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“I don’t look down on a tawaif”

Acclaimed widely as one of Kathak’s great contemporary performers, Californian Farah Yasmeen Shaikh whose roots are in Karachi and who was most recently seen in Lahore in the theatrical production Noor Jehan, talks about the intricacies of her art and the debt one owes to history

“I don’t look down on a tawaif”

“Farah Yasmeen Shaikh’s hands tell a thousand tales; her eyes convey a host of emotions.” She’s lived a charmed life, her passion for Kathak rivalled only by her passion for life. Today she is among the few soloists who can hold centre-stage. Her technique and temperament ensure no dull movements and she renders her roles with aplomb. She also depicts what new directions in dance can be all about, even if mixed with theatre. Her rhetorical largeness of gesture and conscious demureness give her a rare sculptural presence.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh has been dancing since the age of five but did not start her training in Kathak until she was 18. She grew up being trained in ballet and jazz, and was a baton twirler, in a small town in California. In 1995, she moved to San Francisco to attend the State University there. Encouraged by her parents, it was almost by ‘divine intervention’ that she became Pt. Chitresh Das’s pupil — the Guru ji with who she was to train for almost two decades before striking out on her own.

The News on Sunday (TNS): When and how did you decide to make dance your life-long career?

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh (FYS): It happened quite early. I went to India with my Guru ji for the first time in 1999, having just started with him in 1996. It became really clear through that process that if I wanted to pursue this art form, it wasn’t something that could just be a hobby on the side — not to say that it’s not possible — but I knew I had a responsibility much beyond myself. It was a constantly evolving process in a particular direction. The biggest hindrance, however, was the financial aspect. I’d been very lucky to have a husband who’s always been very supportive. We’ve had our struggles though — the usual ups and downs. Sometimes we’d go full force in making a commitment, and I would surmise to get a job of some sort. But for the past 5-6 years, I run my own organisation under the name of Noorani Dance — after my maiden name — that I wanted to honour.

I have about a hundred students in my school in the US. Once you start and create that kind of a relationship with the students, you realise they are depending on you. You become their conduit to the art form. Now this is my path — I had always known it and I was lucky enough to know it early on.

Being on my own, the challenge was how do I take this training further, and how do I translate it into my own artistic voice?

TNS: You said that your Guru ji’s style evolved into a kind of amalgamation of all three traditional schools of Kathak — what you affectionately refer to as the ‘California Gharana’. How do you gauge the stylistic differences between them?

FYS: I wouldn’t say I have enough grounding in Benaras Gharana, (Guru ji must have been undoubtedly influenced by it) but more distinctly in Lucknow and Jaipur Gharanas as far as what was articulated in our training. It’s a misnomer people have about Lucknow Gharana that it does not involve a lot of vigour. There’s a lot of tayyari in Lucknow. Guru ji was always known for his tayyari almost to the point of criticism. The irony is that if you look back at some of the legends among generations prior to his, they had it. He was insistent that tayyari and layakari should run parallel to (though not secondarily) khubsoorti and nazakat, but the foundation is tayyari-layakari. We did learn the bol of Jaipur — its compositions and styles of chakkar.

Guru ji would do ginti ki bandish (ek do teen/ek do teen/ ek do teen char… , softly with chakkar, from Lucknow) combined with bol (ti ra ka ti dhin…from Jaipur) in sequences of the same composition, and you could see the distinction and the structure of the composition. It was like a mirror image. He would often create ways to juxtapose these styles, and yet also show how a structure based on a musical system could be so similar. That’s, in essence, what we came to learn of it. For Guru ji, stylistic influence was his guru Pt. Ram Narayan Mishra who was Rajasthani. So, he carried the influence of Rajasthani ang even though he was trained in Lucknow Gharana. Instead of tatkar, he would follow ta ra ki ti dha.

With due respect, many stalwarts of Jaipur Gharana are influenced by the dominance of Lucknow Gharana, so much so that it’s hard to find pure Jaipur style today. As all art does, Kathak has also evolved as we have seen it in the last 2-3 decades.

Farah 01

TNS: Why do people tend to believe there’s another gharana — Delhi Gharana — as well?

FYS: I can’t speak for that. I can only rely on my own observational perspective. There have been icons like Pt. Birju Maharaj who has dominated the field for many years. What came out of Kathak, in essence, was referred to him until Rajendra Gangani took over. But then, Kumudini Lakhia has a very dominant style too. She’s based in Gujarat but she has disciples all over the place. We are very clearly trained by our Guru ji, Pt. Chitresh Das, and yet there’s such obvious individualism in each one of us. Guru ji had that way of honouring his style by not confining us from finding our own voice. I think, depending on the guru, you can create these kinds of dominating styles. Guru ji had such an influence that we became the premier dance ensemble not only in our respective region of the US but in the entire West while maintaining a connection with India. He had students in Bombay and Calcutta as well.

TNS: How important is the content or the narrative to a kathak dancer — the storyteller?

FYS: I think the content is at the heart of it all; yet there is no singular way to execute that content or what the inspiration for that content is. In the past few years, even before my Guru ji passed away, I made a decision and a difficult one at that, to step away from his direct training. I had to discover who I am. I don’t mean to say I don’t need his guidance. But at a certain point, I have a desire to question: Who is Farah Yasmeen Shaikh?

