I used to sometimes put on the song Mera laal dupatta mal mal ka, close the doors and dance my heart away,” recalls Karachi-based classical dancer Sheema Kermani. The trailer for the documentary I, Dance thus begins, interspersed with close-up shots of Kermani applying kajal unflinchingly on her eyes, and red alta on her feet.
Through candid montages of Kermani’s performances on stage, we see the point director Sonya Fatah, Lahore and Delhi-based filmmaker, is trying to make. The documentary traces the journey of classical dance in Pakistan through the travels, experiences and struggles of Kermani, then in her early twenties, now in her sixties. As a dancer and activist, Kermani also charts out the political journey of the country that looked down upon classical dance.
“We had many classical dancers in Pakistan before Partition. However, right now the odds are against people choosing classical dance as it is seen as too ‘Indian’ and, therefore, Hindu,” says Fatah.
I, Dance brings together the destiny of classical dance — its trials and tribulations — through interviews with Kermani, and also contemporary classical dancers and artistes from Pakistan, such as Nahid Siddiqui, and archival footage of Karachi and Lahore in the late ’70s (when Kermani was most active). “We have captured Sheema’s beautiful performances, some in Lahore and some in Delhi,” says Fatah, who currently lives in Delhi.
It is perhaps Kermani’s unabashed love for the dance form that inspired the title of the film. “Her performances, her thoughts and the universal love for classical dance portrays a sort of open defiance.
I, Dance becomes a sort of statement,” she says. The most glorious performance that the film captures is Kermani’s contemporary ballet, The Song of Mohenjodaro. Historically, the figurine of Mohenjodaro was discovered in Pakistan and then sent to Delhi.
Kermani, in this piece, does a ballet to emphasise that dance transcends religion and rigid structures.
Kermani currently travels with her dance around the world, bringing her love for classical dance through her performances. The artiste has been to India several times — besides having family here, Kermani has trained under several Indian stalwarts such as Leela Samson and Aloka Pannikar.
The candid documentary also shows footage from Kermani’s India tour in July 2011. An Indo-Pak peace tour, she brought some of her famous dance pieces to Lucknow, Ahemdabad, Nagpur, Delhi and Mumbai among other cities. We also see in the film, moments of her dance classes in her studio in Karachi.
I, Dance took under a year to finish shooting, ending in January 2012. Through a series of crowd-funding programmes and help from technicians, the film was finally ready by late 2013. Fatah was a journalist in Lahore before she moved to Delhi in 2008 after her marriage to cinematographer Rajiv Rao. She has made one untitled documentary on education in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
“We’ve had only one screening so far in Bangalore last year at The Park,” she says. The film has a calm, almost meditative tone, with classical music playing in the backdrop. “It was madness, that made her do Bharatanatyam and Odissi during Zia (Ul Haq)’s reign,” says Kermani’s former husband and theatre actor, Khalid Ahmed, in an interview. This is interrupted by an almost decayed, black-and-white portrait shot of a younger Kermani, focusing on her eyes, which aptly portrays that “mad” devotion to dance. She’s decked in gold jewellery, a big red bindi and large peacock eyes. “I will always admire her for that,” he says.
I, Dance will be screened at India Habitat Centre on Aprill 22.