Sonya Fatah’s documentary I Dance explores notions of culture and its roots, the constant conflict between the India-Pakistan identities, through the tumultuous journey of classical dances in Pakistan
You can’t define culture through religious identities…”, “Bodily expression is basic to culture…” “The biggest victims of Zia’s Islamisation were women, and the arts, specially dance”. I Dance, a documentary gives voice to the struggle of classical dance in Pakistan where public performances were banned, its survival, transformations, seen through the eyes of one Pakistan’s famous Kathak and Odissi dancers, Sheema Kermani. Made by Pakistani journalist-filmmaker Sonya Fatah, now based in New Delhi, with her cinematographer-editor husband from Bangalore, Rajiv Rao, the film received a grant from India Foundation for the Arts to investigate the influence of religion and politics on the evolution of classical dances in Pakistan. At the film’s recent screening in Bangalore, director Sonya Fatah gives a background to the idea of the film. Excerpts:
What did you expect to find when you set out to make this film?
I had some idea because I was aware of some of the challenges that the Zia (Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq) era had created. I was 11 when he died, so we grew up in a fairly controlled environment. For all of us, it was unthinkable to have a democratic system in place. No one in my family was into classical dance culture. I partly became interested in the story because I’m married into a family here (in India). One of my husband’s aunts is a Bharatanatya dancer. I think a lot about identity — how they are formed, shifted and changed as a result of Partition. I was trying to make a film on Pakistan and tell our story in an interesting way. One angle that hasn’t been discussed, was what happens to an art form when it’s in an environment that’s unfriendly or hostile to it.
In India, classical forms are danced to traditional Hindu epics. What happens when you take it to a place where certainly in those days India was “enemy number one” and anything that was Hindu or associated with India was not acceptable. Dancers like Sheema Kermani, Naheed Siddiqui and Nighat Chaodhry, were all women who continued to dance despite the hostile environment, lack of support, both private and state. The main issue for all classical dancers has been that you’re now dancing for audiences that don’t really understand the art. So they have all started dancing to more acceptable poetry or ghazals of Bulle Shah, Rumi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. There’s an interesting mutation.
Is dance then used in Pakistan more as a statement of rebellion than just a form of art in itself?
It is both. It’s an art form that is used as a tool of rebellion.
Why are people still interested in dance, despite restrictions?
Because it’s an artificial suppression. When you create a state like Pakistan, you force people to identify with anti-Indian sentiment. If you see yourself as anti-Indian and being cut off from that, then what’s the point of Partition? That constant conflict of identities — that’s what comes out throughout this film. The world’s imagination of India is that it’s an ancient culture while Pakistan’s begins in 1947, and therefore has no history. Everyone has bought that idea of Pakistan.
Many things Zia changed were never repealed. There was a complete lack of stability in the country that would allow any long-term cultural issues to be addressed; classical dance was least on the agenda for anyone thinking of how to keep Pakistan alive or keep it going.
Has there been much interaction between dancers of the two countries?
No. Well, ok... Pakistani dancers have learnt from Indian dancers, so there was, at a guru-shishya level. But at a peer-to-peer level, no. I invited a whole bunch of Indian dancers in Delhi to Sheema’s performance and none of them turned up. Sheema is not the best of dancers, but there was no effort to connect. Indian classical dancers don’t think that Pakistani dancers are that big. As much as Pakistanis have a problem with their attitude, I don’t think Indians are also so generous in terms of their understanding or openness towards Pakistan or Pakistanis. There’s more bonding in other fields of art. Indians respect Pakistani music but not dance in Pakistan.
Is there an indigenous form of dance in Pakistan?
Salima Hashmi— Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, an artist of repute) talks about it in the film: she says we forget dance is basically part of the arts. Yes, folk dance has been part of the traditions in the states and provinces of Pakistan and it’s connected to nature, seasons, crops, cultivation etc. In Pashtoon culture there’s a dance form called Thattak which is a celebrated dance in Pakistan. Sufi culture is full of dance; dance is part of devotion. What was really affected was classical dance, because it was about India.
In telling this story, in what way does the film connect with your own experience?
I feel that obviously that’s the reason why I’m interested in this story as well. My father’s family is from Amritsar. And my mother’s family is from Kashmir, then they were in Calcutta. Although Partition wasn’t discussed – it was a silent topic in my house – my mother’s family was actively involved in the Partition narrative because the Muslim League was born in my ancestors’ house and my grand-uncle was one of the first governor generals of the country, so they were very committed to the idea of Pakistan. My father’s family left because their offices in Mumbai were set on fire. It was clear as I was growing up, that we were not connected to India. There were always kids in my class who went to India for summer vacations. The issues are very much there – you would think that 65 years later that there would be a change in mindset or thinking. It hasn’t actually happened. If anything, we are growing further apart at some level. There’s no real imagination in the Indian public of the public in Pakistan. My one hope was to bring the normality behind the struggle in Pakistan. There are many on the other side of the struggle. But identity wise, if you’re talking of a Pakistan-India marriage, it’s a disaster because our countries have not recognised the possibility of marriage between people of the two countries – it’s a Veer Zara kind of situation. The legal system is set to prevent people from leading a normal life.