Rani Khanam and Arshiya Sethi on presenting a production about the rights of Indian women under Muslim Personal Law

Kathak exponent Rani Khanam is known for the aesthetic amalgamation of poetry from different sources into her solo recitals. She is also known for her precise footwork, arresting rhythmic compositions that bring out the flavour of old world Kathak and for her graceful demeanour. But no thinking artiste can remain isolated from the raging issues of her time. Rani has in the past also used the language of Kathak to present themes such as South Asian women and HIV/AIDS (“Shiver), domestic violence (“Un-Tender Touch”) and issues of women empowerment. This Friday evening, along with three other dancers, she presents “Black and White” in New Delhi, which seeks to raise awareness about the rights of Indian Muslim women. The programme is part of Kri Foundation’s tenth anniversary celebrations. Here, the noted dancer, teacher and founder of Aamad — Kathak Dance Centre, shares her insights on the issue. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What does the programme name signify?

“Black and White” is about the Indian Muslim woman, who is overcoming all social and religious inhibitions, proving her potential, and creating her identity as an achiever. We have chosen this name to represent the two aspects — outer and inner self. Black signifies the Indian Muslim women’s pain, suffering, inner darkness, suppression, lack of awareness of their rights; white represents awakening to one’s own self, to the light of one’s inner strength and daring to take the necessary steps for one’s rights.

What led you to conceptualise such a performance?

I am myself an Indian Muslim woman, and concerned with issues that impact my gender, including polygamy, triple talaq, maintenance. These are grave and life altering issues that Indian Muslim women must deal with. I have observed many incidents with near and dear ones, where women are compelled to struggle because they are ignorant of their rights in the Holy Qur’an, and because of this they suffer, often silently and in isolation.

As an artiste I use my medium not only to give voice to these mute sufferers, but also to lift the veil of confusion about their rights sanctioned by the Quran.

What kind of poetry have you used?

Ameeta ji, who goes by the pen name ‘Meeta’, has written some of the poetry especially for this performance, and the rest we have taken from her earlier poetry. Meeta’s poetry is a reflection of life’s experiences, emotions and relationships. She has written in the form of independent ashaar, nazms and ghazals, inspired and influenced by the immortal poetry of shayars such as Daagh Dehlvi. The language is simple enough to be appreciated by a general audience. It was important to use poetry to stylistically carry the narrative forward at some critical points.

Does the choreography include expressive techniques other than Kathak?

No, we have used only Kathak as a medium as it is complete and sufficient to represent any theme. We have used a few dialogues, some dramatic props and costumes, but the dominant and pervasive medium is Kathak.

How would you describe the performance?

This is a positive performance. I am trying to highlight both the problems and achievements of Muslim women, who are somehow always considered to be helpless victims. This programme celebrates the potential of Muslim women. We do highlight some uncomfortable facts that limit their potential, but by and large it seeks to break stereotypes, encourages Indian Muslim women to break free of the helpless stereotypes, to overcome social and religious inhibitions, prove their capabilities, achieve their potential, and create a powerful identity as an achiever.

There is a need for women to educate themselves about their rights in the Qur’an and speak up for these rights. We are not alone. Across India many women and agencies are speaking up. Regrettably, the Muslim Personal Law Board has been continuously ignoring the issues of Muslim women. We hope that through positive efforts like this, they will stop to hear (rather, ‘listen’) and act. As an Indian Muslim woman, I can tell you that there is a great need for the codification of Muslim Personal Law.

Of giving and receiving

Arshiya Sethi, Managing Trustee of Kri Foundation, says of the programme, “We are looking especially at three issues: Khula when a woman asks for a divorce; Iddat, the period in waiting before she can marry again; and Talaq or the male-led divorce.”

Arshiya set up Kri Foundation in 2003, having already been associated with the arts for three decades, “in thanksgiving, after receiving the Fulbright Fellowship. Life had given me so much that it was now time to give back. My co-trustees Rama Vaidyanathan and Vikas Harish have supported enthusiastically all of Kri’s work despite their busy schedules.”Since 2012, the Kri team has been organising events “under the rubric of ‘Dasham Dakshinam’, literally a giving back,” as a thanksgiving for having been able to serve their core areas for 10 years. “For a while now, I am disenchanted with the idea of arts for arts’ sake. I feel there is so much work to be done and really we do not have the luxury to just feed our soul.” In 2009, Kri presented “Flight of Birds” a Bharatanatyam margam by Rama Vaidyanathan themed on the crisis faced by the birds whose habitats are being destroyed by humanity.

“Black and White” is in the same genre and is “at the interface of arts and activism,” says Arshiya. She notes, “For a variety of reasons, there is ignorance, confusion and lack of clarity around issues and interpretations of Muslim Personal Law, especially those that touch women. This ignorance prevails not just amongst non-Muslim populations but regrettably even among Muslim populations, especially amongst Muslim women. This leaves them without agency over their choices. We believe that we all need to be more educated and knowledgeable about our Muslim brothers and sisters. Only when we know, can we appreciate and celebrate diversity, which has been the hallmark of India’s syncretic culture.”

The idea and choreography are Rani Khanam’s. The script is by Ameeta Parsuram ‘Meeta’, a professor of Psychology at Delhi University, and includes pieces written specifically for this project as well as Meeta’s earlier works. The group also received encouragement from Syeda Hameed, Islamic scholar and a member of the Planning Commission. “I am glad that we are presenting this programme in the holy month of Ramzan,” concludes Arshiya, “a time to look inwards, contemplate and connect with our spiritual self.”