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The Dancing Afghan

THINK Afghan male and what comes to mind? A bearded, broad-shouldered man with a hair-trigger temper, toting an AK-47? And then you meet Fas...

January 23, 2005

THINK Afghan male and what comes to mind? A bearded, broad-shouldered man with a hair-trigger temper, toting an AK-47? And then you meet Fasih-ur-Rehman.

This Pakistan-based scion of the Mohammadzai family claims descent from Ahmad Shah Abdali, considered the father of modern Afghanistan. Aristocratic nose aside, at 36, soft-spoken, ponytailed Fasih is a relaxed metro man. On stage, though, he shifts seamlessly between tandava and lasya, the masculine and feminine energies needed to portray a Kathak love song, tugging at his imaginary paramour’s plait one moment, gracefully sliding on bangles the next.

‘‘I would die if there were no dance,’’ he says. When he’s not dancing, he imparts the art to students. Even during recitals, Fasih tries to educate his audience on the whys and wherefores. ‘‘You cannot appreciate the dance’s true spirit if you don’t know what is happening,’’ he says.

The other Fasih is a family man who lives with his mother and 90-year-old grandmother. At home, there are no grand portraits of him, no ghunghroos strewn about. The affection he feels for his family is evident as both matriarchs rule over the household. Faisal, the famous older film-maker brother who lives in the adjoining house, is a frequent visitor and completes the support system.

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To his family, Fasih will always be the child who sashayed to Lata Mangeshkar songs during birthday and Eid celebrations. On one occasion, guests were beginning to leave when Faisal convinced them to stay promising that a treat would follow—five-year-old Fasih then danced his way to the centre of the room. Unwittingly, he had prepared them for his future calling. Everyone knew Fasih loved to dance but, more importantly, they realised how good he was. No move was too difficult for him.

In 1977, when Fasih was nine, the famous Lucknowi Kathak guru, Maharaj Ghulam Hussain, used to come to a neighbouring flat in Lahore’s Liberty Market area to teach. Fasih would go over to watch, and eventually became a student. The lessons had to be discontinued when he went back to school.

Fasih is the son of the famous cinematographer Massud-ur-Rehman and nephew of late Bollywood actor Rehman. Acting, therefore, is in his blood. But while one brother—an erstwhile film star who’s now a popular Pakistani TV actor—followed the family route, Fasih considers his brief stint as an actor a detour.

Around 1980, Fasih resumed his dance lessons, this time hoping to stay the course. Well aware of the turn his life was beginning to take, his family treated his choice of profession like any other job. According to Fasih, it wasn’t even a matter of discussion. ‘‘I would not have done this if my mother hadn’t supported and appreciated me,’’ he says.

Even his extended family endorsed his decision. If Fasih didn’t dance, relatives would get upset. And so the wheels began to roll. After he completed his training with the Maharaj, Fasih flew to London to attend Kumudini Lakhia’s workshop. At the end of his two-month training, Fasih decided that he needed further tutoring, this time in Lakhia’s hometown in Ahmedabad.

“When he first came to my three-week workshop at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, he was a very graceful and focussed boy. He was very comfortable with me, because his teacher was my guru-bhai: Both of us learnt from Shambhu Maharaj of Lucknow,’’ says Lakhia. In fact, when Fasih visited India, he stayed with her.

Once Fasih learnt to choreograph his own dances, he began to perform in Pakistan. During martial law, all Fasih could manage were covert stage performances. The shows were, unfortunately, kosher only for foreign delegations, and not Pakistanis. But meanwhile, society raised questions: Why, when he was a man, did Fasih want to dance? “How is one supposed to answer such questions,” asks Fasih. “Is it not like asking why are you a lawyer, a banker or a doctor?”

In another interview, Fasih railed against the ban of classical dance on PTV: “Obscene film dances, tasteless double entendre or simply lies disguised as khabarnama—everything appears on PTV. But classical dance is considered pornographic”. But praise for performances in Japan, Italy, Dubai, the US, Canada, England and India reinforce his faith in the dance form.

The only male dancer in Pakistan, his resolve and strength affirm that within the dancer’s heart beats the pulse of a fighter.


THE old Hindustani saying lauds Sham-e-Avadh and Shabab-e-Malwa (The Evening of Avadh, the Beauty of Malwa) as two khas treasures of Hindustan. More than pleasant weather, it was a metaphor for civility and grace, whose apogee was the decadence of Wajid Ali Shah’s artistic evenings. The pudgy last Nawab was a musician and dancer who collected the best Kathak talent around him in his pleasure palace, Kesarbagh.

The Kathak tradition of Lucknow was a Hindu-Muslim synthesis, poetically known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. It melded the ancient homegrown tradition of Braj Raasleela with Mughal Kathak after the fall of Delhi to Nadir Shah, when all the talent fled to Avadh.

And Lucknow’s talent pool flourished despite the British ban on nautch and the denigration of Indian music. The city produced music directors Naushad, Madan Mohan and Roshan; actors Iftekar, Bina Rai, Yashodara Katju and Swarnalata; singers Akhtari Bai (Begum Akhtar) and Talat Mehmood; dancers Acchan Maharaj, Lacchu Maharaj and Birju Maharaj. Birju Maharaj choreographed many Bollywood movies—most recently, Devdas.

The Lucknowi ada managed to survive in Pakistan, despite Zia-ul-Haq’s 11-year ban on the ‘un-Islamic arts’. In addition to the Lucknow connection, Fasih-ur-Rehman’s Kathak, has other echoes too. Fasih’s guru, Maharaj Ghulam Hussain’s toras (rhythmic patterns) were used by Pakistani pop star Adnan Sami in his 1995 album Sargam. Munnizae Jehangir, daughter of Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangir, and part of the Pakistani media delegation to J&K last October, is Fasih’s guru-behen (fellow pupil), as is Nahid Siddiqui, the first South Asian woman to perform with the Royal Ballet of England.

Ahmad Shah Abdali the Mohammedzai Afghan may have won the Third Battle of Panipat, but it seems it was the aab-o-hawa, the joyous air and water of Hind, that ultimately prevailed, as in his descendant Fasih.

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