Author Archive | Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions – Article #3: The Illusion of Borders

7 students pose with teacher, Farah.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh (pictured center) / photo courtesy of the artist

EDITORS NOTE: In this ongoing series for In Dance Farah Yasmeen Shaikh writes about her experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American woman Kathak artist and her work teaching and performing in Pakistan. Article #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan can be found in the December 2016 issue and Article #2: Our World in Constant Motion in the March 2017 issue.


When I first titled this series of articles, I was reflecting on how my work in Pakistan has allowed me to “gain perspective” and “shift [my own] perceptions,” as I had my own prejudices and assumptions about the environment, how I would fit into it, and what the overall response would be to performing and teaching there. I went into this work with my own personal goals of challenging myself to represent an art form and my training in it, my personal background as an American born to Pakistani immigrants, and to own my identity as a Muslim, but being fully aware that I may not be seen as such due to my relatively progressive lifestyle. Personally and professionally, so much was at risk. I’m proud to have been able to abandon my own doubts about having a presence in Pakistan to now truly feeling like I can comfortably call the country a second home. Having completed four trips in just one year, and with plans to continue to perform and teach in Pakistan, my increased awareness and comfort, and thus experience of working in this environment positions me to further embrace the previously unforeseen responsibility of bridging the gaps that we innocently and often unknowingly create through our misconceptions.

While working in Pakistan, and sharing it through various mediums (social media, these articles) a catalyst has been put in place for many unexpected conversations and responses I’ve received about my experiences. In Pakistan itself, it has been a matter of breaking through the perceptions of dance – ones of stigma, of being un-Islamic; of Kathak as an art form that some see as “Hindu” dance which due to continued animosity between India and Pakistan some view Kathak as not having an appropriate place in Pakistan. This has happened most frequently through my experiences teaching in Pakistan.

Students of Farah moving together

Kathak students / photo courtesy of the artist

In some settings, students involuntarily took my class as it was a requirement put in place by their educational institution or department. For the most part, students were open and welcoming to this experience, but there were some who expressed hesitation and resistance, mainly due to their own religious interpretations of how dance would be disrespecting their belief system, and/or if they felt an aspect of what I was teaching was displaying too much reverence to aspects of Hinduism. Navigating these sensitivities while simultaneously being true to the integrity and history of Kathak has been challenging to say the least, but also the source of important dialogue and lessons on how to teach in such environments without isolating or ostracizing myself or the students. I’ve also had the honor and huge responsibility of quite often offering the very first dance class that many of the participants had ever taken – ever. Keep in mind, most of my work has been with high school and university level students.

I know I’m not alone in thinking, as my GuruJi, Pandit Chitresh Das, used to say “Arts and culture bring peace and harmony.” However, imagine being in a situation where I could potentially reinforce one’s prejudice against dance, its history, or its cultural and religious influences, depending on my approach to teaching and reaching the students. The greatest joy has come from numerous accounts of transformation from students who had expressed hesitation in taking the class for reasons described above, to at the end of their time with me sharing how much they “loved” the experience.

Here is one such sentiment from a student at a university in Karachi:

“This is the first time I’ve actually danced in my life. Before that I used to see people dance, but it never touched my heart until now. It made me feel more close to myself and I feel more confident in myself.” —Shahzadi.

And for those who of their own desire had enrolled in one of my classes, it has been an honor to not just introduce them to Kathak, but to instill in them the desire to have more such experiences.

The various movements we learned improved our posture and increased our confidence, especially in the way we walk and talk to others. And the history surrounding Kathak enlightened us about our own [culture]”—Aleezeh and Natalia, high school students in Karachi.

I realize that I now have a unique vantage point that I’ve obtained through a deeper understanding of Pakistani politics over the decades, the country’s ongoing (strained) relations with India, and the numerous positive developments Pakistan has undergone—and the parallels of all of this to that of what we are witnessing take place around the world. I could have never predicted that working abroad would happen at a time when our global state of affairs, and specifically the political chaos that has developed in the US, would make my work in Pakistan, and my upcoming artistic presentation, strangely and somewhat sadly, relevant.

In the fall of 2016, I received funding from the CA$H Grant to support my upcoming work, The Partition Project, focused on the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Based on the stories and testimonials from witnesses of Partition, this will be a collaborative presentation with EnActe Arts and the 1947 Partition Archive, told through dance, music, theater and multimedia (premiering at Z Space in San Francisco, January 2018). A pivotal time in the history of South Asia, the Partition is when British rule ended in India and a divided India and Pakistan was based on religious lines, with Pakistan created as an Islamic nation. During the transfer of power, and the mass migration to the other side of these newly formed borders, 15 mil- lion people became homeless, making it the world’s largest mass human displacement (see footnote #1).

Creating work on such a heavy topic – one that is only 70 years old, and that still has a huge impact on the neighboring countries of India and Pakistan with regards to their own relationship as well as their standing with the rest of the world – requires me to find as many opportunities as I can to connect and feel the historical side of Partition as well as its present day relevance.

With the support of the grant, during my trip to Pakistan in January 2017, I made plans to travel from Karachi (the city where I spend most of my time in Pakistan) to go north to Lahore. Just outside Lahore is a small town, Wagah, which serves as a transit terminal for goods and a railway station between Pakistan and India. It lies on the old Grand Trunk Road between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India. My hope and intention in visiting the border was to absorb, reflect on, and document through photos and video. Here is my account on social media of my experience:

“Yesterday my daughter and I went to the Wagah border of Pakistan and India. I had heard of the pomp between the rangers from each country, but needed to witness what it felt like to visit this visible and physical separation between two countries that not too long ago were one.

The experience was overtaken by what I can compare to a school rally. Attendees from either side were trying be louder than the other. The rangers were competing by kicking higher than the other and puffing their chest broader than their opponent. I tried to mute the cheers and clapping, and blur the flags waving and instead focused on the lack of sentimentality.

