|Talib to Taal|
Imagine a state where one is dancing to the tunes of bombing, shelling and sounds of destruction in the background. This is a fact for people like Sheema Kermani who has kept her passion for art alive for over 30 years. Sheema has braved Zia-Ul-Haq’s regime and managed to stage politically conscious plays about women’s plight in Pakistan.
Tehrik-E-Niswan, her dance academy continues to hold its own despite Zia, Taliban, et al. Here is a sneak peek into Sheema’s life as a dancer, choreographer and activist.
1: Are you still performing Bharath Natyam besides Oddissi and other contemporary dance dramas related to Pakistan society?
Yes I am. I still perform classical as well as contemporary dance- I am a choreographer too. Most of my students are part of my troupe.
2: I know you are a rebel, would you tell us what difficulties you faced to keep this passion for dance and tradition going?
Well - difficulties? Where do I start? As you know classical dance by women performing on stage got banned by general Zia ul Haq as part of his Islamisation policies in 1979. Since then dance has become almost taboo in Pakistan. At that point all the dancers started emigrating from Pakistan, some were even forced to leave. I was the only dancer to stay back, therefore I continued to teach and perform. There have been times when I have been threatened by the fundamentalists but I persevered. You can imagine the difficulties! However I have a wonderful career and I am proud to have placed classical dance in a respectable position albeit not many people want to learn. Most of them are interested as an audience though.
3: How did you manage to continue against all odds?
When I returned from India and held my first solo performance in 1984, there were no other dancers in this country. They had either left or gone into oblivion. For almost ten years there were no other dance recitals except mine. Those ten years were certainly very difficult years of extreme cultural and political suppression. But interestingly my performances were always packed even though I was not allowed to advertise. It was in those years that the challenge of getting a NOC (no objection certificate) was both a horrendous task as well as an exciting one. The tragedy of it all is that, acquirement of a NOC is still essential. Even after 25 years one still has to go through the horrendous ritual of the bureaucratic hassles of the government offices, excise and tax departments. This process in itself is enough to make one not want to organize a performance.
Despite all this my love affair with dance continues. Dance and theatre have been a constant source of wonder and fulfillment and have given me the greatest freedom and scope for total self-expression as well as communication.
4: Bharath Natyam or for that matter any dance form has references to Hindu mythology, did you make changes in order to be able to fit in the social scene of Pakistan?
What I do is use the form and I choreograph to Urdu, Persian and English poetry and around themes that concern me and the Pakistani society. I not only teach and set classical items learnt from my various Gurus but I also choreograph using the basics of classical forms that I have learnt.
5: How different are your performances in Pakistan and outside Pakistan? Do you have to change themes?
No, what I perform here I perform the same outside Pakistan. The point is to choose from the repertoire what is appropriate for a certain time, place and the audience. I do have a vast repertoire.
6: Name the countries you have performed with your troupe?
We have performed almost all over the world – UK, USA, Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, China, Indonesia, Bahrain, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Egypt.
7: Have you performed any dance drama depicting how to keep peace between India and Pakistan?
Yes I have created and performed many dance dramas on the issue of Peace, especially Peace between India and Pakistan. One of the earlier ones was set to a poem by Rabidranath Tagore- we performed at the peace conference organized by the Pakistan Peace Coalition in Karachi and I have performed it at the Hague Peace Conference and then in India at the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Development in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata.
Besides this there are two other dance dramas- Indus and Europa and Peace Dreams- the former was also performed at the Hamburg Sommer Dance Festival in Germany.
8: Indu Mitha is a legend, your comments on her achievements.
Indu Mitha has never been a performer. She has basically been a teacher of dance classes in various schools.
9: Are there any traditional dance schools left in Pakistan?
As far as I know there is no other school where dance is taught.
10: A little about your Ustad Ghanshyam.
I joined the Ghanyshyams as their student. Later, I joined their institute as teacher as well as a member of their performing troupe as long as they remained in this country. I worked with them to create their sets, design their costumes, and learnt that when you are full of passion and love for your art, you are willing to do everything that is required. I realize now, there has to be a heady mix of passion and madness. Nothing less can keep one going, because, given the circumstances under which one has to function it is easier to give up than to continue.
Twenty years later in 1983, I was in India on a study tour, when I got a call from Mr Ghanshyam from Karachi. He wanted to know if I would be interested in taking over the Rhythmic Art Centre - their dance and Yoga institute - as they were leaving Pakistan. I said I was interested. By the time I got back to Karachi they had already left. Their depature was sudden and hasty- I believe they were being targeted by the Islamist General Zia-ul- Haq’s military regime and were forced to, literally, run for their lives.
Mr and Mrs Ghanshyam had been to the Uday Shankar School of dance in Almora. They were trained by Uday Shankar the pioneer of modern Indian dance who believed that a dancer must learn different classical, folk and traditional styles. Mr and Mrs. Ghanshyam taught us not only the classical styles of Kathak, Bharatnatyam but also Manipuri, Kathakali and many dances they had choreographed.
11: How has India impacted your artistic life?
The years I spent learning dance in India were absolutely amazing for me. I was in an atmosphere where I was surrounded by and could absorb as much as possible of dance, drama and music. So for me, yes India has played an important role in my artistic life. I think for a creative person it is important to know ones roots, traditions and heritage- this is where the an artist draws inspiration from.
12: What is the future of traditional dances in Pakistan?
I feel the future of all classical arts in Pakistan is very bleak and the future of classical dance is the bleakest of all. However over the years of my teaching, there are number of students who are seriously interested in dance and are trying their best to stay in the field. I myself am trying to set up a larger space and expand my Institute where I can stage performances as well as conduct classes.
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