|July 29, 2010
No sooner did I arrive in New Delhi
on 18th April from Beijing, after attending the inauguration of the Festival
of India in China with Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre, who presented
the play Uttar Priyadarshi, then I took off to New York by Qatar Airways,
arriving just in time at Clark Studio at Lincoln Centre on 20th April to
attend the panel discussion and the press conference organized for Engendered
Dance Festival. Myna Mukherjee, the Director of the Festival, was asking
a few questions and the participants were narrating their histories, how
they came to the field of dance and their experiences.
Previous year during the Engendered
"I View" Film Festival, I had seen Myna conducting similar discussions
with aplomb and as a seasoned panelist, engaging members on panel and audience
involved in discussion. She has an ability to put the speaker completely
at ease and she inspires confidence in him/her to share personal narratives.
From among the participants, since I came late, I could catch up with Kathak
dancer Nighat Chaodhry from Pakistan, young painter Raghava KK, and finally
Uttara Asha Coorlawala, who spoke on body in dance and referred to subtle
bodies and yoga. Nighat's story was quite moving. During her childhood,
her father used to extend corporeal punishment. Born in London, Nighat
studied classical ballet, modern dance and started studying Kathak under
the legendary dancer Nahid Siddiqui, who lived for many years in Birmingham
and London. When she went to Lahore in Pakistan, Nighat found that it was
not easy to dance there. During the time of President Zia, dance was banned.
That was the worst regime for the performing arts like dance.
Addressing issues of LGBT community,
an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, the Engendered Dance
Festival was designed not only to raise awareness, but also “to act as
a fulcrum to enter public dialogue, break silences and impact perceptions
around issues of gendered identities, how those issues relate to affirmation
or violation of human rights, health rights and women's rights."
Such a festival is so far not held
in India. I suggested that Myna having taken such an initiative, should
take a lead to organize a similar festival in India. With the recent High
Court order about the same sex love in India, the climate would be favourable
to organize such a festival and panel discussions. The tolerance displayed
by the 'Tam Bam' die-hard dancers like Kalanidhi Naryanan and Krishna Gana
Sabha, in Chennai, accepting Bharatanatyam dancer Narthaki Nataraj, a disciple
of Kitappa Pillai, is an indication of liberal attitude. Though I am not
sure how society would take to someone exceptionally gifted like Bijli,
a Pakistani transgender 'drag queen,' who performs for elite, rich patrons
in New York, who absolutely adore her.
years, as the sun sets over Manhattan, the inconspicuous Fayaaz morphs
into Bijli, a voluptuous Pakistani drag queen, with a feverish following
in the South Asian LGBT community. Yet beneath the flamboyant stage presence
lies a courageous individual, who has carved out a cherished identity for
herself in a world quick to label her as an 'outsider.' Understanding herself
as a woman trapped in a man's body, Bjili has spent a lifetime struggling
between the polar tensions of male/female, East/West, and Islamic faith/promiscuity.
Having had both a formal and informal education in dance, Bijli has performed
widely across the United States in venues like the QMS, Khush DC, University
of Maryland and underground parties throughout New York City. Acclaimed
Pakistani independent film maker Adnan Malik has also made a documentary,
titled 'Bijli' about the drag queen's life.
part in Urdu and part in English. She is a celebrity and regularly visits
mosque to offer prayers. People know her and accept her as she is. On April
24 during Tongues Untied, showcase I, as a part of the opening of the dance
festival, before her performance, at Symphony Space auditorium on Broadway,
few excerpts from the film 'Bijli' were also screened. It was obvious that
Bijli loves to dance. From very ordinary looks, after putting on glittering
ornaments, and sequins studded flashy costume, a false long plait, bangles,
earrings, a chappa, a typical hair ornament on side over the hair,
as we see in movies how a tawaif, a nautch girl, puts on, Bijli transforms
into a vivacious dancer. Her stage presence is electrifying. One day, as
a part of the three-day Gay Parade celebrations in New York, Myna Mukherjee
took me to BB King Club, on 42nd Street, where a large crowd of gays and
lesbians regularly come to dance, in a sort of disco ambience.