High security seemed to be the only thing reminiscent of the state of relations between the countries. But where were the hardcore facts of Partition, of the tragic human displacement and unprecedented loss of lives in such a short period of time? Where was the account of how people migrated across on foot or by train in 1947, and how families were forced to leave their land, belongings, businesses, to never be able to return to their birthplace and the only homes they had known? Instead we watched men in embellished uniforms perform goofy routines of high kicks and awkward marching sequences.

There was a moment in this comedic display in which a handshake from representatives of each country takes place. But that too was all for show as the gates opened for the human contact, but were quickly closed again once the backs were turned.

One beautiful moment: seeing the flags of Pakistan and India almost become one as they crossed each other on their respective strings.

I know we cannot rewrite history, but when are we going to own it? When are we going to dissect and break down the many ways in which this tragic history continues to divide us? When are we going to rise above and not let a handshake just be for show?

The hope is that The Partition Project will at least provoke open, honest dialogue about our history, how it continues to shape us, and sadly not for the better.”

As I continue to reflect on my work as an artist in this tumultuous world, I am grateful for the perspective that I gain through doing work internationally. On a daily basis we bear witness to populations from around the world having to (sometimes forced, sometimes by choice) flee their homelands, and then observe the various governments from other countries determine who they will “welcome,” let alone who each will allow to simply visit or return to the places they now call home. I am struck by how many examples we have right in front of us—Pakistan and India being one of them—of how conservative and oppressive political regimes can take populations back hundreds of years in thought and practice. And how we can look to the fallout from such examples to guide in decision making that should and could so easily be based on humane practice that will not result in racial or religious prejudice, violence, displacement, loss of lives and degradation of culture.

One of the highlights from my January 2017 trip was an invitation to perform in Lahore at Faiz Ghar, the home of the late renowned Urdu poet, revolutionary and human rights activist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

It was a tremendous honor to perform here, and timely yet again, as his work was often a response to political oppression. One of his works in particular comes to mind as I think of him, his vast contributions, the poignancy of his words even today. This piece is titled Hum Dekhenge, meaning “We will see.” Originally in Urdu, this is an English translation of an excerpt from the poem:

We will see
It is certain that we too will see
When the cruel mountains of injustice Will blow away like cotton-wool Beneath the feet of (us) the oppressed This earth’s heartbeat will pound And above the heads of the rulers Lightning will crackle

We will see


1. 1947PartitionArchive.org

Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions – ARTICLE #2: Our World in Constant Motion

Editors Note: In the December 2016 issue of In Dance Farah Yasmeen Shaikh wrote about her experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American woman Kathak artist and her work teaching and performing in Pakistan— Article #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan. This is the second of at least three articles that discuss the complexities of navigating past and present politics and artmaking.


I had completed my first performance tour of Pakistan in January of 2016, and was elated to receive an invitation to return to perform as soon as March. On March 22, 2016, I had an early flight scheduled to Pakistan from San Francisco International Airport. My alarm woke me up, but as soon as I turned it off and looked at my phone there were news alerts of three coordinated suicide bombings having occurred in Belgium that morning. Thirty- five people were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. My heart sank. Noooo, not again. I knew these attacks would have major effects on airport security, especially with two of the bombings taking place at the Brussels airport. I quickly woke my husband and told him I needed to be at the airport even earlier than planned to allow for increased time at security. I could not have been more right. Afterward, I took to social media to reflect on what happened: “Woke up today to the horrible news of what happened in Brussels, happening to be on the day I am returning to Pakistan. I am now flagged at airport security for my previous travel to Pakistan (as explained by a security officer at the airport), I was just pulled aside for almost an hour. I was pat down and had each and every one of my items removed and examined. I’m exhausted and I just broke, tears coming down my face as they patted me down.

“There is not an ounce of fear in me traveling on this day or to my destination, but there is immense sadness of this ongoing reality of the state of our world. And yet I have a renewed sense of exactly why I feel compelled to do the work I do, which is essentially, through the medium of dance, to bridge cultures and the unnecessary divide we have, and to hopefully do my part in influencing a global culture that can be positive, supportive, and non violent.”


Within hours, I was overwhelmed to get online and see the responses to my social media posts. Almost 500 likes, and over 100 comments, mainly messages of peace, love and support. I felt guilty however, as I wasn’t feeling like the victim in the scenario at the airport, but rather, my experience was indicative of the state of the world. Here was my follow up to that post: “ Wow – I’m so overwhelmed by the outpour of love and support. The words of care at what I faced during security check are beyond heart warming, but I do want to clarify something. My sadness was more a result of not what I was going through, but what it represented. When I or any other Muslim/non-Muslim (of which there have been many) are profiled or flagged, it is unfair. But much beyond this is the fact that we are in a place socially, politically, and globally, where violence is such a common occurrence, and it affects people near and far. By no means is aggressively being frisked even slightly comparable to what the actual victims of the various acts of senseless violence have faced. I guess the point is that it does reach all of us—directly and indirectly, and this is the point of responsibility that we all must embrace. If I/you go through something directly, I/you can do something to change things for the better. I believe we all have that ability through our various means.”


By the time I arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, I was more determined than ever to make this a productive trip. Still feeling the sadness of world affairs, I chose to direct my emotion into my work. I jumped right into rehearsals and teaching. I wanted to build off the momentum of my January trip, deepen the relationships, introduce more people to the art form of kathak, and have meaningful exchanges with any and all in my short three-week visit. An immediate high point to my arrival, especially as a follow-up to the way my journey had begun, was hearing of the national holiday in Pakistan to honor the Hindu spring festival of Holi. This was the first time in the history of Pakistan that this holiday was being officially acknowledged, and taking into account the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan, and the way that Hindus in Pakistan are not treated equally, this was a huge step in dispelling some of the negative rhetoric within the nation itself. Elated by this, I even chose to dance pieces of Holi in my performances during this trip to celebrate the acknowledgement of this festival. Less than a week into my trip, my happiness faded away yet again, when on Easter Sunday to be exact, March 27, 2016, another horrible tragedy took place. This time, in Pakistan…

Upon receiving messages from friends and family at home inquiring about my safety, this is what I posted to social media: “ Thank you to all who have reached out, and yes, I am safe. I am in Karachi and yesterday’s heinous, cruel and merciless attack was in the city of Lahore where 75 were killed and over 300 injured—mostly women and children. They were at a park—playing, celebrating Easter, enjoying life… So yes, I am “safe,” but I’m not okay. None of us should be after witnessing this over and over again. All of us should feel affected by what happened in Pakistan, along with what’s happening everyday—everywhere. It’s not about safety— it’s about compassion, love and respect. Why is it so hard to apply these simple principles as one’s guiding force to distinguish between good and evil, to understand that if hate breeds hate, why can’t we flip it and ensure that love breeds love. We are all in this together. The separations of borders, religions, race, etc., mean absolutely nothing.”


