Art not sex, Pakistan's dancers take a stand

Art not sex, Pakistan's dancers take a stand

Dance is often linked with prostitution in Pakistan but dancers like Sheema Kirmani are trying to change that perception
Updated 13 May, 2016

With her arms stretched out and her hands elegantly curved, the young dancer stamps her feet with aplomb, defying prejudice.

Her art is reviled by many in religiously conservative Pakistan, where it is often linked with prostitution.

“We constantly have to explain to people that dance is an art form, it's not just about what happens in the red light areas, not just about entertaining men and sexuality,” says Suhaee Abro.

Graceful and poised in her richly coloured sari, she practices the odissi form of dance, in which movements of the face and hands are perfectly timed.

Dance is deeply embedded in Pakistani culture, in marriages, folk festivals and films -- the complex choreography similar to that found in Bollywood.

But it is also deeply frowned upon in the Muslim-majority country for women to be seen dancing outside of a family setting, and worse still to perform for money.

“Unfortunately it is associated with the 'dancing girls of Lahore',” says Rahat Kazmi from the National Academy for Performing Arts -- a reference to prostitutes swaying awkwardly in the red light district of Pakistan's cultural capital.

Threat of the Taliban mindset

Sohaee Abro performs steps of the odissi dance - Photograph by Amafah Mubashir
Sohaee Abro performs steps of the odissi dance - Photograph by Amafah Mubashir

Historically, classical dance in the subcontinent was the domain of tawaifs, courtesans of the Mughal Empire, which ruled India for hundreds of years until the advent of British rule in the 19th century.

Like the geishas of Japan, they were known as connoisseurs of the fine arts before their status deteriorated, especially under British rule, to mere prostitutes.

Today, prostitutes sometimes use dancing as a cover to carry out their illegal trade.

It is therefore necessary “to create this bifurcation and say that no, this is art also”, according to Kazmi.

“I am a practising Muslim and a dancer, and I don't see why this should clash. My heart does not feel anything wrong,” says anthropologist and professional dancer Feriyal Aslam, who practices Bharatanatyam, a form from southern India.

“But my mum herself feels it is wrong, She thinks 'what will I say to God one day, that I did not tell my daughter to do the right thing',” explains the 40-year-old, who has also written a thesis on the subject.

Dance was banned in 1981 as part of an Islamisation drive led by military ruler Zia-ul-Haq. His directive specifically targeted dancers wearing ankle bells, an essential accessory of the main classical forms which the regime associated with obscenity and nudity. The directive exists to this day but its application has eased, though new threats have emerged.

“Now the bureaucratic hassle is not so strong, but the Taliban mindset had gotten into the mind of the people,” says dancer Sheema Kirmani.

Anyone in the audience “who feels that he might get to heaven by killing you can just walk up to the stage and do so,” she says.

'Dance is dance'

Sheema founded Tehreek-i-Niswan, a cultural group that engages in dance and music and celebrates diversity  - Photo by Mariam Magsi
Sheema founded Tehreek-i-Niswan, a cultural group that engages in dance and music and celebrates diversity - Photo by Mariam Magsi

What's more, dance enjoys no institutional support, with dancers often forced by economy to work second jobs, and both the private and public sectors reluctant to be associated with the disreputable art.

That reluctance is amplified by Pakistani classical dance's shared lineage with India. Pakistan has been desperate to distinguish itself from its neighbour and arch-rival since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

But odissi and bharatanatyam are historically linked to Hinduism, and many Pakistani dancers complete their training in India due to the lack of facilities back home.

“(By) creating an identity which had nothing to do with our Indian past, we gave up on dance, music, theatre,” says Kirmani, known as a “guru” in her own right.

“But what identity can Pakistan create in just a few years, if it denigrates all common past?” she added.

“There is no Hindu or Muslim dance, dance is dance,” adds Suhaee Abro, a former student of Kirmani.

One form that has gained a sort of official recognition is kathak, with its dazzling and noisy footwork akin to flamenco, and dancers whirling like dervishes.

This indulgence derives from the fact that it was practised in the Muslim court of the Mughals.

To rehabilitate dance's image, “people need to be exposed to good proper classical dance”, says Adnan Jihangir, a rare example of a male kathak dancer, whose own parents took seven years to accept his passion and see him perform.

“I do all I can to create an audience for dance -- by offering something different from the vulgar movements they see on television,” he says, lamenting the ubiquity of suggestive dance moves that have been popularised by Bollywood.

Feriyal Aslam remains optimistic for the new generation, pointing out that these challenges are also an opportunity for innovation as dancers adapt traditional forms to the modern, local context.

“It is unique and exciting as a dance scholar to see what Pakistani classical dancers are able to do,” she says.


