Why are mehndis the only place Pakistanis are allowed to dance?

Our mehndis have become Bollywood extravaganzas, but they're one of the only spaces people have to express themselves through dance.
15 Apr, 2023

Desi weddings may be about the bride and groom but they’re also all about dances. Dances have now taken centre stage in desi wedding culture and this phenomenon is associated with the cream of Pakistani urban elite.

I want to analyse how we got here in a post-Zia Pakistan where PTV once even banned dancing on national television. The institution of classical dance itself, Sheema Kermani recalls that at the time of its inception, Pakistan had two major cities with a pluralist and diverse culture — Lahore and Karachi. “There were night clubs and hotels with a very entertaining night life — so much so that Karachi was considered the Beirut of the East. However, at Partition many of the Hindu community migrated and things started changing.”

It is interesting to remember that the decade following 1947 was a time of searching for a new identity for Pakistan, which was basically a search for a new cultural identity, said Kermani. She explained that it was in these early years that Mr Ghanshyam was invited from Calcutta by Prime Minister Suhrawardy to set up a cultural centre in Karachi.

At that time, the state supported art and culture. In the same decade, PIA established the PIA Arts Academy — a performing arts group. There would be dance performances at state functions and when PTV started, there were classical music and dance programmes on a regular basis.

All this changed, first in 1971, when Pakistan was divided for a second time. Many dancers and musicians who were of Bengali origin left for Bangladesh. The final straw was when General Zial decided to introduce orthodox fundamentalist laws. He banned dance in all official and non-official media and introduced strong censorship policies.

“The dance maestro said that at this point, all the dancers either left Pakistan or were forced to leave, as was her guru, Mr Ghanshyam, who had to save his life and seek refuge along with his family.”

Then, all state support ended. Classical dance and music started dying as the practitioners could not make a living from their art anymore, said Kermani.

“Ever since, there has been a continuous downward trend, as the minds of the people became more and more fundamentalist. Now, all art and culture is seen through a religious lens.”

The past 30 years have been a struggle when it comes to the art and culture movement in Pakistan. Avenues for any form of dance except the exuberant dances at desi weddings are almost non-existent. But how did we get here?

Pakistani mehndis — Bollywood style

Almost 40 years post Zia and Pakistani urban elite’s mehndis have undergone a Bollywood style cultural evolution to almost become synonymous with choreographed dance performances. Dancing at weddings is not a new phenomenon and has been a part of our culture well before the onset of Instagram and wedding photography pages.

Mussarat Nazir’s songs and the wholesome videos of the older generation celebrating family weddings bear testament to how well-ingrained dancing to express joy has been. Kermani believes that, “Dancing on occasions like weddings and other celebrations and festivities has always been part of our culture”.

“In fact, there were special songs and special dances that would always be performed at weddings. On such happy occasions when people get together, they sing, or they put on some music and then there is always a natural instinct that leads us to follow the rhythm of music,” she explained. “If you observe, children move and clap their hands when they hear music. It is a spontaneous response related to our need to communicate and express our emotions through the movement and the body. So, it is no surprise that people want to dance at weddings and I don’t think that there is anything new about this. However, what is different now is the form that these dances have taken.”

Dances at mehndis have turned from spontaneous responses to desi renditions of Dancing with the Stars. When asked about the originality of these dances and if this reflects our manic obsession with Bollywood, Kermani said, “I think that most of the time there is no originality in the dances that people do at weddings these days — mostly, people just copy straight from off the net and unfortunately we have lost all our wonderful traditional wedding songs and dances that were so beautiful.”

These traditional songs and dances were created to be sung and performed at weddings and thus were relevant to the occasion — they were not just film songs, she said.

On the other hand, Hafeez Bilal Hafeez, a renowned Lahore-based choreographer, believes, “You cannot put borders to any form of art, particularly dance, because of the complex web of mutual dependence we live in. Globalisation, to be precise.”

He said there are innumerable norms and practices that are prevalent in our country that have been inspired by other cultures, but he doesn’t have a problem with them as long as they are not threatening one’s security of life. “We should appreciate the fact that after all those years of struggle and instability that our nation went through, some of us have finally gathered the courage to showcase our talent. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve learned a Bollywood routine online and you’re doing that at a wedding or you’re making original choreographies for commercial projects.”