My heart continued to ache. Here I was, thrilled to be back in Pakistan, to know that the doors had been opened for me to come and share my art, the feeling of continued opportunity to do so signifying the desire from Pakistanis for dance to be part of their ongoing cultural fabric of the country, but then, the very thing that many had asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of the violence there?”, all of a sudden felt way too close. I felt like I wanted to defend Pakistan and continue to convince any and everyone that the labels placed on this nation were unfair and untrue. And yet, this tragedy had taken place, and the world was meant to believe that this is the Pakistan they were to know. I knew differently, and as sad as I was at the many losses of life, the violence, and the hatred, I knew, and continue to know, that there is nothing to fear, as fear is only a paralysis and a means of keeping oneself from what is necessary.


FAST FORWARD

This series of articles, which began in late 2016, will continue to be a platform to share my work in Pakistan. But upon returning from my most recent trip in January of 2017, I came home to a newly elected President. I landed the day after the inauguration and my stomach was churning. It was the day of the Women’s March on Washington and cities around the country, and I would have loved to attend one of the marches, but my arrival time dictated otherwise. I found such great comfort and relief in seeing the infinite number of posts and pictures of people around the country and world, displaying unity, peaceful but assertive messaging, strength in numbers, and the love and camaraderie that was oozing out of each and every account from that day.

One week later, we were all slapped in the face by the Executive Orders from the powers that be regarding the ban on immigrants entering the United States from various countries, most of which have majority Muslim populations. I was shocked, horrified, heartbroken, and disgusted. Though Pakistan is not on the list, I’ve had many conversations with people asking if I will continue to go to Pakistan to work, and if I have concerns based on these new developments. Of course I have concerns, but I have no question about my renewed desire to continue to work in Pakistan, whether or not the country and its people are included on this list, and also knowing that there is likely to be profiling when traveling both in and out of the United States. Let me be clear, my concerns are not about me personally, but much like the tragedies that took place in March in Brussels and Lahore, these are issues that concern us all. I reached out to a friend of mine to get his thoughts on what is happening. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a visual and performing artist based in the SF Bay Area, but his roots are deeply connected to the very places we are currently hearing so much about. “I am caught in an interesting place, as a Pakistani born in Damascus, Syria with Iranian heritage — how can I not feel solidarity with my fellow Muslims? My experience being away was for art, I went to Colombia to perform and coming back I thought will my Syrian-ness count against me? What are my resources, what are anyone’s resources? There are artists, writers, business people, students, all effectively declared illegal. Those that leave cannot come back and those that stay are marked. Is the next step a series of virtual prisons where we all register? They know where we live, where we work, who we know? Sanctuary cities become target zones. I was asked coming in if I had Syrian nationality, when the last time I went was, did I have family there, ‘No, just friends’ I responded. ‘But just friends right?’ The officer at secondary questioning asked as if to reassure herself that she was not assigned the offensive task of detaining another person. We must believe everything this president says and prepare ourselves for that.” So the question becomes: how do we – dancers, artists, citizens of the world – continue to bring peace and light through our various means – our work, our compassion – in the face of darkness? How can we rise above, see through and past the actions of a few ill-intentioned and instead focus on the positive work and contributions of the masses? How can we embrace the progress that is made socially, politically and otherwise, and ensure that these changes are here indefinitely? These questions are not easily answered, nor is there one answer, but at least for me, it is one that I continue to ask myself, reflect on, and stay committed to exploring.

Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions: ARTICLE #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan

Photo by Margo Moritz

In a time where hatred and violence are a common occurrence abroad and in the U.S., I believe that artists play a critical role as cultural ambassadors and social change-makers. Through the art created and shared, and the interactions developed with audiences and students near and far, we can help shift perspectives and perceptions of the world today—in a way that both challenges and enlightens us alongside our audiences.

In January of 2016, I embarked on my first solo dance tour to Pakistan, and since then I have spent almost three months there in less than one year. I have been overwhelmed by the positive, warm responses I’ve received through performing and teaching. I continue to receive invitations to return since my first visit, and I feel honored and humbled to be part of the artistic landscape of Pakistan.

Over the course of a three part series, I will share my experiences and observations. With each visit, I’ve been able to deepen relationships, increase awareness of Kathak (classical dance of South Asia) as an art form, and not only represent myself as a Pakistani Muslim American woman performing and teaching dance, but also influence multiple generations to rethink their perspective on dance and dancers. And yet, along with the wonderful outcomes, I’ve also come to better understand the history of dance in Pakistan and how politics and extremism has and continues to determine dance in daily Pakistani culture.

Throughout my time in Pakistan, I’ve used social media to share the work that I’m doing. It’s been wonderful to see the response from friends and family in the U.S. as well as in Pakistan. It’s been a reminder of how technology has brought our world much closer together; when used authentically, in my first-hand observations, social media dispels stereotypes and changes perceptions about the people of Pakistan.

Through sharing my experiences I hope to invoke a sense of desire and responsibility that we, as artists and citizens of the world, have in reclaiming our place as a unified human race working together to better our world in the present and our future.

Why Pakistan? Why now?
I have performed and taught Kathak throughout the U.S. and India, first as a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, and now as a solo artist. My parents were born in India and moved to newly created Pakistan just after Partition when they were two years old, living there until they married and moved to the U.S. in 1971. Our family went frequently when I was a child so I became familiar with the culture, the food, and now the language—but I was nonetheless unsure how I would be received as a dancer in Pakistan. Even with these unknowns, a voice inside me kept saying, “Now’s the time. Just go. You’ll never know how you/it will be received unless and until you go to Pakistan.

