Pakistan dancers take traditional form alive

   by Hasan Mansoor
   In a posh Karachi home, a dozen girls struggle to maintain their balance as they are put through their paces by Sadia Khan, a skilled performer of Pakistan’s traditional Kathak dance.
   Khan is one of a handful of instructors who are trying to keep the classical dance form alive in this conservative Muslim country, where some clerics have branded its fast, twirling footwork and expressive storytelling “un-Islamic”.
   “In Pakistan, depictions of women dancing has never been stopped in movies or on stage,” Khan, 38, said in an interview at her home studio, emphasising the difference between the popular and traditional forms.
   “I have never heard a cleric speak out against those vulgar dances which have run rampant in our society on film, but they oppose our dance, which is pure art with no vulgarity whatsoever.”
   Dancing was a regular part of life in Pakistan until the rise in 1977 of military ruler Zia ul-Haq, who used religion to suppress cultural traditions and only permitted women to appear on state television wearing veils.
   He banned classical dance performances from the airwaves and cracked down on popular Kathak performers.
   Today, Kathak has gone virtually underground, with only a few qualified instructors and few public performances. Radical clerics have also led a campaign to ban public dancing all together.
   In the restive northwestern Swat valley, a female dancer was murdered by suspected Taliban militants who said she did not heed warnings to abandon her profession, local officials said.
   “I believe that in our religion there is nothing written against dance, but the Islamists claim that dance is forbidden,” said Sheema Kirmani, 59, a celebrated Kathak performer who still teaches in Karachi.
   “I argue that some of our greatest Sufi saints were dancers themselves,” she said.
   “Those who do not like this art form do not have to come to see it. We are not imposing ourselves on anyone and we do not want anyone to force their ideas on us.”
   Sakina, 14, is a student in Khan’s evening class and says learning the complicated manoeuvres is her favourite part of the day.
   “My father has encouraged me to learn about this art form, as it has the potential to teach people to be tolerant and sensitive to the miseries and joys of others, while still entertaining them,” Sakina said.
   “It’s true that most people don’t like dance and think it’s strange, but to me, it’s my whole life.”
   Eight-year-old Bisma agreed. “I’m really happy when I’m dancing,” she said.
   Both Kirmani and Khan said they believe that while Kathak dance may never regain its former popularity in Pakistan, it could serve another purpose — to help bring peace with India.
   The dance form has its roots in northern India and is still widely performed across that country.
   With ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours strained in the wake of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, the dance teachers said art could help bridge the gap.
   “Pakistan and India have inherited the same culture, which could not be changed in just 50 or 60 years. Culture does not change with the redrawing of boundaries,” said Khan, who studied with Kirmani and later spent four years studying in New Delhi.
   Kirmani added: “If we celebrate what we share then we bring ourselves closer and nearer and develop a better understanding.”
   While peace through dance is their lofty dream, the two instructors said that for now they hope the art form will live on in their students, and perhaps someday once again become part of everyday life in Pakistan.
   “I have never seen a single common Pakistani who hates dance. We are prisoners of our norms, which should change to enjoy something which is true beauty and not an evil. It has been misinterpreted,” Khan said.
   “We should follow the precedent set by Iran, where culture is still alive and kicking alongside religion. We should not mix the two things.”

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