Dance In Pakistan

Most classical dance-forms in the sub-continent emerged from the temples. While the Government and the peoples of India like to emphasise this aspect in promoting dance as an essential part of Indian culture, it is precisely for this reason that Pakistan has sought to distance itself from this art-form.

 Yet I believe that we Pakistanis have to define our identity in continuation with the past, glorying in our rich and diverse heritage, known from 5000 BC, acknowledging the contributions made by each period and moving ahead from there. This past is a joint legacy shared with our fellow men and women across the border, in common with the languages and traditions, the raga-s and tala-s of classical music, the arts and crafts, and in many cases family ties.

Prior to Partition, Kathak was the most popular style in the north of India. Tara Chaudhry was the first northerner to perform Bharatanatyam in Lahore, in 1944. My mother, Indu Mitha, who was a 14-year old member of the audience, was excited by this new style. Already trained in the Uday Shankar style by Zohra and Kameshwar Sehgal in Lahore, she then turned to Bharatanatyam with Vijay Raghava Rao at Sangeet Bharati, Delhi. Later she took private lessons in Madras from Lalita Shastri of Kalakshetra, Adyar. Through the years, until 1971, these lessons were resumed whenever Indu visited her parents in Delhi, as a loving gift to her pupil by Lalitaji. Indu Mitha claims that it was her dramatic improvement after just the initial three months of retraining in the basics under Lalita Shastri that spurred her school to persuade the latter to migrate to Delhi in 1951, thus bringing one of the first South Indian teachers of an authentic style to the new capital.

 After Partition, only a few classical dancers migrated to Pakistan: Rafi Anwar (Kathak and Bharatanatyam), the Ghanshyams (Uday Shankar style), and Ghulam Hussain (Kathak). Kathak was given more prominence due to its association with the Mughal courts, and it was conveniently labeled a Muslim dance. Bharatanatyam with its little understood acronym and widely misconstrued link to the new 'Bharat' was easily dismissed as foreign.

Entering this scenario, Indu Mitha came to Karachi in 1951 to marry her fiance. Though she started giving dance classes, she sensed the difference in atmosphere and felt the need to bring the classical form of Bharatanatyam more into harmony with the society around. Thus began a long and continuing experiment of mixing southern dance technique with more familiar and to Pakistani ears more pleasing music of the north of the sub-continent. Thematically, concepts and stories have shifted away from the Hindu myths, which are alien to Pakistan's predominantly Muslim culture, to more contemporary concerns and issues, encapsulated in tales of universal appeal about love and pain, death and birth, women and men, nature and society.

Standing outside a window at the age of three, I used to copy my mother's movements as I watched her give classes at home. But my formal training began at the age of seven and continued off and on. By the time I became really serious about dancing, General Zia ul Haq's martial law period was well underway. Dance was not only frowned upon, it was suppressed outright and banned. This was especially true of classical dance by women. Folk dance, never quite as taboo, has endured, although in public performances it is always presented by men and boys. Naheed Siddiqui, the emerging Kathak dancer, left Pakistan to follow her husband to England in search of greener pastures. The Ghanshyams departed for Canada.

One of the paradoxical results of this suppression of dance as an art-form in Pakistan was that dance is not only allowed but promoted in its most vulgar expressions, in commercial films. The arts themselves are not inherently political. They are an expression of sincerely held convictions and beliefs. It is this fact that makes repressive regimes suppress the arts and permit only the most banal forms.

 I graduated from Kinnaird College, Lahore, in philosophy and literature, and completed my M.A. in Fine Arts at the National College of Arts in 1986. That same year my arangetram was performed at the Goethe Institute. A classical dance recital could not be held in any Pakistani public hall. The situation did not change until recently, and even now it remains precarious.

