The Magic and Power of Classical Dance
By Dr Amineh Hoti
Shakespeare in the Twelfth Night wrote, “If music be the food of love play on.” The legendary Sheema Kermani proved to us at a recent event called “The Magic and Power of Dance”, on the 5th of October 2017, at the beautiful unparalleled Serena Hotel in Islamabad that a similar aphorism is equally as true: if dance be the food of life, carry on.
Sheema Kermani is a phenomenon in herself. She is Pakistani, Muslim and wears a sari with a bindia on her forehead, Plumeria flowers in her hair and, that evening, wore three red roses as a brooch on the upper left side of her sari shoulder. On stage she danced gracefully, gently and elegantly but spoke with great power, force and passion, while all along challenging the status quo.
My dynamic friend, Perveen Malik, who leads the voluntary organization, The Asian Study Group (ASG), which invites foreign and local communities to learn about the culture, customs and crafts of Pakistan, had organized the event. The ASG is known for its rich and vibrant events and excursions all across Pakistan: trips up the stunning Himalayan mountains and deeply historical cities, dating more than two thousand years old, like seductive Lahore. On this occasion, she had managed to fill the large Shamadan Hall – the hall of glittering traditional chandeliers – with illustrious guests hungry for an evening of intelligent entertainment. Here were a large audience – featuring diplomats, dignitaries, top businessmen and ladies, thinkers and scholars, teachers, media people and others from all nationalities, including Austrian, Hungarian, Australian, American, Pakistani, and Indian.
My uncle Akbarzeb, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada, who had just returned from his post and my aunt and uncle, Zeenat and Ziad Alahdad who had moved back from Washington DC to Islamabad after several decades away, were also present,and eagerly enjoyed every moment of the evening. My friend Farah Rehman who had enthusiastically alerted me about the event and brought me here sat beside me. An MBA graduate of George Washington University in Washington DC and a lover of Urdu and Farsi (Persian) poetry, she greatly appreciated the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the famous Pakistani revolutionary poet.
Sheema danced to the grief-stricken poetic song (ghazal) of the lover in Faiz’s poem Dasht-e-Tanhai (desert of solitude) who was separated from his beloved but held her memory close in his mind and through the power of memory on closing his eyes felt his beloved’s presence and essence. The symbolism here is also to exile as Faiz was separated from his own home country.
With a twirl of her wrist, and a flicker of her eyes, symbolizing connectedness, warmth and energy, Sheema indicated the drama of two lovers’ pining a la Romeo and Juliet. In her presentation, she told us how this was an art and a subject that encouraged love and peace – in the most profound way, the body was the instrument of expression. She also pointed out that unlike in Western dance, such as ballet, where men and women have gendered roles – the man picks up the woman, and not vice versa, in South Asian classical dance, both genders could do the gentle dance called Lasya and the harder Tandava (masculine) dance because, as Sheema explained, each of us have the attributes of both man and woman within us.
She said her teacher or Guru, Mr Ghanshyam (a convert from Judaism) and his wife, had dedicated their lives to teaching dance in Karachi from whom she learnt the art. Sheema, who has her own school and has been teaching since the last forty years, said that dance was prehistoric; it was present in ancient civilizations such as Mohinjodaro, Harrapa and the Indus Civilization. Classical dance is the accumulation of centuries of human knowledge.
In fact, she pointed out that even yoga emanated from the region that is now Pakistan, even though India alone is known for yoga today. But because this region was shared space pre-partition both regions claim it. Pakistan, she pointed out, has a rich deep history going back millions of years and we need to celebrate and acknowledge this rich past so that we better understand ourselves. Dance is not restricted to any single nationality or religion – Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and so forth can all learn the art of this bodily expression in order to encourage creative expressions and set creative spaces for ourselves and our children.
We were privileged throughout the evening to hear these and a number of other powerful messages by this strong outspoken woman who had challenged even the terrorists who blew up the Sufi shrine of the peace-loving saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. He reached out to people of all faiths and none. The title ‘Qalandar’ is given to a saint of very high spiritual station who has the deepest love for God and His creation.
But the terrorists, in this deadly bomb attack, killed 88 innocent people and injured 300 in Pakistan. Sheema arrived at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and danced the devotional dhamaal dance in red clothes, the colour of the saint. Through this devotional dance all inhibitions were transcended, even that of gender. She was expressing a form of protest against all those who oppress communities in any form, and all those who take innocent lives. Here she had chosen the path of accumulated knowledge and learning through this expression of classical dance – a path that the great peacebuilders: the lovers-philosophers-saints had chosen: Moulana Rumi, Ameer Khusrau, Bulleh Shah, Madhu Lal Hussain, Shah Latif Bhittai and Shahbaz Qalandar.
Sheema also had an important message for elite men. She said instead of mujras where women dance crudely and vulgarly to titillate gatherings of men, classical dance is graceful and artistic. Yet these same men in positions of authority choose to engage in widely held local mujras where women are degraded, but feel threatened by classical dancing which empowers women.
Someone in the audience suggested that if any foreign government wanted to fund any activity in Pakistan, it should be these sorts of projects, setting up schools and shared creative spaces so that we build goodwill and avoid destructive military forces and sneaky spies. Focusing on military activities over bridge-building projects will only lead to soured relations, the loss of innocent civilian lives among already impoverished people and breed more extremism.
Sheema’s message is one of love for humanity and universal peace. To counter hatred and death, she explained, creativity such as music, dance and art are a form of therapy and serve to uplift humanity – they are a cure, and a bridge to make us better human beings and to develop a world which celebrates harmony, togetherness and diversity. Like so many other good people who live and work in creative spaces in Pakistan, she said, her work “will go on to reflect human beauty and love and our struggle towards local and global peace.”