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Dance in Pakistan
- Dr. Sunil Kothari

August 2, 2010
The review of Engendered is now on in

I would be grateful if dancers, sponsors, organizers, readers, critics, scholars would respond to the issue of dance being prohibited in public spaces in Pakistan.

In Bangladesh, it is being performed. In Pakistan, the position seems ambiguous- someone close to Benazir Bhutto is able to perform in public spaces - that is the impression I got - but I am not sure what the dance situation exactly is in Pakistan. Also Tehreema Mitha now settled in Washington DC consistently attempted to perform in Pakistan main cities. Nahid Siddiqui, the legendary Kathak dancer has now moved to Houston, Texas and has started teaching there, dividing time between Birmingham, UK and USA.

Is it possible for an individual to fight with the state where religion is dominant and under the religious dictates, dance is banned?


When you speak about dance in Pakistan, I think there is the need to be clear about the fact that dance is not only a facet of culture but also a profession. As patronage in South Asia has long consisted of one form or another of court patronage, as the region embraces economic liberalization and democracy, the business model changes. Some of the artists from Pakistan whom you mention have no doubt faced difficulties in Pakistan, but so too have they enjoyed great respect, international projection and economic opportunity in Pakistan over the years. In addition, as professionals, dance artists in Pakistan must continually create opportunity -- just as an actor or director must be proactive and creative in seeking creatively fulfilling as well as remunerative projects.

As the television industry in Pakistan has grown handsomely, some artists like Nighat are developing television shows about dance for PTV. I continue to work on projects that are telecast on multiple channels, potentially reaching millions of Pakistanis. So, when you as an Indian scholar write about the problems facing dance artists in Pakistan, I feel that perhaps your research model is not vast enough to draw a fair and balanced conclusion. Perhaps more exposure to Pakistan and a wider perspective would render your research more justifiable.

I have found great opportunity in Pakistan, working in mass media. While some of my senior colleagues may focus on stage work, I have enjoyed the challenge of communicating through dance to a wider audience through television projects. I have also attempted to bring a non-commercial aesthetic to a commercial medium. For me, my time with Susan Marshall and Company in NY satisfied my desire to be part of the art/dance elite and after performing at elite institutions like Jacob's Pillow, BAM, the Joyce etc. I grew more interested in wider viewership. While much of the mass-media dance work in the region is dominated by item numbers from the commercial film industry, Pakistan has made a modest start in presenting contemporary concert dance to the masses.

Perhaps you ought to make a few trips to Pakistan to better understand both hardships as well as privileges dance artists experience in Pakistan. You may be surprised to find that Pakistan is a dance-loving country with a very vocal and enthusiastic audience - both live as well through media like television.


Omar Rahim
(Aug 2, 2010)

Dear Omar,

Many thanks for your detailed response. Yes, I do propose to visit Pakistan mainly to comprehend the issue of dance in public spaces, halls auditoria, and concert halls.

I am also intrigued by public performances in a Muslim State like Bangladesh and prohibition against public performances in Pakistan. I understand from classical dance exponents visiting Pakistan that they perform in Embassies, Max Mueller Bhavan, German Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise et al.

I appreciate your shift from stage performances to mass media and agree that there is much wider reach than public performances on stage. However, I have never felt that Pakistanis and Indians are much different in terms of their love for music and dance. The artificial division that took place historically has indeed resulted in 'divided geographical locations', but the emotional responses and innate human emotional make-up of Pakistanis and Indians cannot change.

Kathak in Pakistan means Kathak which was prevalent in India which was 'undivided.' So Kathak is as much a classical dance form in Pakistan as Kathak in India or Bangladesh. I am sure Nighat, Nahid, Tehreema, Sheema Kermani, to name a few performers, have had to undergo difficulties performing in Pakistan and also have had privileges performing in UK, Europe, USA and elsewhere.

The issue remains 'unresolved.' If it is a State which is a 'Religious State' and Religion is used for not permitting dance in public, then the individual dancers have little hope of fighting against religion and pursuing dance as a career and performing in public. The post -independence generation, what Salman Rushdie calls 'Midnight Children,' when they grow up, they shall have problems to understand the stand of the STATE and RELIGION, two agencies who do not permit public exposition of dance, despite the fact that the people love dance and music.

