Brij Nath Betab
Can we convert Abhinav Theater, located in the heart of Jammu city, into a cinema hall? No, never, by no means and under no circumstances. Same is the case with Tagore Hall Srinagar. Both these centers of culture are part of our heritage. Both have a history and both are named after two cultural icons of India. Acharya Abhinavagupta gave us identity through Trika philosophy and Rabindranath Tagore gave us identity through our National Anthem. Tagore Hall Srinagar is our identity, our heritage and epicenter of our culture and we dare not convert this into anything, least a Cinema Hall.
Unfortunately some news and rumors are ripe that Tagore Hall Srinagar is being converted into a cinema hall. Who decided this and with whose consent is this being done, is not clear, but the Artist community got a shock when they heard about this. It is given to understand that this performing arts theater has been handed over to some private party for converting the recently renovated drama theater into a cinema hall and run films there. As soon as the news attained credibility artist community particularly in Kashmir immediately swung into action and protests and press briefings were arranged to make its views known to the concerned authorities. Attempts are being made to explain the importance of this half a century old cultural centre so that better sense prevails and those who have taken this unwise decision make a hasty retreat.
Tagore Hall Srinagar has not only a history of its own but its walls are a witness to the history of culture in Jammu and Kashmir. Established in the year 1958, to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s centenary celebrations, the building was opened by the then ‘Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir’ Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammed on 11th of July 1961. Since then the theatre has been a centre of almost all cultural activities in Kashmir, particularly the yearly drama festivals that were organized to boost the performing arts. It was here that amateur artists graduated to professionalism. It was here that a proper drama stage was established and the new actors and directors got trained to the extent that dramas written by India’s top play writers were staged here. I would not hesitate to say that Tagore Hall was the training institute for almost all the veteran Radio and even some TV drama artists.
Tagore Hall Srinagar is the only theater in Kashmir where local, national and international artists have performed. Mohmad Rafi and Talat Mehmood have blessed this hall with their unforgettable performances. Seven times ‘Bangladesh National Film Awards’ winner singer Runa Laila, who got into fame with Dama Dum Mast qalander song, enthralled Kashmiri music lovers with this song here in this hall .Malika-e-ghazal, the Dadra and Thumri exponent Begum Akhtar performed here in this hall, with audience seated to its full capacity. Yamani Krishnamurthy and Indrani Rehman have performed on this stage.
National level poetic symposiums have been held here and our elders remember with nostalgia how poet Firaq Gorakhpur and many other poets were fond of reciting their poetry to wahwah shouting audience in this hall.
Great classical musicians of yesteryears like Sitar player Ustad Villayat khan and Shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan have graced this hall with their performances.
Habib Tanvir has done a drama here and national playwrights like Krishna Chandra and Mohan Rakesh’s plays have been staged by local artists here. Theater lovers in Kashmir still feel nostalgic about the play ‘Begum Ka Takiya’ directed by theater legend Kavi Rattan. The sets for the play, an adoption from a novel written by Pandit Anand Kumar, were erected in the lawns of Tagore Hall. It was here that another drama Legend Pran Kishore staged Dina Nath Nadim’s historical opera Vitasta. Needless to say that all the local artists have performed here and received viewer’s applaud. Regrettably the move to convert this hub of cultural activity into something not connected with traditional cultural activities is not the only time when Tagore Hall has had to witness the turbulent events. It has had to face the brunt of militancy in Kashmir and also the ravages of nature. In early nineties the building was targeted by militants and damaged. It remained out of bounds for the artist community for many years and before renovation and re-opening in 1998, a major fire had destroyed the building. Then the horrifying floods of 2014 and an earthquake before that took their tool. The building was finally renovated and a new and modern stage was erected. The year 2015 created history when this ‘New” Tagore Hall was thrown open and a drama festival was organized to start a new journey. I too was lucky to witness the new page of Cultural History being written on that day. Since then this place has attracted a lot of talent and cultural activities in Kashmir have seen a new lease of life. Rejuvenation of cultural activities, particularly the ones associated with theater have given a new impetus to socio-cultural activities in Kashmir that are pivotal to channelizing the energetic youth towards creativity.
If this centre of creative activity is made into a Cinema Hall, the creative minds of Kashmir are bound to feel the brunt and unfulfillment of their creative urge may confuse them, mislead them and push them to the wall.
For a theatre and performing artist, Cinema is a sort of artist’s envy and cinemagoer’s pride, but, a cinema hall shall not be erected at the cost of performing art. Generally speaking, the artist community in Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is not so wealthy, but their wealth is their art. They have the highest degree of satisfaction and contentment when they perform before an august audience. Snatching this would deprive not only the artist but the art lover of a valuable treasure called cultural exposure.
Cinema has its own significance. There was a time when Kashmir had more than a dozen cinema halls spread across various districts of the Valley. Many owners of Talkie theaters were referred to and identified by the name of their cinema building title. For many days of a new release, a ticket had to purchase in black to enter a house full cinema hall. A late night show with friends and an excursion with family on Sundays was a great source of entertainment, even after the advent of Door darshan. But then the evil of militancy cast its eye on every sphere of life and theater was no exception. That was thirty years ago. Today with great efforts of local population and security agencies, a new ray of hope has emerged on the horizon. As humans want escape from death and destruction and its impact, cinema can provide the much needed relief. Particularly so, when local artists are drawing world attention and feature and non feature films produced and directed by young local talent are bagging international awards and acclaim. However cinema at the cost of theater would be suicidal for the performing art.
If the administration is seriously planning to open cinema for the entertainment of the general public, then there are other options available. Some old cinema building in a security zone should be an ideal place. Now that an experiment of quenching the thirst of merriment seeking people has succeeded with outlets at secured places, a cinema hall should not be a big problem.
People in Kashmir love cinema. We have great and abundant talent. Once a cinema house is operational, many youth would shun inhibitions and join the field of creativity. People fed up with long shut downs would certainly love to have an outing with families and friends. We need to encourage them. But encouraging cinema and discouraging performing art would not be prudent policy.
When I look back at my own journey as someone associated with media, I am remembered of my first performance in a Play on this stage. Tagore Hall shaped me and many others like me. It was the epicenter of theater movement in Kashmir. Young playwright and drama director, Mohamed Amin Bhatt (The story writer of Film Hamid) tells me, “Tagore Hall is a heritage spread over two generations. For last several years I have been staging a new play at Tagore Hall to celebrate my son’s birthday, as it falls on 27th March, the world theater day. Imagine my plight, if this is taken away from me”. His voice choked with emotions.
For people associated with performing arts Tagore hall is a holy spot of cultural rendezvous. They have emotional attachment with the hall and its surroundings. Apart from this, Tagore Theater has over the years become a place of discourse at the cultural level. This in turn has lead to a higher standard of communication at the socio- political level. We should not block that.
Tagore hall, as mentioned above, has a long and glorious past. This edifice today stands as a witness to our cultural history. We need to keep live our memories associated with this hall. We need to respect and preserve this building. In today’s world we need to protect promote and preserve our performing arts. Tagore Hall in that will be our gift to our next generation. Tagore hall is a cultural monument. We need to pass on this legacy to our new generations. That will be a great tribute to all our cultural icons.
Brij Nath Betab