A journey across borders and continents — the evolution and persistence of the Attan dance

The neglect of Attan by the media needs to end to preserve the incredible indigenous tradition.
Published March 14, 2024

The Attan dance, originating from the mountains of Afghanistan and dating back to pre-Islamic times, remains an integral part of Pakhtun culture today. It is typically performed to the beat of a dhol (drum) or other instruments such as the tabla, the 18-stringed Robab, the surnai flute (also known as the shehnai) or a wooden flute known as a Toola.

This ceremonial dance holds significance in various cultural events such as weddings, festivals, and historically, even during periods of conflict and war. Rich in cultural symbolism, Attan is often performed with handkerchiefs and swords, serving as a reminder of the performers’ glorious and victorious past.

In contrast to the more geographically bound Indian Kathak, Attan’s origins prevent it from being confined to a specific region.

The fluidity of borders, particularly between Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, has facilitated an exchange of arts and culture. These borders have acted as semi-permeable membranes where community and culture persevere through geographical and man-made boundaries, either altering or retaining art forms.

Widely recognised as a war dance, Attan has seen a major transformation under the influence of Islam. But numerous other social and geopolitical factors have also contributed to its transfiguration. Cultural renaissance, regionalisation, and the role of traditional pop culture have played a role in preserving the essence of the dance. Its evolution can be well understood through Monica Dalidowicz’s idea of ‘diaspora and tradition’, highlighting the crucial interplay between borders.

Cultural renaissance

Attan evolved in Kabul with the influence of Hindustani arts during the pre-partition times. Hindu artists were invited to perform in the court of the Amir of Afghanistan, Shir Ali Khan, during 1863-1866 and 1868-1879. These cultural connections became the primary locus for adopting influences from outside.

Although many culturally rich societies strive to protect their traditions from external influence, transactions are inevitable, especially when communities regard their traditions as invaluable characteristics of their identities. They do not fear displaying them to the world and the impression these exhibitions leave results in a cultural transaction — one that has a rather invisible influence on the external culture.

Incorporating the idea of a cultural renaissance, Attan has undergone a transformation in its participants, movements and dance types. But despite its evolution, the fundamentals of Attan remain the same. Performers — anywhere between two to over 100 — dance to the beat in a circle with the rhythm gradually picking up pace.

There are multiple types of Attan, reflecting its enormous potential for exploration. These forms include Kabuli Attan, Wardaki Attan, Paktia/Khosti Attan, Kochyano/Kuchi, Khattak Dance or Warrior Dance, Waziri Attan, and Mehsud Attan.

Women perform the Kuchi Attan during events of communal or personal importance such as the coming of spring, Nowruz (the Persian new year) or childbirth. Interestingly, long-haired men also partake in Kuchi Attan.

Men in Afghanistan perform the Attan dance to the beat of drums. — photo courtesy Dance Afghanistan
Men in Afghanistan perform the Attan dance to the beat of drums. — photo courtesy Dance Afghanistan

The contemporary image of Pakhtuns paints them as conservative, segregated, and patriarchal in their behaviour. However, many traditions and their histories counter this image, where men and women come together to participate in dance, music, and celebration.

Afghan and Pakhtun people have actively worked to preserve their traditions through performance and art. This movement gained momentum when Pashto theatre undertook the initiative to grant women their rightful status in society and successfully achieved their goal.

Unfortunately, not all external influences have been positive, and over time patriarchal attitudes and norms have infiltrated the dance form itself, making it less open to women.

Diaspora and tradition

While Attan in Afghanistan has transformed under intercultural influences, it has also travelled across borders and continents with its people.

Dalidowicz maintains that diasporas allow people to reconstruct their traditions and recontextualise practices. Although she discusses the diaspora between West and South Asia, the literal definition of diaspora considers every displaced person from their homeland as diasporic. Hence, Afghan and Pakhtun populations, that have been displaced from their native homelands, can thus be considered diasporic.

Notably, a large Afghan community also exists in Balochistan, KP, Iran and India.

The regional variations in Attan can be traced through Afghan migrations to countries across the globe. Attan is also said to have its roots in ancient Greek theatre, with the influence purportedly carried by Alexander the Great to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Some scholars also claim that the term ‘Attan’ is derived from ‘Athena,’ the Greek goddess. These factors reverberate the notion that not only communities but also traditions and cultures are a consequence of diasporic movements.

