The seven-episode documentary series Madhosh Balhami: The Poet of Perseverance draws attention to the tragedy of Madhosh Balhami, who has been recognised only after his lifetime’s literary output has ceased to exist. “People write for personal satisfaction or to reach out to everyone or both, Balhami found the former but never the latter,” said Gowhar Farooq, the co-creator of the series along with Irfan Dar.
On March 15, 2018, three militants took shelter in Balhami’s house in Balhama village near Srinagar after firing on the security officer of a Bharatiya Janata Party leader. Balhami escaped with his family. The ensuing gunfight between the militants and security forces lasted until the three were dead, and Balhami’s house went up in flames. His poetry, which he had written over the last 30 years, turned to ashes.
Immediately afterwards, Balhami, a saffron farmer never known beyond the boundaries of his village, began receiving media attention. This drew Farooq and Dar to Balhama to embark on the documentary series in 2019. Two episodes have been released on Facebook and YouTube so far. The rest will be rolled out over the next five weeks.
Fifty-four-year-old Balhami, born Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, began writing poetry from the age of 20 after his parents died. Initially, he wrote religious poetry, but his focus shifted to documenting the conflict in Kashmir after he came to the attention of the local police, who suspected him of having links with militants. Balhami was arrested and allegedly tortured a few times over the following years, which only made his poetry sharper.
“Madhosh Balhami is a poor farmer who never had the means to publicise his poetry unlike poets today, who have social media or live in a city so they can go and recite in a place of cultural significance,” Farooq said. “He is not known in the Valley itself, outside his village.”
Each episode in Madhosh Balhami: The Poet of Perseverance lasts five to seven minutes, Dar said. They will follow Balhami talking about his life and work in Kashmir, plus a few recitations. “Given that Kashmir is back in the global focus strongly in the wake of the scraping of Article 370, the material we shot, which included lengthy interviews and at least 20 recitations, had to be narrowed down to what made sense in the present context but also that which properly represented Balhami’s work,” Dar said.
The intention was not to make a feature-length documentary that would do the rounds of film festivals, because the filmmakers wanted to release the episodes as early as possible since “timing” was important, Dar added.
“This not only had to reach people quickly but also this had to reach the people of Kashmir,” Dar said. “The people there are accessing the internet via virtual private networks, although the government is blocking that using firewall after firewall. So we waited for 2G mobile internet services to be restored. Now Kashmiris can see our short five-minute episodes on their phones even with slow bandwidth and patchy connectivity.”
Dar and Farooq were both born in Srinagar and studied at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi. For Dar, who has been making documentaries in the social and corporate sectors for nine years, Madhosh Balhami: The Poet of Perseverance is a passion project, since it is entirely self-funded.
The fact that Balhami remained relatively unknown across Kashmir, let alone India, is not an anomaly but quite natural, Farooq said, since he belongs to a long line of Kashmiri poets who documented the Valley’s troubles with oppressive ruling regimes since as far back as the 17th century.
“Kashmir has a long history of resistance poetry, dating back to the 1600s,” Farooq said. “While the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs, and Dogras ruled over India, and sent one cruel governor after another to Kashmir, writers took to poetry and not prose because the rulers understood prose but not poetry. These writers are salt of the earth and spread across the valley. Balhami is just one of them.”
Upon reaching Balhama in 2019, Farooq and Dar realised that the writings and the art of other local Kashmiris, including students, needed to be documented for posterity. After the complete release of the documentary series, Farooq and Dar intend to film interviews with the other Kashmiri artists they have identified.