Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast (If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here), wrote Amir Khusrau. Not strange perhaps, that one should recall these lines the day one meets Shima Mahdavi at New Delhi's International Centre for Kathakali (ICK). She too is off to Kashmir, the region thus rapturously described by Khusrau, to perform the Sufi dance of Iran along with her group. And, like the great Indo-Persian poet of the 13th Century, perhaps Shima too could be described as a bridge between the Persian and Indian cultures. Shima is among the tiny minority of Iranian students learning Indian classical arts here. They continue an age-old tradition of exchange of ideas between Hindustan and Persia.
It is not just a tradition of poetry that we owe to Shima's forebears. Think of the Taj Mahal, of Mughal miniatures, Hindustani music, qawwali singing…The flow of artistic influences from Persia to India has been strong and lasting. If the Ramayana story travelled eastwards from India to spawn numerous versions across East and Southeast Asia, India was a recipient too, as adventurers, invaders and traders from the Persian region brought their concept of music, philosophy and aesthetics to bear on our already teeming artistic traditions.
Cut to the contemporary era. Aspirants from across the world come to India to learn our classical dance and music. Ask teachers of these arts about their international students and they will rattle off a string of country names. But as for modern-day Iran, Persia of old, its mention is conspicuously absent in the recounting of most gurus.
All except Guru Evoor Rajendran Pillai of the ICK, who proudly counts three Iranian girls among the Centre's students. These girls are all students of Kathakali and allied arts. While Shima and Arezou are currently in Delhi, Anahita Izadi has returned to Iran where she is continuing her work in theatre.
While Bharatanatyam exponent Jayalakshmi Eshwar remembers once being at her wits' end trying to communicate with a class containing students from Japan, China, Ukraine and other countries, with no one who knew English, she says she has never had anyone from Iran. Similar is the case with Saroja Vaidyanathan, guru to hundreds and founder-president of Ganesa Natyalaya, who says she has had students who are Muslims learning Bharatanatyam, but none from Iran.
It is not just these Iranian girls' choice of art that is interesting but also their gender, since Kathakali is still a largely male preserve and it is mostly in this Delhi institute that girls are provided training alongside boys to perform both male and female roles.
Sanal Edamaraku, president of the ICK, explains the phenomenon from a sociological angle. Dance is frowned upon in Iran, and so theatre arts too are limited for performers. “Kathakali becomes an easy way out,” he says, as the ancient art can be represented as theatre rather than dance. Edamaraku points out that once here, some of the students learn other dance forms like Bharatanatyam too. Their gurus vouch for their talent. Pillai says he taught Shima the Purappadu, an invocation dance, within 40 days of her joining class, which is a record of sorts. She has learnt roles like Panchali, Bhima among others and wants to learn Desdemona from the Centre's Kathakali production of “Othello”.
Shima, studying in India for the past three years and a trained actor from Tehran, has performed Kathakali in her home country. All performances have to be passed by the censors before going public. They watch rehearsals and might ask for segments, including certain body movements, to be removed. The authorities sat in on her Kathakali rehearsal too, she says, but they didn't censor anything, partly because Kathakali doesn't have the kind of hip and torso movements that might call for cutting, and partly because it was extremely foreign for them.
Anahita, who considers herself “more actress rather than dancer” although she is learning Bharatanatyam too, is planning to work on Nagali, a traditional Iranian theatre form, but says she will return to India “for sure”.
While language is a problem for Shima, she relies on her “body memory” to memorise the mudras used to interpret the songs. She found the concept of multiple gods and goddesses hard to stomach. “For me there is only one God,” she says but adds, “Now I know them (the gods of Hindu mythology) better, and I like them too.” She enjoys the tales that are like “a story you can tell children at night, but they are teaching you a big lesson.”
Anahita, with a Bachelor's degree in Acting from Tehran, has also completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was always interested in physical theatre “and how this form might have the capacity as a new language to communicate with audience,” she says. Kathakali being a conventional theatre, she found the manner in which performers use their body to express themselves different from what is found in Western physical theatre. “It was for me quite a challenge to deal with and work on it,” she says.
Artistic challenges apart, these girls are blazing a new trail for others back home.