When I had
interviewed Bijli, a month ago, at Myna's well appointed apartment on Riverside
Drive, Bijli had come very late, as she lives at the other end of the city
near Jamaica in Queens. She was apologetic for keeping me waiting: “I have
a small room, with a television set, a box of my ornaments, another box
for my costumes, a mirror, a small kitchen and my bed. My TV set is my
companion. You are welcome to visit my place. I shall prepare a simple
meal for you. What better luck for me than your coming to my garibhkhana,
a poor dwelling, to see how I live! Zuroor aiyega. Jo ho sakegi, mere
se wah chhoti moti aap ki main khidmat karungi." She was genuinely
overwhelmed at Myna's and my willingness to go to her place. “I work as
an attendant at a saloon on the 5th Avenue and perform at night when I
am invited to the parties and also at the clubs. Yes, please do come to
the salon and I will introduce you to my boss."
“It takes me
nearly two and more hours to get ready. I get ready at my place and take
a taxi, which charges me 100$ as I cannot afford to travel by any other
mode of transport. The taxi drivers know me and I know I am safe with them.
I have nothing to fear. If I have to get ready at a private party, it would
take long time, so I prefer to get ready and come by taxi. My clients take
care of the taxi fare and also arrange to get me dropped back after my
performance. It depends on what fees I charge, but I can earn anything
from 500 to 1000$ plus taxi fare. Sometimes even more, and more often than
not, members of the audience take dollar bills in their hands, hover round
my head and shower over me, which is a part of my earning."
She had asked
me to attend one of the performances which I was very keen to in order
to see what impact she creates through her dance, which is similar to a
mujra that we see in movies. She is a diva and would put in shade even
a film actor like Rekha, who plays the role of tawaif Umrao in 'Umrao Jaan.'
Her voluptuous, uninhibited sexy movements, with pelvic thrusts, enticing
spasmodic convulsions drive the mob crazy and the moment she appears on
the stage, a collective scream of welcoming her rants the air. You do
not believe that Bijli “is a woman trapped in a man's body." The floor
that had filled up by same sex and opposite sex couples dancing to the
loud film songs, turned to see her on the stage and continuously applauded
her, whistling and shouting “Bijli! Bijli!" Moving on the stage with sexy,
elfin grace with all the nakharas, coquettish gestures, the jhatkas and
matkas, the side hips swinging, thrusting the breasts up front and turning
her belly in orgasmic serpentine movements to the beat of the catchy song,
she cast as it were, a spell on her captive audience. Prior to her, another
transvestite male dancer had performed to the loud cheering of the crowd.
But the moment Bijli, which also means lightning, appeared, it was clear
that there was no match to Bijli and her seamless, titillating dancing.
Slowly bringing palms close to her breasts, biting the lower lip and with
mischievous eyes inviting the lover, Bijli turned into a shameless seductress.
No wonder she is called a supreme drag queen and has such a large faithful,
audience following. One could trace the Bollywood influence in her dancing.
But to that, she brings refreshing novelty. The song lasted for barely
five minutes and with glittering lights on her, she made an exit, even
when the crowd asked for more. But clever as she is, I knew that she would
never return, keeping her audience hungry. She knows how much to give and
not to repeat herself as it would diminish the charms she creates.
On either side
of the stage on two large screens, excerpts of Hindi film song sequences
were screened in a loop with kaleidoscopic effect. The lights were dimmed
and one could only see silhouettes of dancing figures. To the catchy rhythms
of songs like “Kajrare kajrare tore kare kare nayana" and “Janabe
ali ab tera kya hoga" and so on, the crowd danced in a frenzy. I saw
her over the heads of crowds creating an illusion, a magic and soon it
was over. She disappeared into a wing like a gazelle.
I went with Myna and other artists
to Philadelphia next morning. During the car ride, we had a lot of discussion
about the current practice of performances, the mujra by the baijis and
tawaifs, what we see in Mumbai masala films, the relevance of classical
Indian dances, why dancers perform in dwindling market all over India.
There are visibly fewer and fewer persons to take time off from their routine
jobs to assist either the husband or the spouse in each one's pursuit of
academics, studies or dance. But I could have been less pessimistic. The
dancers I know all have complete support from their husbands, members of
their families and so many friends.
