‘Kathak was a different way to learn about my culture’, says US born dancer

‘Kathak was a different way to learn about my culture’, says US born dancer

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, lead dancer with the Chitresh Dance Company, talks about the attraction of kathak
23 Jan, 2016

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a kathak dancer and teacher, recently performed at the Pakistan National Council of Arts at an Asian Study Group event.

A lead dancer with the Chitresh Dance Company, she is an evocative dancer who brings innovation and grace to traditional kathak dance.

What drew you to kathak?

I was born and raised in California and I started dancing at the age of five, but not kathak. Where I grew up there was no access to Indian or Pakistani cultural activities, so I studied western forms of dance. When I was 18 I went away to college and wanted to continue to dance. I saw Indian dance was offered at my university so I decided to try it.

My parents had always been supportive, and when they heard my guru ji, Chitresh Das, was teaching the class they said I must take it. Long story short, that was twenty years ago. So needless to say I was more than attracted to kathak. I was so challenged by the rhythmic complexity. I loved the fact that I was learning in a very different way about my culture and Indian history. I’ve always loved Mughal history, so getting an inroad to that through dance and music was also wonderful.

Do you feel that having learnt other forms of dance first helped or hindered you in performing kathak?

In my case, I have no doubt that it helped me. The South Asian classical forms are amazingly vigorous and there is so much obvious use of the body in different ways. But I feel that my western perspective of dance was helpful because there is an articulation of how to use the body, of posture, and all of those things that I did not find necessarily inherent in our forms. The need to stretch, the need to take care of one’s body, is important, in addition to learning a craft, and conditioning the body only for that craft. My experience with Western dance gave me a holistic approach.

Do you focus on performing or are you engaged in other aspects of dance?

I was teaching with my guru ji’s institution up until very recently. Just about a year ago, I decided to go on my own. I haven’t formed an institution but do have plans to do so. I do have a group of students that I work with in California, in both private and semi-private class and group settings. And I’ve done quite a bit of teaching here in Karachi.

Some of them have some dance background, some of them no experience at all. So, it is a good mix. People with dance experience come with a little more body awareness, but with kathak it is the least codified of the classical forms, so even if they’ve had experience with kathak, there’s a style that each guru passes on.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2016


Santosh Menon Jan 23, 2016 10:22am
Some Tidbits: Farah's parents (Dad, Amjad & Mom, Najma) were both born in Bombay (Mumbai). Post partition, they moved to Karachi (Pakistan). Later her parents moved to the USA (California), where she was born in Salinas (Monteray County). If you are in the San Francisco (Bay Area), you could catch a glimpse of her!!.
Dilip Thorat Jan 23, 2016 10:30am
Yes. Good to hear about OUR culture from OUR people.
nj01 Jan 23, 2016 10:53am
I'm an proud Indian and I love all types of Indian dance forms and music. I'm in CA and Chitresh Das is my Guruji too. He is very know Indian classical dancer in India as well as in CA, Bay area.
Abdulla Hussain Jan 23, 2016 11:09am
While it may be a religious duty to learn & practice dance for some but dance in general is not in any way related to the culture of Pakistan.
Ghosh Jan 23, 2016 12:25pm
I fell in love in 1977 with kathak when Chitresh Das and his American troupe performed at our Bengal Engineering College annual function. Chitresh is from the same city of Calcutta or Kolkata.
salman Jan 23, 2016 12:40pm
Very interesting. Dance has no geographical or religious boundaries.
Ritesh Kumar Soni Jan 23, 2016 01:04pm
Nice to see it
Bangistal Jan 23, 2016 02:23pm
Same dna sister .respesct from India
Satt Jan 23, 2016 03:58pm
She should do more research on Indian culture this will sharpen her skills.
Abdulla Hussain Jan 23, 2016 04:43pm
@Bangistal: Yes true, both enjoy wearing sari
k k tiwari Jan 23, 2016 11:05pm
nice to see sporting Bindi on fore head
Kdspirited Jan 24, 2016 01:48am
Kathak means story telling comes from the word katha. The lukhnawi gharana(style) of Kathak originated in the Mughal courts and is traditionally performed to thumri and ghazal. It has no religious or geographical connotations other than the fact that it was patronized by the Mughals in south east Asia
Abbas Syed Jan 24, 2016 06:15am
@Abdulla Hussain, I am not sure which Pakistan you are talking about and live in when you say: but dance in general is not in any way related to the culture of Pakistan.
Sampath Jan 24, 2016 09:50am
It is heartening to note that cultural events like classical dance has a place in Pakistan. I know that art has no boundaries. Artists exchange between India and Pakistan is a need. But I dont know why stupid thinking Shvsaniks in India and perhaps similar organisations in Pakistan come in the way.
raj Jan 24, 2016 10:05am
@salman yes they have , all forms of danceand music in the reigon belongs to india only
Dawood Khan Jan 24, 2016 11:20am
@Abdulla Hussain Pakistan is barely 70 years old, without the partition there would have been Hindu culture still existing as it did for centuries. India and Pakistan have a lot in common genetically, there is not much difference.
pathan Jan 24, 2016 12:23pm
@Abdulla Hussain Dance is not part of our culture. Haven't you seen dance during weddings? Don't think like Arabs.
MIrza Malang Jan 25, 2016 08:04am
@Abbas Syed I beg to differ. Every region of Pakistan has its own distinct dance. Lets not confuse cities with Pakistan in general. From Kalash to Peshawer, From Punjab to Sind and Baluchistan. Even in Lyari Karachi, you see Sheedi baluch mixed with Sindhi dance and music. All these dances are full of their own narrative and stories. Most Pakistanis have really not travelled the width and breath of her and thus make assumptions based on narrative they see on TV.
KnowTheTruth Jan 25, 2016 12:03pm
Hats off to Farah for mastering this ancient dance form that is closely related to the Indian culture. Her contribution in keeping this dance form alive and propagating it to the west is worthy of appreciation. It is quite remarkable that though being a US national she felt culturally connected to this Indian dance form, while mainstream Pakistan seems to shun anything that has relations to Indian culture. Kudos Farah, good luck and may your dance flourish.