse the brave bhands of making anti-government theatre shows to undermine another branch of the government. They went further saying no one was being arrested for his theatre show. They would say they were arrested for something else, and then they would add, “You won’t understand it.” They didn’t elaborate “on this something else.”

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When you knew that landing in jail was certain but even being in jail had assumed suspicious activity too, what should have a bhand done? Nothing. Sometimes doing nothing was better than doing anything.

It was great to be brave and fearless, and it was great to see oneself be praised as a brave bhand, but it was not great to be brave in times when even bravery was suspected. Sometimes it was better to be a coward. Be a coward. So that years later you could say—it was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of bravery. It was the age of cowardice. And you could even say cowardice helped you to understand pather better. You thought a hundred times before doing any theatre. It made you a good bhand as well. 

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It made you think you could do sarcasm about the sky and the stars, and about mighty mountains and gushing streams and leave human beings for the time being. Those times made you think of other opportunities as well than doing Bhand Pather like joining the ruler’s coterie and then asking the bhands why they had not quit their jobs yet as they are not doing a critique of the present times. Bhand Pather will only go on if a bhand survives. 

[DISCLAIMER: The story is a work of fiction inspired by the state of news media today and is meant for reaction purposes only.]

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