Struggling to dance

By Beena Sarwar

An evening of classical dance at the Arts Council Auditorium, Karachi
was a moving tribute to young, upcoming dancers — and most of all,
to Sheema Kermani

Sheema Kermani shines through her students. At an evening of
classical dance in Karachi on May 24, she performed and showcased the
work of sixteen students, ranging from newcomers to experienced
dancers. The end of the over-two hour long ‘Jugalbandi’ that
juxtaposed dance styles on one platform, drew sustained applause and
a standing ovation from much of the audience filling the Arts Council
Auditorium to its 500-strong capacity. It was a moving tribute to
young, upcoming dancers — and most of all, to Sheema Kirmani for her
lifelong dedication as a teacher, creativity as a choreographer and
as a dancer herself.

The evening began with her six junior-most students, aged eight to
eleven, presenting the Manipuri, one of the four major schools of
classical dance and the first dance that the Ghanshyams taught their
students at their Rhythmic Arts and Yoga Centre that Sheema, then 14,
joined when her family moved to Karachi in 1964. Her father, an army
officer, insisted that his children learn classical music; her mother
pushed her to dance. (Another daughter of an army officer, Tehreema
Mitha, also danced professionally for several years in Pakistan
before settling in the US. Her mother, the indefatigable Indu Mitha,
continues to teach dance in Islamabad).

The Ghanshyams, a gentle, soft spoken couple from Calcutta who made
Karachi their home had studied dance with the famed Uday Shankar at
his dance centre at Almora. Carrying forward his tradition, they
taught a range of dance styles and techniques, ranging from the
Manipuri, to the Bharat Natyam and Odissi, as well as Kathak. Sheema,
who began teaching dance in 1981 at the Ghanshyams’, follows this

When the Ghanshyams were hounded out of the country during the Zia
regime in 1983, she was away in India doing a second year-long dance
apprenticeship. Vigilantes began attacking the rented residence which
doubled as their dance institute, smashing windows and spray painting
graffiti on the gate threatening ‘Islamic punishment’ to anyone
coming there to sing and dance. The Ghanshyams had to literally “run
for their lives”, recalls Sheema. They wanted her to take over the
Institute but fled before she returned. Sheema started teaching dance
at home with three former Ghanshyam students. Other dancers like the
late Rafi Anwar also continued to teach, going to students’ houses.
Throughout the Zia years, except for three, year-long stints in India
to study dance, Sheema Kirmani stuck it out in an environment hostile
to the classical arts, particularly dance and women in the performing
arts, facing insecurity and threats philosophically, keeping a
deliberately low profile.

“What keeps me going is my own creative work. I am part of this
society and have as much right to be here as anyone else,” she
reasons. “I have always lived here, and I love it here, the weather,
the flowers, the fragrances. If someone doesn’t like dance, I say
don’t come to see us. I am not imposing myself or my ideology on
anyone. But others feel free to tell us what to do and what not to

Sheema is no complainer but when asked about the daily struggle
involved in being a dancer, she agrees that it is not easy. It’s
difficult to get a venue, it’s hard to make a decent living, and it’s
expensive to put up performances. This last one-day event had no
corporate funding but involved costs like cards and brochures, and
renting lights, sound equipment and auditorium. Students paid for
their own costumes and one newspaper gave her a complimentary
advertisement. Power failures meant that the costumes weren’t ready
until the performance day itself, so there could be no full dress
rehearsal. Ideally, there should be several days of rehearsing in
costume, on stage, with lights.

Society generally looks down on dancers despite the efforts of
performers like Sheema to “bring some respect to it”. She recalls
overhearing one guest talking to another at a dinner by a well known
television producer: “Why do you want to sit next to her? She’s a
dancer”. Choosing to focus on her work rather than such attitudes,
Sheema remains on the periphery of the social circuit although
networking could help further her cause financially and socially. She
recognises that she hasn’t made things easy for herself — “too
independent-minded, too outspoken and too rebellious. But there are
all sorts of people in the world, and that’s how I am.”

Why the stigma against dance? “It is totally wrong to say that the
general public is against dance. It’s just a small minority that is
against these things,” says Sheema. “I danced before 10,000 people at
the World Social Forum in Karachi, and before thousands at Bhit Shah
at Rasool Baksh Palejo’s Hari Conference last year. Last week, ten
people had come from Larkana to see the performance and asked me to
publicise such events in the Sindhi media. Ordinary people are not
against dance and music. And why should they be, there’s no nudity or
vulgarity in it.”

Sheema does not engage in “art for art’s sake”. She has strong views
on issues like the role of the artist, gender roles, social equality,
peace and justice, her activist identity merging with the artistic.
Her long-established theatre group, Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s
Movement) regularly crosses the two areas of art and ideology with
performances that often incorporate dance. She is involved in the
Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, initiating
dance and cultural events into the annual conventions.

Sheema’s dedication and conviction have contributed to Pakistan’s
small crop of classical dancers. Some of her students have liberal
families who encourage them to dance. Most girls are still at school
or college. Minha Jawed, who was part of the Manglacharan, an Odissi
number along with Shama Altaf and Nida Akram, is a dentist. Another
Odissi dancer, the tall, graceful Zohra Omar, daughter of the
designer Nasra Ahmad and architect Najeeb Omar, is headed back the US
for a masters degree. Suhaee, the 14-year old Bharat Natyam dancer
who lights up the stage with her very presence, wants to take up
dance professionally, supported by her mother the feminist writer
Atiya Dawood and artist father, K.B. Abro.

There are relatively few male dancers. One former student, Amjad
Ansari, teaches dance in various schools; another, Mohammed Ahmed is
a successful television playwright. Her best known male student is
the Bharat Natyam dancer Mani Chao who has wonderful form and did a
couple of excellent pieces juxtaposed with Sheema doing Odissi. His
family, Baltis settled in Karachi, disapprove of what he does. So do
the families of most male dancers even if they are doing Kathak, like
Mohsin Baber.

Baber, who did a graceful Kathak jugalbandi with Sheema’s Odissi, was
her student at the Pakistan National Performing Arts Group of the
Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA). Sheema Kirmani taught at
the PNAG for five years but last year “they ended the contract
without even a month’s notice and still owe me for my choreography”.

Sheema approached the National Academy of Performing Arts last
September, but hasn’t heard back from them. She recalls the support
that the PNCA provided when Kishwar Naheed was Director General there
and organised dance and theatre festivals for which she would pay
performers. “No one does that now. They should have a public-private
partnership, where the government gives grants to dancers and dance
teachers to continue their work and hold performances on a regular
basis without constantly worrying about money.”

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