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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

An Alarippu in Abbotabad

The stage goes dark. The lights dim. A dancer clad in an Odissi costume appears in a pool of red light.

Written by Nandini Nair |
July 31, 2011 4:27:34 am

It’s a legacy that their country does not want to remember. But,in the face of opposition,a handful of dancers from Pakistan are adapting the classical dances — Bharatanatyam,Odissi and Kathak — to tell a fascinating story

The stage goes dark. The lights dim. A dancer clad in an Odissi costume appears in a pool of red light. She offers flowers,a pushpanjali to the eight directions,the teacher and finally the audience. Instead of the soloist continuing with her obeisance,four dancers dressed in Kathak whites swirl in as the words of Intesaab by Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz echo through the hall. Faiz’s dedication to rickshawallahs and clerks,toiling workers and weeping mothers move this dance away from the familiar and routine to the unfamiliar and intriguing. This is no ordinary classical performance on a hot Delhi night. It is a performance by Pakistani dancer Sheema Kermani and her dance and theatre troupe Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement).

Classical dance,be it Bharatanatyam,Odissi or Kathak,survives in Pakistan — despite severe odds and because of the efforts of a handful of Pakistani dancers inside and outside the country. They find support from international audiences,remain ignored by expat Pakistani communities but fill local venues. With little access to classical performances in Pakistan,in the absence of institutions and funding,these dancers have deconstructed the dance. They have produced their own creative form that speaks to their contexts.

The conflict over classical dance in Pakistan reaches into the core issue of the country’s identity. Does its history start with Partition or does it date back to the civilisations of Mohenjodaro? Classical dancers of Pakistan have chosen to bring together these previous cultural strands. The story of classical dance in Pakistan is one of struggle,negotiation and finally of making it one’s own.

Sixty-year-old Kermani started learning dance because she was a “fat child”,who was not interested in sports,from the Ghanshyam Dance troupe in Karachi in 1963. Trained at the Uday Shankar School in Almora,Guru Ghanshyam taught his students a mix of Bharatanatyam,Kathak,Kathakali and Manipuri. Having moved to Pakistan in the ’50s,Laxman Jainagerker Ghanshyam and his wife Nilima even performed for Dwight Eisenhower,Mao Tse Tung and Richard Nixon. Their patrons included Mujibur Rehman (the first President of Bangladesh) and the Bhuttos,says 86-year-old Ghanshyam,now settled in Indiana,USA.

At a recent Delhi exhibition,A Century of Indian Dance: 1901-2000 ,a Miss Tara Chaudhri smiles out of a sepia frame as a curl strays on to her forehead. The caption reads,“The Bharat Natya School,Lahore, Anniversary. Miss Tara Chaudhri,Dance and Music Festival Plaza: Saturday 11 January 1942.” This and other pictures of the Lahore Gharana and Zoresh Dance School in Lahore (started by Zohra Sehgal and husband Kameshwar) from dance historian Mohan Khokar’s archives is but a small reminder of the prevalence of classical dance in pre-Independence Pakistan.

From the age of three,Tehreema Mitha would stand outside the window and watch her mother Indu Mitha teach dance in their cantonment houses. By seven,she had joined the class. Indu (born 1929) had learned Bharatanatyam in pre-Partition Delhi and Madras. After her marriage,she moved to Lahore. She has taught generations of students in different cities and has been teaching in Islamabad for 20 years now. Under her tutelage,Tehreema performed her arangetram (the first public solo performance marking the graduation of a Bharatanatyam dancer) at the Goethe Institute in Islamabad in 1986 during President Zia-ul-Haq’s most culturally repressive rule. With the organisers providing no help,mother and daughter had to sweep the stage before the performance. On the first day,the director gave them a curt introduction,but on the second day,having seen it,he was full of appreciation and even apologised for his attitude,recounts Tehreema. Three of Indu and Tehreema’s students have presented their arangetram in Pakistan since then. Indu still tries to stage a performance of her students once every two years,but laments,“The problem is that the standard of dancing is never high enough. No one is (of a) soloist level.” Most of these performances are held in collaboration with international bodies or at Ladies’ Clubs,since some students decline from performing in front of mixed audiences.

