Over the years, Zarrin aka Pannah has weathered the ups and downs of life bravely, rediscovering herself in the process. Her recent performance at the Alliance Francaise in Karachi came after a gap of four decades, where she enthralled the audience with her lithe movements even after so many years.
Here, the classical dancer par excellence reminisces about the good old days for Images on Sunday.
The young Pannah arrived in Karachi from Delhi in 1947, and witnessed a series of unfortunate events during that time. “We had no money and we were a large family. Having seen good days before Partition, we were able to flee only with the clothes on our backs. I was about five then and remember my father rented a house for Rs60 per month but the owners threw us out when he couldn’t pay the rent for the third consecutive month. When I saw my mother crying, I vowed to become something to help my family in our time of need. I joined school with the hope of becoming a doctor and also started dancing classes. Irfan Khoosat’s father Sultan Khoosat took me to a dance teacher Ustad Patiala-walay Ghulam Hussain and then later Shado Maharaj. I looked like a 16-year-old at the age of 12, but as I could perform well people liked my dancing. Then I was invited to do advertisements for the leading brands of that time.”
Mukhtar Begum, who was Farida Khanum’s sister, helped to groom Pannah and it was during this time she also met Madam Azuri, a famous dancer of her time. She says those years were like something straight out of Alif Laila for her. “Madam Azuri taught me to dance as well as Rafi Anwar, and soon I was an established dancer doing Bharatanatyam, Khattak and Katha Kali. Then Malik Feroz Khan Noon, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, invited me to perform before King Zahir Shah, the Shah of Iran; President Sukarno of Indonesia, Prince Karim Agha Khan, Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower. When Mr. Bhutto saw my performance at The Palace Hotel, his only advice to me was not to chew gum while performing, which I was in the habit of doing during dance as it gave me energy.”
At the peak of her career Pannah, the most sought after film dancer of the ’50s and ’60s, bid adieu to fame and fortune to marry film director S. Suleiman (film stars Santosh and Darpan’s younger brother), and also changed her name to Zarrin. Her sudden disappearance from showbiz not only upset her fans but also her ustad, Ghulam Hussain. Her exit left a void in the field of film dancing for quite some time
Pannah said that after seeing her dance performance in Karachi, Mr Sukarno gave her a red handkerchief and pen, symbols of achievement and power which she says went over her head as he explained about them to the 16-year-old.
“My fame rose day by day as I worked hard and performed extremely well and was invited everywhere. I was fun-loving, carefree and also naïve. I’ve always been simple but never snobbish.”
In 1958, Pannah started performing for films and also visited different countries to perform on invitation, among them being the Shah of Iran and England’s Queen Elizabeth. She also acted on stage with Lehri in the drama Mariz-i-Ishq which became quite popular and went on for months.
In 1959, Pannah went to Lahore to take part in a joint film production between Italy, Pakistan, Germany and India, and performed a dance in it. The Italian producer extended her an invitation to visit Italy and to act in a film in which Anthony Quinn was also among the cast. Quinn asked her to dinner with the producer, director and some other actors. “He was a very friendly person and he wanted to learn how to dance. He was also doing the film Message then and asked me to recite the kalma when he found out I was a Muslim, as he had to say the words in the film.”
On returning to Lahore, she did a dance for Chiragh Jalta Raha which was actress Zeba’s debut film. Later, she acted with Rahman, Khan Attaur Rahman and Subaz Datta, performing dances as well.
“Then I met director Suleiman and we got married shortly afterwards. I left dance and acting when I was at the peak of my career to become a housewife. I travelled with Suleiman to different countries and helped him in his work. After 25 years, we separated. I have two sons and one daughter, all settled and happily married.”
In 1997, Pannah joined the PNCA Lahore as a dance teacher, laying the foundation stone as there was no dance section there. She would mother her students by taking food and giving them prizes to encourage them. Pannah left the PNCA after 13 years of hard work when they refused to make her a permanent employee. Today, she regrets leaving dance at the height of her career, having seen so many ups and downs in life.
