For years, Dambali at the shrine of this Sufi saint has been the highlight of the annual Urs. Dambali artists whirl and swing to the accompaniment of drum beaters. Fellow performers carrying long wooden masts called 'alums' form a circle around the Dambali dancers to provide a mystic ambience to the performance.
The wooden alums have scarves tied to their tops like flags atop wooden masts.
"Dambali artists come from all over the Valley to the saint's annual Urs to pay obeisance and perform. In fact, Dambali is the chief attraction at the Urs and some people come to see the performance from far off villages", said Abdul Gani Mir, 53, who lives in Saidpora village, two kilometres from the shrine.
After the conclusion of the Urs, the Dambali artists carrying drums and alums walk to the shrine of Sheikh Humza Makhdoom atop the Koh-e-Maran (The Serpent's Hillock) in Srinagar's old quarters.
The artists again perform at the shrine before dispersing for their native places in the Valley.
Many locals believe Dambali as a traditional devotional art is fast vanishing.
"Even in Iran and Iraq you do not see so many Dervish dances now. It has definitely a direct connection with the lack of attention and sponsorship of traditional Kashmiri arts in modern times", said local resident Ghulam Nabi, 46.
It is not just Dambali which is vanishing as a performing art in Kashmir. The once immensely popular local street theatre known as Bhand Pather has fewer takers now.
Troupes of Bhands (local folk theatre artists) would move from village to village when the Valley did not have cinema halls, television sets and modern theatres.
The Bhand Pathers would highlight social issues like dowry, other evils and even the atrocities by the erstwhile autocratic rulers.
One of India's best known theatre directors, M.K. Raina has been doing his bit to revive and preserve the traditional Bhand Pather.
"These artists are great performers and Bhand Pather as a great heritage of Kashmir needs support, Raina told IANS.
"No doubt the government is giving them some support by inviting them to perform during tourism festivals and the like. But that is not enough. We need to set up institutions for their training and give them scholarships for their education as a concerted effort," Raina added.
"That the artists are prepared to sacrifice everything to preserve this performing art is proved by the fact that four of our Kashmiri Bhand Pather artists got national awards in the last one year.
"But awards are not everything; these artists need to earn enough to support their families and at the same time continue the family tradition," Raina contended.
Raina seriously believes there is no dearth of performing artists for either Dambali or Bhand Pather, but he has misgivings about the seriousness of the state and the central governments to help preserve the arts.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
--IANS (Posted on 25-08-2013)