‘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