Sassi is ready to endure every difficulty to prove her loyalty and to protect her love. She is left stranded in a deserted forest, seeking out her lover. She roams with a parched throat and teary eyes between the worn-out tree trunks.
Yet, despite all the difficulties, she does not give up. In a parallel universe, Sassi is not alone — her sorrow and sacrifice for love is shared by Anarkali. Just like Sassi, Anarkali lets go of everything blissful in her life for the sake of love.
These were the scenes in Kathas (Stories), performed by Nighat Chaudhry during an event for the 1996 cricket World Cup in Pakistan. Chaudhry choreographed 35 different South Asian cultural stories for this performance, including stories based on historical events and folktales.
Now, Chaudhry teaches Kathak at her own dance centre every weekday at noon. Students who are unable to follow a monogamous beat watch their dance teacher performing Kathak with focus. Amid a young crowd of women there to learn a performing art that is still considered unconventional in Pakistan, Chaudhry talks about the circumstances of past women dancers.
While the legacy of classical dance continues to thrive elsewhere, it is on the brink of extinction in Pakistan
According to her, “There’s less acceptance of classical dancing in Pakistan, because of its connotations of having an Indian past, and people tend to reject anything that is Indian. Classical dance forms such as Kathak have existed well before the establishment of any borders in South Asia.”
Classical dancing has a rich history in South Asian culture. To date, classical dance is used as a medium to tell stories and express oneself with intricately woven bodily movements, not just in South Asia but across the globe.
In Pakistan, there has been a decades-long presence of classical dance, both as an independent performance art form as well as in theatre drama narratives. However, this art form has faced immense societal opposition, misinterpretation and disapproval, especially when performed by women.
While dance continues to remain part of theatre, television dramas and films, women who perform this dance form are still demeaned by society.
Sheema Kermani was one of the classical dancers who experienced the targeting of women artists during the 1980s first-hand. She cites the rise of “modesty culture” as a trigger that has led to the exclusion of women from accessing basic amenities and even denying them the right to live freely. “Society has a moral compass for women performing classical dance,” says Kermani. “They can’t see women making independent decisions. They want to control women’s bodies.
“While it’s more difficult for women,” she continues, “it’s also important to consider that there is no acceptance of classical dance performed by men either. These men are called derogatory slurs for being ‘feminine’ when they are not — they are just performers.
“There’s an evident misconception regarding classical dance that it goes against our cultural and religious values, when, in reality, it’s just societal bigotry, because everyone dances at weddings, everyone consumes dance, but here is where they draw the limitations.”
Dancer Farah Yasmin Shaikh — dressed in an Anarkali shirt with ghungroo (dance anklets) tied around her feet, her long hair in a braid — echoes similar sentiments.
She says there is a perception that women who perform classical dance are “bad women.” The history of tawaaifs (courtesans) is related with this dance form. As someone who is inspired by the fashion of courtesans during the Mughal era, Shaikh says these women “did so much” to preserve the legacy of classical dance.
These misconceptions have resulted in a lack of support for classical dance institutions in the country. According to Chaudhry, practitioners like herself, and others who have been performing classical dance, are the institutions themselves.
She says, “Because there’s no support from any external source, even no care from government institutions, most of us privately teach classical dance,” adding that the art form requires a lot of hard work. “It is not a commercial art form,” Chaudhry explains, “and only commercial content is validated in Pakistan.”
PRESERVING A LEGACY
Shaikh, who teaches classical dance, says, “Schools and universities have to take the lead, if we want to preserve and continue the rich legacy of classical dance in Pakistan. If classical dance continues to not be part of the regular educational curriculum, it will be difficult to save it from becoming obsolete.”
Kermani emphasises the importance of the performing arts as a whole, saying that no society can thrive politically without the arts. The government spends a lot on sports events, but there’s no exclusive expenditure on performance arts, including classical dance, Kermani says.
“The majority of the performers can’t access expensive urban universities, dance academies or training centres. This also makes classical dance a privilege for most women and confines it in the hands of the elite,’’ she says.
Kermani speaks about the increasing class difference and access disparities working class women are subjected to. Even if these women want to perform, they find it difficult to thrive in this field and face marginalisation.
Shaikh says she recognises her privilege, having come from America and been trained as a classical dancer, but a lot of women can’t afford to train themselves, and those who can, perform it as a hobby.
“This is a major drawback,” she says, “and a consequence of a lack of cultural and specialised educational institutions. A lot of dedication is required when one is pursuing classical dance, and considering the extreme economic crisis, not many women performers choose it as a full-time career.”
In order for classical dance to thrive, there have to be people willing to receive that knowledge and preserve its legacy. Pioneers like Chaudhry are frustrated at societal attitudes, where artists are not treated with respect.
“I don’t see a lot of my students pursuing classical dance as a career,” says Chaudhry. “I think the only thing that can be done now is archiving and documenting the already performed art. If it could be institutionalised, maybe this can change.”
The writer is a journalist, and a gender rights and climate justice activist based in Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 29th, 2023
The print version of this article mistakenly stated that Farah Yasmin Shaikh teaches classical dance in her studio in Lahore. The error has been rectified online.