Are the gun wielding militants out to snuff out cultural pursuits in Pakistan is the worry being voiced by leading artists of the country.
A series of bomb blasts at two dance theatres last week in Karachi and similar explosions outside the Al-Hamra theatre during the world performing arts festival in Lahore last year have left artists,actors and dancers worried about their future.
Although no Islamic group has so far claimed responsibility for these serial bomb blasts,but authorities are not ruling out the chances of some militant group trying to hit cultural activities in Lahore,which is known as the cultural centre of Pakistan.
Though radical forces like Taliban,who are open in their opposition to cultural pursuits have barred such shows from most of the restive North-West Frontier Provinces,but their diktats don’t run in far away places like Lahore,Karachi and the federal capital Islamabad.
However,the new series of attacks have unnerved musicians,actors,playwrights and dancers,though they put up a brave front.
Sheema Kirmani,a well known stage and television actress and one of the few accomplished dancers of the traditional “Kathak” form in the country is,however,optimistic about the future.
“But the brave among us carried on cultural activities at times even underground fighting against all forms of extremism that discourages cultural activities,” Kirmani said.
Religious parties and clerics have tried in the past to discourage cultural activities. Some clerics have even publicly said the “Kathak” dance form is against Islam,Kirmani said.
Her husband is also a well known stage and television actor. She recalled how during the days of military ruler,late General Zia-ul-Haq all forms of cultural activities were suppressed through religious edicts.
Besides Kirmani,Sadia Khan,is also a well known performer of the Kathak dance and quietly runs a private school for young girls and boys at her home in one of Karachi’s posh areas.
Around a dozen students most of them students attend one class. “Kathak is one of the most difficult forms of dance and it takes a long time for these girls to learn to balance themselves and go through their paces properly,” Sadia said.
With some clerics branding the Kathak dance form as vulgar and un-islamic,Sheema Kirmani and Saadia know they face a difficult task trying to keep the art alive in Pakistan where cultural activities were given a boost during the eight year rule of Pervez Musharraf.
“The present government is also encouraging cultural activities but we have to constantly convince lot of people what the clerics say about this dance form is not true,” Saadia said.
The Kathak dance form has dancers go through their paces with fast twirling footwork and tell a story through their expressive dance routines.
Interestingly while clerics and religious parties have been against cultural activities and classic dance forms,they have preferred to turn a blind eye on the stage dramas staged in Karachi,Lahore and other parts of Punjab where actresses go through vulgar dance routines to entice the jam packed crowds.
The two dance theatres where the blasts took place at the weekend,several such stage dramas were staged on regular basis.
“I think people need to understand there is a difference between popular and traditional dance forms and the latter need to be encouraged since there is a culture of dance forms in the subcontinent,” Kanwal a student at Saadia’s Kathak class said.
“I have never heard a cleric speak out against those vulgar dances which have run rampant in our society on film,but they oppose our dance,which is pure art with no vulgarity whatsoever.”
Today,Kathak has gone virtually underground,with only a few qualified instructors and few public performances.
With radical Islamic groups led by the Taliban gaining strength in parts of the the NWFP province and even in some areas of Punjab,artists and dancers naturally feel intimidated by the situation.
The Taliban killed a female dancer in the scenic Swat valley recently saying she was indulging in un-islamic activities. But Kirmani says there is nothing written in Islam that forbids dancing in its pure art form.
“Vulgar dances naturally are part of stage dramas and our films because of their commercial pull. But classical dance art forms must be encouraged,” she said.
She points out some of the greatest saints in the
subcontinental history were also accomplished dancers.
“Even at our shrines,you go and see the holy people immerse themselves in mediation through various dance forms. We just want that no one should impose their ideas or ideology on us. Artists are known as peace loving people,” Fasih a well known performer of the classical dance forms said.
Noted classical dancer Nighat Chaudhry said the most difficult period dance went through was that of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq.
“In his regime dance was banned. There was no place where one could perform and the state frowned upon dance as a medium of expression,” she recalled.
Human rights activist and lawyer,Rashid Rehman said a documentary had been made sometime ago on the controversial state of dance in Pakistan titled “Laatoo” and was screened at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
“It exposing the contradiction in society towards dance be it classical or that in films,at shrines or at parties at the homes of the elite,” he said.
Saadia and Kirmani,however,both pointed out that while it is getting difficult to keep the Kathak dance form alive in Pakistan it can still help remove misunderstandings between Pakistan and India.
Kirmani said Pakistan and India have inherited the same culture,which could not be changed in just 50 or 60 years. Culture does not change and is always useful to bring people of both nations closer,said said Saadia ,who studied with Kirmani and later spent four years studying in New Delhi.
Fasih pointed out that religion and culture can survive together. He cited the example of Iran where the religious government had realised the importance of media and culture to promote the positive and good things in Life.
“We can do that in Pakistan as well,” he said.