I had the pleasure of interviewing classical dancer and performer extraordinaire Sheema Kermani in Karachi some time ago.
Seeing Kermani perform in Pakistan is always a pleasure because her performances are a celebration of the cultural history of this part of the world that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Kermani hosted a two day dance festival at the Arts Council of Karachi, Pakistan to packed audiences followed by well-deserved standing ovations on both days.
Here, she talks about her childhood, her beliefs and what she'd do differently if she could go back in time.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My father belonged to well-established aristocratic family of UP, Lucknow, India. Originally the family is from Kerman in Iran and migrated to India where they settled in UP.
My mother’s family was from Hyderabad Deccan and my maternal grandfather was a District Sessions Judge in Hyderabad, Deccan, India.
My father after having graduated from Aligarh University joined the British India army as a commissioned officer. Then in 1947 he opted for Pakistan and came here as a member of the Pakistan Army. In 1949 he went back to India to get married. My father retired as a Brigadier from the army and then was the chairman of KESC till his retirement.
I was born the second of three children. I have an elder brother and a younger sister. My early education was in the convent schools of the cantonments where my father would be posted. Because of the frequent and many postings all over the country, we as children managed to see most of Pakistan, and because my grandparents were in India we used to travel by train every summer holidays and visit them there. So we had a great exposure to both India and Pakistan.
It was our early exposure to Indian classical dance and music that we had on our visits to Hyderabad, and to Western classical music of which my father was very fond of, that stirred my interest in the arts. As a young girl I had studied Western classical music and read all the classical literature that was available. My parents also gave us a wonderful exposure to the world of dance, drama and music.
We travelled all over Pakistan as well as around the globe and visited museums and art galleries and saw the best of performances in Europe and UK - I remember watching a ballet performance with Rudolph Nureyuv and Margot Fonteyn and seeing Laurence Oliver and Maggie Smith on stage. All of this was part of our education and upbringing.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in a patriarchal society like Pakistan?
Well I think that Muslim men see my dancing as a challenge to them! To the Muslim male a woman who is standing on stage with confidence and dignity, is they think saying to them that, “Here I am; I am proud of my body and I do not fear you”. This is totally unacceptable to them.
As far as I am concerned those who do not like dance or disapprove of it may not come to watch but I do not give them the right to stop me. I believe it is my right to do what I want; I do not force them to come to a performance so why should they force me to not dance?
I consider myself an activist of human rights issues and I strongly feel that I must do whatever I can to change this discrimination against women in our society so that she can find her place of dignity and respect.
Yes certainly for me dance is a means of communication and a political act. It is a statement that I make: I am free, independent and proud of my body and my being! My audience is varied – ordinary common people/public of Pakistan (when I perform at political forums, conferences and meetings) as well as those who buy tickets and come to see performances in the auditoriums.
What direction are the women of Pakistan headed in?
Well it is a strange and complex situation. On the one hand I believe that we are moving forward as far as the situation of women is concerned.
More women are now outdoors, working in almost all sectors of employment. In the cities women are going to schools, colleges, universities and getting professional and vocational training and education. Many women have joined the media and the many TV channels. But on the other hand we have large number of cases of ‘honour killings’, ‘acid burning’ and other such horrendous and criminal acts victimizing and targeting women.
I myself am a Marxist and a feminist. I believe in the Marxist ideology and a vision of a classless society where men and women hold an equal status.
However, I believe that feminism is recognition of the existence of sexism, male domination and patriarchy and the desire to change this situation. I consider myself an activist of human rights issues and I strongly feel that I must do whatever I can to change this discrimination against women in our society so that she can find her place of dignity and respect. It is the values that have to change and the attitudes towards women both of society and state.
How has dance evolved over the years in Pakistan?
Classical dance was banned in Pakistan by President General Zia ul Haq in 1983. Ever since then it has been very difficult to perform and to exist as a dancer in Pakistan.
All the other dancers had left the country by 1983 and I was the only dancer practicing and teaching in Pakistan. The biggest problem is that to hold a public performance one has to obtain a NOC – No Objection Certificate. This is a very tough and laborious bureaucratic procedure. For this one has to go through a disgusting procedure of official bureaucratic rigmarole, running to various offices and finally getting a piece of paper which states: “dancing, nudity, obscenity not allowed; Dresses of Islamic origin only to be worn; No dress so tight as to reveal the vital curves of the body not to be worn; Nothing to go against Islamic values ”.
I was recently at a party where I overheard a lady saying to the other about me, “Don’t sit next to her, she is a dancer”. Often I have stepped out dressed for a performance and looked around to see if someone is there to shoot or attack me.
Often when the governments are obscurantist as General Zia ul Haq’s was, then it becomes all the more difficult and sometimes impossible. As for the social attitudes towards dance- well I decided early in life to not let that bother me. I don’t conform.
Has the political situation of Pakistan impacted your work? If so, how?
Often I have received death threats from fundamentalist groups -- a hotel where I was performing was sent bomb threats and so on and so forth. So this is something I have been facing right from the very beginning. I was recently at a party where I overheard a lady saying to the other about me “don’t sit next to her, she is a dancer”. Often I have stepped out dressed for a performance and looked around to see if someone is there to shoot or attack me.
Well yes, I do see all that I do as political activism. I am a political person and I believe there is no politics without art.
I believe that perhaps culture is the only medium that can help our country to overcome the ethnic, religious and linguistic divide. Culture overcomes barriers of language and geography and all else.
What is the importance of dance in Pakistani culture today?
I believe that dance is part of our lives – we are only alive when we are dancing! I personally do not see dance as either Hindu or Muslim; I believe this would be the same as to say that there is a Hindu bomb and a Muslim bomb – does the bomb choose between Hindu and Muslim – does it not destroy irrespective of religion? ! In the same way I feel that dance should not be called Hindu or Muslim.
Besides, I am sure that dance existed pre-religion. At the time of the Mohenjodaro civilization there was much importance given to dance
If you could go back in time and change things in your career, what would you do differently? Any future projects/goals we should keep a look out for?
What I would like is to be in a position where I can set up a cultural complex for women, where women can get together without fear and inhibition, simply sit and relax, develop their creative potentials, read and write, sing and dance, learn and do yoga and whatever else they want to and find a shelter for themselves.
Words of wisdom for aspiring dancers from Pakistan?
Dance is perhaps the most beautiful possession that we humans have – let us preserve it in its true and pure form. I feel every one must dance. Dance, to free your self!