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Through the Lens

Back to Issue | February 2021

Through the Lens

Conversation between Nahid Siddiqui and Masoom Parmar

“As a child, I didn’t know why I would get this compulsion, this urge to dance,” says Nahid Siddiqui, one of Pakistan’s most iconic kathak dancers. “Even at the age of four or five, I really liked to move. I didn’t know what dance was back then, but I was very expressive in my body language. I wouldn’t hesitate when asked to dance. In fact, I wished someone would ask me to dance. It hit me later on that I was actually doing kathak.”

As the eldest daughter of renowned yesteryear actor Talat Siddiqui, Nahid has been performing for decades now and been a disciple of two great teachers: Baba Maharaj (also known as Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak) and Birju Maharaj. Of course, as someone with very little knowledge of ancient dance forms, I only found this out upon meeting her. I went into the interview with a layman’s curiosity and she entered the lounge with a double-handed grip on her mug of tea and a big smile on her face.

Nahid has been carrying the torch of kathak in Pakistan for decades. In the late 1970s, during the Ziaul Haq regime, dancing was banned. In spite of that, Nahid continues. “How can you ban beauty? It just helped me work that much harder. A lot more people supported me because I continued performing. See, you can’t cage a society. That’s why there’s a certain mental dwarfness that’s prevalent today.”

Since the ‘Islamist’ regime and the extreme changes Pakistani society has undergone in its wake, dancing is still somewhat frowned upon and considered ‘un-Islamic’ even though it’s heavily imbued in our celebrations. Nahid has an answer for that. “It’s important to educate people. Ugly entertainment has been widely propagated. People aren’t introduced to art. They say dance is not part of our religion but it has nothing to do with religion.”

Nahid remarks that while some people, living in a place where there are no restrictions to practising an art, yet choose not to pursue it. Even the progeny of gurus give up their family tradition for more lucrative occupations. “But obviously, that urge of dancing was so strong in me, in any case I don’t know what would have happened if I had been in a situation where I was not at all stopped from dancing, or not made to feel guilty about it — which I never did.”

The barriers put in her way, and being banned by the military regime, she notes, had another effect of making her realise that what she was doing had great significance. “So you become like a spring, which comes back when you suppress it. How much will you suppress it?”

She calls herself a quiet revolutionary, not the kind that answered gunfire with gunfire. “Dance is another name for freedom. I always say, only a free person can dance. So I was not restricted even though I was part of that society. I wanted to break the norms.”

And today, living in Pakistan decades later in a very different Pakistan, she is still concerned about breaking norms. “I’m breaking the conditioning even in the form, because I could break it otherwise.”

It is as if, she says, people are given a frame and told, you cannot step out of these bounds. “ Bilkul nikal sakte hain. (Of course you can). Because you make everything as limited and as vast as you yourself are.” She quotes an interesting metaphor, “They always say if you want to control your cattle, leave them free in a much larger area. They can’t go anywhere else. They will come back.”

Just as no one can stop people from experimenting with language and creating new words, artists can create new works within their medium. She points out, though, that in using her language to create a different visual poetry, she would not introduce, for example, the demi-plie (half sitting position). Even her students’ work labelled new would not make use of say, rolling on the ground or jumps uncharacteristic of Kathak.

Even as she delves into Sufi poetry of Bulleh Shah and others, using the technique of Kathak to pull audiences into an otherworldly joy where no one needs to understand the rhythmic cycles or the tukda patterns, she also works with children.

The soul-stirring performance by Siddiqui and her students at the PNCA

Masoom Parmar

A certified drama queen with a penchant for breaking rules and hearts. He is fluent in multiple languages of which sarcasm features in the top three. When he is not dancing, curating an event or managing an artiste, you can find him climbing trees, talking to himself or buying vintage clothes. He also loves binge watching online content and thinks Moira Rose is his soulmate.

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