A sound of an explosion rips through the audience waiting in the pitch dark for the play to begin.

When the stage is unveiled, there’s smoke everywhere with shards of paper flying in the air.

The blast seems to have ripped through everything in its line of impact. At the centre of the stage, a half-burnt Chinar tree has been reduced to a skeleton without leaves. On the right, a tattered Pheran – the loose gown-like garment worn by Kashmiris during winters – is fluttering like a flag, entangled in the wires of a wooden electricity pole.

Amidst the smoke, emerges a character named Goggul. Sitting on the floor, Goggul tries hard to take off his shoes. After multiple attempts, he gives up and addresses the audience.

“Kiheen aandi ne (Nothing can be done),” he mutters in Kashmiri.

A new voice

This is the establishing scene of Su Yee, a Kashmiri adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. Originally written in French by Beckett, Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy involving a long exchange between two characters who wait for a mysterious being “Godot”, who never arrives.

Su Yee, directed by Kashmir’s well-known visual storyteller Arshad Mushtaq, first premiered at Srinagar’s Tagore Hall on August 20, 2004, to overwhelming applause from the audience.

“There was a standing ovation when the curtains came down,” recalled Mushtaq, 48, during a conversation on a hot July afternoon in Srinagar, the sense of surprise still visible on his face. “Kashmir’s who’s who were sitting among the audience. People were crying. The applause continued for 15 minutes.”

Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

For someone who wouldn’t have attempted the play if not pestered by a theatre group and his teacher, the critical acclaim of his debut work was dreamlike. “This was unexpected for me also. Was it a dream? I was asking myself, ‘What have I done?’”

Su Yee earned Mushtaq recognition for best direction and production by the Jammu and Kashmir government’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in 2004. The next year, Mushtaq was adjudged best director at Doordarshan’s theatre festival. In subsequent years, the play was performed across India’s major cities. In 2005, Su Yee was hosted at National School of Drama’s Bharangam Theatre Festival.

Nearly two decades later, some of the appreciation for his debut work, Mushtaq confided, is yet to seep in. “Given the stature of people who lauded my work, there are some things I am still trying to digest.”

A poster for Su Yee. Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

Theatre as ‘responsibility’

What began as a one-shot tryst with theatre would end up giving Mushtaq a new identity – a visual storyteller rooted in the Kashmiri ethos, and the voice of the victimised. In his nearly two-decade long career, Mushtaq has directed the first ever Kashmiri digital feature film, produced television dramas, and written seven original plays along with five Kashmiri adaptations of foreign plays or literary works.

“At the time of Su Yee, I was a hardcore television guy who was into producing and editing programmes for TV. I was making good money with that work,” recalled Mushtaq. But theatre was entirely different. “I didn’t make a single penny with theatre but it gave me respect from people whom I have looked up to. What could have been better than that?”

But appreciation was not the only outcome of Su Yee. When he started translating Waiting for Godot into Kashmiri for its adaptation, something unusual happened: “Every dialogue began speaking to me. Because whenever I was coming across a dialogue, I was getting a real reference of it from my life.”

“It was cathartic,” Mushtaq said.

Decades of conflict, violence and bloodshed in Kashmir meant Mushtaq could easily spot resemblances between the original text and the place he grew up in. For Su Yee’s first scene, Mushtaq borrowed the setting from his own experience of witnessing a landmine explosion as a kid and a civilian’s killing by security forces.

“Why did I have a torn Pheran hanging on the electric pole in my play? Because it’s a place where a landmine explosion has taken place. I had seen things flying myself after a blast. It’s a collective experience for many Kashmiris. Therefore, a spot where two Kashmiris would be meeting is a spot of an explosion.”

After Su Yee’s success, Mushtaq said, doing theatre became a “responsibility”. “I remember members of the audience walking up to me after its premiere. They told me you showed everything – our story,” he said. “It’s our collective story.”

Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

VCR, camera & action

At first glance, there may be little in his family background to predict Mushtaq’s career as a theatre artist. But peel off the layers and the influences show up.