The Penn Museum Auditorium architecture
has an old world charm and is quite spacious. But alas, it is not well
maintained and looked like those in charge do not love it. The coordinators
had perhaps not realized that the performing arts required certain facilities,
in particular when dance was to be presented. Therefore, the performances
also looked lackluster. The event was not well advertised, therefore the
audience attendance was very poor. Myna said that it was to make a breakthrough
that the program was organized at Penn Museum by South Asia Center by Assistant
Director Riali Roy and Kathak exponent Prof Pallavi Chakravorty of Swarthmore
College. The announcements were made by Myna and I was asked to introduce
two dancers of Pakistani origin. The program began with Bijli's rendering
of a Sufi composition. Dressed in a bluish costume with clusters of shining
sequins, she performed with sincerity, but I was not impressed. It looked
a routine performance whereas at Symphony Space, she was outstanding, though
some of the members of the audience knew nothing about her. More about
her performance at Symphony Space later on.
I knew Swati Bhise's daughter Devika
Bhise, trained by her, who in turn had taken training from Sonal Mansingh
and Kadhirvelu. I also knew Krithika Rajagopalan, daughter of Hema Rajagopalan,
also trained by her and a very mature, finished dancer. Barring them, I
knew none. Even when I came to know Nighat Chaodhry better as we stayed
at Myna's friend on board of Engendered, Radhika Reddy's beautiful Tudor
House at Staten Island, that she had studied Kathak at Kathak Kendra for
some time, I have had no memory of her. Another young Kathak dancer was
Shayma Saiyid. The third male Pakistani dancer was Omar Rahim, whom I had
met with Chandralekha few years ago in Chicago, but did not know he was
a dancer, performing modern dance in well known Susan Marshall and Company
at BAM, Jacob's Pillow, Edinburgh Festival and Joyce Theatre including
Dance Theatre Workshop in New York. He has completed his thesis for Honours
at Wesleyan University, on Chandralekha. We had met at 'I View Film Festival'
but I did not know that he was a dancer, has acted in films like 'Guru'
as an Indian prince, choreographed for Lux Style Award in Karachi, has
appeared in music videos and latest, acted in film produced in Bangladesh
titled 'Meherjaan' acting with Jaya Bachhan and Victor Banerjee. Handsome
with delicate features, one can see him cast in roles like popular young
film Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor. A young attractive female dancer of
Afghan origin was Khatera Hakimi, exploring films, video, acting and performance.
With her popular folk dance from Afghanistan, in traditional colourful
costume and jewellery, dancing to the music one associates with belly dancing,
she charmed the audience with her seductive smile, almost like Bollywood
film star Katrina.
For me this was a mixed bag. I was
neither impressed with Nighat Chaodhry's, nor Shayma Saiyidi's Kathak,
nor Omar's contemporary choreographic piece 'Dreams of my father's father's
father,' a multi-media dialogue between the dancer/choreographer and his
imagining of his ancestor. The video projection of Omar himself on the
screen and his performing on the stage, covering his head with pugree in
the beginning looked on account of sync, quite interesting but as the piece
progressed, it did not hold my interest. I was expecting much more in terms
of dance technique. There did not seem much of it and I told him later
on that I would like to see more of his work to assess him as a dancer.
This brings me to my interest and
reaction to dancers from Pakistan. I called Nahid Siddiqui who has moved
to Houston, Texas from Pakistan, to settle down there, teaching and performing,
to join us for the festival at Symphony Space. But she said that she would
in future and not at such a short notice. I had seen her in November, last
year at World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific conference in New Delhi which
we had arranged under India Chapter registered as a society of Dance Alliance.
She had performed a brief piece in Kathak to recorded music at the Habitat.
It was so dignified and exquisite that one wanted to see more of her Kathak
dance. When my book on Kathak was published, I had no access to her photographs
to include in exponents section. She was also very unhappy that she was
not included. I met her in London at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where she
had taught for a while. I have seen her perform at Purcell Room on South
Bank in London. She lived in Birmingham for many years and divided her
time between Lahore and Birmingham, teaching and training young dancers
- among them Sonia Sabri is outstanding. The lasting impression she made
was during Kalanidhi Arts Foundation of Sudha Khandwani's New Directions
in Indian Dance conference in February 1993 at Toronto, where she not only
had performed Kathak but also rendered thumri, as she is a gifted singer.