I am sanguine that once I visit Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, and other cities, I shall have a better understanding of the issue and condition of the state of dance in Pakistan.

I wish you good luck in all your endeavours.


Sunil Kothari
(Aug 3, 2010)

I had learnt dance from childhood from Mr Ghanshyam who had set up a dance school in Karachi in 1956. He had been with Uday Shankar at Almora. I then proceeded to Delhi where I learnt Bharatanatyam from Leela Samson at the Bharatiya Kala Kendra. I was the first and only dancer from Pakistan to get an ICCR scholarship. I learnt Odissi from Guru Mayadhar Raut and Kathak from Ram Mohan. So I feel proud that I got the best Gurus in India - and this was way back in 1981 to 1983. I then went back to Delhi in 1989 for further training in Odissi with Aloka Pannikar.

I was the first and only performer of Odissi in Pakistan and am the only teacher of Odissi and Bharatanatyam in Pakistan. I may add that I have been the only person in Pakistan who has been teaching classical dance since the last 30 years. I was also the very first Pakistani dancer to be invited to the American Dance Festival.

Sheema Kermani
(Aug 4, 2010)

I really find it odd that Sheema is referring to herself as the only dancer and teacher of classical dance and Bharatanatyam in Pakistan when my mother, whom she knows very well and so does everyone else, has been teaching there since earlier than the Ghanshyams and continues to do so.

Nahid has performed and taught periodically in Pakistan; Maharaj Kathak taught there till his death some years ago; Fasih also gives classes and continues to perform in Pakistan, as does Nighat. I have danced and taught in Pakistan while I lived there (all my life) until 1998 and continue to go back to do both. So, there are several of us in and from Pakistan. And we need more to bring dance to the fore, whether we agree with each other's work or not.

The National Dance Festival (originally set up to tour the three main cities, Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi... to which we had hopes to add more cities later... and meant to encourage new choreography) was conceived, promoted (and we are the ones who found funding for it after two years of trying) and set up by my husband and myself (unfortunately now it is just an embarrassment the way it is presented); the only time that anything has been done by any dancer in Pakistan for the good of dance and all dancers; to try and bring them together to respect each other's work. Of course, it is obvious that it has not worked.

I do want to correct one observation, Sunil-ji, (though I am not getting into this debate in any detail because I think it needs a very detailed and focused discussion and I am also already writing about it all anyway), and that is saying that I have said - we danced mostly abroad. No, I danced mostly in Pakistan but often on land that was considered "not Pakistani."

I should mention Rafi Anwar (who taught Bharatanatyam in Karachi), Madam Azuri (who taught Kathak in Pindi) and Dr. L (who was a vet by profession and whose daughter danced for many years) who also did Kathak in Lahore. All these people have passed away several years ago but are remembered nevertheless.

My mother, by the way, is the only teacher who has actually had students who have done their Arangetrams: beginning with myself in 1986 (a full two hour Arangetram) and then three of our students who learnt for five years with me and then a couple of years with my mother. She presented them in the early 2000's with shorter and joint Arangetrams.

Nahid brought Sonia Kundi and Jahanara Akhlaq for their Bismillah's to Pakistan where they did a joint program.

I should also mention two people who have not been performers but who should not be forgotten when it comes to dance. First, Meher Nigar Masroor, wife of a Air Force Officer, who produced several dance dramas and what one may loosely call Uday Shankar styles dances in the 60ties and seventies, some with PNCA. Secondly, Beena Jawad, who has never been a performer but who is a student of Maharaj Kathak and has taught seriously for many years in Lahore.

As far as the younger generation goes, Sheema' own student Sadia has been to India to further learn Odissi from Madhavi Mudgal for some months. I have not, however, heard of her performing any solo shows. As far as Shayma goes, I would say that if she is capable of, and has given several SOLO shows of a minimum of an hour's duration per time, I would consider her a dancer. Otherwise a student.

