On the last Saturday of every month, young Kashmiris dress up as characters and stage the play before a small yet discerning audience inside a small hall of a heritage building in Srinagar downtown on the banks of Jhelum, the Theme of the three plays staged so far is social issues like drug abuse and communal harmony.
The young artists are from the Shehjar Children’s Theatre Group founded by the HELP Foundation which manages a heritage museum called Baitul Meeras in the same building at Ali Kadal locality. It has already staged three plays this year and preparations are for the fourth play scheduled on December 30.
The young artists are communicating to society on issues that are taboo or the common people feel shy about talking. Their first play in the Kashmiri language Pache Phyur was staged in September,
Audiences watching the play at baitul Meeras
The play Posh Colony was on drug abusers and Phretyomut (Frightened) on communal harmony followed. Help Foundation seeks to kill two birds with one stone - developing the personality of the children who mostly live in narrow alleys of downtown and are unexposed to the larger world and also to keep alive the theatre movement,
Hakeem Javed, a renowned theatre activist, who heads the initiative told Awaz-the Voice that the focus of his plays is on generating awareness against social evils. He is happy with the response of the audience.
The last staged play Phretyumut (Frightened) in November was on communal harmony between Muslims and Pandits sharing their neighbourhoods for centuries. This play is written by Showkat Shehri.
Hakeem Javed says, “This play addresses the misunderstanding between the two communities.” He presented this serious topic through comedy.
A young Kashmiri dressed in a character of the play
The play opens like this: It is around 10-30 pm when Khazir Bhat of Aali Kadal overhears a conversation between two youths who are planning the steal from the house of a Kashmiri Pandit, Janki Nath. He hears them say they would go to the Pandit’s house at midnight.
Khazir Bhat feels outraged and he walks to Bhat’s house in a far-off locality on Srinagar's outskirts in the middle of the night ignoring his wife’s imploring not to venture out. He managed to reach the place only to find out that the thieves had left after the heist.
Another play Posh Colony, by Jahangir Farsh focuses on the menace of drug addiction and the loneliness of the elderly whose children have left for offshores for a better life. The story revolves around an old couple living in a huge house in a posh colony. The husband is paralysed and bedridden and his wife is his sole caretaker. A rope tied between the bed and the forearm of his wife is how the old man communicates for help.
A young man enters the house intending to steal cash and jewelry that he needs to buy drugs. On seeing the old man dead while his wife is cooking in the kitchen, instead of stealing, he tries to call the neighbours to arrange the funeral of the man and help his wife. Strangely, nobody comes to his help.
Hakeem Javed says theater is a powerful platform for addressing the hidden issues within society, and compelling individuals to transform and take up these challenges through positive change.
The Help Foundation founded by Nighat Shafi 20 years ago uses theatre as a central component of its daily operations, “The decision to integrate theatre into our daily activities was driven by our belief in its potential as a catalyst for societal transformation”, Javed said. He says thousands of children have been benefited through this and so has the society.
The Help Foundation is a frontrunner in promoting Kashmiri theatre, as evidenced by the success of the 2008 Shehjar Children’s Theatre Festival and the 2017 Jashn-e-Shehjar, where artists from the valley’s performing arts community actively participated, furthering its mission. “We are grateful for the encouragement and support received from the esteemed artists of Kashmir Kala Manch, a renowned theatre group from the valley, as we embark on this new venture” of evening theatre, Javed said.
Help Foundation J&K, one of the active organizations in J&K, successfully organized Winter Theatre Classes for Children through its cultural wing Shehjar Children Theatre Group. As a part of education, the Help Foundation is always at the forefront of educating the children through the medium of theatre and trying to aware the children about their social responsibilities towards society.
Last year, when winter vacations for schools and colleges were announced in Kashmir Valley, the Help Foundation started theatre classes for all children. Within seven days, almost 50 children including girls registered their names for the same.
The Shehjar Children’s Theatre Group of HELP Foundation J&K has also been engaging youth and household women in its efforts towards awareness about social evils, drug abuse, and misunderstanding between two communities in Kashmir. It has also engaged clerics, religious leaders, and Imams, particularly during the month of Ramazan this year, to educate children, youth, and women in the light of Islam.
“It has helped a great deal in creating awareness about the social evils and the need to fight these for the overall good of the society”, Hakeem Javed said.