Since 1991,1 have taken up dance as a full-time career. Earlier in 1990, I was invited to participate in the International Choreographers' Workshop of the American Dance Festival held at Duke University, North Carolina. Although I had already begun experimenting with freer body movement, it was in the United States that I was first exposed to modern dance. The impact of dancing and performing with a group of other professionals was tremendous, considering that I had danced in isolation ever since I could remember. It also amazed country, dancers were quite marginalised by the largely conservative society, although they forged ahead yet opening new vistas.

This experience gave me the courage and incentive to return to Pakistan and continue not only my mother's innovative style of Bharatanatyam, imbuing it with stronger themes, but also to perform before the public my first modern dance. As I continued to work with my guru, I found no contradiction in the two styles. Since 1990, we have choreographed and composed music for over 30 dances in both styles.

In Bharatanatyam, we have choreographed dances with topics such as the following: an opening item which is a tribute to all artists who keep alive their art through the dark night of suppression (Ratt faga, in raga-s Jogeswari and Jogiya, and Jhaptal and Adi Jhaptal); a young woman expecting an illegitimate child (Ayree Maan, in raga Bhimpalasi, and Teental); the story of a daughter and mother who find their lives devastated by the destruction of their environment [Ata Hai Yaad, in raga Sindhubhairavi, and Teental); and a man's confrontation with his near and dear ones when he falls in love with a woman much older than him [Anokhi Rah, in raga Manj Khamaj, and Kultal).

At the same time I choreographed (with the blessings of my guru) contemporary dance items evolving, strengthening, and expanding my own dance technique, using themes as varied as: a dance based on the chaos theory [Kya Yeh Tazabzub Hai, in raga-s Gunkali, Koshak Dhani and Kalavati, and Teental and Jhaptal); a dance depicting the intricacies of lesbia nism and homosexuality in the sub-continent, based on Ismat Chugtai'sLihaf (The Quilt), a short story (AndarBahir, tenor saxophone, tilwara and Dadra tal); a humorous item about a young woman irritated by a fly (Khabt Savar Hua, Sattarkhani tal); and, based on the central idea of William Golding's novelLord of the Flies, a dance that questions the innocence of humanity (Ham Sabhi Aise, vocals and percussion, Dadra).

In a country where Bharatanatyam is a mere memory, some of the changes within our classical style have been intentional; others were created due to the limitations of the situation. The mridanga is an unknown instrument in Pakistan; we therefore turned to the tabla, with its sweet sound, and to the pakhawaj, with its strength and grandeur. Dealing with ustad-s who had never been exposed to Bharatanatyam, slight changes in the bol became necessary to teach them emphasis, for example, tei dhit ta ha instead of tei tei ta ha. Composing the music for a tillana or a jatiswaram with the musicians used to the lehra of Kathak forced us to look for more challenging ways to set the tora-s (teermanam-s). Not only did our conscious choice of North Indian raga-s bring a new dimension to Bharatanatyam, but the use of the sitar, sagar veena, santoor, sarangi, and violin played in the North Indian style may seem strange to those more familiar with Bharatanatyam as seen in India. Mudra-s in our classes are taught not in Sanskrit, but in Urdu and, while adopting some simpler Kathakali gestures, we have had to create some more easily understood mudra-s too.

Teaching and choreographing in Pakistan are both very frustrating. With very rare opportunities to see Bharatanatyam performed, learning it becomes extremely difficult. I feel this terrible lack as I teach my students, for to be able to grasp the essentials of a style and separate the individual nuances from the broader base, one must be able to observe more than just one's own teacher. It is difficult to perform in the complete absence of any qualified dance critics. There is nobody to appreciate the details or point out the shortcomings. I am my own harshest critic, and I am learning to look deeper each day.

In common with my colleagues across the border, I too complain of a lack of commitment made by students and their parents. Dance is still not seen as a respectable occupation for educated men and women. As soon as parents realise that their child particularly a girl child  is seriously interested in dance, they whisk her away. I have cried tears of despair when especially talented students were forced to abandon all their training.

Solo dancing is very limited, and I have felt the need for a group of dancers in both the classical and contemporary styles. But I feel that my group of students, none of whom are professionals, rarely do justice to the choreography I have designed. I long to be able to set up my own company with seven or eight dancers, each of them a potential soloist.