Adapting to her environment,Indu’s Bharatanatyam evolved into a unique and relevant form. In the absence of south Indian musicians and instruments,she choreographed her pieces to north Indian music. Tehreema continued and furthered this style for both her classical and contemporary work,using the north Indian style of violin,sarangi,shehnai,surbahar,dholak etc. Instead of sticking to Hindu mythology,they choreograph dances on thumris and works of Sufi poets. By contextualising the dance,choreographers and dancers like Kermani and Indu have taken Bharatanatyam beyond its “Hindu” and south Indian moorings and made it relevant in Pakistan.

Looking for greater freedom and exposure,Tehreema left Pakistan in 1997 for the US,and went on to establish the Tehreema Mitha Dance Company,in Bethesda,outside of Washington DC. “My mother started using north Indian music since there were no south Indian musicians. When I came into dance,I did not want to do Hindu mythology in my classical dances. Dance has a much wider scope. For me,it’s very important to have my own narrative,” she says.

Classical dancers in Pakistan face different layers of opposition. Radical obstructionists decree dance as “ haraam” . Liberal,educated families might permit their daughters to attend a dance class but will disallow them from performing on stage,even though dance lilts through Pakistani culture,be it at mehendi ceremonies or political rallies. Bharatanatyam dancers face the accrued accusation of endorsing “their” dance.

Munawar Haidar Chao,based in Karachi and in his 30s,better known by his dancing name,Mani Chao,has been learning dance from Kermani for nearly two decades now. With his family in the Chinese food business,he had to fight hard to be a dancer,especially a Bharatanatyam dancer. Friends asked him why he was wearing ghungroos and told him it wasn’t “manly”. “My family is very much Islamic,they didn’t want me to learn,” he adds,“ Mujhe maar bhi padi (I was also beaten up).”

Arising from this gyre of opposition and condemnation,today,classical dancers from Pakistan are known for their political comment and powerful choreography. Myna Mukherjee,the executive director of Engendered,a New York-based arts and human rights festival focused on South Asia,says,“In India,it is very difficult to break from tradition. In Pakistan,in a shorter period,you can see more individuality in the dancers’ work.”

In 2009,the Engendered Festival hosted a group of dancers from Pakistan. Nighat Chaodhry,a Kathak dancer who has also trained in Bharatanatyam,ballet and contemporary dance performed a fervent and unforgettable piece,Purdah. Danced entirely within the confines of a brown drape,the dance reviews the limitations of the veil. She has never performed it in Pakistan,afraid of how someone in the audience might react,or the objections of religious militants and conservative,extremist groups.

Tehreema,however,says,“There’s nothing I’d not perform in Pakistan.” In 1995,she and her ensemble performed Lihaf,at the first National Dance Festival (started by her husband and her),based on Ismat Chughtai’s acclaimed short story that hints at homosexual relationships. Performed to the music of a saxophone and tabla,the “dance was met with neither a whimper nor a whisper,” she says. Now onstage in Pakistan,she,however,takes a few precautions when needed,be it adding tights to the costume so that people focus on the dance and not just the body.

Earlier this month,Kermani performed for the first time in the northern Pakistani city of Abbotabad. She did a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem “with a more free interpretation”,but with influences of Bharatanatyam and Odissi,in front of an audience that probably had never seen classical dance before. She didn’t wear the bindi,wanting them to concentrate on the dance and not the accessories and its implications. The local police,however,started harassing them and told them not to perform,claiming their dance was “obscene”. Organised by the People’s Assembly in Abbotabad,a platform for ordinary citizens,the organisers and women from the audience held hands,preventing the police from disrupting the show. Threats are common for Kermani who constantly wonders if someone is following her.

Despite the challenges and dangers,a younger generation of Pakistani dancers waits in the wings. High-calibre dancers like Omar Rahim and Shayma Saiyid live largely abroad and return frequently to perform. Indu Mitha makes special mention of a group of Christian boys from disadvantaged background with whom she has been working for over the last five years. Tehreema says,“We even performed the thread-tying ceremony (which establishes the guru-shishya relationship). My mother has taught them the alarippu (an invocation piece). She is particularly keen to work with them,as it is so hard to get male dancers.”

