“Gosain Pather” is philosophical, spiritual and slapstick — all at the same time

A three-day festival of Bhand Pather, Kashmir’s centuries-old folk theatre, was held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) amphitheatre in New Delhi last weekend. The festival opened with “Gosain Pather”, a satire on a pandit and his unwise sons. Directed by M.K. Raina, the play, though satirical, had obvious metaphysical connotations.

Raina has been working with artistes from Anantnag for months. The practice of the traditional drama has died due to economic and security-related factors. Through its revival, Raina seeks to reinterpret it in contemporary theatre. To that end, there was also a performance inspired by “King Lear”, called “Badshah Pather”.

“Gosain Pather” has its roots in Kashmiri Shaivism, though its message of discovering the ultimate truth transcends religion. The humour is blunt and the actors perform like jesters.

The pandit (Ghulam Mohammed Bhagat) welcomes rishis returning from a pilgrimage in the hope of gaining temporal benefits. Ghulam plays his role well, and has a strong and melancholic yet humorous presence on stage. The arrival of the rishis is heralded with lively tandava-like dance accompanied by music from the surnai wind instrument and percussion instruments. The music builds and diffuses the tension in the plot. For props, the rishis have large saffron tridents and their dreadlocks — made from hay. The main rishi, played by Jawed Ahmed Bhagat, was a terrific character, reserved yet ferocious.

The sons of the pandit, in their colourful costumes, put up a farce. The eldest, played by Bashir Ahmad Bhagat, is a naturally comic character. In almost a mystical turn of events, characters dressed as a bride and groom appear on stage and the pandit serves as an intermediary for the rishi who seeks a darshan of the bride — a female spiritual figure played by a man (Nisar Ahmed Bhagat).

The Kashmiri audience was visibly emotional watching the play. The idea of breaking the fourth wall is something that comes naturally to folks arts, as performers extend the stage to the aisles. Even though dormant for years, the play adapts its message to contemporary themes like corruption and politicking. Raina assisted by Himanshu Joshi enhanced the existing technique with minimal yet educated use of lighting.

Bhand Pather, for those who know Kashmiri, offered a narrative with layers of meaning. For those who don’t, it showed simple yet effective ways of communicating modern ideas while remaining rooted to the earth.