What is Ladishah? How one woman is reviving Kashmir's 150-year-old poetry style

Syed Areej Safvi, 25, is reinventing the old musical storytelling technique through YouTube

While flipping through television channels one day, Syed Areej Safvi, 25, came across a Ladishah performance by Rajendra Tiku, a renowned Indian artist. The psychology student from Kashmir, India was inspired by this broadcast to pen down her first Ladishah.

Ladishah is a Kashmiri indigenous form of poetry storytelling that is said to have a 150-year-old history. As a form of entertainment, Bhaand Paa’thhar or a group of local artists would travel from village to village performing skits, dances or Ladishah. Linguists believe that Bhaand comes from the Sanskrit word "bhaandiya" meaning “a bluffer” (or maskharra in Urdu) and Paa’thhar meaning character in a play. Ladishahs delivered messages that were based on socio-cultural and political issues; their performances were meant to entertain, but at the same time, were satirical and crafted to make people ponder on the state of affairs.

Impulsively, Safvi penned her first Ladishah about the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. “The central idea of my Ladishah was as you sow, you shall reap.”

Wearing a pheran, the traditional robe-like Kashmiri outfit, she recited the Ladishah on camera and posted her video on YouTube last year. The video went viral and, since then, Safvi has gone on to garner 48,000 followers on her channel, Areejological, so far.

The Ladishah follows a metre of one rhythm and short, rhyming sentences. While Ladishahs typically use a rudimentary rod-like instrument (dhukar) with thin metal rings to create accompanying music, Safvi only recites the ballad. She has performed on social issues surrounding marriage, pseudo-feminism and how commercialisation is affecting the quality of education in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“I think of Ladishah as the torchbearer of the society,” she says. “Every society and time will have its issues, but people may still be in slumber. People need to wake up, give it a thought and create an alternative opinion on a particular issue.”

Journalist and poet Rajesh Raina recalls visiting the famed Kashmir Bhagat Theatre as a child to watch Ladishah. “It was a source of livelihood for artists. People used to give them rice, walnuts or some money,” he explains. “With the emergence of other forms of entertainment like television and radio, this folklore form started dying out.”

Raina decided to revive Ladishah through his news channel News18 Urdu. In 2014, Raina, along with Tiku, started airing a weekly Ladishah programme that was pegged to the news cycle.

“When I watched him [Tiku] perform, I was very fascinated with this style of poetry,” Safvi says. “He was talking about hardcore news, but in a humorous way.”

One of the reasons I was inspired to choose this art form was that the Ladishah’s way of presenting things will never get old
Syed Areej Safvi, a female Ladishah performer from Kashmir

When Raina approached several artists to revive the art form, many believed that a Ladishah programme – in this time and age – would not be relevant or interesting to audiences. However, the journalist says it has gained tremendous popularity, like in the case of Safvi. “I have received several videos of children writing and reciting Ladishah,” Raina says. “There is curiosity among youngsters to learn.”

With the art form nearly extinct, Safvi is aware of only two male Ladishahs who are still performing. “One of the reasons I was inspired to choose this art form was that even though a Ladishah may exist no more, but the Ladishah’s way of presenting things will never get old,” she says. “Why not take it to the younger generation?

“When they become aware of it, maybe they will be inspired to take it up.”

Safvi has received immense support from the older generation. “Younger people will often message me and say that my grandparents are amazed to see someone from this generation reviving a long forgotten art form.”

While it was traditionally a male-only occupation, Safvi has also received criticism for being the first and only female Ladishah.

Raina further explains that although other cultural troupes had women, Bhaand didn’t have any females performing as dancing and singing were not considered noble professions for women. With Safvi being the first one to pen and recite Ladishah, he is happy to see that women are also entering this field. “It is a form of art and should not be restricted to one gender alone,” he says.

“Kashmiri society can still be very conservative,” Safvi explains. “I’ve noticed a gender bias and discrimination where Kashmiri male content creators – who create humorous videos and comic vines like me – get very positive engagement and response.

“But many will criticise my content, in what seems like a personal attack.”

As the next step, Safvi plans to visit schools across Srinagar in Kashmir. “School is where one’s initial personality and interests are developed. And extracurricular activities play a major role in shaping one’s personality and individuality.

“It should be introduced at a primary or secondary level. At least it creates an awareness among the youth, lest they grow up and, like me, think ‘I wish I had known about it earlier, maybe I would have tried performing Ladishah.’”

Updated: October 8th 2021, 9:36 AM