Letting Dance Educate You
By A.H. Cemendtaur
Pictures by Dipak Pallana
If there were ever an argument about dance as a form of expression, not predating speech, the sight of an audience of almost two hundred people, comprising various ethnicities and linguistic groups, coequally enjoying music and dance program held on Sunday, March 3, must have closed that debate.
Sunday’s event held at the India Community Center in Milpitas, and arranged by the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Citizens Foundation (TCF) was meant to inform the audience about the work of TCF and how the organization’s efforts are in fact making a perceptible change in the education scene in Pakistan. And what better way to attract audience on a weekend than to weave the information about the non-profit organization around a dance performance.
TCF’s program dubbed ‘An Evening of Kathak’ started with a musical performance by Jeff Whittier (Bansuri) and Leslie Schneider (tabla).
Opening up the show, Zeba Naseem Savage, program’s MC and a math teacher from Southern California, told the audience that her parents, Amjad and Najma Noorani, joined TCF in 1999 when there were 35 schools built by TCF, with 3000 students in those schools --TCF started its work in 1995. She said today there are 910 TCF schools, and 126,000 girls and boys are enrolled in them. In April this year, TCF will reach its major milestone of building one-thousand schools.
A video report on the TCF’s work in education titled ‘Closing the Gap’, made by Bangalore-born noted American journalist Fred DeSam Lazaro, was shown to the audience.
Maidah Chughtai spoke about her recent trip to Pakistan in which she made an unannounced visit to a TCF school. She said the dedication of the TCF school staff immensely impressed her.
Faraz, another TCF associate, spoke about his latest visit to a TCF school in Karachi. He encouraged people to visit TCF-built and run schools whenever they make a trip to Pakistan.
Laiq Chughtai, TCF San Francisco Bay Area Chapter lead, showed photos of a school being built in Gambat, Sindh using money raised in the Silicon Valley.
Introducing the first dance performance of the evening, Zeba Savage said, “The Traditional Kathak solo is meant to highlight the various components of this classical Indian dance form. Though there is a framework to the solo, much of it is improvised, adding to the excitement and dynamism of what you will observe through the exchange between the dancer and the musician.”
The solo dance performance featured Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a veteran Kathak dancer who after learning the art, many years ago, from the Chitresh Das Dance Company, San Francisco, has been associated with that group; the musicians included eminent Afghan American tabla player, Nader Salar; and Ben Kunin, a noted musician on sarod. Farah dressed in a traditional green pishwas and choori dar pajama, trotted the stage, and twisted and twirled in delicate moves, with her ghunghroo accentuating the dance rhythms.
Farah Shaikh’s solo performance got further solo at the end of the first segment when the musicians took a break and Farah got hold of a harmonium. Then it was her music, her melody, and her dance. Her fingers moved smoothly on the harmonium keys while her feet thumped the floor in an impressive coordination with the music.
Next was an artistic interlocution between the tabla player and the dancer — the musician presenting a beat, challenging the dancer to perform on it, the dancer responding and in that response challenging the percussionist to do even better.
In the segment that followed, the stage was given to Nader Salar for a solo performance on tabla. Salar proved himself to be a wonderful entertainer, getting a roaring applause at the end of a tabla rendition that had reached a frantically rapid rhythm in its finale.
The best of the show was kept for the last. It was a dance and music performance accompanying excerpts read from the “Twentieth Wife”, a novel by Indu Sundaresan.
From stories in scriptures later filled with minute details by contemporary religious leaders, to plays like ‘Julius Caesar’ and movies like ‘Titanic’, history embellished with fictional details attracts crowds. Indu Sundarasan’s book ‘The Twentieth wife’ is one of those stories based on a particular era of the Mughal history. The protagonist of the book is the Persian trader Ghayas Baig’s daughter Mehrunnisa, who is wedded to Mughal Emperor Akbar’s military officer Ali Quli even though Prince Salim wanted to marry Mehrunnisa. Many years later when Prince Salim is enthroned as Emperor Jahangir and Mehrunnisa is a widow, the two meet again, and Jahangir takes his quondam crush as his twentieth wife. In the power vacuum that exists because of Jahangir’s alcoholism and narcoticism, Mehrunnisa, now known as Nur-e-Jihan, increases her influence in the court and gradually becomes the most powerful Mughal empress history ever saw.
Excerpts from ‘The Twentieth Wife’ were read by Irum Musharraf, while Farah Shaikh--with musical help from Nader Salar and Ben Kunin--provided a dance depiction of the scenes narrated in the reading. The performance grabbed people’s imagination and took them to the Seventeenth Century Mughal court, a place of great activity and intrigue.
Art is supposed to provoke minds, to make people think, and that was exactly what the dance and musical rendition of the ‘The Twentieth Wife’ did to the audience. Standing in line for snacks at the end of the program conversations were heard about the various performances and the mastery demonstrated by the artists.