Meet 25-year-old Syed Areej Safvi, first Ladishah girl from Kashmir
Areej was introduced to this cultural form when she saw Ladishah being broadcast every Sunday on an Urdu TV news channel.
For hundreds of years, Kashmir’s Ladishah, a form of folk genre, was dominated by men till modernity and militancy in the valley triggered its decline. Now a woman has emerged on the scene and caught the imagination of youth.
Syed Areej Safvi, 25, has apparently become the first woman in Kashmir to write and perform Ladishah – a form of satire in verse, making commentaries on social and political conditions in the society. It is a type of folk ballad with humour forming an essential part of its presentation.
Areej was introduced to this cultural form when she saw Ladishah being broadcast every Sunday on an Urdu TV news channel. It was penned by Kashmiri journalist Rajesh Raina and performed by Rajendra Tikoo. Apart from her love for Kashmir culture and language, the immediate trigger to write and perform Ladishah herself was brought after the constitutional changes which nullified the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August last year.
“I always wanted to do something for Kashmir and its culture and language. I love listening to Ladishah personally. Mostly I would follow Rajendra Tikoo ji performing Ladishah every Sunday. And I wrote my first Ladishah in December 2019 on PSA (Public Safety Act) being used against Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti,” Areej said.
“Ladishah has social messaging. It is an alternative opinion about issues in the society and I am very passionate about this and want to do more on public speaking and social activism,” she said.
Ladishah is traditionally performed on stage, in street plays wearing traditional dress like a turban and playing an instrument with hands – a small thin iron rod with iron rings which would make a ringing sound. The person would sing critical commentaries using a comical tone and tenor to bring home the point while taking on the establishment or the people. Areej has adopted the content along with the tone and tenor but does not use the instrument so far.
While the traditional Ladishah used the platforms of open stage, theatre and then TV and radio, Areej uploaded her videos on her YouTube channel, occasionally wearing a traditional Karakuli cap over her headgear. The videos are becoming popular among the youth.
“After I uploaded the videos, I realised that I am the first female to do this. Iwas expecting a huge backlash but on the contrary I got huge support. There have been hate messages, people who try to pull me down but usually I ignore them,” she said.
Areej, a resident of Old City’s Alamgari Bazar, graduated in humanities and is pursuing post graduation in psychology. From the very beginning she says that she has been interested in writing, particularly Urdu language and poetry. She has been commenting on issues and writing Gazals before dwelling into the genre of Ladishah.
Her themes are not only social but even political, criticising not only society but even the establishment. She has performed Ladishah on arrest of journalists, 4G internet ban, VPN, women’s issues, extravagance in marriages, among others. The only child of her parents, she said that her father and mother have been supportive but there are people in the extended joint family who are not comfortable with her choice.
“It needs huge courage and patience to do anything in our society. I love this so nothing can stop me. There are people who are not okay with what I am doing but I am trying to convince them about my choice,” she said.
She said that she was getting messages from youngsters particularly women. “There are people who now say that if she can do this we can also pursue our choices. There have been women who texted me and said: ‘Thank you very much, now our parents also think that we can do whatever we like’,” she said.
ZareefAhmad Zareef, a 77-year-old satirical poet of Kashmir who retired as cultural officer of J&K government, said that he had only witnessed men performing Ladishah.
“I had not seen any woman in Ladishah till now. It is a forward movement. Ladishah has been a traditional character of Kashmir culture and if Areej really wants to turn her interest into an art, if a new chapter of this art form has to begin, she has to wholeheartedly adopt this, including its instrument,” he said.
Those associated with writing Ladishah say that it had gone into oblivion due to the situation in Kashmir valley. Zareef, who has been writing Ladishah for Doordarshan and theatre before the militancy erupted in the valley in 1989, said that the art form has been in decline.
“Before militancy, we used to have drama as well as Ladishah regularly at Tagore Halland also at drama clubs in old city,” he said.
He said that Ladishah has been part of Band Pather – folk theatre of Kashmir performed in open spaces even during the time when Kashmir was ruled by Maharajas. “Band Pather with its live performance and special costumes used to be a form of entertainment for the kings and commons from old times. And when there was a need for a break during the performance, a Ladishah would come out to present its solo performance,” he said.
He said that Ladishahs were critical but full of humour. “If people wanted to convey their problems to the king, Ladishah would present it humorously so that it makes him aware of the issue but does not annoy him at the same time,” he said.
He said that Ladishahs would go from village to village and visit the city to perform.“In villages, he would be given rice while in cities he would get some bucks for his performance,” he said.
Some cultural experts say that Ladishah was hundreds of years old and was impromptu.
Dr Rafiq Masoodi, former secretary cultural academy and former additional director general Doordarshan, said that Ladishah is the purest form of Kashmiri folklore.
“As per experts like MY Taing, Ladishah is over 1500 years old. It is all unscripted like Wanwun (Kashmiri women singing rhythmically on special occasions like Eid),” he said.
He said that it was part of Bhand Pather but later progressed as it developed its own costume.“Ladishah would visit from door to door and compose his creation on the spot depending on the surroundings and then collect offerings. That has been the beauty of Ladishah,” he said.
However, he believes that it should not be modified to make it modern. “Acting should not be mixed in it. Things get lost after mixing,” he said. “I saw Areej performing and gave her my blessings. I also gave her some suggestions which she accepted,” he said.
Some feel that the reach of new technology is helping these types of traditional practices to reach youth.
RajeshRaina, 49, a senior journalist who has been writing Ladishah weekly for a newschannel for the past eight years, said that this art form was dying, particularly after the introduction of TV, radio and cinema.
“Ladishah is close to my heart from the beginning but broadcast media like TV and radio gave it a blow. Now there was some interest among the new generation with the percolation of digital media,” he said.
He said that his interest in Ladishah was triggered by his fascination for this form since childhood. “I used to watch Ladishah on stage in Akingam which was my maternal home. From childhood it was in my mind and when I joined a TV channel as an editor I decided to introduce it. I have been writing Ladishah for the past 8-9 years mostly on current issues but unfortunately we are not able to incorporate much humour as every other day sad things happen in Kashmir,” he said.
He said that Areej performing Ladishah was an encouraging sign.
“Ladishah was a male dominated genre but now a girl from Kashmir is coming forward which is a big thing. People are also appreciating that girls are now coming forward to even adopt Ladishah. We should encourage her,” he said.