Omar sees a different aspect of Pakistan because to begin with he is a man coming from the US. The taint that dance has is associated with being a woman. Though there is discrimination against gay men in Pakistan, it is not serious as long as the sexuality is not portrayed in an abrasive confrontational manner. People may snigger behind your back but will work with you happily enough and this I have seen not just in the art world but because of some of my male students of dance in Pakistan. Male dancing has been accepted even through Zia-ul-Haq's period. And dance at the entertainment level NEVER stopped. There are no ideas there for any government or fanatical group to be afraid of.

Secondly he is trained in Western dance associated therefore with all things American. This is very desirable at a certain level of society and exactly why the other levels of society have turned to the Taliban. If he was trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kathakali or anything from the sub-continent, again the prejudices would have arisen and he would have a very different scenario to deal with because of the "Hindu connection."

Female dancing is accepted IF you have not trained in dance in particular; then the stigma is removed. It is considered that you are just doing this like a hobby, not professionally, (God forbid!), and it is therefore sweet, like the girls who dance at wedding, copying lewd Bollywood movements. That is okay and gets you good rishtas.

When you come into a society where there is little physical training of any type, you have to bring yourself down to their level when you choreograph. Even the way a trained dancer stands still is different to the ordinary man, however much natural grace they may have. That is why we train. When you put people in videos and on stage, who have never had training worth speaking of, it only reinforces the idea that one does not have to bother to perfect oneself in this field to be a "star."

Most of us who are dancers from Pakistan have ridden the waves and survived a lot of the nuances that cannot be explained; and most of us continue to be full time dancers despite it all, sacrificing on many aspects of life to do so. But mostly because we are all PAGAL! Several of us, by the way, have danced in open halls and with tickets sold openly for many years in Pakistan despite bans. For example in Alhambra Hall, Lahore, in 1995/96 with almost a thousand people in the hall with tickets sold openly for the National Dance Festival.

Our greatest collective sorrow, (I am sure that I can speak for all of us on this), is that none of us have, as yet, been able to bring students of ours to be the next generation who are as dedicated and committed and of significant quality to dance. However, I know that we are all working at it and I am sure this will not go wasted.

IN answer to Nighat: More than who is living where, the bigger question is about the quality of your dance, and whether you are really a choreographer and how much new work have you really produced over the years. Are you able to do several long full evening programs in a particular style? Quality is what is really lacking in a lot of what one sees. No use being "Andhon main Kana Raja."

Lastly, one of the questions to ask of any dancer is: what connection does your dance have to the broader culture of Pakistan? Being from Pakistan is not enough. At the same time we should not forget that every culture has many aspects and many facets.

Tehreema Mitha
(Aug 4, 2010)

I am anxious to visit Pakistan and see for myself what the state of dance is there. To me, as in India, when dancers make claims that they were 'the first' does not matter - all contribute some in terms of time earlier and others later on or concurrently.

I do not want to lose focus of the debate - and what I am trying to comprehend - if the State with religious support suppresses the art of dance, what could its future be? All dancers involved in performing, preserving, practicing, teaching dance in Pakistan have an uphill task.

How the future generation of dancers is to know the history of dance in Paksitan. The debate has to address this issue.

Sunil Kothari
(Aug 5, 2010)

Hello all, Dr. Kothari saab

Let's get some facts correct first. Knowing Benazir Bhutto never ever was the reason I was allowed to perform in public....a total misconception.....

I have been living in Pakistan since 1983. At this time there was martial law and dictator Zia-ul-Haq was in power. I come in at a time when things had relaxed quite a bit in Pakistan and women were finding ways to still express themselves, through poetry, theatre and dance.
This was all done through private homes and foreign platforms, centers like the American center, French center etc....

When Zia-ul-Haq came into power in 1977, Nahid ji's dance program Payal was banned first from PTV; neither men nor women were allowed to dance or perform on stage publicly or PTV (Pakistan Television) - this was the only channel at that time in the country. By the time I had returned to Pakistan in '83, conditions had somewhat relaxed. Men were allowed to perform only in public and very few public performances took place, which were company shows but mostly dance performances were held at the British Council, Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, all three major cities of Pakistan. I was undergoing training with Maharaj Kathak, Nahid ji's ustad who was based in Lahore at that time and I also performed at the above mentioned venues.