MaheshP May 12, 2016 01:40pm
Dance is Dance Perfect Said
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Rakhi May 12, 2016 01:47pm
"Anyone in the audience “who feels that he might get to heaven by killing you can just walk up to the stage and do so,” she says" -- bravo Sheema ji...may your tribe prosper...
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Satt May 12, 2016 01:49pm
Men in this culture sees woman as a thing to satisfy their lust when they see little part of a woman they want to snatch them when they know they can't rather than switching off the TV they break the TV or cover the TV.Dancing of the girls attributes to that culture where men are real men who see girls with dignity an their dance as their expression and art and when they dance they appreciate their skills and beauty and for their dancing skills they respect the women and after watching the concert they back to their respective homes with sweet memories.Girls cannot dance in that culture where lust is bigger than liberation.
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ASB May 12, 2016 01:53pm
Dance at its most sublime is the highest form of physical expression. The culture can only enrich ones soul. For this the subcontinent must recognize its shared heritage and work towards preserving what is good and beautiful irrespective of religious origins. Today we have India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the past there were no such entities with specifically marked borders although commonality of culture in multitude of forms gave our sub-continent its identity. Tomorrow these boundaries will change or morph into something else. What will matter will be how we nurture and evolve our traditions and our faith.
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Abdulla Hussain May 12, 2016 02:02pm
"Her art is reviled by many in religiously conservative Pakistan, where it is often linked with prostitution" Facts cannot be denied. Besides these are dances of hindu religion, all details are available in the net. Why should these dances be appreciated in Pakistan by all the peoples.
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Ritesh May 12, 2016 02:05pm
If it were not for a good newspaper like Dawn, I would have never known that kathak, bharatnatyam, oddisi dance are practiced in Pakistan!
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Satish Kumar Dogra May 12, 2016 02:07pm
It was the palace-culture of the Mughals that turned dancers into 'tawaifs'. Traditionally, dance was a form of worship. Even today in South India where the advent of the Mughals did not dent the culture, dances are used for enacting the leelas (divine tales) of Krishna, Shiva and other gods and goddesses. South Indian dancers are respected in society and no one looks upon them as objects of desire. If you get a chance, come to Chennai and attend a performance of Bharat Natyam. You will go back a very pious person. The stage itself looks like a temple with its lamp and images of deities. The dance moments are elegant rather than provocative. Lord Shiva as Nataraj is the greatest dancer. And Natya Shastra is one of the greatest books ever written.
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Satt May 12, 2016 02:10pm
Girls dance in that culture where women feels secure.
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Seemab Khan May 12, 2016 02:35pm
Can anyone explain...why is there interference of our government in our cultural change.? Zia era got the Talibanization....for it to support our society was extremely islamitized... Now the Govt is finishing the they are publishing such things..... First an article in dawn about a Girl in Canada Who had sex with 12 this.... I am not against Talibanization or Publishing Such articles....its just my thinking that let the people choose what they want....It should be free of Government interference... It is a good article indeed.
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Satt May 12, 2016 03:02pm
I like Pakistani Mujra.Pakistani Mujra is also culture of Pakistan,Pakistan should promote it rather than Indian dance forms.
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Suneelsm May 12, 2016 03:15pm
Well sex is also a kind art. Now what for the sake of hate some one may suggest to ban that too?? Unbelievable.
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Sana May 12, 2016 03:17pm
Whose cultural dance is this anyway... ? in which region/area of Pakistan we can find this (kathak kinda) dance being performed. It is Indian culture, we are forcefully made to swallow. We have our traditional dances from all provinces but this is not acceptable.
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Audrey Varghese Toronto May 12, 2016 03:25pm
Every country tries very hard to preserve their heritage and keep its roots alive at any cost...But there are exceptions where country tries to kill all its roots and pretend to be someone unfortunate. Indian Classical dance in its pure form is such a great gift to art world but if people who do not want to be connected to roots will not understand. Best wishes to these ladies who should be given award for bravery.
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Vineeth May 12, 2016 03:27pm
Thank God that there is an 'India' to keep the subcontinent's ancient traditions alive.
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Ahmer Jamil Khan May 12, 2016 03:44pm
A great article!
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Karma Dorji May 12, 2016 03:45pm
It is a tragedy of immeasurable magnitude when a group of people lose their identity and have to look at everything through a forced adopted prism. The result is chaos and loss of respect. Dance has been used even by the dervishes in sufi islam to reach towards their maker. People need to grow beyond narrow vision which only treats human beings as objects of lust to be tied to their morality ( as perceived by someone else).
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Satt May 12, 2016 03:58pm
@Audrey Varghese Toronto Man the more you go into the root the more disgusting you will feel..I suggest you don't try to understand why Pakistani society is doing that rather you should just dance and be happy.
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vivek May 12, 2016 04:00pm
