How She Moves celebrates Pakistan's rich heritage of classical dance

Updated 12 Apr, 2021 07:46pm

Images Staff

The documentary follows the legendary classical dancer Indu Mitha, and the story of the art form.

The short documentary How She Moves celebrates the millennia-old traditions of dance and music in the piece of land we today call Pakistan. The documentary follows Indu Mitha, a 90-year-old classical dance teacher hailing from Lahore, and her students as they prepare for her final dance recital.

With the partition of India, and the carving out of a Muslim-dominated state, divided South Asian states faced all new challenges. Among the challenges that affected the newly created Pakistan more than the historic state of India was the need to create a new national narrative, which had to acknowledge the culture and history of the land that it stood on, so as to not alienate the population from their own ancestors.

At the same time, however paradoxical, the new narrative also had to part ways from the said culture and history to justify the need for separation.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, the power of defining the existential narrative of over 75 million people found itself in the hands of a few elite circles. These circles, blinded by their own aspirations for wealth and a neglectful desire for control, were ruthless with this narrative building. In the quest to differentiate ourselves from our cousins across the border, art suffered deeply. We were told we're more like the Arabs, and now apparently the Turks, but nothing like the people who literally roamed our very streets less than a century ago.

Art that found great appreciation and patronage under the Muslim rule of the Mughals, ironically, was now perceived as a threat to the very foundation of the new Muslim rule in South Asia. The state that flaunted the ex-capital of the Mughal Empire — Lahore — as one of its biggest cities now wanted nothing to do with the centuries of local culture. Among the art forms degraded from the prestige of the Mughal darbars to hidden quarters with small audiences was dancing.

Obviously though, with such a rich tradition of the performing arts, they couldn't just eradicate parts of culture that didn't suit their vision. Among the rebels loyally fighting this war on the arts is Indu Mitha.

A rebel artist

Indu Mitha — a legend by any means — was born a Bengali Christian, an intersection of two discriminated against minorities by ethnicity and religion in Pakistan, in 1929. At the time of Partition, her family made the move to Delhi from Lahore, which is where she attended university and learnt the craft she would dedicate her life to. Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance originating in Tamil Nadu, became her forte and she its exponent. She began teaching in India, and when she migrated back to Pakistan after her marriage in 1951, she continued teaching in Pakistan, where she has been teaching for 60 years. The art form, originally associated with Hindu deities, under her creative vision became a tool for resistance, as she used it to explore themes of feminism and secularism.

How She Moves was created by directors Anya Raza and Aisha Linnea. Raza is a Pakistani-Dutch filmmaker with a vast experience working in non-profits, and currently on her way to completing her first novel. Her take on subjects is thought provoking, with a greater message of compassion. Linnea is a Pakistani-American filmmaker based in Islamabad, and she has a special interest in studying the sub-cultures in Pakistan. Her work has gained her international appreciation, well on her way to making a name for herself in the field.

Images spoke to the directors to learn more about their exciting endeavour.

What made you want to produce a documentary on Indu Mitha and when did you first hear about her?

Raza first studied dance with Mrs Mitha as a young girl in Islamabad, and was in awe when she encountered the confident, articulate and charming teacher. She was known for her discipline, grace and wealth of historical knowledge.

There is almost no better topic for a filmmaker than the preservation of art and creation of space for self-expression, especially in a country like ours, she said of her film.

Fast forward two decades, when we heard it was Mrs Mitha’s last presentation with her students, we knew that this was a moment in Pakistan’s history that had to be captured. At the tender age of 90, Mrs Mitha’s contribution to preserving ancient classical dance, despite a backdrop of growing intolerance in Pakistan, is a legacy to be celebrated. In a conservative tight-knit society such as Pakistan, dance is a misunderstood subject, and women expressing themselves publicly, especially physically, is uncommon.

What are some of the most surprising things you learned during the filming process?

Ironically, one of the first proofs of humans dancing, the 4,300-year-old bronze statue of the Dancing Girl, was found in our very land, in Mohen-Jo-Daro in 1926, and is one of the most iconic symbols of the Indus Valley. What’s even more ironic is that Pakistan is currently pursuing the return of this statue from the National Museum in Delhi.

Watching dance requires vulnerability, it is an intimate experience. Perhaps our discomfort with someone else dancing stems with our own personal struggle with our bodies. As a nation we struggle with conversations about our mental and physical health because we are unable to acknowledge our own bodies under the guise of modesty — to our own detriment.

In our research, we noticed two very distinct trends when it came to dance in Pakistan. On one hand, the influence of Bollywood and other Western dance on the erosion of classical dance, and on the other hand, extremism, nationalism, and suspicion of dance as a legitimate art form eroding all dance forms even further. In the past three years we’ve seen dance classes banned, people killed for dancing, films and advertisements banned for showing dance, apps banned for showing people dance… the list, sadly, goes on.

How long did it take to produce this film, from when you first came up with the idea to when it was finally ready to be shown?

We learned that Mrs Mitha was putting her final presentation on at the PNCA only a few weeks before filming began so didn’t have much time to pre-produce. With the support of anthropologist/dance scholar Dr Feriyal Aslam, our first grant came through only the day before filming and we shot consecutively for around two weeks.

Many interviews were done after that along with some pickup shoots, but what really took time was the edit. The reason being that we actually set out to make something closer to 20 minutes but after working with multiple editors here and abroad, the consensus was that we needed at least double that in order to accurately show why teaching classical dance in Pakistan was such a rare feat. It was a delicate balancing act weaving through the stories of Mrs Mitha and her students, exploring complex topics such as identity, rights, and dreams.

What has the reception been like to the film?

We’ve screened at over 10 film festivals ranging from Portland to Bolivia and Macao to name a few, but also getting the Top Jury Prize in our category of Excellence in Short Documentary at the 43rd Asian American Film Festival along with an Honourable Mention at Women’s Voices Now.

So those have been two huge honours and the general reception everywhere has genuinely been better than we could have imagined. From the trailer alone, it is evident people are feeling inspired by the very captivating Mrs Mitha.

You have said dance is a misunderstood subject, do you hope to change that with this documentary?

Language itself can be an oppressive tool and something you see through the film is how different segments of society can come together to communicate and create art when it’s non-verbal. There is a large gap in Mrs Mitha’s classes in terms of both socio-economic position and gender, however, through the power of Mrs Mitha’s instruction, dance was one way which these students were able to connect with each other. It’s telling of a lot but we’ll have to let you watch the film to decide what this means.

Overall, the point of the film is to contextualise our history, highlight the importance of preserving our culture and to show the impact that an empowering teacher like Mrs Mitha can have. We hope a takeaway is reflecting on the rich culture of Pakistan, and the need for its documentation and preservation, but also of education — so the citizens of Pakistan are no longer deprived of the inspiring artistry of legends such as Indu Mitha.

How can people in Pakistan watch the documentary?

We’ve just had our Pakistan premiere through the US Embassy and the Pakistan US Alumni Network along with another month of festival screenings currently with Women Through Film.

What often happens with documentaries is that they get lost in the world of theatres and festivals and never make it to the communities they stem from, who can benefit the most. We have therefore developed a “screening in a box experience” with an interactive discussion guide, so that anyone can host a screening! We are partnering with festivals, NGOs, universities and art spaces to bring the film across Pakistan.

Many individuals have reached out to set these up and we’re hoping for many more. If you’re interested, reach out and we’ll organise together!

Where can we find out more?

Instagram! Just follow @howshemovesthedoc for all info on screenings and everything else we’re up to!

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