With rhyme and reason

Updated: 13 November, 2019 08:28 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

A play on a 16th century Kashmiri poet to be staged in the city comes at a time of deep conflict in the Valley

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A few months ago, thespian Purva Naresh was travelling through Kashmir to research for a play. In her conversations with the locals there, she often asked them who the most enduring character from Kashmiri folklore is. The unanimous answer was, Habba Khatoon. She asked them who their favourite Kashmiri poet is. Again, the answer was Habba Khatoon. In fact, there were many people who, once they realised that Naresh was a playwright and director, urged her take up Khatoon as a subject. But at that point in time, the Mumbaikar thought, "How can I tell the tale of this 16th century poet who belongs entirely to Kashmir? What agency do I have to tackle her story?" So she kept the idea on the backburner, and returned to the other play she was researching for.

But then, there was another question that Naresh grappled with around the time that Article 370 was abrogated — what is the role of an artiste in times of conflict? She tells us, "I realised that Habba Khatoon really strikes a chord with Kashmiris from all walks of life. She really binds the people there together. So I asked myself, how does she become important to us [at such a fractious time in the state's history]? And I realised that here we have a peasant girl from the 16th century who married into nobility, dealing with class conflicts while doing so. Plus, she also raised questions about the role of an artiste within the state since, being a poet married to a king, she had to deal with the paradox of a liberal married to an administrator who is a lot more conformist."

For better or verse

That, thus, became the basis for Zoon: Noor Kashmir Ka, a play that Naresh has written and directed on the life and times of Khatoon (who was also called Zoon) that premieres this weekend. The plot structure is such that the narrative travels back and forth in time with three segments, one of which revolves around the actual story of the poet queen, while the other two are set in present-day Kashmir. There are also three actors who portray Khatoon in various forms. Ipshita Chakraborty Singh plays the real 16th century person; Prakriti Dutta Mukherjee portrays her inner conscience; and Nivedita Bhargava essays the role of an actor who's playing the role of Khatoon in a play within the play.

HabbaRehearsals in progress 

Bridging the gap

The overarching story deals with the central character's life, of course. Naresh explores how Khatoon displayed tremendous strength of character when she decided not to follow her husband, Yusuf Shah Chak, to Bihar after he was exiled there, thus throwing stereotypical concepts of a relationship into the bin. But the plot also endeavours to bring the Mumbai audience closer to the Valley that, despite being one of the most beautiful places on Earth, has witnessed untold tragedy over decades. "See, we had to accept that right now, we don't have access to any documents or even conversations from Kashmir that would help us conduct research on Zoon. So, what we tried to do instead is cull out the 'ness' from Kashmiriness. That is essentially what theatre does. When we want to show rain, for instance, we don't always need to have rainfall on stage; we invoke a feeling of it. Ane here, we are trying to evoke the feeling of Kashmir. We are brewing things together in such a way that we serve a heavily flavoured dose of the Valley to the audience, while making it our own as well," Naresh says.

So in that regard, she hopes that what the audience returns home with is not a picture-postcard image of the state. "It's not like Kashmir is a chunk of chocolate that you can break a piece out of. One of the lines in the play is actually about how, if you have to cross a river, you have to become a part of it. Similarly, we also need to be a part of Kashmir if we are to understand it. And I hope that the audience is left feeling emotional at the end of the play, and leaves with thoughts about ownership and access," Naresh says at a time when those two concepts are fodder for raging debates about the fate of a state that's gripped in crisis.

On November 16 and 17, 4.30 pm and 7 pm
At National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point.
Log on to insider.in
Cost Rs 300 onwards

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First Published: 13 November, 2019 08:11 IST

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