Classical Dance Re-emerges in Pakistan

A contemporary dance inspired by chaos theory; a choreographed version of a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem; an Odissi mangalacharan on a Kafi by Bulleh Shah. Where were these imaginative expressions performed? No, not in the diaspora capitals of London or Toronto, nor in the metropolitan halls of Calcutta and Bombay. The country: Pakistan. The venue: the first National Dance Festival. The date: November 1995. The artists: Tehreema Mitha, Nighat Chaudhry, Sheema Kirmani.

Such offerings represent only a selection of the rich program that lasted four nights each in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. Home-grown Pakistani dancers trained in Kathak, Bharatanatyam, and Odissi appeared in public after a long hiatus. At first hesitantly, and then as if deep cultural memories had been awakened, the audiences warmed to the artists. "They had forgotten how to react to classical dance," explained Samina Ahmed, Deputy Director of the Alhamra Arts Centre of Lahore. "But in the four days, they learned again how to follow the vocabulary, how to feel the emotions." Although the newspapers were not allowed to mention the festival beforehand, the coverage in the media after the fact was encouraging. The Nation Midweek pronounced the four evenings "unforgettable," declaring that the festival "established dance as a living art all over Pakistan."Almost fifty years after separating from India, and twenty-five years after a divisive civil war, Pakistanis are reopening the question of their cultural identity. There are signs of a new attitude, albeit tentative and gradual, and the hitherto gloomy situation of the performing arts is beginning to change. Classical musicians are emerging from the shadows. Although less popular than ghazal stars like Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali, such leading exponents of the khayal gharanas as Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (Patiala) and Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan (Gwalior) are making a modest comeback. Drama troupes are active in the commercial and experimental houses, and the second National Drama Festival was recently completed. But most remarkably, classical dancing, previously discouraged, banned, and exiled to the private salons of the well-to-do, is returning to the public sphere. Artists like Sheema Kirmani (Odissi), Tehreema Mitha (Bharatanatyam, contemporary), and Nighat Chaudhry (Kathak) are appearing on the kinds of stages their contemporaries in India have long taken for granted-and are being welcomed.

The tri-city tour was conceived and developed by Tehreema Mitha of Tehreema Aabvaan Dance Productions as an opportunity to acknowledge the work of those choreographers and dancers who have continued to create in the harshest of landscapes. As the festival brochure observed, "Within the country Dance has been the least encouraged and supported art form. Many reject Dance as part of our cultural heritage since they are only exposed to readily available vulgar dance in commercial films. Thus distancing themselves from, if not rejecting, the heritage of diverse cultures which flourished for millenia in the lands of South Asia bordering the Indus."

What is worth pondering is not only why the repression of classical dance has been so virulent in Pakistan, but how the dance traditions have survived and the dancers managed to pursue their art. Not surprisingly, two of the three artists received a part of their training outside of Pakistan. Sheema Kirmani earned a degree at the Croydon College of Arts in London and started dance instruction with the Ghanshyams. She pursued her studies in India with Leela Samson, Mayadhar Raut, and Aloka Pannikar, and also participated in the international choreographers' workshop at Duke University in the USA. Nighat Chaudhry was born in Pakistan but grew up in Britain, where she studied ballet and contemporary dance and trained in Kathak with Naheed Siddiqui. Subsequently, she won a scholarship for a three-year course at Kathak Kendra in Delhi, where she studied under the late Pandit Durga Lal and his disciple Uma Dogra in Bombay. The third dancer, Tehreema Mitha, is the daughter of Indu Mitha, who learned Bharatanatyam in the Kalakshetra mode from Lalita Shastri and trained in the Uday Shankar style of modern dance at the Zoresh Institute, Lahore, before Partition. Tehreema earned an MA in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore, and has also pursued choreography at Duke University's workshop. (See accompanying article.)

As notable as these dancers' persistence is their creativity in the field of choreography. Not content to repeat the traditional compositions imparted by their gurus and ustads, they embrace the texts of outspoken humanists and thinkers within the framework of their distinctive styles. The voices of poets Tagore and Faiz, of feminists Ismat Chughtai and Fehmida Riaz, inspire them and provide themes for their choreography. Meanwhile Sufi saints like Rumi and Bulleh Shah join the more conventional canon of Hindu bhakti poets. New music has been composed to utilize local traditions and artistic talent. While in aesthetic terms the results may not always be entirely successful, the wealth of initiative and imagination augurs well for the development of a new generation of Pakistani dancers, especially if the climate of openness is allowed to continue.

