By Reginald Massey
In a free society such as Britain it is unthinkable that anyone would voice an outrageous opinion such as “Dance is un-Islamic and schoolgirls must not be taught to dance.” However, I would like to inform my readers that this ridiculous slogan is being chanted out loudly in Pakistan. Nevertheless, there are a few select souls in Pakistan who risk their lives to keep dance alive in their country. The Karachi based Sheema Kermani is an outstanding example of a dancer-teacher who literally risks her life to propagate three styles of South Asian classical dance: Bharata Natyam from south India (formerly called Dasi Attam), Odissi from Orissa and Kathak from north India.
These styles celebrate Hindu deities and thus are dismissed as un-Islamic. In other words, according to the Taliban’s narrow mean-minded thinking art must only be ‘Islamist’. And yet the same fanatics who threaten dancers such as Sheema Kermani are demanding that India hand over the bronze statuette of the naked Dancing Girl (circa 2500 BC) which was discovered in Mohenjo-daro in the Indus valley by Ernest Mackay in 1926.
Kermani, the daughter of an army officer, took a fine arts degree in London and then went to India to study classical dance from recognized teachers such as Leela Samson. But her life has not been easy in view of the mounting pressure against ‘non-Islamic’ dance. She says, “In its search for a new identity, an identity that would be different from India or rather an identity opposed to Hindu identity, Pakistan discarded all dance as they were considered Hindu and Indian and thus against the religion of Islam and the identity of Pakistan. My journey has been to prove that dance, like any other art form cannot be defined through religious terms – just as there cannot be a Hindu bomb and a Muslim bomb!”
Recently at a press conference she declared: “The earliest motifs (of dance) are found in the Middle East and of course from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. It is our culture and our heritage and no one has the right to get up and say that it should be banned or not taught in schools.”
In 1979 she founded a women’s movement called Tehrik-e-Niswan which campaigns for women’s rights, and calls for religious harmony and peace between Pakistan and India. “I can never forget the day in December 1988,” she says, “when after the 12 long years of cultural repression of General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship people had voted for their new representatives. The streets of Karachi were jam packed with people dancing in the streets, yes dancing and dancing with joy – people of all ages, of all classes, expressing their freedom and their liberty in rhythmic movement…. because as long as we live, as long as we breathe, as long as we are alive we will continue to dance no matter what.”
South Asians across the board must salute the likes of Sheema Kermani.
Reginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published. Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.