Classical dance in Pakistan is closely tied with identity politics, projected by a section of society as “Indian” or “Hindu”. But for Sheema Kermani, dance is about empowerment and communicating, especially with women, in Pakistan.
Her mission is an uphill task in a country where subsequent governments have restricted the practice of many art forms through damaging policies and ideologies. These anti-culture campaigns have politicised the arts, crushing them regularly to ‘prevent’ vulgarity, to ‘promote’ Islam, and to forge Pakistan’s identity so as to distinguish it from India.
No art form is more politicised, made more taboo, or seen with more suspicion than dance. Given this situation, dance in Pakistan has become far more than artistic expression. Combine it with Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement) and you get a culture-based action group focusing on human rights and women’s empowerment.
Founded in 1979 by Sheema Kermani, Tehrik-e-Niswan uses theatre, dance, music, and video productions to raise awareness about women’s and family health issues, domestic violence and rights. The group also uses street theatre with song and storytelling to reach the public directly, in an entertaining and engaging manner.
“In a country with low literacy, especially among women, theatre and performance art is a powerful, alternative form of education,” says Sheema Kermani. “Charity is important, but its ability to help is finite, whereas a cultural exchange or experience stays with a person, just like your education will always stay with you.”
I ask about her childhood, and what brought her to establish Tehrik-e-Niswan, expecting to hear that this artiste-activist was raised in a household of conscientious objectors capable of wielding paint-brushes.
Not quite. Her father was in the army, but “both my parents felt it important to expose us children to art, to bring out our creativity and fire our imaginations,” she says. The family lived in several cities due to her father’s postings around Pakistan before settling in Karachi. “As children we used to scrapbook, paint, make birthday cards, write poems. With our cousins at large family gatherings, we would put on plays and performances.”
In 1964, when she was around 14, her parents enrolled her at Mr. and Mrs. Ghanshyam’s Rhythmic Arts Centre, where she began learning yoga, dance, singing and music. This was in addition to going to a regular school.
I found this emphasis on arts education particularly striking given the tendency of Pakistani families to push their children towards the sciences, business and economics, even religious studies; rarely ever humanities or the arts.
But apparently, I have little idea what things were once like in Pakistan. Patiently, Sheema Kermani explains that her parents didn’t do anything unusual; Pakistan in the 1960s was comfortable with culture and arts. “People understood culture to be beyond religion. They saw culture as a connection to those around them from other religions or backgrounds.”
Things started to change after 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. “Until then, the Bengalis had influenced the arts in Pakistan. They ran many of the arts, dance and music academies in Karachi. When they left, their academies also closed. The Ghanshyams were also Bengali, but they didn’t leave in 1971. It was later that General Zia’s anti-minority laws drove them away.”
She always knew that she wanted to pursue the arts, but also that the life of an artist “could be a lonely existence. Dance was a form of creativity that I found to be less isolated”.
After studying Fine Arts at the Croydon College of Art, U.K., she came back to the Ghanshyams’ Centre, where she studied and taught dance for ten years. Then it was 1981, and she left for India to study dance professionally. She trained under the renowned dancer Leela Samson of the Kalakshetra and studied Odissi under Guru Mayadaur Raut at the Bhartiya Kala Kendra, returning to Pakistan in 1983. By then, the Ghanshyams were leaving the country. They asked her to take charge of the Rhythmic Arts Centre. Many students had already left; Sheema Kermani took on the few who remained. She returned to India to further study dance in 1988 with a scholarship from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), and trained under Gurus Aloka Pannikar and Ram Mohan.
Artists tie societies to their history and to their heritage, linking the diverse cultures within (and without), while giving voice to new ideas and opinions. Gen. Ziaul Haq’s predecessor, Prime Minister Z. A. Bhutto, had already introduced ‘Islam-based’ laws, but Zia’s “Islamisation” of Pakistan (1977 to 1988) created an oppressive environment that stymied and perverted the practice of art, especially dance.
As a woman, as an artiste, and as a Pakistani, Sheema Kermani witnessed the paradigm shift towards obscurantism and intolerance. At the height of Zia’s dictatorship, in December 1984, she held her first solo performance “at the home of a dear friend”. Only 100 people were invited but “three times that many showed up. My performance was in defiance of the regime; those who attended were also sick and tired of the regime and expressing their defiance.” The power of dance and the overwhelming response of that evening still electrifies her.
Society’s sense of ‘self’ is made possible by artists who ensure an awareness of its past, its presence, and its future. Over time, art provides society, a group of individuals, with a common, collective identity. Archaeologists and sociologists attribute the survival of our early human ancestors and the continued success of our species to this fostering of a collective identity. The establishment in Pakistan has long projected India as an existential threat to the country, whereas the serious threat to Pakistan really is the non-existence of any cohesive identity that brings its people together, and binds them with the Subcontinent.
Having witnessed the break-up of Pakistan and spent time in India, Sheema is keen to “…use dance to bring out the similarities and celebrate the diversity of Pakistan and of the Subcontinent”.
“I believe that it is through dance and culture that we can connect. Culture can unite us, and that is what we should promote and teach our children”. For example, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, she points out, “was established by a Muslim cleric, Maulana Azad, who believed that schools and colleges should actively teach and promote art to children, throughout their academic careers”.
Through Tehrik-e-Niswan, Sheema Kermani attempts to establish a serious platform for the arts, especially dance. “Dance is an important part of heritage,” she asserts. “When people from different backgrounds find themselves living side by side in a new setting (such as Pakistan), the result is often a fusion of dance forms…”
So perhaps, the fusion of dancing styles is a metaphor for the emergence of that greater identity that Pakistan needs. And Sheema Kermani being who she is, is not one to dance around any issue, even one as major as Pakistan’s identity crisis.
(The writer, a Karachi-based sociologist, is a graduate of Rutgers University, and Senior Editor “Nigaah Arts and Culture from South Asia”. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . This article was first published in www.thenews.com.pk)