Close to the inner fire: Dancing the taboos away
ISLAMABAD: Small-framed and draped in a sari, 83-year-old Indu Mitha exudes five decades of resilience against the resistance of a nation struggling with cultural identity. Maintaining a nine-beat rhythm with a bell in her hand, she observes her small classroom of dancers at the Mazmoon-e-Shauq academy, where she has been teaching since 1999. She has taught classical dance to generations of women, thereby bringing back to life the grace and poise that women of the area have always possessed — but lost at the hands of a fast-paced life.
Yet, Mitha has been a victim of many social taboos. These taboos are part of the Pakistani nation’s predominant perception of the performing arts: the No Objection Certificates include a clause that terms dance an “obscenity”.
Trained in Bharatanatyam — a form of classical dance that takes its roots from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu — Indu Mitha began to teach in 1953 at the Sir Syed Girls College in Rawalpindi. Bharatanatyam has a sacred tinge to it, as it was born against the backdrop of worship in Hindu temples. Mitha, however, sees dance as secular and inward.
Mitha, who was born and raised in pre-partition Lahore, moved reluctantly to Delhi shortly after the division of the subcontinent. But her introduction to dance was at an early age, much before Lahore became part of Pakistan. With strong encouragement from home to explore the arts, Mitha learnt the basics of Kathak at the Youth Women’s Christian Association, where students were few and commitment was lacking.
It wasn’t until 1943 that Mitha embraced the more modern school of classical dance, known as Uday Shankar, under the patronage of actress Zohra Sehgal and her husband, Kamishvar Sehgal, at a time when learning dance was exclusive to girls from Hindu and Christian backgrounds. This exclusivity extends in modern Pakistan where classical dance is appreciated by a select few due to the lingering perception that this art form is “Indian”.
It was in the Delhi winter after the partition of India that Mitha accompanied her mother to a theatre performance where she was first exposed to Bharatanatyam. Learning dance at the Sangeet Bharati School, Mitha’s diligence to learn, despite the pre-conceived attitude of her ustad, whose own experiences had led him to believe that young girls from conservative homes and marriage plans were worthy of little investment, allowed her to defy this stereotype and to challenge her own father’s reservations about the gravity of Mitha’s ambition to dance.
“I didn’t just want to dance for my friends at parties and charity events,” she shares, revisiting memories dating back to 1950. Mitha packed her bags and travelled to Madras during the following summer, with the conviction to perfect Bharatanatyam from a young, South Indian woman called Lalita Jee.
With less than three months at her disposal, Mitha devoted all hours of the day to learning, though soon after her return to Delhi, she married a Pakistani general and moved to Peshawar. In the 1960s dancing in Pakistan was akin to ‘idiocy’ but with two young daughters, Mitha found a way to keep dancing, teaching and performing for other women in the military circle.
“We have imported the entirety of Bollywood and yet, dance is somehow the criterion of vulgarity,” laments Mitha, who believes that the government’s reluctance to associate with anything that takes its roots from India is unsettling. In trying to organise a tribute to the acclaimed sitar-maestro, Ravi Shankar, Mitha was met with reactions like: “If we play sitar, will we become Indian?”
Mitha’s students see dance as an inward expression and wish to continue their teacher’s legacy. For students like Faryal Aslam, it is much too late to take on classical dance as a profession. Aslam holds a PhD in world arts and culture and uses dance as a lens with which to explore the facets of her identity. “My Islam is not threatened by my dance,” she expresses, “I can be a scholar, a dancer and a Muslim woman as part of the same journey to unravel myself.”
While classical dance has a sacred origin in India, in Pakistan, unfortunately, the sounds of the ghungroo (jingling anklets) have a long-standing association with the dance and music of its red-light area, where the ‘classical’ has since long been replaced by ‘Bollywood’.
Iftikhar Masih, 40, whose ‘disco-dancing’ led him to Mitha’s class ten years ago, feels that there is little respect for male dancers. Masih is part of the dance troupe that works with the National Council of the Arts and relates that during a classical performance, the then director general of PNCA asked the males to remove their ghungroos, which he said were “feminine”. According to Mitha, the otherwise open-minded artist-turned-director general was forced to react in a manner aligned with the attitudes and perceptions of the government forces.
But Mitha’s students share her passion. One such student, Anis-uz-Zamani, 58, whose social circle includes educated people, has received appreciation for her dance. However, being a homemaker is her prime focus. “It is fulfilling to see housewives learn dance for pleasure because it does something for their mind and character that is special,” said Mitha.
An apolitical Mitha remains optimistic. “If it could take England more than 6o years to develop theatre and dance, then there is hope for us as well.”
Summing up Mitha’s journey is a dance choreographed and performed by Mitha and her daughters titled ‘Ustad Kee Faryaad’ (the master’s plea). The heart-wrenching piece is a reflection on the worldly responsibilities that create a distance between the dancer and her Inner Fire. Mitha pleads with her student, her body twisting and untwisting into sharp lines, in enhanced expressions that convey the bittersweet struggle of teaching dance amidst the distractions of education, marriage and motherhood. These are roles that garner more respect than dance. But to Mitha, dance is second to none.