Benazir Bhutto returned on the 10th of April 1986 and the whole of Pakistan had come out to receive her as she was the only hope left to restore democracy. Elections were announced by Zia ul Haq after being in power for 9 years. In 1988, Zia suddenly dies in a plane crash and Pakistan comes under the leadership of a technocrat Ghulam Ishaq Khan as President. People's party won the election. Benazir becomes Prime Minister and Gulam Ishaq Khan remains the President. Here is where there was a total turn in cultural policy.

PNCA, the Pakistan Council of the Arts was restored and all its branches in different cities, Lahore, Karachi etc. Dance was back on the scene, the cultural folk dance troupe back in action, performing nationally as well as internationally. Corporate sponsorship became available and classical dancers in Pakistan were being sent to different countries to perform and represent the country. The state started taking interest in reviving culture in Pakistan and projecting a more liberal image. (Zia's times had done enough damage). Now every artist had the opportunity to perform publicly, be it man or woman, singer, dancer, stage actor. I saw this with my own eyes.

People's party always had a more liberal and progressive approach to culture, while Nawaz Sharif's govt was conservative. Like the scales of a weighing machine, Pakistan first had Benazir as Prime Minister, then Nawaz Sharif, then Benazir again, and finally Nawaz Sharif before Musharaf took over. Culture was still thriving and dance was still on through this yo-yoing of different govts.

Another military coup another dictator...
But this dictator loved the arts and promoted it to its fullest; artists were engaged all month around there was a boom of performing going on. By this time so many channels had mushroomed as well. President Musharaf inaugurated an arts school in Karachi called NAPA, the National Performing Arts Academy, for acting, learning instruments and classical music as well as dance workshops. Students could now get a diploma for the first time in Pakistan at this school of arts.

Because I wanted to promote dance as much as I could, I performed on television as well as stage to bring awareness to the public to show that Kathak can be depicted thematically through poetry on issues such as women, health and environment. I adapted my Kathak to depict themes like Aiana (the mirror), kursi (the chair), Adam and Eve. Male - female relationships fused my Kathak with an American Pakistani returned Salsa dancer. The youth were suddenly engaged and started noticing Kathak and asked about this dance form. I felt an ownership in them, a feeling of identity. My approach made questions in people's minds.

Classical dancers like Sheema Kermani who does Odissi, Tehreema Mitha and myself were out there dancing, but our dance had already become politicized, so it was difficult to just be an entertainer as dancers with all we had been through and seen. Nahid Siddiqui had left the country in 1978 with her husband to live in England. Her husband is a British citizen. She had to protect herself as well as her dance. Many years later, she frequently returned to perform at venues I mentioned like the American Center to show her art. Many said she had grown tremendously and after learning form Birju Maharaj, her Kathak had transformed. She grew in England, started teaching performing and finally reaching to a stage of her own dance company as well as govt funding, something unheard of or impossible in a country like Pakistan.

Now getting back to Musharaf...even though the arts were flourishing, The Taliban was also growing side by side....Public performances were replaced with public bombing and day by day it grew worse. Slowly corporate funding stops and sponsorship for public performances come to a standstill and dance, music and theatre festivals lose all their funding. Fear takes over as music shops are set ablaze in the northern areas, a theatre bombed by a suicide bomber in Lahore.

Hotels were one of the main venues where most corporate functions took place, the Islamabad Mariott is bombed. The situation worsens day by day as I said. I have been in Pakistan through out all this witnessing it all. Finally, no more stage performances are held, fear has won over and Musharaf is caught up in his own political web of destruction. Benazir is assassinated. Pakistan is in turmoil and believe me still is.

There is no way dancers can survive with these conditions, especially stage practitioners. TV does not pay enough to a classical dance artist of such high caliber for them to survive. The environment worsens. If you live here and experience life day by day, it is a different story.