 Despite these limitations, my mother and I are convinced of the path we have chosen. After viewing current Bharatanatyam performances during our very few-andfar-between visits to India, we feel the void between the dancer and the audience. When dance is taken away from the temple and performed in a large hall, how many viewing it actually recognise the symbolism, for example, of the love story of Radha and Krishna? The gap in comprehension is borne out in the long English explanations made before every dance, which has become an integral part of the performance. Then too, one can feel a certain numbness sitting amongst the initiated part of the audience, viewing yet again the same items. The personality of an exceptional solo dancer can bring out a new interpretation of an oft-repeated item, but one does need to be refreshed by the unforeseen and the unexpected. Interestingly, I have generally found that those dancers from India who have never seen me dance respond to me with great antagonism. Yet educated dance audiences from India and the West, like those who viewed my performances at the 1995 NGO Forum on Women in Beijing, have shown enthusiasm and Despite these limitations, my appreciation. I have always found audiences in Pakistan to be receptive to dance. Our tragedy is that we are not allowed to reach out, except to the very few. People who had never before seen dance, aside from the commercial films, have come to me backstage and said that they did not know dance could be so beautiful or so moving. Some reactions are more unexpected. A conservative Pakistani gentleman, who was brought to one of my performances by his foreign friends, told them that he considered the classical portion of my performance to be 'Indian', because I wore a bindi and my costume resembled what he had seen in Hindi films (heaven forbid!). Yet he felt that the contemporary section was very definitely 'Pakistani', and this despite the fact that for one of the modern items I wore a costume that shocked much of the audience, and the music included a mezzo-soprano!

People also like to think that there is no audience in Pakistan for classical music, but when I use classical music even in my contemporary dances, the younger generation especially take notice and express an interest in it. With every new dance, I push the boundaries a little further. However irreverent and outre my contemporary dances may seem in Pakistan, my audiences have always responded wholeheartedly.

There are only four choreographers/ dancers in Pakistan, including Naheed Siddiqui who lives and works in Britain. Sheema Kirmani studied the Uday Shankar style, briefly trained in Bharatanatyam with Leela Samson, and decided to specialise in Odissi with guru Mayadhar Raut and guru Aloka Pannikar. Most of Sheema Kirmani's choreography is based on the Uday Shankar style, including her 'contemporary' items. Similarly, Nighat Chaudhry, who was initiated into Kathak by Naheed Siddiqui and further trained in India under the late Pandit Durga Lai, continues to experiment (as does her teacher Naheed Siddiqui) within the strictures of the Kathak discipline.

 I, being the youngest entrant into the field of dance in Pakistan, found the atmosphere extremely hostile. I was not encouraged at all by the established dancers or their patrons. After making a name for myself in the limited world of Pakistani dance circles, I felt there was a great need for dialogue among choreographers and dancers as well as an imperative to show a united front before audiences. Therefore, Tehreema Aabvaan Dance Productions, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1992 to promote cultural activities, conceived and initiated Pakistan's first ever National Dance Festival in 1995. The dance festival was organised by the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop and funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pakistan, and it toured the three major cities of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. (See article by Kathryn Hansen.)

 In 1994 I made a private pilgrimage to Kalakshetra in Madras, accompanied by my husband. This visit affected me deeply. I came away convinced that there are and always will be enough dancers/ teachers to guard the purity of Bharatanatyam, as rejuvenated and reconstructed by Rukmini Devi. My calling is different. And, I feel freer to pursue it since this visit. Too much politics has iced the relationship between our two neighbouring countries, and we who should be the cultural ambassadors are left slipping and sliding across the surface trying to reach each other. Fifty years of separation have seen us grow in new directions, but we have too much to share to waste the coming years.


