When Junaid Khan, a 12-year-old student of standard six, twists his slim body mid-air and does a backflip on the Hari Parbat hill that dominates Srinagar’s skyline, the city plains on the horizon appears to be on a roller-coaster ride.
“It’s thrilling to be in air,” says Khan – the youngest member of a 15-member all-men’s group called the Kashmir Freerunning and Parkour Federation (KFPF) – who has been training for the last one year.
The KFPF has been the pioneer in starting Parkour – a stunt-based sport that combines gymnastics, acrobatics, running and jumping – in the Valley, first in 2012.
From an obscure beginning, this “obstacle course movement” sport – also considered as a performance art by many – has come a long way in Kashmir with many youngsters like Khan coming forward to learn and eager to perform it. Dressed in loose track-pants and hooded jackets, the KFPF team – comprising young men from the age-group of 15-25 – assembles regularly at Srinagar’s parks or gardens and practice their stunts and obstacle racing.
Parkour was originally developed by French choreographer and actor David Belle and his father Raymond Belle in the late 1980s, and popularised through the 1990s and 2000s across the world. It became highly popular both as a sport and as an artistic form of protest in Palestine. The Gaza Parkour Team has been covered extensively by international media and has inspired the Kashmiri artistes to a great extent.
In Kashmir, the sport was first introduced by Zahid Shah, the 23-year-old founder of the KFPF. He saw the sport in documentaries on French and Palestinian artistes and was so fascinated by the stunts that he decided to challenge himself to try the same.
“People in Srinagar didn’t get what Parkour is back when I had started. They were shocked to see a young boy climbing walls out of the blue,” reminiscences Shah, a commerce graduate with a black-belt in karate who is now looking forward to do a course in physical education.
What started with Shah and his friend Aadil Shalla, now 23 and a post-graduate student in commerce, climbing walls and running though the narrow lanes of Srinagar, has now developed into a dedicated team of 15.
Ask anyone on the KFPF team and they say they would keep performing Parkour as long as their bodies are able to sustain. So, what keeps them at it? For Shalla, it’s to have a healthy mind and enjoy the urban landscape, but for Haris Manzoor (16), Parkour means “freedom”.
“There is thrill, fun and freedom,” quips Manzoor, a high school student who has been practising Parkour for the last one year.
How the trend is setting
Shah first gained prominence when a friend of his and member of the KFPF, Hashim Hakeem, shot a short documentary on the team in 2013 and it got screened at an inter-college film festival at the Kashmir University.
Soon, a mixed martial arts school in Srinagar, the Iron Fist Wing Chun Academy – run by Peerzada Mohammad Iqbal (35) – invited Shah to demonstrate what Parkour is to the students.
“We introduced Zahid in the academy, and he was an instant hit. Young people loved what Zahid did,” says Iqbal, adding that he was the first to introduce formal Parkour training in Kashmir.
Shah now teaches Parkour on Sundays at the academy to a class of 30-40 students, out of which 15 are dedicated, Iqbal says.
“There are a total of 180 students in my academy, and almost all of them want to perform the Parkour stunts. But we can’t allow all to be trained in Parkour, because it requires a certain level of fitness. Some might have to even undergo karate training to be able to start learning Parkour.”
Shah got the KFPF registered as a society called the ‘XI Freerunning Club’ last year. The KFPF’s Facebook page has nearly 2,000 likes and it has recently started a profile on Instagram. Shah says that in the last four years, a total of 300-odd youngsters must have come to him enquiring about Parkour, trying to learn it or even practising with the KFPF.
“The trend is increasing more and more every day. Today there are other Parkour teams in Kashmir other than ours,” says Shah. A YouTube search confirms this – there are many other videos of young men -- apart from the members of Shah’s team and his students at the Academy -- doing Parkour stunts in Kashmir.
Parkour is gradually opening various opportunities for its practitioners in Kashmir. For instance, the KFPF team won the first prize in the gymnastics category of Kashmir’s Got Talent, a cultural competition in December last year.
For Shah, the way forward remains in enhancing KFPF’s skills and performance – even as Srinagar’s ancient ruins and parks, and not sophisticated gyms, remain their practicing grounds – and win laurels for Kashmir through this art.