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Walking through those happening times

I am tempted to trace his journey and map his formative years in his city of birth, Srinagar
12:00 AM May 09, 2024 IST | M Saleem Beg
walking through those happening times
Title: Before I Forget Author: M.K. Raina Publishers: Penguin Random House, 2024
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It is an uncommon occurrence for a book, a memoir, to make you relive the epoch of our history and the social setting that helped a generation of Kashmiris dream of creating a modern, egalitarian, and liberal society through the medium of art. Yet M.K. Raina, the eminent theater director, actor, writer, and cultural enthusiast, walks us through those happening times in his newly published memoir. Over the past four decades, he has carved a niche for himself with his thought-provoking plays that seamlessly blend entertaining narratives with insightful social causes. His unique directorial vision breathes new life into folk tales and narratives of social reformers, one one of these being the  widely acclaimed on the life and teachings of the great Bhakti saint, Kabir.

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However, I am tempted to trace his journey and map his formative years in his city  of birth, Srinagar, Kashmir, leaving his significant achievements to be commented on by the mainland media. The memoir takes us back to the seeding times when he received support and handholding from individuals and institutions whose resources or precedents were at best basic and, in many cases, non-existent. For his friends and colleagues in Kashmir, it serves as a great learning experience, where we get to know about the humble but hugely productive associations led by artists and scholars who exposed a post-feudal inspirational generation to its traditions and cultural ethos. It reveals a rich tapestry of cultural influences, socio-political dynamics, and personal experiences that shaped Mr. Raina's artistic sensibilities.

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In the memoir, Srinagar emerges as a nurturing ground for creativity; its very essence infused with a deep appreciation for the arts. From the rigorous classical music training at Prem Sangeet Niketan to the immersive experiences of live performances at baithaks and mehfils, Raina's early years were steeped in a milieu where art was not merely entertainment. The traditional Kashmiri Sufiyana music, with its enchanting melodies and mystical undertones, left an indelible imprint on his soul, later manifesting in the depth of his own creations. The artistic vibrancy of the gatherings where painters, poets, musicians, and storytellers congregated to share their craft exposed Raina Sahib to a wide array of creative influences.

Another platform, the 'Young Writers Forum,' brought together a mélange of artists, from poets and writers to theatre and music lovers. In this forum, the most eminent persons interacted with school children. These included Akhtar Mohiuddin, Ali Mohammad Lone, Rehman Rahi, Dina Nath Nadim, all luminaries whose contribution to the world of arts has remained a touchstone for creativity unsurpassed in the following decades. Some other senior names mentioned in the book are the legends who made their mark and excelled in their areas of interest: G.R. Santosh, Shamim Ahmad Shamim, Moti Lal Kemmu, Triloke Kaul, Pran Kishore, among others. He attributes his picking up of theatre skills to Kala Kendra at Kralkhud, both for the encouragement and training.

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How much one wishes that the arms of the clock could move back in time and such platforms and associations take a rebirth. How many of such creative outpourings would have followed if these humble but hugely productive institutions had not been lost due to the vagaries of time.

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In the book, he recalls his first exposure to the theatre at his school in the Pandit-dominated mohalla, Sheetal Nath, Srinagar, where he watched a play based on the popular mythological tale, Akanundun. This tale has been converted into songs, folk performances, and grandmothers' bedtime stories. Raina Sahib, as a very young boy, watched the play in his school. Akanundun depicts the trials and tribulations that Kashmir has endured since time immemorial. The story is about a royal family and a rishi. The queen mother is asked to kill her only son, who was given as a boon by the rishi on the condition that she return the child to the rishi after thirteen years. Finally, the mother relents and hands over the son to the rishi, who makes her kill the son, dismember him, and cook his body parts. She does this while going through immense grief and pain of losing the child. This killing by the queen, the climax of the narrative, results in people crying at the plight of the mother. Raina Sahib says that his mouth would hang wide enduring these scenes. Finally, the drama has a happy ending. The rishi asks her to serve the cooked body parts in a meal. While the meal is ready, the rishi asks the mother to call for the son, and the son returns to life in the room.

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It may be appropriate to mention here that Akanundun, the mythological drama, has evolved differently in the popular imagination in Kashmir. While the murder and death of Akanandun was ordained by the rishi, signifying a divine act, alas, the return to life of Akanundun in each era at the intervention of the some rishi is more of an unfulfilled aspiration, a distant dream. The air of melancholy in this tale persists through centuries and has a sad resonance in the times thereafter as well. About Akanundun, he writes that this kind of theater intrigued him and made him curious about the techniques used to create these sequences. It may sound dramatic now, but when we absorb the whole sequence, only this kind of early learning and shock could make a M.K. Raina that we know now.

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The author invites us a peep into a life replete with formidable challenges, navigated with unwavering compassion and an absence of fear. Raina Sahib leaves Kashmir in the late 1960s to a world of opportunities and gets admitted to the Drama school. Thereafter, he devotes his time and energies to honing his skills as well as following the calling of his heart. He takes part in cultural movements and protests through the medium of art for vulnerable and disadvantaged people, be it the Amritsar carnage, the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984, the Babri Masjid demolition followed by killings, etc. Meanwhile, Kashmir, his motherland, 'implodes.' The years of mishandling and machinations by powers-that-be resulted in massive violence, defiance, and resistance. An unfortunate consequence of this situation was the migration of Kashmiri Pandits, who lost their motherland, settled life, and a culture of accommodation and coexistence in 1990 AD. His mother, who was living in Srinagar, was admitted to a hospital where she passed away. While the agonizing  struggle to arrange for her treatment and then for carrying the dead body to the crematorium is a tormenting narration, it invokes a poignant feeling towards Kashmir and awakens the artist in him. Thus, another of his engagements with Kashmir, broad-based and overarching, takes form. We know that post-1990s, the official agencies used media and arts as part of counter narrative to what was happening in Kashmir, and for them, Raina Sahib was a prospective candidate. However, his heart and feelings thereof were looking at the larger picture. The loss of cultural moorings and the civilizational ethos of Kashmir that he knew needed to be repaired and invoked as a tool for restoring the glorious past. He comes, stays, and works towards a dream and, to his satisfaction, finds a like minded and agreeable circle of friends. Against all odds and scarcity of resources, we find him documenting the sacred architectural marvels, the rishi-sufi shrines. He works with folk artists, the bhands, engages the impressionable young minds in workshops on art-integrated learning, etc. This writer has closely seen how, with minimal State support, he passionately initiated a movement of revival of theatre in Kashmir, perhaps returning the debt of his own childhood. This engagement has been continuing, of course, slow-moving with its highs and lows, but has gathered a momentum of its own.

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