Falling snow revives art of storytelling in Kashmir

By F. Ahmed, IANS

Chanduna (Jammu and Kashmir) : As a pristine white blanket of snow covers the countryside, Kashmir’s rich tradition of folklore comes to life in this village.

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Master Habibullah, 59, is a retired schoolteacher. He has a large family. His wife Halima, three sons, Fayaz, Shabir, Showkat, and their wives and children, all live under one roof.

Habibullah is pestered by his grandchildren to tell them a story, as they get closer to the hearth lit by firewood to avoid the chill that accompanies snowfall in this village in Ganderbal district of north Kashmir.

Even though this small village is just 26 km away from summer capital Srinagar, the snow-blocked roads, the uprooted electric transmission poles and the erratic mobile phone services here appear to have multiplied this village’s sense of distance a hundred fold.

“I remember my childhood. Man, those were the days. My mother would cook the duck over a simmering fire with turnips for the entire night in an earthen vessel,” Habibullah remembers.

“We would sit close to the hearth as father told us stories of fairies, princes and demons. I realised later as a teacher how crucial story telling is to the holistic development of a child,” he said.

As his eyes glow with memories of the past, Habibullah tells his grandchildren a story about a poor carpenter’s son who made a wooden horse that could fly.

“The poor, young carpenter flew on his wooden horse over the king’s palace and landed inside the royal garden to be bewitched by the beauty of the princess. The two fell in love, but the king was not reconciled to their marriage.

“He set the carpenter upon the task of bringing him the elixir of life from a distant land inhabited by demons, fairies and monsters…” The recital is punctuated with short songs of love, with the sonorous voice of the grandfather adding magic to the narrative.

Kashmir’s rich tradition of folklore includes both storytelling and folk dancing.

Until the 1970s, the arrival of local folk dancers known as the “Baands” was eagerly awaited in every village here.

“That was a masterpiece of street theatre. The ‘Baands’ in their colourful dresses would play street theatre across the Kashmir valley.

“Today this great art has almost died. Cinema and television have replaced every form of traditional entertainment in Kashmir,” Habibullah rues.

M.Y. Teng, a noted scholar, speaks passionately about the rich heritage of folklore and storytelling in Kashmir.

“It was a local scholar named Som Dev Bhatt who translated ‘Brakat Katha’ into Sanskrit from the ancient ‘Pashanchi’ language and called it ‘Katha Sarit Sagar’ in the 11th century AD,” Teng told IANS.

“Interestingly, today this translation is the only replica of the original masterpiece and subsequent translation into different languages have been made from Som Dev’s version,” he said.

The scholar also spoke of the wonderful local collection of short stories by a local writer, Vishnu Mitra, in Sanskrit in the 4th century, popularly called the Panchtantra.

“As we get drift away from our rich heritage and culture, we tend to ignore the fact that real treasure houses lie in our backyard,” Teng says.

Today, Master Habibullah is trying to rediscover those lost treasures with his grandchildren. The heavy flakes of snow falling outside provide this revivalist an idyllic setting.

(F. Ahmed can be contacted at [email protected])