And so, my first trip, not knowing if there would be other visits, was planned. As I began to reach out to my personal contacts, they began to connect with people presenting performances, with whom they shared my information. I was pleasantly surprised to receive multiple invitations to perform and teach, resulting in six performances. In this first trip, I taught Kathak for multiple schools and organizations in the three major cities – Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Photo courtesy of Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

Pakistan – a brief history
In addition to sharing my own experiences, I would also like to provide a brief outline of recent political underpinnings that have shaped Pakistan. This context is important in creating a non-judgmental approach to Pakistanis and furthermore understanding attitudes towards dance.

When India gained its independence from the British in 1947, the country was divided into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh)—based on religious borders and boundaries to create an Islamic nation of Pakistan. This forced migration resulted in the world’s largest mass refugee crisis where up to 25 million people were uprooted and nearly 2 million died in the violence that accompanied Partition.

As Pakistan developed its infrastructure in its first two decades as a nation, music and dance were a beloved presence in the social and cultural fabric. In 1966, the PIA Arts Academy was established in Karachi under the Pakistan International Airlines corporation, and with a heavy emphasis on dance programming. Dance classes were conducted along with performances for people living in and visiting Pakistan, especially at the various embassies located in Karachi.

Upon a military coup in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq became the President of Pakistan, ruling from 1978-1988, institutionalizing military and Sharia Law, religious law derived from religious prophecy. This had a profound impact on the arts, and dance in particular. According to celebrated Pakistani artist of dance and theater, Sheema Kermani,

“It was a very difficult time for all of us to live through. As far as performing arts was concerned, all dance was banned. And the women who were in the arts bore the harshest brunt of it all. They were the most targeted. So when all this started happening, everyone began leaving the country. There was a mass exodus of talent from here.” (Interview with Samaa TV, August 30, 2016)

This was undoubtedly the most oppressive era in Pakistan’s history, and in many ways, though almost 30 years have passed since Zia-ul-Haq’s death in 1988, the nation and its people still suffer from the institutionalized conservatism once forced upon them.

Who’s dancing now?
During the decade of Sharia Law, Pakistanis were fearful of having any connection to dance—due to claims of dance being “un-Islamic” and the belief that women should not publicly display their bodies. Many artists had either left the country, or stopped teaching and performing. Children were born, and in their most formative years, had no idea that dance was part of their culture. They never missed it because they never had it.

A whole generation went untrained and uninformed about dance and music. Many adopted a conservative religious mindset including the notion that dance had no place in Islam and thus in the fabric of Pakistani culture.

It took time for artists to feel secure promoting their art form publicly, and to regain the trust, confidence in themselves and from others, and an interest in dance by others as well. Sheema Kermani is one artist who continues to negotiate creating work in Pakistan. She had remained steadfast in developing her craft as an Odissi and Bharatanatyam (other forms of classical dance) dancer during the decade of conservatism in 77-88, and also developed a theater arts organization, Tehrik-e-Niswan (meaning ‘feminist movement’) in Karachi. SheemaJi (respectfully) has been working for the past 35 years for the promotion of quality theatre in Urdu (language of Pakistan) and for women’s development through theatre and media in Pakistan.

“I just felt that if I also leave [Pakistan] then dance will die. And I took it on myself to continue it and not let it die. However it may be considered subversive, I was determined to continue doing it,” said SheemaJi when asked about the decade during Zia-ul-Huq’s rule.

Pakistan in the present
Pakistan’s history and current instability (from targeted and random acts of violence in the overall region), continues the uphill battle for dance artists to gain respect and complete acceptance as performers and teachers. Even 10-15 years ago, commonly occurring violent acts such as carjacking threatened safety on a daily basis; family and friends had all more recently assured me that the overall tension had subsided—it was a relatively safe time to come to perform and teach.

Thanks to artists like Sheema Kermani, and leadership shifting to more moderate approaches, the environment in relation to dance is not as oppressive as it once was but I still didn’t know what to expect. The idea of dancing in Pakistan felt personal, political and emotional. I felt the pressure of representing Kathak, the U.S., my GuruJi’s training—that somehow I was even bridging the divide between India and Pakistan, and that perhaps I could encourage an openness to dance and Kathak specifically.

Photo courtesy of Farah Yasmeen Shaikh

At first I had a number of questions and doubts. Was it safe for a woman to dance in public? What labels were being placed on me for being a daughter of former Pakistani citizens, now returning as a professional dancer? Would I be ridiculed for my American accent? What aspects of Kathak should I perform, fearing I would do something “too Hindu” provoking anti-Indian sentiments? What were the musicians going to be like— would they give me respect as a female, as a dancer? How would I connect with these musicians—based on cultural, language and possibly gender based judgements?

All of these questions and concerns have been met with resounding positive outcomes. From the first time I rehearsed with an ensemble of Pakistani musicians, to teaching groups of men and women—most of whom had never taken a dance class, to performing for audiences of multiple generations, people have been excited, appreciative, extremely respectful and encouraging. I’ve been invited to teach workshops to students of Sheema Kermani, and to perform and teach at some of the most prestigious festivals and universities throughout the country.

I will continue to share specific experiences in the remainder of this three part series. One main outcome has been my increasing desire to continue performing and teaching in Pakistan. Another is the enthusiasm from audience members and students alike. There have been some extreme high points and some moments of frustration; I have gained the most by recognizing the potential for dance to flourish as an art form and vehicle for positive, peaceful change in Pakistan. After my first performance in Karachi, one audience member posted on Facebook,

“It was pleasure meeting with Ma’am Farah Yasmeen Shaikh who is great Kathak Dancer, she graced the event with her performance at T2F, Karachi. We need women like her to dispel darkness over Muslim population based in US and across world, indeed Art is an instrument for social change; we must inject liberal spell in the heads of those who are gobbling up this innocent earth.”
I am humbled by his comments, and more-so by his faith in me to continue “dispelling darkness”. I certainly intend to keep trying, and hope you will join me.

