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“Every work of art is political”

Amna Mawaz is a classical dancer specialising in Bharatanatyam, and political activist working with the Awami Workers Party. Here, she talks to TNS on dance as an art form and a tool of political expression

“Every work of art is political”
— Image by Aimon Salahuddin Photography

The News on Sunday: What inspired you to get training in classical dance, Bharatanatyam in particular?

Amna Mawaz: My mother took me and my best friend to see a performance of Nahid Siddiqui. An expressive piece she performed about loss is what I remember best. I was quite young, so I don’t think I understood the full meaning of the piece, but I can safely say it had a huge impact.

As a stubborn and malangi kid who was a total misfit in ‘polite society’, I would get bored very quickly, run down to the stream at the end of our street and stay there for hours. My mother decided it was best to involve me in some extra-curricular activity to rein in all that restlessness. I insisted on dance classes, as many young girls in my school were enrolling in Indu Mitha’s dance class, where she taught the Uday Shankar style and beginner Kathak. Her forte is Bharatanatyam, and her method comprises teaching it only to students who have undergone body conditioning for the first few years.

I only wanted to do Kathak, but the way Mrs. Mitha introduced Bharatanatyam made me realise so many dimensions within the movement, peculiar rhythm and expressions of the style, that I soon immersed myself into it. And let’s establish that I am not at all ‘naturally gifted’ as a dancer, and my parents never expected me to take up dance as a profession.

TNS: Given that dance as an art form is treated rather unfairly in Pakistan, what was your experience contesting the local bodies elections in Islamabad?

AM: The Awami Workers’ Party, as a party inching towards mass politics, has a penchant for daring to question the system, and that’s why my politics identify with my comrades. We knew that it was a bizarre idea to have Shabana Robin and myself stand for the most coveted seat of Chairman/Vicechairman (that is how it is officially termed) — but what was equally bizarre was our electoral area, the posh-est sectors of Islamabad as well as one of the oldest side-lined Christian settlements in the city. We knew big money was involved, and the best way to counter it was to mock it. And what better way than to have a working class, Christian woman and a slightly insane middle-class woman calling herself a professional dancer contest on the party ticket?

Only by the non-linear language of art, especially dance, music and theatre, can we manage to reach everyone without pretension.

Sure, society wasn’t ready — especially, when our prime electoral area, the katchi abadi, was totally flooded with bribes the night before the elections! But we surely got the most attention from the media as well as the voters — despite not having enough money for an election office, or funds for more than a few banners. In the face of opponents who spent millions, we still managed to beat the PPP and JI!

TNS: What do you think about the idea of using dance as a means of making a political statement or addressing sociopolitical issues? Even when the motivation is cathartic release, would art still be rooted in sociopolitical realities?

AM: Dance, along with all the arts, is at once a tool by which humans can respond to society with their own introspection through experience. Of course, most artistes avert from the very word of politics, but that, of course, doesn’t mean their work is not political. Every work of art, be it dance, film, music, theatre or the visual arts, is political even without meaning to be, that’s why it is so important to be aware of the involuntary results our work produces. It is high time that politics meant more than affiliation to a mainstream party.

Even if a work of dance is deeply personal, involving cathartic release, it is directly related to sociopolitical realities around. In classical dance, even when a woman laments the loss of her beloved, or when we describe things ranging from the monsoon, to the birds, to rural life, the underlying sociopolitical context is kept in mind — and then, one can only hope the audience can connect the two.

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TNS: What has the subcontinent’s relationship with dance been like during political upheavals and revolution? What would you say is different in Pakistan and in India in this respect?

AM: I don’t think the subcontinent has ever experienced a full-scale revolution yet, but given the circumstances on both sides of the border, it will inevitably take place.

As for the history of resistance through dance, Pakistan’s history and present is full of heroic examples — be it in Neelo’s refusal to dance for the Governor of West Pakistan in the 1960s, or the continuation of dance at shrines in the face of staunch puritanicals, or even transgenders who are recognised due to their dance and threatened by local thugs because of it.

In Rawalpindi and Islamabad, we have recently started a collective known as Laal Hartaal that publically performs politically charged dance, music and theatre in order to reach the ‘common people’ who are otherwise partitioned from culture in their everyday lives.

In India, the State has used art to project a soft image of itself, and has even gone to the extent of changing the name of Bharatanatyam (Root: Bha-Bhaav that means Expression, Ra- Raag that means Melody, Ta- Taal that means Beat) to BHARAT Natyam. This is quite problematic as art does not know borders, and it is no government’s right to misuse art as a tool to divide people. Of course, in Pakistan we see the other extreme. Since Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, there was a total condemnation of art as something that didn’t adhere to national ideology, unless it meant a portrait of the founding father or a milli naghma. Luckily, now we see a slight shift in the state’s attitude regarding the arts and their promotion ever since the transition towards a civilian government.

Attitudes of those holding power have definitely cemented people’s biases towards dance. A few years ago, when I travelled by bus from Lahore to Delhi for a conference, I was stunned by the difference in treatment by the customs guards when they noticed the ghungroos in my suitcase. On this side of the border, the guard sneered at me and said “Naachney wali ho?” — and on the other side, the guard was totally bowled over that I was a Bharatanatyam dancer, and even tried touching my feet out of respect!

TNS: What are the limitations for the form as a tool for political expression especially in Pakistan?

AM: The biggest limitation possible to dance in Pakistan is the suppression of movement itself. The scope of dance in this context seems dismal, as we are socially trained to be very conscious as women not to show ‘too much’, be it in our expressions, in our movements and, of course, in our physical beings. As for men, it is an inverse pressure; it is expected of them to be macho, insensitive, demanding, and practical in everyday life. With this kind of backdrop, how can one challenge norms in order to create thought-provoking art? That’s why I totally understand why dance is expected only to be entertainment, in the handful of premises where it is even allowed.

TNS: That the dhamaal continued despite the panic caused after the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine was seen as a sign of resilience and courage. What are your thoughts?

AM: I am elated that the dhamaal resonated from Sehwan till even SOAS (England) despite and in response to the blind hatred committed against the most oppressed of society. A big Laal Salaam to Sheema Kirmani and all those who continued to dance the dhamaal of love and peace. I’m convinced that till these acts of resilience are not committed by as many crazy, fearless people as possible, especially in places that are situated beyond the walls of comfort and power, we can never defeat the overriding fear and terror that has strategically taken this land and its people hostage. Art must be accessible, it must be public, and incorporative for all.

TNS: What kind of future do you see for dance as an art form and a means of resistance in Pakistan?

AM: The other day, someone mistook my words, saying that I see a very bright future for dance in Pakistan, which is of course a banality. Of course, I hope for a joyous future where all forms of expression and interaction take place for the sake of a holistic intellectual, emotional and psychological development, of all. But in order to be even half an inch closer to that, we must constantly challenge ourselves as well as hindering forces around us. Only by the non-linear language of art, especially dance, music and theatre, can we manage to reach everyone without pretension. That is why it is such a hugely daunting task but also a necessary weapon — it is the form that has been virtually erased by those in power, be it the past dictators, or the religious elite. It is a sort of David and Goliath brawl, but we all know who wins in the end

Enum Naseer

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The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.

One comment

  • Bharatanatyam is originally a classical dance form from Tamil Nadu. The name change she mentions must be only a North Indian mis-pronunciation.

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