@Satt Its YOUR history and YOUR culture too, no matter how much you try to replicate YOUR own history
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DelhiDude May 12, 2016 04:05pm
I don't think the classical dances of India are secular in nature. The dance forms are mainly used to express the love and affection to God. If in Pakistan you want to adopt it, the Sufi tradition can easily adopt it. But making the classical dance secular will kill its soul. Sorry, but I don't agree that "dance is dance".
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rahul1 May 12, 2016 04:06pm
@Sana Kathak originated were Urdu did. If you can adopt language why not dance ?
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Amir May 12, 2016 04:08pm
Practices change over time. Certain aspects of culture cannot and should not be maintained due to their historic past. If they are wrong, then they need to be changed. Female dancing to a male public audience is not part of the Islamic ideology. And if it existed in the past, then so be it. But, going forward it is not appropriate in a state that says that Islam is its ideology.
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Farooq Jawed May 12, 2016 04:22pm
We must also acknowledge that dance does have an erotic side to it as well, that works fine as a prelude to a fine and well crafted evening of romance.
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Ariffin Sidek May 12, 2016 04:26pm
Just brilliant. Her expressions and nuances in dance are poetry in motion.
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Sana May 12, 2016 04:26pm
@rahul1 Urdu is spoken and practised lot better in Pakistan, it is our identity. Perhaps that's why India is getting rid of it. .. but Kathak is just not our identity, we really cannot relate to it. BTW we also follow a religion originated in a far away land.
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Deepak Talwar May 12, 2016 04:54pm
In India, girls are encouraged to learn these dances from a very young age and a girls first stage performance is a big event which everyone in the extended family attends. As Mirza Ghalib famously asked - is Jaleebi Hindu or Muslim ? The same question can be asked of dance and music.
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Sr May 12, 2016 05:09pm
@Sana Urdu is flourishing in India but not being enforced and let us not forget India has 15 major functioning languages. Diversity is celebrated here which is reflected in dance culture as well
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Satt May 12, 2016 05:10pm
@Sana You want to listen to real Urdu come to Lucknow.That's called "Nafasat" which lacks in hard sounding Punjabi Urdu.
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pardeep May 12, 2016 05:13pm
Dance is a pure form of Art. In India certain plays and stories are told in the form of Dance. Classical dance is very difficult to learn as one has to learn body movement and face expressions. The great dance forms can create such a magic that dancer can become one with the God. Above all, It depends on how one looks at the dance artists.
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Sajid May 12, 2016 05:27pm
@Abdulla Hussain because we clearly draw the line at having our marriage functions just like hindus! the dance is crossing it and should not be encouraged !
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Deepak May 12, 2016 05:48pm
Let me add my 2 cents to the discussion. The way a painting a song communicates to the audience dance communicates. Song is relatively easy to understand if you are familiar with the language, painting is not very difficult, while dance is difficult. Dancers take extra effort to communicate through facial expression, body language and hands and finger movement. One should be intelligent enough to understand a dance.
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tapish May 12, 2016 06:04pm
A child sees a mother in a woman ,while the lecherous will leer at her. The society which looses innocence even in matters like art ,is bound to face strife and violence. Be generous,be liberal ,be innocent. Return to innocence can only save human kind.
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Military man May 12, 2016 06:14pm
@Vineeth Which present Indian movie portrays classical dance? (if its dance at all in the first place)
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Abhay May 12, 2016 06:17pm
Surprised to see Indian classical style dances are alive in pakistan
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Mady May 12, 2016 06:24pm
@Satish Kumar Dogra Infact some of my South-Indian friends (one of them is Christian girl) learning Bharatnatyam, Karnataka classical music. You can see Bengali, Gujarati, Rajasthani ladies dance during auspicious festivals, pooja. I believe dance is a form to express your emotions just like writing.
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XYZ-Indian May 12, 2016 06:35pm
@Amir :- What about male performing for all audience, it is our eyes who see a lady as a mother , sister or something which is consumable , please don t bring Islam . I am not a Muslim but I cannot believe , if Islam techs us to treat Woman as commodities , for our own fault we should not take the name of Islam. We are choosing religion and our social practices based on our convenience , which tarnishes religion.
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Sridhar May 12, 2016 06:45pm
Absoultely wrong "Historically, classical dance in the subcontinent was the domain of tawaifs, courtesans of the Mughal Empire, which ruled India for hundreds of years until the advent of British rule in the 19th century. " ............ Indian culture is the oldest in the world, it has not started in 1th or 19th century
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Agha Ata May 12, 2016 06:55pm
Everything dances from an atom to a planet to a galaxy in HARMONY.
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Awesome Lyrics May 12, 2016 07:00pm
Dance was banned in 1981 as part of an Islamisation drive led by military ruler Zia-ul-Haq....but then people dance in stadiums, weddings, and political meetings.
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Awesome Lyrics May 12, 2016 07:02pm
@Satt All are available on Youtube, come visit us and we could go together