The Art of Storytelling: Kathak’s Evolving Connection to Religion

72. Chitresh Das

Pandit Chitresh Das, portraying Lord Shiva / Photo by Edward Cosati

Religion is very personal, and yet, since the beginning of time, it has been of great influence to societal structure at just about every level, including the arts. For many dance forms, this too is the case and thus begs the question how or where does that influence exist today, and does an artist need to practice the religion that the dance form was inspired by or originated from? 

Using the history of Kathak, classical dance of North India, I will look more closely at the relevance of religion in a form that at one time had its roots deeply embedded in religious practices, and mainly as a vehicle to pass on and share religious stories. The purpose is not to analyze religious practices, pass judgment on its merit or that of those who believe or follow a particular faith, but to better understand the root and cultural context of specific forms of dance and how religion might play into its past, present and even, future.

The word Kathak is derived from katha, meaning “the art of storytelling.” It is also synonymous with the community of artists known as Kathakas whose hereditary profession it was to narrate history while entertaining. With dance, music and mime these storytellers of ancient India would bring to life the great scriptures and epic of ancient times, especially the great Indian epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – and the Puranas of Sanskrit literature.

When the Mughals invaded India, maintaining power for over 300 years, the Mughal-Persian culture permeated India’s social structure, simultaneously playing a powerful role in the development of music and dance in India. During this time, Kathak and a class of dancing girls and courtesans emerged. From its early form as devotional expression dedicated to the Hindu gods, Kathak gradually moved out of the Hindu temples and was brought into the lavish darbars (courts) of the Mughal emperors as a form of entertainment taking on aspects of Persian music and poetry, along with movements and gestures that were uniquely indicative of Mughal culture.

Based on its historical evolution, Kathak is said to be the only classical dance that is an outcome of Hindu and Muslim cultures. I repeat – cultures. The distinction being that the highly refined etiquette that surrounded the Mughal courts—mainly inhabited by practicing Muslims—was closely equated to a notion of Islamic culture, and not necessarily religion. Perhaps the point is that religion and culture were less distinct in the past, where as today
there is far more cross over and mingling of cultures and faiths. During the mid-1800’s, Kathak enjoyed a renaissance and gained prominence among the kings and zamindars (feudal overlords) not only as a form of entertainment, but as a classical art form, and seemingly maintained its original Hindu roots as well as its influence of Islamic culture.

Fast forward to present day. How is a classical tradition of ancient India maintained when not in a temple, or in a royal court (though again,  acknowledging that the religious attributes are questionable here), but instead performed in the proscenium, with dramatic lighting, an audience and critics? Do the notions of religion still come into play when often the need to “create new work” is dictated by funders and presenters?

In master Kathak artist and Artistic Director of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Pandit Chitresh Das’ work that premiered in October of 2013, Shiva, the first impression might have been that it must be a Hindu story with the title being that of an iconic deity in the Hindu belief system. However, in Pandit Das’ own words about this production:

“It’s a relative term, Shiva power. You can view Shiva as a deity, or a source of many aspects of life, an entity, a source of power. He is the source of the five elements, air, water, fire, earth and in the Indian system, we take space as the fifth. This is all within yourself.

What you make of Shiva is up to you. It can be attainable power or just a metaphor. The symbolic meaning of different aspects of all the gods and goddesses is all up to one person, how they see it and perceive. I am showing my perception of Lord Shiva, what I have realized through my practice.
But there are so many ways to see this power – through practice of yoga, tantra, dance, music, painting, literature, art. All the [slokams] were written not by dancers, but by poets and spiritual beings who were not just following ritualistic practices. And besides, ritual without understanding is meaningless.”

Pandit Das also says, “As dancers, we don’t go to the temple to worship the deity, we become the deity through dance, and by this, a profoundly devotional practice is established in which the dancer can often feel transformed to a higher level of connection to the essence of that particular god or goddess they are portraying.”

One would certainly have a hard time arguing the religious merit in that.

Recently, an adult student, new to the Chhandam School of Kathak (Pandit Das’ institution where I am an instructor), contacted me to discuss how, I, as a Muslim woman, have been able to navigate my path in Kathak. She, also a practicing Muslim, was aware of the influence of Islamic culture in the dance, but was more curious about how I reconciled some of the more Hindu practices that exist such as the stories about Lord Krishna, the Namaskar (a Hindu greeting meaning the divine in me greets the divine in you). To some, Hinduism and Islam are in stark contrast to one another, and the idea of a Muslim partaking in Hindurituals can be seen as going against their own faith.

My response to her was simple. First, when learning a craft or skill an individual must be open in mind and heart. Fortunately, I come from a family where the divide of faiths was never greater than the need for human beings to be kind, compassionate and respectful to one another. Islam happens to be the faith that has been passed down through our lineage, and for me personally, I respect that and embrace it to the best of my ability in a way that
suits my life.

As for Kathak and the aspects of Hinduism in the dance, that has always been an opportunity to learn something new. To me, the stories are not about being Hindu, they are about acknowledging the hundreds of attributes—good and evil—that can exist in beings, and how the path one chooses can also have positive and negative effects. There is a moral compass present in each story, confronting those moments in which a decision must be made, often with distractions and obstacles coming in the way —very much a reflection of everyday life.

Fellow Chitresh Das Dance Company member, Rachna Nivas, brought up around the concepts and practices of Hinduism, recently premiered a new work focused on Meerabai, the Hindu mystic and great devotee to Lord Krishna, another Hindu deity. Meerabai is a prominent figure of the Bhakti movement, where one utilizes dance, music and poetry to reach liberation without the intermediary of a priest. Rachna chose this story not only because of its connection to her personally and spiritually, but also to shed light on a story about a woman who was empowered by immersing herself, through her Bhakti practice, into the love and great devotion she had for Lord Krishna to the point of ultimate liberation.