Subodh Rathod in London had loaned me her documentary of BBC, directed
by her former husband Zia Moinuddin, which has a duet, a tarana in Bageshri
raga, with that Adonis among dancers, late Durgalal. Ah, what chemistry
they had and what magic has been captured on video, which enthralls one
even today when one sees their duet. Both Nighat Chaodhry and Shayma Saiyidi
have studied under Nahid for some time in Pakistan and also in London.
But when Nighat and Shayma performed brief pieces in Kathak, it did not
appear substantial. Their Kathak did not seem to have strength as they
presented at Penn Museum. But when Nighat performed the 'Purdah' at Symphony
Space, I sat up and responded to the content and also to the technique.
Nighat within the context of Islamic country, questions the Purdah upon
a woman, where her house, her chaddar, her burqua, society or religious
doctrine confines her. Even with all these restrictions, she is still invaded
and violated. Her realization that why is she the only one who is made
to believe that it is just her responsibility. What about the veil of heart,
the eyes of the society? She questions the purdah outside and the purdah
inside. In a gesture of rebellion, she throws the purdah to the audience.
It was a very moving and bold work. Nighat has performed it in Pakistan.
That confused me. Is dance allowed
in Pakistan? In public spaces? She said that she has given several performances
in Pakistan, when she was very close to Benazir Bhutto. Now she lives in
Lahore. She has performed in Karachi in dance drama Heer, in 'Faiz Ahmed
Faiz' mela, in first National Dance Festival in Pakistan, for fund raiser
for Cancer Society in many cities in Pakistan. She has appeared on TV and
also in serials. Very active, she performs internationally and seems she
has not many difficulties in carrying on her dance activities in Lahore.
Shayma Saiyidi lives in New York.
When we gave a lecture on Kathak showing difference between Lucknow and
Jaipur gharana at Bernard College, coordinated by Uttara Asha Coorlawala,
Nighat and Shayma demonstrated what they had studied under Nahid and also
Gulam Hussain Maharaj. Rajiv Purohit and Manasi, two Kathak dancers of
Sambhaav Dance Project showed Jaipur gharana features along with Rachana
Ramya, trained in Jaipur Gharana, now settled in Connecticut. The lamchhad
parans of Jaipur gharana in contrast to graceful movements of Lucknow gharana
along with several pure dance pieces, intra forms were demonstrated clearly.
Dance in Pakistan
An interesting aspect of this demonstration
co-coordinated by Uttara Asha Coorlawala was, what is the state of dance
in Pakistan? In Sruti monthly published from Chennai, issue 146 November
1996, Tehreema Mitha, who also participated in Engendered Dance Festival
wrote an article which categorically stated that in public spaces, classical
Indian dance was not encouraged for presentation, though Quran does not
say that dance cannot be performed. Not having read Quran for factual evidence,
I cannot say what Quran dictates. But it is true that dance in public places
is not encouraged. During President Zia's regime, it was completely banned.
What dancers like Nighat Chaodhry do is that they could perform because
some of them, like Nighat, were close to Benazir Bhutto. However, when
I asked Bangladesh participants in WDA global assembly, they said that
dance is allowed to be performed in public spaces. Guru Bipin Singh's disciple
Tamanna Rahman, who stayed in Guruji's residence in Kolkata, where I also
was staying, told me When I went to Dhaka to establish Bangladesh chapter,
I saw many enthusiastic performing groups and performances were held in
my honour at many public spaces, auditoriums. Luckily, Mrs. Veena Sikri
was the High Commissioner there at Dhaka, and a lot of concessions were
accorded to performing artists like Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli, to
cite two major dancers from India, who were presented in a public auditorium.
(To be concluded in next installment)
Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic,
having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than
40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr.
Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance
conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive
works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor
and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured
at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.
He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008)
and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter,
based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari
is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri
and Sangeet Natak Akademi award. He recently received the Senior Critic
award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.