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Sonya Fateh’s documentary 'I, Dance'
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

October 24, 2014

On 17th October 2014, I saw ‘Dance like a Man’ play by Mahesh Dattani at Meadowvale Theatre at Mississauga. I visited Mississauga specially to catch up with Lata Pada and her latest activities at her institute Sampradaya Dance Creations. It was also planned to screen Sonya Fateh’s documentary ‘I, Dance’ dwelling upon the present state of dance in Pakistan.

I had assisted Sonya some four years ago when she was working on the film. She had introduced herself on the phone as a film maker from Pakistan and as a daughter-in-law of Geetha Rao, younger sister of Lata Pada. The film deals with dance in Pakistan centring round Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer Sheema Kermani who is an activist and runs a theatre group in Karachi. She has studied Bharatanatyam under Leela Samson and Odissi under Guru Mayadhar Raut and Aloka Panicker.

The film made with a grant from India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, Goethe Institute and other funding agencies, was after completion, screened at Habitat in New Delhi two years ago. I had missed it and had also lost touch with Sonya and her husband Rajiv who is a co-producer of the film. During the 3rd International convention of Spic Macay in June at Chennai, I met Sheema Kermani and came to know about the film and its screening in Karachi. When I visited Bangalore, Geetha Rao informed me that her son Rajiv and Sonya had moved to Toronto. Since I was to visit Toronto, I planned to meet them and see the film which was already screened for India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore.

Nahid Siddiqie dancing on TV in the backdrop Zia warns with
admonishing finger declaring a proclamation of prohibition on dance in Pakistan

We worked out a convenient date on 9th October at the Sampradaya Dance Creations’ exquisite theatre and also have post screening discussion moderated by Dinesh Sachdev of Filmi, an institute dealing with films, in particular with children’s films in Mississauga, who co-sponsored the screening. We had a nice crowd including filmmakers, dance lovers, few dancers, writers including playwright Mahesh Dattani.

The film begins with interviewing Sheema Kermani based in Karachi. She tells her story on how she took to learning dance and performing classical Bharatanatyam and Odissi and when Zia put a ban on dance in public, how not only she but also several people protested against it, notwithstanding the punishment meted out if dance was performed in public. A courageous woman, Sheema continued to perform with her group, staged plays, and faced threats by police and people who did not approve of her dancing in public. Defying the ban, obtaining No Objection Certificate from police, Sheema continues to perform, even when she and her troupe know that if among the audience there was a member of Taliban, they might throw a bomb and kill them.

As director and editor, Sonya has done an excellent job in dealing with an explosive subject. She has interviews with Sheema Kermani’s former husband, a communist leader, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, a senior Kathak teacher, a cultural commentator commenting upon dance being taught to elite class women and not the dancing girls whose profession is to dance for making a living, religious beliefs, Sufism where dance is accepted, a young disciple of Sheema Kermani who does not dance exactly as Sheema. Also featured are two young girls who want to dance Bharatanatyam and Odissi, excerpts of television video of the celebrated Nahid Siddiqie, her exquisite Kathak, Nighat Chaudhry who studied under Durgalal and Uma Dogra and at Kathak Kendra, her dance of protest against burkha, throwing it off, suggesting liberation of women from suffocating tradition, excerpts of folk dances by men, all woven in the narrative in a seamless manner. References to early dance traditions in undivided India, dance flourishing in Lahore, soirees at Sheema’s residence of intellectuals and evenings of dance and music, Sheema’s attempts to trace dance to the bronze figurine of Mohenjo Daro, old rare archival photos of Kathak Maharaj, film star dancer Azoori, observations of Birju Maharaj on dance, Sheema and her troupe crossing Wagha border to enter India on invitation to perform at Lucknow, Sheema explaining about no difference in dance on either side, all have been handled well. The film ends showing Sheema visiting National Museum in Delhi and camera focusing on Mohenjo Daro bronze figurine, suggesting a hope to revive dance in Pakistan.

The film evoked interesting post screening discussion. Sonya explained that funding from IFA was not a problem as such a subject has not been handled so far. The film deals with issues of identity, gender, power of State clamping down on the art of dance, the partition that brought such a situation, division on account of differences in culture.