Born in 1974 to one of the oldest business families in Srinagar, Mushtaq was fostered by his maternal grandparents. His maternal grandfather was a reputed judge of Jammu and Kashmir High Court. “My maternal grandfather had a major literary bent – all the English classics, red literature, Rumi, Hafiz and everything, was in his library. He was a lot into comparative study. When he had no work, you would find him reading,” he recalled.

Mushtaq’s privilege wasn’t a barrier to his socialisation with wider Kashmiri society. Like every Srinagar teenager, he hung out with his Mohalla friends, sat on shopfronts and went to the same darsgah, or religious academy, with them. “My best friends were those who quit their studies in 4th grade and went on to become weavers. They still are my best friends,” he said.

At school, however, Mushtaq was transported to an altogether different world. He went to Srinagar’s Burn Hall – one of the most prestigious Christian missionary schools of Kashmir where the Valley’s rich and elite families send their children for education.

“Imagine a 6th grader attending a nightlong Sufiyana mehfil [a gathering in which Sufi poetry is sung and performed] at a shrine and buying a George Michael cassette the next morning,” he recalled. This cultural synthesis in Mushtaq’s formative years was key in shaping up his creative expression in future.

It helped that Mushtaq was exposed to the world of cinema at a very young age. “My maternal grandmother was from the family who owned Regal Cinema,” he said. “Whenever a child-related film would be released in Regal, she would take us all for a show. We had a separate box there from where we enjoyed the movie.”

When Mushtaq was six, the family got a Video Cassette Recorder, or VCR, from Dubai – a sign of high status during those days. “There were five movie cassettes with it: 10 commandments, The Message, Mughal-e-Azam, Pyaasa and Zanjeer. I must have watched each of these movies at least 600 times on average in my childhood.”

In October 1983, Mushtaq laid his hands on a video camera for the first time when a guest from the United States came to attend his maternal uncle’s marriage. “We posed in front of it and danced and then saw ourselves. It felt like something new,” Mushtaq recalled.

All of these experiences, the early exposure to cinema and technology, left an impression on young Mushtaq’s psyche. At a very young age, he knew what he wanted to do in life.

When he was 12 or 13 years old, he came across an advertisement about a 40-day National School of Drama workshop being conducted in Jammu by renowned theatre director MK Raina. He nudged his grandfather to allow him to attend it. To his joy, his grandfather acceded to his request.

It would take years, though, for Mushtaq to admit to his passion before his family. “After passing my Class 12 examinations, there were only two options before me: either to go into family business or become a lawyer.”

He chose neither.

After he passed out of school in Kashmir, Mushtaq joined Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College in 1995 to pursue Bachelors in Arts (Honours) in English literature. At college, Mushtaq actively took part in public theatre alongside his studies. He also became a member of a college band.

A still from the 2011 play Wattepaed (Footprints). Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

‘Where have I been?’

At the end of 1999, Mushtaq returned to Kashmir after finishing his Bachelors. In 2000, he joined a Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism programme at the University of Kashmir. But the threads of his theatre experience kept pulling him back.

His theatre guru MK Raina had bagged a project to make cultural films across Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. “Since he didn’t live in Kashmir, he wanted me to fix up appointments with the prominent literary personalities or artists here before the production began,” Mushtaq recalled.

The project gave Mushtaq an opportunity to meet the stalwarts of Kashmir’s literature, music and art. “Akhtar Mohiuddin, Rahman Rahi, Amin Kamil, Naseem Shafaie, G M Sheikh, Ama Kandur…” he reeled off their names. “When they read their works to me, I asked myself: ‘Where have I been? What English and French literature I have been talking about?’”

The eight-month-long project culminated in the production of 150 short films. From researching about the artist or a writer, to shooting and editing the film, Mushtaq underwent gruelling training in production while he was still a student of mass communications.

Soon, Mushtaq found a line of unskilled producers approaching him to get their production done. “There was a time when I was shooting four projects simultaneously. I was making good money and I had just passed the university,” he said. “Why did I need to work for a media house?”

