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Opera showcases religious, historical ethos of Kashmir

Srinagar: On a sunny mid spring afternoon, a troupe of city boys and girls who called themselves the "Eagle Dance Group" staged a rare performance at a near empty convention centre located on the banks of the Dal Lake here.

The group performed a rough localised version of opera to an audience comprising a few tourism officials, some high profile guests and several dozen uniformed school children to fill the space of the sprawling convention centre.

Not everyone in the audience understood the genre of drama and its importance but it was for the first time in many years that any Kashmiri group was performing an opera.

During the last few years the state has witnessed a musical resurgence with the emergence of numerous rock bands that produced song albums and performed at variety of events, a far cry from 1990s when militants had banned any such activity terming it "immoral and against Islam".

The performance of an opera was an attempt by the group to introduce change in the traditional Kashmiri folk. It took the group, which included artists as young as 14-years, seven days to prepare this spectacle of dance and music ? and when their performance began it went flawless after a few initial glitches in the audio system which was playing the song to which they had to lip-sync.

The song was `Mauj Kasheer`, meaning `Mother Kashmir`, and theme was the religious coexistence in Kashmir and the historic ethos of Kashmir which is coloured in sufism and existence of multiple religions.

The opera mentioned Kashmir as a "paradise" with chirping of birds, hues of chinar and everything idyllic which the state is believed to be. There was repeated mention of revered Muslim sufi saint `Shaykh-ul-Aalam` and sufi poetess Lal Ded after which emerged Lord Shiva, dressed in a saffron cloth, long hair locks and a trident in hand, the character played by a local Muslim boy.

Narrators flitted in and out of stage lip syncing to their part in the lyrics that lauded and praised "Mother Kashmir". Backstage, as the troupe rehearsed for one last minute, Shagufta who was cast in the role of "Mother Kashmir" shares the challenges of being a woman dancer in Kashmir.

Hailing from Srinagar`s old city, the 24-year-old veteran dancer usually performs the traditional Kashmiri dance called `Rauf` and also knows a few moves from Punjabi and Dogri folk dances. She prefers not to give a name to her troupe that has been in existence for the past several years.

"It is better the way it is. If we name it we will get identified," says Shagufta fearing a backlash from conservatives in society. Less than an hour before the opera the dancer had performed the `Rauf` at the state tourism department function to commemorate world heritage week.

Shagufta had choreographed the event along with Zameerul Amin Butt, a Srinagar boy. "We are presenting the history of Kashmir and trying to show what Kashmir means – it is about Shaykh-ul-Alam (a 14th century sufi saint) and Lal Ded (a sufi poetess)," says Butt.

Since the formation of the Eagle Dance group by Butt and his few other friends nearly a decade ago the troupe has performed across Jammu and Kashmir and in other states. Tanveer Ahmad who plays a devotee of Lord Shiva is a martial arts trainer."I train people in martial arts for a living and this (music) is my passion," he says.

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