In some ways, the contestation that has surrounded dance in Pakistan after Independence mirrors the debate that earlier seized colonial India. It was, after all, as recently as the 1930s that Rukmini Devi faced the hostility of the Brahmins of Mylapore. In the struggle to reinvent dance as an acceptable, middle-class cultural practice, the temple art of Sadir was forcibly separated from its traditional social group, the devadasis, and fitted with a new name and an ideology that assimilated it to an urban educated class. The outcries that were raised at that time, the arguments connecting dance with immorality and decadence, were not unlike the views that have squelched classical dance in Pakistan. Even now the arts of music and dance meet with condemnation in Pakistan because of old kotha associations. Respectability has only been achieved by shifting the patronage base entirely and emphasizing the moral and educative purposes served by the performing arts.

Notwithstanding the historical parallel, the developments in Pakistan have been complicated by issues of nationalism and religious identity. The Indian reformers who 'rescued' the dance from the devadasis drew strength from the Anti-Nautch Movement with its roots in the fervor of missionary Christianity. Orthodox Islamist trends in Pakistan, however, have proven antithetical to the flourishing of the performing arts. Dance, especially the solo art of female performers in public space, has remained anathema to a conservative sector of the South Asian Muslim populace, not only in Pakistan but in diaspora communities in England, Canada, and the United States. Troubled relations between India and Pakistan since 1947 have added another layer of resistance to art forms with origins in the geographical territory now constituting India.

Although such attitudes might be dismissed as narrow or chauvinistic, a genuine problem faces those who wish to preserve and develop the dance heritage in Pakistan. How can South Asian classical dancing, for long associated with temples, myths, gods, and Hindu imagery, be remade to fit the national consciousness of Pakistanis? One solution proposed by dancers and critics is to emphasize the humanism and universality of art. As Nadir Ali, writing in The News, argues, "The so-called 'Indian dances' are not Indian nuclear missiles. Gentle and joyful art forms like dance and music belong to humanityäWhere these art forms are endangered, the humans will also become an endangered species. That is what civilisation is all about."

Another answer is to stress the element of emotional expression which comes to the fore in all the classical Indian styles. Sheema Kirmani asserts, "Emotions don't change over the ages. Only the mode of expression changes. A dancer truly succeeds when she is able to communicate these feelings to the audience." Tehreema Mitha concurs, "The heroes, gods and goddesses depicted are actually symbols for projected emotions. Since the contemporary audience can no longer appreciate the nuances of traditional symbolism, we have to discover a modern resonance."

A second challenge, which faces both Indians and Pakistanis, is equally relevant. How can classical dance be recast to transcend religious boundaries and achieve the status of a contemporary art? How can it reach out to the inhabitants of a global, post-modern world? Pakistanis, Indians, and South Asians outside the sub-continent all work within a dialectic of classicism vs. innovation. Paradoxically, freedom of expression and exposure to contemporary influences do not in themselves lead to innovation. The conservatism of Bharatanatyam as practiced by many exponents within immigrant communities in North America contrasts with the exploratory spirit of the dancers of Pakistan.

Sheema Kirmani, for example, believes that classical Odissi can be used to express contemporary sensibilities. She often selects items of poetry to interpret through dance, especially those on social and women's issues. However, she stresses that creative attempts must be grounded in internalized knowledge. "Problems arise when new disciples want to take short-cuts and start innovating before mastering the basics. Years of patience and thought have gone into development of the classical repertoire. This can't be matched by modern items."

Tehreema Mitha divides her concert program into two parts, one featuring classical Bharatanatyam items, the other contemporary pieces. The music of both draws on Hindustani ragas and talas mixed with folk influences. In her contemporary works, Tehreema explores notions of selfhood, death, and loss, moving into realms of abstraction underscored by modernist poetic texts. She believes that the zone between realism and abstraction can only be defined "after a few dancers have been bold enough to reach the extreme limits." Moreover, the idiom of Bharatanatyam has itself demanded a fresh approach. Dance has been reinvented to represent the sentiments of every age, and Tehreema finds herself compelled by her audiences and her own understanding of the art to integrate new themes and ideas appropriate to the cultural situation of Pakistan.

Sadly, the catastrophe of Partition and the campaign for Islamicization launched by former Prime Minister Zia ul Haq almost destroyed the fragile link that remained between the dance communities of India and Pakistan. Dancers in Pakistan still face numerous hardships. No Objection Certificates must be obtained prior to putting up performances on public stages, under other pretexts than dance. Anti-blasphemy laws hinder the freedom of expression of all artists including dancers. Government support and recognition remain negligible. Since 1993, however, certain signs mark a turn in the country's cultural evolution. Some voices in the cultural field emphasize the long history of Pakistan's cultural identity and the multitudinous strands that constitute the national legacy. This pluralistic approach serves to reorient the historical narrative toward South Asia at the same time that it acknowledges the connection with the Muslim world and influences of the west. In this relatively favorable climate, the first National Dance Festival was successfully mounted. Against heavy odds, classical dancers have begun to reassert their presence in the cultural arena. While much work remains to restore dance in Pakistan to the status of a flourishing art, the initial steps have been taken, and one hopes there will be many more in rapid succession.


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