Visiting is not the same. Come in, do a project, go away, that is very, very safe. How many projects do you get in Pakistan a year?? This is a question to Omar. Where do you live??
Sweetheart, it is a different ball game living in New York and visiting Pakistan.

I really needed to give all this to understand what has really been happening. Omar cannot just take the situation starting from himself; everything has to be put into context and an understanding of the whole. Here are some other things that need answering. There are very, very few stages built here for dance performances. There is one in Pindi called the Liaqat Hall and there is now one in Karachi which is the Arts Council Auditorium and the Alhamra Auditoriums in Lahore. These are the only places that are equipped to host professional performances such as theatre and dance. Stages are always constructed at hotels for corporate and channels functions and sometimes extremely poorly done.

Another point is that Omar is new on the scene and has a lot to offer no doubt and that he contributes to the popular side of dance here for channels and at times on stage. This does not mean that there is no hardship and that television caters to all dancers. They do not and classical dancers would have to adapt and at times compromise to be on TV. Popular dance lends itself much more easily here even though at times to appalling depictions that make you wonder what the hell are they showing....The reason for this again is no exposure. Most promoters do not focus on the dance; they look at the financial side and its benefit more.

Pakistan can still not identify a dance style and its name and with classical dance it is just known as classical dance not Kathak, Bharatanatyam or any other. That's how under exposed we are as a people. I face this all the time trying to explain that Kathak is just one of the many classical dance styles that exist, and I believe all the other classical dancers have faced the same. For classical dancers, Pakistan is a dead end that is the truth of the matter, reason be that Pakistan fundamentalists are threatened by ancient cultural existence and its power being more enticing than religion. We as dancers represent that threat. Western dancers are still more acceptable than being Hindu as dance is looked upon as Hindu. This is a fact. It is not looked upon as Pakistani at all. We will take many life times before the mindset evolves and with this recent influx of the Taliban, our society has come under a strange dichotomy - do we choose culture or religion. There is no teaching that says embrace both.

One last point. Omar is just one who has a great training in modern dance? Yes, you can make a difference and you are.... But so has Nahid Siddiqui, Sheema Kermani, Fasih, Tehreema and I and many, many, many, before all of us.

But, sorry, over all the channels are pouring out crap as far as dance is concerned and bad imitations of MTV and Indian Dance Reality shows on ARY right now. You or I are trying to give so much better, agreed. Everyone has done their bit... maybe it's time for you to do your bit and make whatever contribution, but if you feel you are changing people at their cores, I do not agree. You are bringing relief and joy as well as skimmed milk awareness. Once you have gone back to the States, all is forgotten and you will be the only one who sees the contribution more than anyone else and the whole process starts all over again once you return... but please do not get me wrong, this is no judgement. What you are doing or all that dance artistes have done needed to be.

I do not see true deep change in our lifetimes but yes, many more generations in the future.
It is also so much easier when you are not living here and you just come in for a project. I returned to Pakistan in 1983 and experienced it day in day out till 2010. These are the ground realities.

Best to all

Nighat Chaodhry
(Aug 5, 2010)


Well explained, the contextualizing and different dictators, their attitudes, and now Taliban.

Dance as I understand is performed not on soil of Pakistan but on soil of British Council, American Cultural Centre, Alliance Francaise or Embassies. Am glad reality is understood.

Sunil Kothari
(Aug 6, 2010)

Nighat and all,

Thanks for your message. I think it was helpful to get a historical overview on the dance scene from your perspective.

I hope it is clear that I have at no point meant to undermine any other dance practitioner's experience in Pakistan. I just wanted Sunil to understand that complexities exist - which your message has helped elucidate - and to offer the case study of my own experience which it seems is a bit a-typical. I feel dismayed at the conclusion drawn by Sunil in the last exchange, where he concludes that "dance is not performed on the soil of Pakistan..." Again, despite your illustrations of the qualitative differences in different political periods and fluctuating levels of social encouragement and support, the more negative side proves to be more newsworthy. It is certainly part of the truth, but not the complete truth.