Her dance teacher Ustad Ghulam Hussain was very upset at her for leaving a budding career, saying that she had done an injustice to her profession. “I want to come to Karachi and work here now. I came after 14 years to participate in the poster exhibition by Guddu and danced after 40 years! I have seen bad times after my separation from Suleiman, even working in a canteen selling samosas at one time. The then PNCA coordinator Riaz Bhatti pushed me to join the PNCA as I had no interest left in anything. My heart was dead. Now I want to perform on stage.” She quoted a verse from a poem:
“Bekehaf zindagi hai, Jeay ja raha hoon mein.”
During her heyday there were very few known dancers such as herself, Amy Minwalla and Rafi Anwar. Pannah and Amy became good friends and she says she had a wonderful life without worries, and she had a lot of respect. “I knew Faiz, Kishwar Naheed, Saifuddin Saif, Ahmad Rahi and so many others before my marriage. My husband was strict and didn’t let me meet people. In Mumbai (then Bombay) I met Raj Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Raj Kumar etc. A.R. Chopra wanted me to act in his film Nikah as I was tall and thin. I refused and Salma Agha bagged the role.”
Pannah says there is no future in dance in Pakistan. If the government does not take interest and institutes are not made, dance in its pure form will one day disappear. One will see only half-baked styles. Today, there are no great dancers as there were once in the past. One has to learn and work hard to achieve something in life,” she opines. “I am a writer, designer and teacher and work to make ends meet. Yesterday’s Pannah is a labourer today as she has to make a living. You just can’t let go because life has given you a knock. I am happy that Karachi has seen good local films recently, so there is a good future for them. Mark my word, Karachi will be the centre of the film industry as it is very professional.”
Pannah’s message to women is: “Enough is enough, women have been molested too long with karo kari, rape, cutting noses, and acid attacks. She should rise and win respect for herself. She is a mother, daughter and a wife who should be respected.” She ended our conversation with Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem:
Aurat nay janam diya mardon ko
Mardon nay usay bazaar diya
Jab ji chaha masla kuchla
Jab ji chana dhutkaar diya
Guddu belongs to the rare breed among men who follow their passion to achieve the extraordinary, and with total disregard for monetary gains. At the recent vintage film poster exhibition focusing specifically on the dancers of Pakistan’s film industry, Guddu (of Guddu Film Archive) said the collection spans the period from 1949-2014.
“I have painstakingly collected not only posters featuring dancers but also actors and directors of the film industry. This rare collection is so huge and so dear to me that I threw my personal belongings out of my cupboard and put these posters in so that they don’t get spoiled!”
Guddu’s passion for dance began at a very young age. “I wanted to be a dance choreographer but as I was studying I couldn’t join the film industry. I would go regularly to the studios and collect posters of dancers who performed in films. I didn’t have much money but somehow managed to scrape through. As I grew older, I learnt Kathak dance but did not perform because my mum didn’t approve of it. But she couldn’t stop me from visiting the studios and collecting posters which continues even to this day.”
Guddu would present the posters to the respective film actors, singers, directors, dancers and producers who would be impressed by his collection. Then two years ago a documentary on his posters was put on Youtube. The then French Ambassador to Pakistan read about the documentary in a magazine and asked the French Consulate to arrange an exhibition of Guddu’s posters at the Alliance Francaise in Islamabad and Karachi.
At the exhibition in Karachi, the posters featuring dancers were presented with description of the decades, the dances performed and the clothes that were worn during those years. “Pannah, who was a very famous film dancer during the ’60s and excelled in classical dance, was extended an invitation as chief guest to open the exhibition. She was the leading dancer in her heydays because of her brilliance and beauty, and would often perform for state visitors,” Guddu added.
Pannah’s energetic performance later on in the evening enthralled the audience who were mesmerised by her grace and poise even after all these years.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2016