Afghan artists perform the traditional Attan dance during celebrations. — Reuters
Afghan artists perform the traditional Attan dance during celebrations. — Reuters

While many view Attan as the national Afghan dance, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, disagrees: “It is difficult to claim it as a national dance because [the] structure, rhythm, accompaniments, and symbols used in [the] dance [represent] Pakhtun tribal values rather than a broader national identity.

“The idea of Attan as a national dance is, in fact, a politicised claim, referring to the past historical suppressions in Afghanistan.”

It is difficult and perhaps, incorrect to box Attan into a single category and origin given its rich history and variety. The earlier-mentioned forms of dance, for example, originate from different regions and occasions.

Fluctuating reputation

However, the Taliban invasion of Afghanistan led Attan to be labelled ‘un-Islamic’, marking a significant shift in the tradition and its essence. This era can be described as the death of the cultural renaissance that came before it. Women, previously brought to mainstream positions and circles were now banished from public participation, let alone dancing and performing Attan.

And once again, the flow of ideas, both political and cultural could not be prevented via permeable borders. The influence of religious sanctions and Talibanisation was observed throughout the Pakhtun belt of Balochistan and KP in Pakistan.

Interestingly, Attan and the perceptions around it have evolved differently in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Beyond Attan, dancing itself has had a fluctuating reputation in post-partition Pakistan.

While post-partition, Pakistan’s dance was frowned upon, India’s dance was wholeheartedly celebrated as culture. In a relatively uncommon feat, women from the Pakhtun community in Swat began leading Attan in public and semi-public spaces as men dancing in public was frowned upon.

In pre-partition times, the state supported the dancers while the post-partition era and the Taliban invasion of the region (Afghanistan and parts of Balochistan) accentuated the ‘un-Islamic’ tag, segregating Attan from its inherent meaning.

Despite symbolising invaluable facets of Pakhtun society such as bravery, chivalry, honesty, and above all, togetherness, the influence of modern nation-states, borders, and religious fundamentalism restricted participation in Attan for both, men and women.

Pop culture and tradition

Despite its widespread influence, Attan receives limited coverage in mainstream media and pop culture in Pakistan.

While there may be several explanations for this, the primary one can be explained through Antonio Grmasci’s theory of ‘cultural hegemony’. Punjabi and upper-class arts and culture hold hegemonic power over that of other marginalised, groups. However, while Pakhtun cultural representation in mainstream media is negligible and oftentimes downright offensive and stereotypical, traditional folk media plays an essential role in keeping the spark alive. Because folk media is close and accessible to many communities and saturated with diverse traditional themes, it automatically grants it the power to persuade and influence.

The focus on content being of interest to the “masses”, which primarily serves the economic interests of mainstream media outlets, results in the invisibilisation of traditions such as Attan. This is also where folk media steps in and provides platforms for representation.

In recent years, however, Coke Studio has attempted to bring forward voices and artists of different communities, taking a step in the right direction for cultural representation. The mainstream music production attempted the song ‘Ya Qurban’ where artists can be seen performing Attan, a rarity for mainstream media thus far.

The absence of Attan in mainstream media is reflective of broader social issues tied to Afghan identities in their respective countries and the increasing Islamisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fascinatingly, even though the Taliban banned performing arts in the mid-1990s — which remained in place until the US invasion in 2001 — they are believed to perform the dance since it is so well-liked and uniquely Afghan. A vivid display of the paradox and hypocrisy rules out the idea that culture and tradition can be separated from human nature, granting ‘religion’ a superior position.

I use the term religion with caution because forbidding the traditional Pakhtun dance has less to do with Islam and more to do with the fundamentalism of the Taliban.

The categorisation and perception of Attan as ‘vulgar’ took place over time and was further cemented in Pakistan by Punjabi dances in films which often objectified women.

The degeneration of Attan has not only hampered its evolution but also challenged its validity. As Pakhtuns strive to preserve and represent Attan as a marker of their values over national identity, borders and national politics pose insurmountable challenges. The criminal neglect of Attan by the media needs to end to preserve this incredible indigenous tradition.

Header image: Afghan artists perform the traditional Attan dance during international Nowruz celebrations in Kabul, 2014. — Reuters/Omar Sobhani