Revival of theatre

By early 2004, Mushtaq’s production work started thinning out. That was when he was pulled back into the world of theatre by his teacher Raina. “I was without work for five six months,” he said. “Raina Sahab was holding a theatre festival in Srinagar and he told me to direct one play. I was very reluctant because I hadn’t directed a play by then.”

After continuous persuasion by a local theatre group and his teacher, Mushtaq chose a foreign play to adapt in Kashmiri. “I had read Waiting for Godot, but hadn’t understood it completely. With the help of a local artist, I translated the entire play into Kashmiri,” he explained. The result was Su Yee.

In 2006, Mushtaq came up with Aalav, or Call, an adaptation of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea. The one-act Irish play revolves around the fate of a woman who has lost all her male family members to the sea.

For Mushtaq, Kashmir’s violent political context became a natural setting for his adaptation. Aalav emerged as a rendition of the tribulations of Zooni whose house is bereft of any male members. Along with her daughters Noori and Aasiya, the play shows Zooni’s tragic contentment about her youngest son, Jana, getting a proper burial.

One of the moving scenes from the play is when the coffin of Jana is taken for burial. “When the pallbearers are about to leave with his coffin, Zooni stops them and goes to a cupboard from where she gets shireen (a traditional sweet in Kashmir) and throws them on her son’s coffin.”

A scene from Aalav. Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

With Kashmir’s more than three-decade long insurgency against Indian rule leaving thousands, including young boys, dead, the meaning of many rituals changed.

“In Kashmir, the rituals of marriage become the rituals of the funerals of the young boys who have perished. The songs of the celebrations become the cries of the wailing mothers and sisters who had once wished to see their sons and brothers as grooms,” the director’s note about Aalav stated.

But perhaps the most relevant scene from the play comes around the end. In a tragic irony, Zooni’s dialogue appears to show her gratitude for being lucky to have a glimpse of her dead son.

“Shukr Allah taalas kun...Toati pari bi aemis jinaaza (All thanks to Almighty Allah…at least I could offer his funeral prayers),” she says.

In a region where human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in thousands, Zooni counts herself lucky to have seen her son’s last remains.

Mushtaq’s Aalav did not go down well with the powers of the day. The play was disqualified from competition by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture and Languages in 2007 for “unknown reasons”.

However, the play was selected as an official selection at National School of Drama International Festival, Bharangam, in 2013. In 2018, the play went to The Theatre Olympics, a global non-profit promoting exchange between different theatre artists across 15 countries.

A mix of history and identity

Mushtaq’s journey into theatre has been more like the evolution of a Kashmiri who is conscious of his identity and history. That is why his creative work spans Kashmir’s history from the 5th century, all the way to the turbulent 90s.

In 2006, Mushtaq made Kashmir’s first digital feature film Akh Daleel Loalich (A Love Story) set in 1887 when Kashmir was under the throes of autocratic Dogra rule.

In 2011, Mushtaq wrote his first original play Be’chus Shahid (I am witness) as part of global remembrance events on the 10th death anniversary of famous Kashmiri English poet Aga Shahid Ali.

Told through the characters of three different generations, the play makes the historical struggle of Kashmir and its responsibility as its main subject. “It reflects the common man’s pain, aspirations and dreams and at the same time lays emphasis on the obligation of every new generation to take up this responsibility,” the director’s note about Be’chus Shahid said.

A still from Mushtaq's first original play Be Chus Shahid. Credit: Arshad Mushtaq. 

According to Mushtaq, the play tried to evoke the consciousness of the Kashmiri identity, both among the audience and in his own self. “The younger generation have to go on and take the responsibility of being who they are. They cannot negate this responsibility,” he said.

Mushtaq’s recent adaptation came in the form of Fading Memoirs in 2017. From famous Kashmiri sufi mystic Sheikh Ul Alam’s verses to TS Eliot’s poetry, the play is based on an ensemble of voices spanning from Kashmir to the United States.

Recently, he finished writing a new historical play surrounding the 10th century Kashmiri queen, Dida. The Kashmiri title of the play is Dida Reain.