I am currently developing a new work in collaboration with author Indu Sundaresan, based on her first published work, The Twentieth Wife which is a tale of one of India’s most powerful women, Noor Jahan, the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir, one of the Mughal emperors of India. The story, based on reality, surrounds the life of a Muslim woman in the 16th century who held tremendous power while living her life behind the harem walls at a time where women were not to be involved in politics or issues related to societal structure. This story has nothing to do with religion, but is a wonderful display of the culture that existed during the time of the decadent and opulent courts of Mughal India. For me, this is a tribute to women who defied the odds, and the fact that she was a Muslim woman offers an added intrigue, but not necessarily a religious component.

These examples are a way of demonstrating how even in the modern day, the history and roots of Kathak play out, sometimes literally on the stage, and often in a way that is up to both the artist and the audience to interpret what makes sense to them. Again, religion is very personal. And thus, though the influence does still exist, it has become more subjective and truly has the ability to transcend what can often feel like the confines of religious boundaries, making many of the stories and messages far more accessible and universal.

In speaking with Pandit Das’ disciple, Seema Mehta, born into a Jain family, and the Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati Mumbai, India, I asked her how she felt religion played a part in the context of Indian classical dance in modern day India. Having recently performed at the prestigious Konark Festival at the Konark Temple in Orissa, India, she said that one of her greatest sadness’s surrounding this topic is that most of the classical forms were initially maintained by temple dancers who were revered as the conduits to the divine through the enactment of the ancient Hindu scriptures. “Now,” she went onto explain, “most people give money to support the temples and other religious institutions but not to the arts. If it had not been for the artists over the centuries, the oral tradition of religious storytelling would not have been preserved. It’s such a shame that society doesn’t value this aspect of our culture nor see the connection between art and spiritualism.”

In May of 2014, Pandit Das continues to challenge the perception of India’s classical dance tradition with his new work, Pancha Jati. His choreography and music composition draws from India’s ancient rhythmic energy, juxtaposing the raw power of percussive footwork and drums of North and South India with movement that is both austere and lush. One could perhaps deduce that with a piece like that, the marriage of this form to that of its religious roots no longer exists. However, if you ask Pandit Das and the dancers, their response would likely be that it is a truly meditative and deeply spiritual experience to connect with the dance floor, to achieve a connection to one another, the musicians, the movement, and all the while acknowledging the
history and meaning of the technique even in this modern day setting…isn’t that religious?

For more information on CDDC’s upcoming performance of Pancha Jati, please visit kathak.org

Discovering Traditions Outside Our Own Communities

FOR ALMOST TWO DECADES I have been trained in Kathak, a classical dance of North India, under the tutelage of my GuruJi, Pandit Chitresh Das. Taking his class for the first time as an 18-year old at San Francisco State University, I was introduced to the form alongside others of various ethnicities and cultures. I had zero experience with Indian dance, but I remember naively thinking, “Well, I look the part.” I was quickly awakened to the fact that art does not belong to the people of the culture, and in fact it is preserved by those who choose to uphold it through the practice of maintaining the technique, the traditions, the philosophies and the cultural contextualization from which it all stems. This requires a deep sensitivity and desire for studying the many influences that have developed these dance forms.

Simply, there are no shortcuts in studying and attempting to preserve a traditional dance form, regardless of your ethnicity. Inspired by the many individuals who have found connections and lifelong commitments to forms outside of their own ethnicities and cultures, I chose to speak with three artists who have given their lives to practicing and performing culturally specific dance forms that they were not born into, and are passing on the respective traditions to future generations. Their stories are a reminder that with an open mind and heart, focus and discipline—and a clear intention—no path is unattainable.

This is an image of Katherine Kunhiraman in traditional Bharatnatyam dress.

In Chennai by V.P. Dhananjayan in 1969 for KatherineJi’s Arangetram

In 1963, at the age of 18, Bharatnatyam Guru, Katherine Kunhiraman (KatherineJi respectfully) moved to India, as her stepfather was offered a job as a consultant with the Ford Foundation to work in Kolkata, India. KatherineJi recalls her mother saying, “Just let India happen to you!”

KatherineJi’s interests included ancient history, theatre and religion, and found all these interests well met in India, where the ancient theatre had evolved into many forms of dance. She remembers how moved she was watching a Bharatanatyam performance: “The theatrical expressions, stunning delicate movements and detailing of each step left me awestruck. There and then I decided I wanted to learn [Bharatanatyam] and somewhere in my heart I was confident that I could do it. When I told my parents this, they were dumbfounded. But they allowed me to follow my heart.”

KatherineJi went on to study and train at the prestigious Kalakshetra in Chennai (formerly Madras), where she also began her performance career. Her mother would attend her performances and overhear Indian audience members question one another when seeing KatherineJi come on stage, “Now what is she going to do?” After witnessing her skill of movement and expression, the same audience members would applaud and make great vocal exclamations about her talent. Prejudice was clearly at play, but KatherineJi let it roll off her, relying on her knowledge and skills to maintain her confidence.

At Kalakshetra, KatherineJi also met and married her Kathakali master, KunhiramanJi, and had a daughter. In 1975, they moved to Berkeley to establish their own school, Kalanjali.

As the Indian population slowly started to grow in the U.S., so did their number of students. KatherineJi recalls there being some skepticism about a non-Indian woman teaching Bharatanatyam, but says that, “Once they knew me, and could get a sense of my knowledge, they stayed and helped to spread the word about our school.” KatherineJi had students of non-Indian origin and would encourage them to also seek performance opportunities, however, they were often turned away.

This saddened KatherineJi, but it didn’t stop her. “My interest was to be a preservationist, not a creator. As an Indian dancer, I was more interested in preserving and passing on the tradition of which I had learned and been trained in. I don’t feel like a non-Indian, I feel like I’m both—I’m at home with both cultures.

This is an image of Mahea Uchiyama dancing hula in a red dress.

Pictured: Mahealani Uchiyama
Photo by: RJ Muna

Mahealani Uchiyama (Mahea for short) is a dancer, musician, composer and teacher. An advocate for cultural understanding, she is the founder and Artistic Director of the Center for International Dance (MUCID), and is Kumu Hula (hula teacher) of Halau KaUaTuahine.

