Nighat Chaodhry hopes to preserve classical Indian dance form, and with it, part of Pakistan's history and identity.
Pakistan is a vibrant, colourful country but you may be surprised to learn that the land of cricket, parathas and ladoo also has a rich but hidden dance heritage.
Dance styles are plentiful across all the regions of this vast country, and include a beautiful variety of folk as well as classical. The dance forms and their stories are inextricably linked with India, its history and heritage. Although the subcontinent was physically divided in 1947, the butchery of the British carving knife was not able to separate a connection that goes back millennia.
Nighat Chaodhry, a Pakistani professional dancer, now based in Lahore, has been one of the main proponents of Kathak classical dance in Pakistan. She grew up in the UK and studied contemporary dance and ballet, but after being exposed to her own cultural dance heritage, she has never looked back. Nighat found her calling to return to Pakistan, immerse herself in the dance and preserve the hidden artform for the nation.
“Sadly, dance has been heavily politicised in Pakistan. It used to be more vibrant and open, but for several decades now we seem to have lost the acceptance of dance as a spiritual expression,” Nighat said.
Nighat has been practicing Kathak since she was 13-years-old. “Dance has been a breakthrough for me personally. Through dance I found myself, and within myself, I found God.”
In the early days of the creation of Pakistan, there seems to have been a more tolerant attitude towards dance and performing arts. In 1966, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) established an Arts Academy to positively promote the culture of Pakistan.
The Arts Academy was very prominent in its day, and well-known actor and performer, Zia Mohyeddin, was appointed as director between 1973-1977. He married Nahid Siddiqui, who is a world famous Pakistani Kathak dancer, bringing her style of Sufi and spiritual aesthetics to the classical dance. Siddiqui immersed herself in Islamic principles and geometry, to further develop her Kathak movements, poses and alignment of the body.
My family would host the Pakistan Arts Academy on their visits to the UK, and were privileged to witness their performances in close-knit family gatherings at my great-aunt’s house in North West London.
The direction of travel for the acceptance of dance in Pakistan began to change in the late 1970s and 1980s, when dance was actually banned by Zia ul-Haq’s government. Unfortunately, this led to a stagnation and decline of the practice at a formal level. On an international stage, many would presume there was no dance heritage in Pakistan, which could not be further from reality.
Despite the strict edicts from those in power, it has not been an easy task to eradicate dance and expression; Pakistanis continue to dance, with folk dances being extremely popular.
“Folk dancing is very vibrant in Pakistan,” says Nighat. “We have community folk dances including bhangra, balochi and lewa to name a few. These dances tend to have more gender mixing as it’s normally a family affair, and it's inclusive.”
Where there are people, there is always a presence of dance and movement. Whilst some governments try to suppress or ban dance, this does not deny the existence of dance and the role it plays in the history and identity of communities.
In Pakistan, dance is used for rituals, communal activity and celebrations such as weddings, but also by Sufis in a spiritual and devotional context.
Sufism is very popular in both Pakistan and India. This Sufi heritage is a result of the traditions that Indian Muslim rulers brought with them from Central Asia and Persia. The Mughals were very Sufi in their outlook, and patronised many Sufi saints and scholars. The Sufism practiced in Pakistan is steeped in this heritage, and it is part and parcel of the fabric of society including poetry, literature and music.
Traditional Indian classical dance also permeates dance forms in Pakistan, but it is not promoted. Nighat believes that Kathak and Bharatnatyam seem to be the most contentious dance forms in Pakistan due to their obvious links with India.
Nighat is adamant that there is more to the non-acceptance of dance in Pakistan, than merely a religious proclamation against it. While it’s true that certain orthodox elements of society believe dance is not allowed in Islam, that is not everyone’s view.
The real barrier seems to be more political in nature, and based on deep trauma from partition and a drive to develop a completely different culture and existence to India. “The establishment did not want any connection to India at all, including through dance. Though I hope that in the future this might change, but maybe not in my lifetime,” Nighat said.
The irony is that Kathak is deep rooted in Indian Muslim history; in its contemporary form, the dance is a beautiful fusion of indigenous Indian tradition with Islamic culture that was prevalent in the northern parts of India during the golden age of the Mughal Empire, from the 16th to 18th century.
Many of Kathak's elements stem from its ancient past as a classical dance that communicated the stories of Hindu mythology and epics, before evolving under the Mughals to a court dance. In its aesthetics as well as some of its technical aspects, characterised by linear poses and pirouettes, Kathak clearly reflects Islamic influences, to a great extent from Persia.
While Kathak thrives in India, on the other side of the border it is sadly not patronised. Pakistan’s rejection of this classical style also rejects a large part of its own history and identity. Sufi dancing is probably the most accepted dance form in Pakistan due to the popularity of Sufism and its connection to spirituality.
Nighat herself believes in the power of dance to impact spiritual healing.
“I run my own dance institute and also teach dance therapy courses. I strongly believe in the power of dance to have healing powers, and I promote using Sufi dance practices and movement therapy to help those suffering mentally and emotionally.”
“There is so much more to dance than the linear view of its connection to immorality. There are many layers, and it has the power to uplift people, tell stories and convey a community’s rich heritage.”
As Pakistan’s reputation grows as a centre of culture and heritage, thanks to a younger generation of YouTubers and travellers, perhaps Nighat’s hopes may come true sooner than anticipated.
It is her wish that Pakistan’s rich dance history is recognised, and that there will be immense value in embracing the art form and its connected stories, in the years to come.