Despite your opinion on the subject, Nighat, I continue to meet people in Pakistan and even abroad who remember and appreciate my mass-media oriented projects in Pakistan. Some A-list film directors in India had even scrutinized the Zeb and Haniya video frame-by-frame, in fact, when I met them on my last trip to Mumbai! As for the frequency of my projects, I am generally offered a few large projects a year in Pakistan and depending on the project and my availability, I try to take on at least one a year. I don't really think where I live the rest of the year bears any relevance to the discussion - I come to Pakistan, I cast, rehearse, choreograph and perform in Pakistan. Who cares where else I live? Aren't most of Pakistan's dancers/choreographers pretty fleet-footed too?

In a private exchange I had with Nahid Siddiqui, I explained that some dancer friends in India have complained of limited economic opportunity in their field to me. There is no doubt much more support is given to classical dance in India and a small but loyal audience. The economics of dance in India are also hazardous, from my understanding. I do not mean to compare the two countries in every respect. I only suggest that there are certain issues that face the larger community of classical dancers and choreographers in the region, namely how to make a good living doing what one loves. In bad times, work in this field trickles to a drought, but I think there have been times when there are opportunities and a conducive environment in which to work and present work (as you point out in your historical overview, Nighat.) That is the point I wanted to make. As someone with a non-Eastern classical dance background, I have had a very different trajectory from most of the seniors in on this email thread. In a sense, there is even less of a context for post-modern dance theater in Pakistan than what is lumped together as 'classical dance'. I have been a bit subversive in sneaking my own point-of-view into commercial ventures and despite the toll it sometimes takes, I've largely enjoyed the ride so far.

Without a doubt there are difficulties in the field of dance, but amongst the legions of generally lower middle class 'commercial' dancers whom I tend to work on commissions in Pakistan, I find inspiration. Just the other day, I held auditions and was a bit shocked that a young girl who was fairly free and easy with movement during the audition put on a burqa and melted away into the Karachi street. She's still dancing...


(Aug 6, 2010)

To Omar, Sunil and all

So sorry that there is a huge misconception that dance is not performed on Pakistani soil.
Dance at times was not performed on Pakistani soil, but at the venues previously stated.
Dance has been performed in Alhamra Arts Council, Pakistan National Dance Festival in 1990 in Lahore.
Dance has been performed at the Arts Council, Karachi, many times and just recently Sheema Kermani had just performed in 2010.
Dance has been performed at the Liaqat Memorial Hall in Rawalpindi.
Dance has been performed at the Ali Auditorium in Lahore.
Dance has been performed in Pakistan Television, govt owned, very Pakistani.
Dance has been performed at the Lahore Fort for Margaret Thatcher, and many world leaders.
Dance has been performed at the Shalimar Gardens of the Mohgul era
All these are very much Pakistani soil and hotels like Pearl, Mariat, and Avari are Pakistani soil..

I am not undermining all the appreciation you get and the recognition. Again, you mentioned India and getting bigger offers and even in Pakistan...
I feel you missed really what I have been trying to say....
The mindset of Pakistan at its core has not changed - your dance performances and everyone's dance performances will always be highly appreciated here and around the world and no matter what.

Arjumand Rahim, your cousin, who was learning Kathak from me when she started, was not allowed to wear ghungroos and perform in her first performance by her parents, so I made all the students performing take their bells off to show that dance was not in the ghungroos.

People at their cores here in Pakistan, even though they love to see it, appreciate it, find it deep down for themselves, not a respectful thing to do. I also stand by the fact that living here and dealing with the criticism and disapproval of dance that goes on, day in day out, is totally different to coming in once a year for a project. Another point. The road paved for dance today has been becoz of the tremendous contribution of all those dancers before you who chose to live here and fight this battle head on.

Otherwise, dance was banned from television. People like myself, Nahid Siddiqui, Fasih and Sheema kept our voices loud and heard and that exploded into keeping dance alive and our commitment, come what may to dance in Pakistan. Being a classical dancer in Pakistan truly is much harder than anything else.

I am not judging anything else or any other dance forms or dancers. This is coming from my own first hand experiences of the difficulties. I still believe there will be a time when this will also all change at the core level of Pakistani society, but when???

Nighat Chaodhry
(August 12, 2010)

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