Mani Chao has been teaching Bharat­anatyam and movement to Class III to VI students at the prestigious Karachi Grammar School for over a decade. “Students at the school are Karachi’s cream,they are even embarrassed to speak Urdu,” he says breaking into a laugh. Parents from these backgrounds are more willing to teach their girls dance. Nighat Chaodhry teaches Kathak and “creative dance play” to 6-to-9-year-olds and teaches dance at the Lahore Grammar School.

To increase its audience,classical dance must also constantly negotiate between the traditional and the popular. A dancer like Omar Rahim who spent his formative years in the UAE and the US now spends more time in Pakistan. He has trained with the prestigious Susan Marshall and Company in New York known for its innovations. While he has performed contemporary pieces at international venues like Brooklyn Academy of Music (New York),he also choreographs large-scale dances for stage and television,like the Lux Style Awards shows in Karachi. He brings the worlds of mass entertainment and the avant-garde together. “I have tried to use commercial platforms like televised award shows and music videos to show dances that are content-driven,compositionally rigorous and use innovative vocabularies,” he says.

This environment of adaptation and innovation has risen only in the last two decades,as dance in Pakistan has a turbulent past. In the ’60s,when the Ghanshyams were teaching,it received some state support. Shayma Saiyid,trained in Kathak and modern dance,now based in Toronto,writes in Dance in Pakistan (Oxford University Press,USA,1998); “Dancers were often asked to perform for state guests. And in 1966 the largely government-owned Pakistan International Airlines established an academy for Pakistan’s folk and classical performing arts,with a company that travelled worldwide to project Pakistan’s culture and publicise the airline.”

But in the ’80s,when General Zia-ul-Haq came to power,the environment of patronage turned to one of hostility. Ghanshyam would hear cries of “Aye Hindu ka bacha,yeh naach gaana bandh kar” outside his house. His pupil,Kermani,still remembers the slogans painted on his boundary wall,“Jo bhi yahan ayega naach gana kay liye,un ko Islami nizam kay tahat saza dee jayegi.” Fearing for their lives,the Ghanshyams left the country for the US,where he joined the University of Indiana in Fort Wayne as a professor of yoga.

Allegations and lies also fell heavily on Nahid Siddiqui,a Kathak dancer,who was accused of ruining the young generation and of being an Indian spy. In 1976,she featured in a Kathak dance show Payal on television. Within two years,the show was banned and she left the country for London. Today,she is considered the most eminent classical dancer from Pakistan. Dr Sunil Kothari,dance historian and visiting professor of arts and aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University,Delhi,calls her the “finest Kathak exponent”.

One of her most promising students was Jahanara Akhlaq,who culture critic Sadanand Menon says,“looked like Frida Kahlo dancing Kathak”. Jahanara took part in Indian dance pioneer Chandralekha’s famous performance Raga in 1998. But in January 1999,the 25-year-old Jahanara and her father Zahoor ul Akhlaq,a leading artist,were shot dead in their Lahore home. The murders still lie under a shroud of mystery but as Menon adds,“Some say it was because she was a dancer.”

Zia’s Martial Law lasted a decade from 1978 to 1988 but the repercussions rippled for longer. “I think the Zia years damaged dance,particularly classical dance. The women’s movement suffered greatly and indigenous South Asian culture was trampled in the attempt to overwrite Pakistan’s identity in the Arabian mould,” says Omar Rahim.

An entire generation grew up in a society where classical dances were banned and women were not allowed on stage. Journalist Sonya Fatah belongs to that generation. A Pakistani from Karachi,she has been living in Delhi for the last six years. Earlier this week,she completed the Delhi shoot of a documentary on classical dance in Pakistan. The documentary tells “a story of the struggle of women in Pakistan. The story of the struggle of dance.” If the Zia period banned the performance of dance,it also banned its appreciation. “An entire generation was disconcerted,” she says,“There was a lack of funding,institutes,dance critics,audiences. It became a world of five dancers doing what they could.”

This small world of dancers has created a rich dance by taking from different strands. As Kermani says,“For people like us,who are searching for something to call our own,that will happen only when we learn different forms.”

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