Watching an Arangetram in Pakistan

leila1Last night I was lucky enough to go to a performance of Indian classical dance in Karachi. An Arangetram is a graduation ceremony for a young student, when the guru has decided the student has learned enough to be able to take on solo performances. The performance I saw was the Arangetram of Leila Khan, an 18 year old high school student who has been studying dance with the famed Sheema Kirmani since the age of 6.

Sheema writes of the event: “The Arangetram of my wonderful student Leila Khan last evening was such a path breaking event for the art and culture scene in Pakistan – for the very first time I was able to present a student with the complete Bhratanatyam repertoire!”

The audience at the Alliance Francaise, where the event took place, knew this too — and it was a full house for young Leila’s performance. Her innocence and youth, and the beauty of her performance won over everyone’s hearts. The significance of this being the first Arangetram in Pakistan in decades added to the atmosphere, making it an emotional one for many.

We have long suffered from the absence of arts and culture in our society. The practitioners of Indian classical dance were downright persecuted because General Zia and his goons classified it as un-Islamic. The subsequent banning of performances drove many teachers and performers to leave Pakistan for countries where they could practice their art.

This came to my mind when I saw an essay in the New York Times called “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts” by Eve L. Ewing. We in Pakistan know what this is all about. The dictators took the arts away from us, too. It took us over 20 years to get them back, and while today Pakistan is really experiencing a renaissance in its arts scene, the lost years have been detrimental to our society.

Even after the dictators died and such bans fizzled out, the damage to classical dance in Pakistan has been long-lasting. From an interview with Sheema: “In many ways it was easier during President Ziaul Haq’s time because then dance was banned. ‘Today, we don’t know if a fundamental in the room will get offended and take serious action’.”

But classical dance is experiencing a resurgence, thanks to both the old guard and a new generation of performers who learned their art elsewhere and are bringing it over to Pakistan. These foreign-trained dancers include Shayma Saiyid, who was featured at the Karachi Literature Festival, and kathak artist Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, who visits Pakistan regularly to conduct dance workshops and performances.

Is dance really so important for us as a society? Yes, argues Sheema passionately. ““I believe that our society has become so aggressive because there is so little dance, music and song around us.” If the arts are what humanize us, then the return of classical dance is a return to our humanity, as well as connecting us to our heritage, in which classical dance is a thousands-year old inheritance.

More than this, clamping down on classical dance is another form of misogyny, since women are usually the practitioners of classical dance in the subcontinent. Banning it because it’s seen as vulgar robs women of their livelihood, and it turns their bodies from instruments of art into instruments of obscenity. The resurgence of classical dance, thanks to the bravery of women like Sheema Kirmani and her students, is a women’s movement, and should be celebrated as such.

From Ewing’s essay:

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again.

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