Being on my own, the challenge was how do I take this training further, and how do I translate it into my own artistic voice? The initial project for me was the exploration of the Mughal empress, Nurjehan. I had such a keen desire to explore Mughal history. How could I use this medium to tell her story? Most of the stories in Kathak are based on Hindu epics like Ramayana and The Mahabharata. I do excerpts of these stories — after all, the art form is both Hindu/Muslim, and I embrace the fact wholeheartedly — but I wanted to find something unique. I am now working toward the theme of Partition — an interpretation based on the rendition of Faiz Sahab’s poetry.

The content can vary. It’s not to say that Bharatanatyam dancers are not doing out-of-the-box interpretations but in Kathak more so because it’s not strictly codified, whether it’s hasta-mudra or otherwise. We don’t follow the Natya Sastra strictly as some other art forms. So when you talk about the content, it’s all connected in honouring the past, figuring out my present and seeing where future takes me.

TNS: While choreographing a bandish, where do you draw a line between natya (drama) and nritiya (dance)?

FYS: Both go together in Kathak. I can do pure natya — there are moments when I am more stationary but once you begin the movement with a bandish, it’s pure natya. When I am doing the footwork or thaat bol paran, when there is no accompanying story, it’s nritiya. So, it’s either pure dance or a combination of nritiya and natya. For some people, kathak without natya is not kathak. There’s truth in that because the word ‘kathak’ comes from ‘katha’ meaning storytelling. While doing a traditional kathak solo, it’s important to me to do both. In ‘The Forgotten Empress’, its pure natya because the story is ever present but I also do a lot of intense movement throughout it while I am a particular character.

TNS: Among several criticisms levelled against Kathak, one is that the dance form is too gravitational and earth-bound. How do you respond to that?

FYS: Each art form is going to be different. You can say there is no grounding in those art forms which are levied or off-the-ground. But it depends on your perspective. Each art form has a basic technique that one must maintain but I think that the style that has been passed on to me is very athletic in movement and spatial usage. There’s a lot of movement in the chakkars as well. We do a lot of floor movement — the flutter, crossing the leg — ending in na di dhin nas. In the Benaras style, there are a lot of jumps. Take Gopi Krishna in ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’ incorporating a lot of gallop and landing in his style.

TNS: In Pakistan, to most people, dance means mujra. To a layman, kathak is a sophisticated version of mujra. In other words, it’s nothing but sheer (read cheap) entertainment. When presented onstage, the costumes, the maquillage, the glamour — shringara — does not help uplift its status either. What is your take on that?

FYS: I don’t think we should shy away from history. History has to be known and honoured. Honouring women who gave their lives to preserve and absorb this art form cannot be denounced. Yes, it was coupled with objectification. When the British came in, women who were held in high regard were essentially relegated to a life of prostitution — the nautch girls. It further toxified their reputation. They were the bearers of a tradition, and I will forever honour that. To me, it’s not about being a ‘tawaif’ — I don’t look down on them. That was their means towards an end.

The sophisticated knowledge, and their absorbing a new language — the Persian influence on Urdu — all developed during their time. How they carried the social etiquette — tehzeeb — forward. My Guru ji’s guru would go into the prostitutes’ quarters and train them. He wanted to make sure they were not forgotten. He wanted them to feel that sense of pride.

To bring dance to the stage is to allege, look at what this art form has to offer — strip your preconceived notions and look at the essence of it. And don’t disrespect those who have maintained it for years. You have to own it for all its worth. Also look at the skill and knowledge required to do this art form. Even the musicians are treated like second-class servants when they should be honoured and revered for holding on to our traditions.

When I take the stage, it’s not about me or about what anybody thinks about me. It’s about giving honour to those who’ve given their lives to this art form. I hope in years to come my students will do that for me. That is what we call legacy.

TNS: Tell us about ‘The Forgotten Empress’. How did that evolve?

FYS: Originally, I collaborated with an author Indu Sundaresan who wrote a historical fictional novel about the Mughal empress Nurjehan. I became keener on developing the story, as time passed on, and brought on a playwright, Matthew Spangler. We’ve written an original script based on the story of the empress. Most of it is historically factual; some of it a little embellished. The fact that we don’t know much about her is an evidence of the influence and power that she had had. History wants us to know what it wants us to know! My intention was to revive her story in case she’s forgotten, hence The Forgotten Empress. We take her story from birth to when she becomes the empress and beyond, her trials and tribulations, her first marriage, the love story with Salim, the opposition that she had when she married him from the others in the zenana as well as from his consorts. These things were unprecedented for a woman in her time. I am not, in any way, trying to capitalize on Islamisation through that – what has been going on worldwide – yet I do take a great amount of pride in the fact that the story is about a very strong Muslim woman.

It’s important to be a Pakistani/American, Muslim female dancer out there showing the life story of this woman who was born in a refugee camp and what she rose to become.

I have a fabulous music composer and director, Salar Nader. He’s a senior disciple of Ustad Zakir Hussain. He’s developed an original score. Then we have a sarod player who has trained for decades with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. We premiered it in the US in 2015 under the title ‘The Twentieth Wife’.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the print version on February 11, 2018.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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