Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a kathak dancer and teacher, recently performed at the Pakistan National Council of Arts at an Asian Study Group event.

A lead dancer with the Chitresh Dance Company, she is an evocative dancer who brings innovation and grace to traditional kathak dance.

Q: What drew you to kathak?

A: I was born and raised in California and I started dancing at the age of five, but not kathak. Where I grew up there was no access to Indian or Pakistani cultural activities, so I studied western forms of dance. When I was 18 I went away to college and wanted to continue to dance. I saw Indian dance was offered at my university so I decided to try it.

My parents had always been supportive, and when they heard my guru ji, Chitresh Das, was teaching the class they said I must take it. Long story short, that was twenty years ago. So needless to say I was more than attracted to kathak. I was so challenged by the rhythmic complexity. I loved the fact that I was learning in a very different way about my culture and Indian history. I’ve always loved Mughal history, so getting an inroad to that through dance and music was also wonderful.

Q: Do you feel that having learnt other forms of dance first helped or hindered you in performing kathak?

A: In my case, I have no doubt that it helped me. The South Asian classical forms are amazingly vigorous and there is so much obvious use of the body in different ways. But I feel that my western perspective of dance was helpful because there is an articulation of how to use the body, of posture, and all of those things that I did not find necessarily inherent in our forms. The need to stretch, the need to take care of one’s body, is important, in addition to learning a craft, and conditioning the body only for that craft. My experience with Western dance gave me a holistic approach.

Q: Do you focus on performing or are you engaged in other aspects of dance?

A: I was teaching with my guru ji’s institution up until very recently. Just about a year ago, I decided to go on my own. I haven’t formed an institution but do have plans to do so. I do have a group of students that I work with in California, in both private and semi-private class and group settings. And I’ve done quite a bit of teaching here in Karachi.

Some of them have some dance background, some of them no experience at all. So, it is a good mix. People with dance experience come with a little more body awareness, but with kathak it is the least codified of the classical forms, so even if they’ve had experience with kathak, there’s a style that each guru passes on.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2016

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