"I agree that if there is someone from Taliban in the audience, he or she may plant a bomb and blow us up. But we are prepared for such risks".
Sheema Kermani, activist, theatre director and dancer from Pakistan, was one among the several international delegates that participated in the 2nd International Convention organised by SPICMACAY at IIT Madras this past week. Kermani, who heads a cultural group called Tehrik-e-Niswan in Karachi, had studied Bharatanatyam under Leela Samson and Odissi under Aloka Panicker during her previous visits to India. She has also conducted theatre workshops in Karachi under the guidance of theatre director Prasanna Ramaswamy.
I had met Sheema Kermani during her last visit to Delhi when artists of Tehrik-e -Niswan performed at Gandhi Smriti Mandir. Back then, I was assisting Suraiya Rao, a young Pakistani filmmaker, with a documentary on Kathak in Pakistan. I used that documentary as a starting point for my conversation with Kermani on the state of performing arts, especially dance, in Pakistan. Excerpts:
The documentary was screened in Delhi at the Habitat Centre. What were your reactions?
It was a good attempt. Few know that Ghanashyam, a member of Uday Shankar’s troupe, was in Karachi giving lessons in Oriental dance as it was known then. He was essentially a Kathak dancer. However, we learnt all sorts of dance forms from him. Later, when I was in India with my parents, I studied Bharatanatyam from Leela Samson and Odissi from Aloka Panicker.
But I understand dance is banned in Pakistan?
General Zia-ul-Haq imposed Martial Law in 1977. In his policy towards the so-called Islamisation of society, he tried to link Pakistan, both politically and culturally, to the Middle East, with devastating effects. Everything had to be justified in terms of ideology. And since the ideology was vague, it could be used to condemn or support whatever served his political goals. He disbanded the Arts Councils, the National Performing Arts Group, banned women from dancing on stage and implicitly termed dance “un-Islamic”.
What about his tactic of introducing anti-women laws?
The arts and the women of Pakistan have been the two major victims of Zia's policies. The state introduced legal and social forms of control over women as part of its campaign of suppression and made women's sexuality their business. State forces were preoccupied with women's dress, their movements, their sexuality and their very presence in public spaces. In the name of religion, laws like the “Hudood Ordinances”, “Qisas”, “Diyat” and “Blasphemy Laws” were introduced and are prime examples of laws that devalue women, arts and humanity. The very first programme that was banned on PTV by Gen. Zia ul Haq was 'Payal,' a dance programme. But as it happens with anything that is banned, people always find a way to circumvent it. We do not announce our institution as a dance academy. We offer training in dance but call it movement classes. I run Tehrik-e-Niswan and we use dance as a movement for theatre of protest.
But are you are not allowed to perform in public?
We have to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC). We apply and perform. Often the authorities ignore us.
So you take risks with fundamentalists and forces like the Taliban…
We do and, if we do not, there is no point having a movement. I agree that if there is someone from Taliban in the audience, he or she may plant a bomb and blow us up. But we are prepared for such risks.
Does the intelligentsia support your movement?
Less said the better. Most of them are sold to the powerful in exchange for favours. But there are some who give moral support.
You do not mind mentioning who supports your movement?
Beena Jawwad, a Kathak dancer and a teacher, has been a source of strength and runs a Society for Classical Arts in Lahore. She conducts Basant Bahar, a programme on classical and folk arts of Pakistan. Another person is Salima Hashmi, daughter of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She is also Professor and Dean of School of Visual Arts and Design at Beacon House National University in Lahore . Raza Kazim Saab who migrated to Pakistan at the age of 17, runs an institution for classical arts. He has mentored our vision of developing a strong bond between India and Pakistan. Hayat Khan organises performances for all music and culture groups in Pakistan at Lawrence Gardens in the month of October. Recently, Kumudini Lakhia’s Kadamb dancers performed there.
But I understand that you cannot have troupes from abroad performing in public?
Often, we get support from Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute, British Council and they organise performances by issuing invitations after seeking NOC.
Tell me about former President Musharraf’sobnoxious statement that Pakistani women do not mind being raped in order get a U.S. visa. What made you protest against it and in what manner?
We were enraged and decided to go to the Press Club to protest in public against President Musharraf who was leaving for the U.S. We rehearsed our skit in a van on our way to the Press Club. BBC covered our protest. Another source of inspiration was dancer Chandralekha and her concept of the spine. In her choreographic work ‘Shree,’ she has shown how patriarchy breaks the spine of women. Using her idea as a metaphor, we looked at men, straight into their eyes. It worked! Our stance with a straight spine, looking directly into their eyes had instant effect. They lowered their eyes. We knew then that we could challenge them.
How do you support your activities?
We do odd jobs. I teach as a professor of art history at two institutions. Some members of my troupe work during the day and devote time in the evening to our theatre work. Some work for television. Funnily enough, reality shows on dance are permitted in Pakistan and they make money. Some others support us by giving donations. Such movements always face monetary problems, but like in other cases, we get by. Only a few dancers continue to teach and perform and some of my students are now teaching at various schools in Karachi. These are private schools where young students are taught dance but they are referred to as movement classes and not dance classes. Dance is 'officially' still banned.
What about private Mujras?
You can see the hypocrisy of the regime here as well. The elite class arranges Mujras in their posh residences where women entertain them. The former cricketer and politician Imran Khan is no exception. With proper education we wish to create an awareness. I believe in secularism. It is the only way to change the mindset of the public and make them aware of the healing effect of dance and how it can be taken as a serious art form and as an agent of change.