A Cultivated Taste

  • Nissar Naseem
  • Publish Date: Jan 25 2017 9:43PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 25 2017 9:43PM

           Kashmiri speakers had a late introduction to opera, with the first being written only in 1932


Drama is one of the most powerful mediums of art. It has existed in various forms, from folk drama to modern theatre, for millennia. Although known to several ancient cultures, including India and China, its development is chiefly credited to the Greeks. Over the centuries, drama has evolved into a bouquet of art forms, none perhaps as elegant and soulful as opera.

Opera originated in Italy, and it remains a thoroughly western art form despite early oriental, mainly Chinese, influences. Opera is essentially a musical drama or, more accurately, a drama in verse. An opera has a story, dialogues, music and songs, only the dialogues are written in poetry.

The soul of the opera is the music, which is not bound to any prosody. The rhymes can be changed under the rules of poetry; every rule should, in fact, follow the poetry, not the other way round. Operatic music has a vast canvas, from classical to folk, and every form can be used.

Contemporary opera is performed in three distinct styles, depending on where it’s performed. In the west, particularly in Italy, it comprises equal parts dialogue and song. In Chinese opera, music dominates. In the Indian version – of which the performance of Ram Leela is the common example – dialogue gets precedence over song. In Chinese and Indian theatre, opera artists perform in other forms of drama as well, but not so in the west. There, the same person usually acts and sings in the opera.

Kashmiri speakers had a late introduction to opera, with the first being written only in 1932. It was called Aagar Naama and was composed by Ghulam Muhammad Lone. The writer and critic Muhammad Yousuf Teng says “it has all the qualities of being good”. It is remarkable also because Lone wasn’t well versed in western literature. Aagar Naama was entirely his own creation.

In the following years, Radio Kashmir produced about half a dozen operas, notably Dina Nath Nadim’s Bombur Yamberzal and Vestasta. They showed that Kashmiri writers could compose operas of the highest quality. Bombur Yamberzal, a talk-tale, was first broadcast by Radio Kashmir on September 16, 1963. It was produced by Pran Kishore and the music was composed by Mohan Lal Ama. The music was purely based on traditional Kashmiri tunes, one of the reasons why it pulls at the heartstrings of listeners even now.

Vestasta, alternatively titled Veth, is a work of extraordinary elegance, a testament to the greatness of Nadim. The opera narrates the journey of Veth – the river Jhelum – from its origin till it meets the Wular lake. Veth was first broadcast by Radio Kashmir on March 5, 1970. Its music was composed by late Qasir Qaland. The story goes that when Nadim listened to the rendition of the song “Veth aayi mahren soaniye”, he took Qaland’s hands and kissed them.

The opera was again aired as Vestasta on January 24, 1977. This adaptation was directed by Pran Kishore and set to music by Diwaan Vriendar Mohan. Produced for the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Vestasta was also staged in India and abroad, though the performers would only lip-sync the recorded version on stage. (Most exponents and experts of opera insist that it must be staged live). The recordings of both adaptations of Vestasta are preserved in the Radio Kashmir’s archives.

Radio Kashmir is also said to have produced an opera written by Shafi Shifaaye in 1950-51. It was aired live since recording facilities weren’t available in those days.

A few years ago, M K Raina developed a short opera composed by Rahman Rahi as a hand-puppetry performance titled Loul Yalle Montas Phoar. It was anexperiment, but it failed. Apparently, even Rahi himself wasn’t impressed. This failure, though, shouldn’t discourage experiments with opera’s form and technique; they will only enrich it.

Apart from Vetasta, the art academy has produced two operas in Urdu, Tipu Sultan and Piya Baje Pyalla. Both were written by Zubair Rizvi and received appreciation when they were staged at various places in India. The music was doneby a group of composers including Diwaan Vriendar Mohan, T K Jalali and Kishan Langoo. Pran Kishore gave the direction.

This is about it in terms of Kashmir’s operatic output. Given that the quality of the handful of our operas compares with the best anywhere, popularising this soulful art form would greatly enrich our artistic and cultural landscape.