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Awesome Lyrics May 12, 2016 07:10pm
@Sana Dear Sana, do you know the name od dance form that is practiced in the far away land
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Vinod Narang May 12, 2016 07:12pm
@Abdulla Hussain Audience who appreciate classical dances do not differentiate between hindu or muslim. They look at as an art who enriches the culture of all communities.
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obivankanobi May 12, 2016 07:29pm
Classical dance in india is 3500 years old. No mughals ruled india then.
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ROHIT PANDEY May 12, 2016 07:40pm
I would never have thought that Bharatnatyam and Odissi would be practiced in Pakistan. This is an eye-opener for me. Thanks for the article.:)
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R S Chakravarti May 12, 2016 07:41pm
@Abdulla Hussain What about personal freedom? Nobody is forcing you or anyone else to appreciate them. Similarly, others are free to do so, they don' t need your approval.
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R S Chakravarti May 12, 2016 07:45pm
@Military man Probably none! The "dances" in Bollywood films are vulgar.
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R S Chakravarti May 12, 2016 07:49pm
In the early 20th century, Bharata Natyam was made respectable; the association with prostitution, which had crept in over the course of several centuries, was removed. Maybe the same holds for other dance forms.
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samir May 12, 2016 07:58pm
Classical Indian dance has very old history. It's origin is in sacred temple arts. They narrate highly evolved tales of moral and ethical import.
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Jatt May 12, 2016 08:12pm
@Satish Kumar Dogra yea true and ms kermani is also from a South Indian family who moved to Pakistan in1947 and hence she has the same view
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Jatt May 12, 2016 08:14pm
@vivek no it is not this dance has nothing to do with Punjabi Kashmiri or Pashtun culture and also nothing to do with Baluch or Sindhi so please stop making up history
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Jatt May 12, 2016 08:17pm
@ROHIT PANDEY many Indian came to Pakistan in the last seventy years
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KN May 12, 2016 08:22pm
@Military man There are multiple Indian movies that portray classical Indian dance forms like Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi and so son.
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N_Saq May 12, 2016 08:23pm
Let the people be free! If anyone has issues they can approach the courts and let the courts decide based on the laws of the country. No one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. Once the laws are strictly enforced everything will fall into its right place.
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Ali May 12, 2016 08:47pm
@Sana only sane voice in the comments section.
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manish May 12, 2016 10:26pm
@Sana u cannot delete your past and root. No matter how hard u try
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Mady May 12, 2016 11:24pm
@Sana There are dedicated Urdu tv channels in India. Poetry/ghazals of prominent Urdu writers is extensively used in Hindi movies, dramas, music. Urdu poets/writers has graced upper-house of Indian parliament.
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Dard-e-Dil May 13, 2016 12:16am
@Abdulla Hussain Need a lesson in democracy 101. You have a choice of not liking it but can not take away the right of other who appreciate this form of art. Art does not have a religion. Art is art.
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Patriot May 13, 2016 01:29am
Not sure why we need to promote and protect forign culture. Pakistan has different culture and Ideology otherwise what is the difference between India or Pakistan. No doubt we should be tolerent but must not adopt. Sheema Kirmani has good skills and whoever wants to learn from her can learn. However, this is not our culture and need not to be promoted
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Myview May 13, 2016 02:19am
When I watch dance,do I see art or sex? Answer is whether I am a sex pervert or not. Bitter truth.
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Raj May 13, 2016 02:52am
It is understood that all the regions of Pakistan have no connection with the various Indian dance forms of Kathak , Bharatnatyam , Kuchipudi , Odisi , Katahkkali , Manipuri and many more . And it should not be imposed upon those people . But what should those people do who arrived in Pakistan from different parts of India and called Mohajirs . They brought along with them the culture of Ancient Indian Ragas music , Dance , foods , clothing . Were they supposed to abandon all this just because they want to stick to their religion ? And whats the harm in continuing , while practicing their religion , their own legacy and heritage which they got from their ancestors ? Your culture gives you your identity and one should never loose ones identity . We will always be identified as people from Indian subcontinent and no one else .
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Mango man May 13, 2016 04:04am
Apart from being an art form, it's a graceful way to keep fit, methinks...
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ripan May 13, 2016 02:02pm
@Abdulla Hussain these comments makes me sad.Why do you guys always connect everything with religion. I am a hindu and an Indian and I am proud of the mughals,why can't you be proud of Ashoka and indus valley?
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deepak May 13, 2016 07:34pm
It amazes me that in this day and age one has to justify dancing.
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Mady May 18, 2016 12:03pm
@Myview Sex is a form of expression akin to art. If watching sex is perversion then may be all are.
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Mady May 18, 2016 12:30pm
@Patriot Do you mean Pakistan has no link with Indus valley civilization, Taxila?
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