No Room For Dancing

In the early years of his Dance Company and also the Almora Centre, Uday Shankar had three principal female dance partners: Simkie, and the sisters Zohra and Uzra. When the Centre was heading for a collapse, the sisters left, with Zohra and her husband Kameshwar Segal setting up their own dance school in Lahore and Uzra joining Prithvi Theatres in Bombay, where she emerged as the lead actress in all the plays.

The Partition in 1947 wrought many changes, and the cultural landscape could not remain unaffected. Zohra and Kameshwar shifted to Bombay, where she too enlisted in Prithvi Theatres as an actress, while Uzra, after a brief stint which her husband Hamid had in the cinema world, decided to pull out of India. They became Pakistani citizens, setting up house in Rawalpindi.

After many years, in October 1995, Uzra came on a visit to India. I had been a pupil of Zohra in Lahore and also a dancer in her company, so Uzra had known me. I sought to get in touch with her to learn the inside story about something of enormous interest to me: the state and status of the dance in her country. I found her only too willing to speak and tell.

I have culled portions relevant to the present purpose from our tape-recorded conversations. Also recast Uzra's utterance to yield the likeness of a compact running report. The original is in Urdu.

"Prithvi Theatres folded in 1958, and my husband too was not keeping well. Hamid's sisters in Pakistan urged us to move there. So in 1960 we migrated. Hamid managed to get some work but I had a trying time with nothing to do. After the hectic stage life in India, I now found myself completely at sea, as if I was floating in a vacuum. Gradually I tried to collect my wits. In Rawalpindi there were many Bengali young girls and boys from East Pakistan and you know how crazy these people are over dancing and singing. I formed a small group and we prepared some dances and occasionally found chances to present them at social meets. At times I too took part. But this afforded poor satisfaction.

"Habib passed away in 1976, and I was left on my own. Imagine, I got a contract for running a petrol pump, which I myself manned. At the insistence of my younger sister Sabira in Lahore, in 1977 I shifted to that city and have been with her since.

"As for dance in Pakistan, there are teachers but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. The foremost is Kathak Maharaj, in Lahore. Also there are Minwalla and Naik Samiti. In Karachi we had Ghanshyam who was first in Almora and then with Zohra, but he just disappeared. Now there is Sheema Kirmani who teaches Odissi. Rawalpindi has Indu Mitha and her daughter offering Bharatanatyam. But there is no school of dance anywhere. Those I have named run private classes or do tuitions. There is no professional interest at all. Only very young girls and sometimes boys learn, but they jnve it up ere long. There is no future in dancing, nor any demand for it.

"But it was not always so. In Bhutto's time there was support. The Government even had its own ballet unit headed by the choreographer Ziamuddin and a number of ballets, some with a political slant, were produced. But after Bhutto everything collapsed. Our tv carries no dance. The same applies to films. Dance is considered unworthy. At times one hears of folk dances being staged, but this is only for the pleasure of visiting State dignitaries. I wouldn't know what goes into these presentations. The common man is altogether distanced from dancing. You can say that dance has virtually been erased from the public mind.

 "What indeed is genuinely alive and buoyant is our theatre. There are several professional groups, all of a very high standard. The principal centres are Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Continually fresh plays are being written and new directors and producers are coming up. Our tv offers plays as a staple. Lahore has five theatre companies, and five superbly equipped theatres. Shows are always full, and tickets go up to one hundred or even two hundred rupees. Top actors and actresses are paid nothing less than one lakh rupees for a two-week engagement. We also have commercial theatre, to cater to the ordinary people, but nowhere does this show any trace of cheapness or vulgarity. I belong to our topmost theatre Ajooka, in Lahore, and this keeps me busy right through the year. In classical music, there are marvellous singers. Names that stand out are Iqbal Bano, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Farida Khanum and Abida Parveen. Equally heartening it is to see that there is a new generation of singers with huge promise waiting in the wings.

"I started my career with dancing, and I am still deeply attached to it. But there is no way, and I too have reconciled to this. In these times, somehow dancing does not fit together with our national consciousness. Nobody seems to miss it, either. But again, to echo the common response: So what?"