Let Dance take the Lead

Rehana Hyder takes us to an enthralling moment in the Islamabad Art Festival 2019

Let Dance take the Lead
Coming after the celebrated opening of the Kartarpur Corridor just 10 days ago, in an aura of excitement Iffat, Rizwana, Sheba and myself – old students of Mrs Indu Mitha – converged at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) on Monday, the 18th of November, for the dance segment of the Islamabad Art Festival (IAF) 2019 curtain raiser. The event takes place for two weeks at different venues in the Capital, under the able direction of Jamal Shah, and with the collaboration inter alia of his original organisation Hunerkada.

Having opened with the morning tribute to Jamil Naqsh, in the afternoon the auditorium filled up amidst the hum of anticipation and sotto voce conversation, the lit-up mobiles – the “diyas” of today – and the dark, stark, stage that backgrounds dramatically the colourful costumes, movements, and poses of the performers.

Farah Sheikh

Without further ado, at 3pm the moderator introduced the event as a fusion of two classical schools of our broader region: the Balinese/Sundanese Legong of Indonesia and the Kalakshetra Bharatanatyam of Pakistan, taught by Mrs Indu Mitha and her senior shagird – now a master trainer herself – Dr. Feriyal Aslam. There were to be renditions of Kathak, and of its fusion with Khattak (“Katthak” or “Khatak”) likewise.

The full effect of these wonderful offerings of classical – blended with some folk – choreography was somewhat marred by the unexpectedly and repeatedly errant technical inputs in this main PNCA auditorium, specifically the sound system, which either refused to come on or went off intermittently mid-“tukra”, “antara” and “astai”. Mercifully this lasted for a time approximately halfway through the show, and not throughout it. A controlled yet surely seething Amna Mawaz was applauded with gusto when in mid-dance she gestured gracefully a “kiya karen?!” (What can we do?)
The moderator introduced the event as a fusion of two classical schools of our broader region: the Balinese/Sundanese Legong of Indonesia and the Kalakshetra Bharatanatyam of Pakistan

The fusion of Indonesian and South Asian dance was harmoniously wrought by Feriyal Aslam, Iftikhar Masih, Nabila Athan and Rokeya Aunny with Keni Soeriaatmadja & her KBRI colleagues. The depiction of and melodic melange around the fantastical creatures – the brilliantly hued peacock and the stunningly silver-plumed Garuda – was a treat for both eyes and ears! Feriyal’s voyage of discovery in Bandung has enriched Pakistani enthusiasts of “raqs”, bringing the exotic notes and movements of Far Eastern classical music into our own spectrum of Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and surely Odissi too - the latter subject to implementation onstage by Sheema Kirmani and her school. These depictions were entitled “Tari Merak Peacock Dance”, “Murwa Pankh Peacock opens its Wings” and “Garuda in Mohenjodaro”. Another striking display of this choreographic confluence was the “Tari Sulintang Star Dance” performed by Iftikhar Masih and Rokeya Aunny.

A distinct note, yet interwoven into the harmony of Kathak, were Khanzada Asfandyar Khattak’s two expositions of his own fusion of Khattak with Kathak in Chanchal and Pashto Teental. Having come a long way since his first performance at the spectacular show of Mrs Mitha’s shahgirds here at PNCA in summer 2017, Asfandyar – attired in striking Pashtun garb with zari-adorned waistcoat – gained much audience acclaim with his confidence and devotion to his dance.

This was followed by the Amna Mawaz solo referenced above. Eye-catching as always, in mehndi-green and black Bharatanatyam costume, she went through her paces with poise and charm, although one felt a thrilling “tillana” would perhaps have given her prowess – honed further by her Guru Mrs Mitha since her entrancing “arangetaram” (graduation) in this same space several years since – more scope to shine than the Persian chant her piece was somewhat incongruously set to.

The next item brought the house down – the surprising yet welcome arrival onstage of the California-resident Kathak exponent and ustad-in-her-own-right Farah Sheikh. She was trained by a Guru hailing - like Indu Mitha and Maharaj Ghulam Hussain - from Bengal. Tall and graceful like Nighat Chaudhry, she began with the technique perfected by Nahid Siddiqui: introducing and deconstructing the “taal” and enunciating the “bol” at the mic, then demonstrating the same onstage. However this dancer was in a class and dimension all her own: her obvious enjoyment & expertise was palpable and uplifting, filling the air and illuminating us all likewise. After reciting the “bol” of the unusual and complex “dhamaar” – 14 matra/beat – of her chosen compositions, in the most lilting of voices, she proceeded to glide across the stage from “tora” to “tukra” punctuated by breathtaking stops, “thaat” and expression; and gesture-embellished thathkaar. As aptly noted by the moderator, all in the hall were mesmerized.

Image from a performance by Amna Mawaz

Farah Sheikh is surely on par with the best South Asian classical dancers of today, epitomized by Tehreema Mitha – likewise resident in the US – who herself gave a dazzling display of Bharatanatyam in Karachi the weekend preceding this IAF opening.

It says much for the Chinese modern dance group – stylishly attired in red and black – that following the above bravura performance that they yet with their perfectly synchronised music and movements managed to attain our admiration and appreciation of their contribution.

It was wonderful to see Mrs Indu Mitha, Doyenne of Dance – silver-haired and sari-clad, elegance personified – arrive gracefully onstage for the finale and accept with her proteges and their associate artistes from abroad the adulation of the audience.

One trusts that with the fine-tuning of the audial setup at PNCA, all related events in the festival achieve this standard of excellence, in particular the dance display to be continued at the Serena later in the week. To paraphrase the titles of two music-oriented movies, “Let dance take the lead”.