Dancing versus dancing

The disdain towards indigenous forms of dancing is a colonial hangover, which was exacerbated by using religion as a pretext in a post-colonial Pakistan. In a society where people are judged for standing civilly in a queue to get their favourite coffee, the idea is not to pen down a condescending piece on how people celebrate joy but to point out that if choreographed and rehearsed dances are acceptable at massive social events such as weddings, then so should classical and other forms of indigenous dancing.

Perhaps a cultural shift towards dance as an art form needs to accepted by our society. Kermani drew a distinction between dance as an art form and wedding dances, saying, “Moving and shaking to filmi Bollywood songs is not an art nor a craft. The motivations are different — classical dance is a beautiful and profound art form with great depth, history, intellectual knowledge and aesthetics. While these dances are “hala gulla”, titillation and simply entertainment. I do not see any comparison!”

She also had a lot to say regarding hypocrisy when it comes to dance. “I would also like to point out about the double standards, the contradictions, the hypocrisy of our society where mujra and this kind of dance is acceptable but classical dance is not!” she noted.

However, there is no such thing as an absolute acceptance, even in this form of dancing. In this era of instant fame and vicious trolling, one can become a viral global dance icon and simultaneously be subjected to immense criticism for that very claim to fame.

 Actor Saboor Aly performing a choreographed dance at her own wedding
Actor Saboor Aly performing a choreographed dance at her own wedding

When asked whether he believes the influx of dance videos online highlights the lack of avenues for performing arts otherwise, Hafeez Bilal dared to look at the optimistic side of the coin. “Comparatively, Pakistan does lack avenues to showcase performing arts, but this influx of wedding dance videos is coming from around the world. If we compare our contemporary situation to where we were 20 years ago, we have improved in all aspects,” he reasoned.

“The country is producing more and more artists every year, despite all the hate they’re getting from within the country, and this has solely been due to the increase in freedom to showcase art. Having said that, there’s always room for improvement but we as a nation need to be more supportive towards our artists,” the choreographer added. Kermani, however, sees it completely differently: “I am convinced that there is a total lack of avenues for the performing arts in Pakistan. I believe that dance has a very positive effect on our daily lives. There are many research reports whose findings are that dancing makes one feel not only happier, but also more satisfied with one’s life.”

Practice makes perfect?

Dance practices have become integral social events leading up to a modern, urban Pakistani wedding. They start months before the actual wedding and the endless sleepovers, get togethers over food and late nights have elevated the entire wedding experience. The traditional dholkis have been almost entirely replaced.

However, does all this choreography and synchronicity take away from the fun? If dancing at weddings is supposed to be fun and spontaneous, can one assume that the incessant practices take away from what the dance is originally supposed to denote? Hafeez Bilal disagrees. “I think this is a rather subjective criticism and it has more to do with the conformist mindset of the people who don’t even consider dance to be a form of art. I wouldn’t say I haven’t seen wedding dances change, but I would call it an evolution, from negligent dancing to somewhat conscientious dancing. Since I am in this industry, I can say for sure that people are still having fun. In fact, it’s even better now because there are not a lot of avenues where you can enjoy and learn at the same time,” he said.

“I think preparation and practice for anything that one wants to do is important,” reasoned Kermani. “One cannot emphasise enough the importance of practice, preparation and rehearsals for any performance. Why should practice take away spontaneity?”

She said, on the contrary, practice will definitely enhance the pleasure and joy of performance. “All living beings have a tendency to move to the beat of the music, but it must be remembered that dancing improves our mood. When we dance our brain releases endorphins, hormones which can trigger neurotransmitters that create a feeling of comfort, relaxation, fun and power,” she explained.

“Music and dance do not only activate the sensory and motor circuits of our brain, but also the pleasure centres. I believe that dancing, especially dancing at weddings, becomes an important social activity that allows us to connect with others, share experiences and meet new people, which has a very positive effect on our mental health. So whatever kind of dance that people may do, just the fact that they dance is important!”

Header image: The Quick Style