Born in Washington D.C. at the height of the civil rights era, at a young age, Mahea was introduced to ballet lessons. Loving the discipline of the dance and how it gave her a centering point that allowed her to relate to the rest of her life, Mahea recalls, “When things got me down dance helped me make sense of the world.” At 11 years old Mahea was already six feet tall and remembers that not many black women were ballet dancers, and none were as tall as she was, but the only options for dance classes were modern, jazz or ballet. At the age of 12, Mahea came across Hawaiian dance known as Hula, meaning dance in Hawaii ‘olelo Hawai’I, the language of the Hawaiian people.

When it came time to make decisions about college, Mahea struck a bargain with her parents so that she could go to college in Hawaii and pursue her study of Hula. At the age of 17, Mahea enrolled at the University of Hawaii and started taking classes in everything “Hawaiian” that she could.

Mahea recalls her experiences during that period: “Most of the black people in Hawaii were in the military, and I did not have problems with the ethnic Hawaiians, but they were not in power. It was the other locals that would say, ‘Gosh, she is so graceful/pretty/smart for a ‘colored’ girl.’ This began to wear on me.”

Mahea struggled to find a Kumu, as she was systematically excluded from the communities she tried to belong to. It became clear that though she loved the culture, she would never be fully accepted there. She had spent the entire time in Hawaii learning the language, the culture—everything she could do to make it clear that she was capable of this path—but it wasn’t until she moved to California that she found her Kumu, Joseph Kaha’ulelilo.

“He [Kumu] saw me with his heart.” Accepting of Mahea’s physical differences and most importantly saw that, “My whole heart was in this and my deep commitment to this art and to this culture.”

When Mahea’s Kumu passed, she was struck with the realization that Hula is a community-based form. It is meant to be a group of people moving with the vision of the Kumu. She felt compelled to start sharing the form, so she started offering classes.

Mahea describes Hula and her commitment to the culture and tradition: “This is a dance that relates to the earth, and basically places you as in intrinsic part of something bigger than you are, and gives a medium to become part of that, gives you an understanding that you’re not alone, that if you just slow down enough to regard nature— it is a rich gift, but only if you see yourself as part of it, but not as someone who can control it or own it. The underlying foundation is that of a very intense and profound spiritual attachment to the creator and the natural world, and to your community—if you don’t understand that, you can’t call yourself a hula dancer. A true Hula dancer is in service of the art, the culture, the tradition.“

Now celebrating 20 years of her organization, Mahea teaches people of Hawaiian descent as well as many other ethnicities. As a non-Hawaiian, she feels that it is not her place to get too far away from the core of the tradition, so tries to stay very much on the path she started on, one which is deeply connected to the tradition of Hula. She feels that people know and recognize the integrity of her traditional work.

This is an image of Seibi Lee in a Kathak costume.

Pictured: Seibi Red
Photo credit: Margo Moritz

Seibi Lee, disciple of Pandit Chitresh Das, grew up in Canada, and is half Chinese, half Japanese. Over 20 years ago she attended a Kathak performance and remembers being blown away by the range of technique. Studying to be a professional harpist at the time, she sought out the director of Pandit Das’ school in Toronto, to receive information on taking Kathak classes. For Seibi, her first class happened to be with Pandit Das himself and she was struck by the fact that her presence as a non-Indian was never questioned. “The way he taught was such that every person in the room had potential, and made the art feel universal.”

In the mid-90’s, Seibi moved to California so she could deepen her study with PanditJi, and shortly thereafter joined his company, Chitresh Das Dance Company, and is now a senior instructor at his institution, Chhandam, and a Kathak soloist in her own right.

For the past year, Seibi has been an Artist in Residence at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center where in October she will perform a traditional Kathak solo. Her storytelling segment of this performance will be the story of Houyi and Chang’e, an ancient Chinese story told through Kathak. The story will bring together certain aspects of Seibi’s life: her in-depth training as a Kathak dancer and western classical musician, and her Asian background and cultural heritage.

“The desire to explore my own cultural heritage has deepened over many years of studying Kathak with GuruJi (Pandit Das). He challenges us to respect and explore each of our own unique cultural histories. When I was growing up, I didn’t identify very strongly with my own Asian heritage because there was no community around me. The irony is that I am embracing a dance form from another culture, I am finding ways to pay homage to my own rich heritage.”

There are many artists like KatherineJi, Mahea and Seibi that have become true bearers of traditions. Their unwavering commitments have brought them to where they are today and through their artistry and teaching they are helping to preserve traditions for generations to come. No matter your cultural background, it’s important to follow one’s own dreams and aspirations as well as honoring the work of teachers, mentors, Kumus and Gurus, by remembering that art does not belong to any one person, it is a universal medium that has the power to inspire.

Upaj (Improvisation) of Life Captured on Film

Having personally witnessed the development of Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith’s relationship on and off the stage, I was thrilled when the announcement of a documentary to capture their relationship was in the works. In the field of traditional dance, it is imperative to look to others that have made deep commitments to their respective forms and have simultaneously found ways to collaborate with artists of other forms. The film highlights how Pandit Das and Jason’s collaboration continue to be an example of the power art has to transform the lives of those practicing it as well as those who are touched by it.

Pictured: Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith Photo by Antara Bhardwaj

Pictured: Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith
Photo by Antara Bhardwaj

A virtuosic master Kathak dancer, Pandit Chitresh Das is one of the most dynamic and far-reaching artists to have emerged from Modern India. A choreographer, composer and director, Das has developed compelling new works that are inventive, yet deeply rooted in tradition. In 2009, Das was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed on a traditional artist by the U.S. Government. His groundbreaking technique, Kathak Yoga, has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Chhandam, Das’s institute is one of the largest Indian classical dance institutions in the world, with over 700 students worldwide, and his company, the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC), has toured internationally to great acclaim.

