Feet stained with alta, heavily kohled eyes, gajra in her tresses and the sonorous sound of ghungroo. As the lens beautifully captures the details of Sheema Kermani’s shimmering Bharatnatyam dress just before her performance in her country, Pakistan, the hint of struggle in her eyes cannot be missed. And as the film progresses, its creator, film maker Sonya Fatah explains the reason behind it through anecdotes, lyrics and a few instances from the past.
The documentary I, Dance investigates the influence of politics and religion on the post-partition evolution of classical dance forms like Kathak, Bharatanatyam and Odissi in Pakistan. It also studies how Pakistani classical dancers have been received by their Indian counterparts and further critically examines and questions the authenticity and ownership of artistic traditions.
In the city recently for the screening of their film, filmmakers and India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grantees Sonya Fatah and her Indian husband Rajeev Rao successfully tell the story of a lost art form in a nation torn asunder by continuing strife.
Shot in three locations - Karachi, Lahore and New Delhi - it traces the journey of various classical dance forms in Pakistan through the travels, experiences and struggles of a lone dancer, Sheema Kermani. “Through the film we also see her contemporaries - the Kathak dancer, Nahid Siddiqui, for instance as well as a younger breed of contemporary dancers asserting their voices and movements - amidst increasing restrictions. As a dancer and an activist, Sheema’s story also charts out the political journey of this struggling young state,” says Fatah.
Fatah beautifully captures the conflicts of the only dancer of Pakistan during the times of General Zia- ul- Haq when he had imposed the martial law, and dance was disliked by the state and the mullahs.
As Sheema outlines in one of her interviews,“You can’t define art and culture through religion.” The film shows how the art form crossed the threshold for a few in Pakistan and became more of a protest. A protest for their identity, a protest for the freedom.
The journey through filmmaking
In Fatah’s words, the process was a journey to discover the space that Sheema Kermani had created in Pakistan.
“I set out to make a film about Pakistan and dance was a device through which we told the story,” she says and adds that she chose Sheema because, being a Karachite herself, she grew up knowing what Sheema’s struggles had been. “She is a dancer and an activist and used dance very powerfully to create a response, not just amongst her generation but also for generations that followed. And I wanted to tell that story,” says Fatah.
The challenges of living in a country like Pakistan where governmental and non-governmental outfits pose a serious threat to whoever tries to go against the system has emerged as the crux of the film.
“Through her struggle, Sheema gives out a very strong message - I have the right to chose,” explains Fatah and adds that there is fear among people. “They are not fighting the state anymore, but you don’t know who your audience is.”
Growing up in Pakistan
Recalling the Pakistan of yore, Sonya Fatah, who is presently based in Delhi after her marriage to an Indian, says that the first decade of her life was spent when Zia was ruling. Even though Fatah got a good education and was more privileged than the conservative sections of the society, she was not devoid of the affects of the martial law.
“Generations before me had imbibed classical dance forms as part of their school curriculum but when I was in school it had been removed. I realised much later that unless your family had access to the art form, there was no way you would get exposed to it. Now, the restrictions have reduced. Things have picked up and more and more people are interested,” she explains.