Yousaf Ali, art patron advocating to train dancing girls

Professional dancing girls learning dance at Heera Mandi, Lahore

Dance is allowed in Malaysia, Bangladesh, but what are these different shades of Islam, the dialects and contradictions? There are only four women who perform, three of whom live now outside Pakistan except Sheema Kermani. Nahid Siddiqie has moved to Texas, Houston after many years of living in Birmingham, visiting Lahore, and now shifting to USA. Tehreema Mitha, a Bharatanatyam exponent whose mother taught in Karachi now lives in Washington. Nighat Chaudhry also divides her time between Lahore and New York. The dance as taught in Pakistan is taught to middle class educated girls, who it does not appear, with prevailing unfavourable conditions, will become professional dancers. Therefore despite Sheema Kermani’s valiant attempts to carry on dancing in Pakistan, in general to have a career in dance seems a distant dream.

There is an interesting episode of a male dancer who is now with Sheema’s group. He was not allowed to dance. The stigma attached to a male dancer dancing, putting on ghunghroos, father objecting, almost a similar situation as in ‘Dance like a Man’ play, seemed to drive home a point.

Sonya Fateh and Sunil Kothari

To an explanation that it is religion which comes in the way of accepting dance in Pakistan, Sonya said that it is not religion, but the culture that prevails in those countries. For instance, in undivided Bengal dance was not a taboo in now what is now Bangladesh and formerly a part of Pakistan. The influence of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and cultivation of fine arts as a part of life continue in Bangladesh. Lubna Mariam, Tamanna Rehman and many dancers in Bangladesh train dancers in Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi and Manipuri, whereas Pakistan lost a considerable area which had rich cultural traditions. In Pakistan, so many areas like Quetta, Peshawar have no tradition of dance. With exodus after Pakistan was formed, those passionate for dance had barriers to travel to India to learn dance.

From the audience, someone asked Lata Pada when she teaches Bharatanatyam to Muslim girls how does she overcome this difficulty, since Indian classical dances have roots in religion. Lata said that she teaches them technique and not religion. She explains that the traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire has a Margam format in which there are themes which have mythological stories in which gods and goddesses are depicted with human feelings. She does not expect them to present them with bhakti. Not that there are Muslim girls learning from her, but if someone from a different religious background comes to learn, she would make it clear about religious connotations.

I was told by Rajiv and Sonya that since the film is sent to various international film festivals, they are not allowed to have its screening for the time being. The film has gone to Seattle International Film Festival and one hopes it gets an award which it deserves. I was told that there is one Amna Abbas in Toronto who is making a film on showgirls in Pakistan. There is already a film made on Tehreema Mitha titled ‘Vigil’ which was to be screened on 22nd and 23rd October at Aghakhan Museum in Toronto when Tehreema Mitha would also perform and conduct workshop at the Museum.

Another lady in Toronto who had organized Kathak two years ago is planning to arrange a performance of Nahid Siddiqie next year. Nahid has performed in Kalanidhi’s first conference in 1993 to choreography by Kumudini Lakhia. It would be wonderful if excellent dancing by someone like Nahid Siddiqie could be shown in Mississauga / Toronto.

For more info:
Dance, identity and religion in the Pakistani context by Sheema Kermani

Dance in Pakistan by Sheema Kermani

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 12 years.

Thank you so much for your detailed account of the screening of the film I, Dance in the Sampradaya Dance Theatre. We were delighted that you could be with us for this event. I'm writing now, however, to clarify your paraphrasing of my response to a question raised by a woman in the audience during the post-screening discussion. She had asked about Bharatanatyam in Canada and how I viewed and taught what is widely understood as a Hindu art form. Here is what you have written as my response: "She does not expect them to present them with bhakti. Not that there are Muslim girls learning from her, but if someone from a different religious background comes to learn, she would make it clear about religious connotations."

I don't believe I said that. For one thing, I do have Muslim students. Second, I said, and I firmly believe that Bharatanatyam is first and foremost an art form and its teaching and practice in a global context has to be adapted to include students and practitioners who are from diverse religious, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I explained that providing the context, meaning and ethos of devotional poetry interpreted in Bharatanatyam is vital to my role as a teacher as I encourage my students from other religions to explore the universality of devotion or bhakti, and then, as they mature as dancers, to begin exploring different inspirations. In the end, I also gave examples of my works Soraab and Samvad which transcended barriers of language and religion.

I raise this point here because it is extremely relevant for me as a teacher teaching to students outside India, and as a part of the diaspora. I am sure that every diaspora teacher has thought about these issues and how to deal with them sensitively and responsibly and I am sure that these questions will influence the approach and methodology of their instruction as well. It is a very serious question and I did not wish to be misrepresented. Hence, my need to clarify.
- Lata Pada
Artistic Director, Sampradaya Dance Creations (Nov 3, 2014)

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