Jason Samuels Smith, performer, choreographer and director, has emerged as a multi-talented leader in Tap. At 15, he was cast as an understudy to the leading role in Tony Award Winning Broadway show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. He received the 2009 Dance Magazine Award and won both an Emmy and American Choreography Award for his tribute to the late Gregory Hines at the Jerry Lewis/MDA Telethon.

In 2004, these two artists crossed paths backstage at the American Dance Festival at Duke University during Festival of the Feet, a presentation of Kathak, Flamenco and Tap dance. Pandit Das, almost 60 at the time, performed solo and with his company, and Jason, then only 24, joined two other artists to represent Tap and their various takes on it. Das and Smith were not intended to dance together, but attracted to one another’s artistry, they found each other backstage and almost instantly jumped into an impromptu jam session. This was the initiation of an unforeseen relationship—artistically, culturally and generationally—kindled by what seemed to be a chance meeting. To the scores of people who have witnessed it on and off the stage, however, it was kismet.

Determined to work together again, Pandit Das and Smith developed India Jazz Suites (IJS). Premiered in San Francisco in 2005, it was selected as the #1 Dance Performance of the year by the SF Chronicle, and won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Ensemble Performance in 2007. Known for its essence of upaj (a Hindi word meaning improvisation), the performance is an incredible blast of speed and power, grace and beauty, epic storytelling and the pure joy of dance, complete with musical accompaniment of North Indian classical and Jazz musicians. Fast-forward to 2013, IJS has toured to over 40 cities world-wide with no plans to stop anytime soon. In fact, they’re taking the collaboration to another kind of stage—the big screen.

An idea brought to life by the Center for Asian American Media, Upaj: Improvise is a documentary about an unlikely duo who have formed a deep bond with dance as their medium. In this film, we see an unusual and unexpected friendship develop, and witness both artists persevering to preserve their traditional heritage in today’s pop culture world—an issue that many artists, specifically those from traditional forms, are faced with. “Upaj: Improvise, is not about dance. It is about two dancers,“ says the film’s Producer and Founder of HINDIPENDENT FILMS (and CDDC member), Antara Bhardwaj. The power of the film is in watching the relationship between Das and Smith unfold, deepen and continue to evolve.

“I’ve done a lot of research on fusion and this [IJS] isn’t it. It’s a search for and the finding of common ground where the artists can talk to each other. It’s very smart. The art forms aren’t changing each other, they’re broadening the palettes. On the one hand, you want to change with the times and with people, but you don’t want to compromise who you are or what you do. I think the film captures growth on the part of the artists, but it’s uncompromising growth. And that’s very beautiful,“ says Hoku Uchiyama, the film’s Director.

On March 2, 2013, Upaj: Improvise will showcase at CDDC’s Annual Gala at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, including a performance by Das and Smith, and Q&A with the film’s stars, director and producers of the film. Plans for the film to be screened at various festivals around the world, as well as the possibility of airing on PBS, are also in the works.

Pandit Das and Smith graciously took the time to talk about their involvement in Upaj: Improvise, their relationship, and the convergence of Tap and Kathak.

Shaikh: In the film we are presented with ancient Indian and modern American traditions. Can you talk about the cultural nuances in the dance forms and how you addressed them as you started working with each other?

Das: The two forms are poles apart. The sounds I make, are with my bare feet and ghungroos (ankle bells), while Jason’s sounds come from the tap shoes. However, it stems from both the mind and body as we move together. Jason is extremely open and very alert. He sometimes prides himself by saying that he is the boy from the “hood” and perhaps that is what makes him alert, but it is also naturally ingrained in him. So it helps him on stage when we perform, because we improvise a lot. The hoofer style he comes from also has improvisation at its heart—as much as in Kathak. Improvisation is the key ingredient in our collaboration. Because he and I both come from the tradition of heavy upaj, it works. We are not really thinking of technique at that time, we just go and produce sounds and rhythms that are similar.

Smith: We started out wanting to create a vibe and energy from our interaction on stage; creating something new each time. That’s what’s truly inspiring about our production, and as IJS has developed, so has our relationship. It’s given us experience, let us get more comfortable with each other as artists, and speak to each other on that artistic level. It gets more and more interesting every time we do the performance and is a constant surprise for the both of us. No two performances are ever the same. We challenge each other as artists on stage and that has definitely brought us closer off stage.

Shaikh: How did you navigate the cultural and generational differences on and off stage?

Smith: I should first say that my introduction to Chitresh Das and his company was my first introduction to the classical Indian arts as a whole. Even though I grew up in New York, which is so culturally diverse, I wasn’t introduced to Indian culture on that level until I participated in the Festival of the Feet at the American Dance Festival. Since, I’ve definitely noticed a lot of differences in culture, tradition, etiquette, etc. I learned about a lot of those cultural nuances on my first trip to India in 2007. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I had to humble myself in the process. I had to have an open mind to take all of that in. And that touches on the theme of the documentary; the word ‘upaj’ literally means ‘improvisation.’ Improvising requires being open-minded and being able to adapt to numerous situations.

Das: To me, Jason is like a younger [version of] me, and he learns more and more about Indian culture, by going to India than just dancing with me. He too has educated me about the African-American culture, jazz culture and jazz dancers like Peg Legg and many other great jazz artists.

I am like his uncle, his friend, his rival—everything put together. Our energy together is the binding force. When we dance we don’t think about age, culture, or anything else.

Many of my friends tell me that I should act my age. But what is that? I don’t know. My energy says one thing, and I have to act another…yeah I may look old—but so what?

Shaikh: In your mind what is this film about and what would you like people to take away after watching the film?

Smith: As Chitresh Das says, “Life is upaj.” It’s all about being in the moment and not planning too far ahead, because you never know what’s going to happen. So the more open minded you are the better off you’ll be.

Das: I read a description of the film that says it breaks all the barriers of race, culture, and age. What does that mean? It means that through dance we are trying to bring peace and harmony in the world. That is the message.

Our collaboration is Indo-American. Those who are not Indians or American should also take pride because it is not just Indian culture or American culture, but it is world culture.

Additional contributors: Shruti Iyer, Poonam Narkar, Rupal Shah

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