Nazir Josh, also known as Ahad Raaz, Kashmir’s “King of Comedy”, was delivering a monologue: “Autonomy was played up by National [Conference], self rule by the PDP [People’s Democratic Party]... Dinar and dollars were gobbled up by another group. This world is not normal... people are valued more than they deserve. This world is not normal. Portion by portion the black market burnt me. This world is not normal.”

He was performing at the Zero Bridge Fine Dine restaurant, on the Jhelum River. Mujtaba Rizvi, who runs the restaurant, said he wanted to bring together performers who used to be legends of comedy until they were sidelined by social media humour. The two other performers included the famous Bashir Ahmad Bhat, also known as Bashir Kotur, or Bashir the Pigeon. But humour often turned sombre that evening, as with Josh’s very political monologue.

Kashmiri humour, Josh said, was like an open secret, something only Kashmiris could understand. “You need to understand the context of where the joke is coming from,” said Josh. “Still, its [essence] can’t be translated or described.” Kashmir’s fondness for humour comes as people attempt to find silver linings in their predicament.

The dying laugh

Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe, the British missionary educationist who founded one of the Valley’s oldest and most prestigious schools, the Tyndale Biscoe School, wrote of the nature of Kashmiri humour in his 1921 memoir: “The Kashmiris have a virtue, a very important one – viz. the saving grace of humour.”

Tyndale-Biscoe writes of the time the British officer, Walter Lawrence, met a man “standing on his head”. When asked why, he had replied that “his family matters were in such an utter muddle that he did not know whether he was standing on his head or feet”.

But Josh now laments the loss of laughter. “It is difficult to make people laugh today,” a worried Josh pointed out. “There is depression in the people and their mood is always upset. It seems as if they have given up. Earlier, people would demand shows but today they seem to have had enough already and we have to stress hard to make people laugh.”

Before militancy erupted in 1989, Kashmir had been the “bastion of entertainment”, Josh said: a vibrant folk theatre tradition known as Bhand Pather, an annual spring carnival called the Jashn-e-Kashmir, folk dances to the tunes of Sufiyana music known as Hafiz Nagma. In the years of armed conflict, the Valley saw its cinema halls closed by outfits that deemed them un-Islamic. Bhand Pather also saw a decline.

The government, Josh said, had done nothing to create avenues for entertainment either. “Even the Cultural Academy has wasted money, there is corruption there also,” he complained. “They bring random people who pose as artists and have ruined the the standards.”

The Neelam cinema in central Srinagar is today a paramilitary camp. Photo: Rayan Naqash
The Neelam cinema in central Srinagar is today a paramilitary camp. Photo: Rayan Naqash

Trump in Kashmir

But humour has found another channel – social media. Over the last year, as protests and stone-pelting raged on the streets, Kashmiris took to these sites with jokes that were fiercely political.

Early this year an app called MadLipz, which allowed easy creation of voiceovers, took Kashmiri social media networks by storm with political parodies. One of the circulated videos featured a verbal duel between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kashmiri separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The video shows a regal Geelani unmoved by pressures from the Centre. Except the dialogue is from the Sunny Deol starrer, Ghatak.

“Kashinath, I am pleased by your courage. You must also be happy knowing that you will be working in my group from this day,” Modi is heard saying. Geelani retorts, “This is a worker’s hand, Katiya. It melts and shapes iron. This strength is derived from bread earned with hard work, I don’t need anyone’s doles.”

Many of the viral political spoofs portray global celebrities speaking in Kashmiri. The North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, declares in Kashmiri that even though food rations will keep coming in – provided by the Indian government, is the unspoken suggestion – stone-pelting would continue.

Some went to Hollywood for inspiration. One video showed actor Leonardo DiCaprio getting his Oscar. Except in this case, DiCaprio was getting an award for stone-pelting. Yet another was based on a scene from Home Alone. A child asks when the next hartal is. “There is Geelani sahab, go ask him,” is the prompt reply from US President Donald Trump. Another video poked fun at Kashmir’s love for rice. “Kashmiris have finished up all of the rice. There’s nothing here,” Trump announces from a podium, asking people to leave.

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Arshid Majid Rather, professor of sociology at the Anantnag government college, said that long conflicts left a lasting impact on the psyche of a people. “In conflict zones, recreational avenues are already absent or few,” he said. “With no outings and outdoor activities like in non-conflict zones, people find other means of recreation to give a vent to oppression and suppression.”

People begin to perceive all spheres of life through the conflict, Rather said: “Hence they find their recreation in the instruments of conflict.” So years of collective suffering become grist for a dark humour mill. “It gives a certain relief to people,” he said. “Comedy becomes a recreational source where they actually express their collective wounds. It is both a source of solace and recreation.”