Stories are powerful entities. They hold entire universes within them. The human experience across the world, depends upon the telling and sharing of stories to shape its cultural identity. Narratives come in forms that are as varied as the plots and characters that inhabit them. Music and dance have played an important part in storytelling from times immemorial.
Speaking with Bay area based Kathak dancer and teacher, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh opened up another dimension into the world of storytelling. Reading her biography on her website, Noorani Dance, only whet my appetite to delve deeper. Farah’s life is a story of many beginnings.
Like most immigrant narratives, it begins with a multi-generational series of journeys. Starting in Partition-era India, it winds its way through Pakistan, before reaching the shores of the American dream. And there it finds yet another beginning in the dreams of a young girl who falls in love with the dance form of Kathak. Honing her skills over a period of nearly two decades under the tutelage of her Guru, the late Pandit Chitresh Das (Chhandam School of Kathak), the story evolves to see her spread her wings and invent new plot lines.
Farah choreographed the full length production of “The Twentieth Wife” in 2015 based on Indu Sundaresan’s award winning novel. This was followed by “The Forgotten Empress”, scripted by well known playwright and director Matthew Spangler. Her latest work “The Partition Project”, was co-produced in collaboration with EnActe Arts to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In 2016, Farah founded “Noorani Dance”, an organization which provides in-depth Kathak training to students. Apart from performing internationally and actively teaching, she writes, blogs, and uses her voice to highlight issues that are close to her heart. Her most important role is that of a mother to her 8 year old daughter. These achievements over the years have only served to stoke the fires of her passion for dance and journey further both spiritually and creatively.
The recipient of awards and grants from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, San Francisco Foundation, and SVCreates to name a few, Farah was the guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension in New York City, and the Mona Khan Dance Company, besides being involved in theatrical and feature film choreography as well.
As she prepares to launch a new dance production “Nazaakat aur Taaqat – A Delicate Power”, I spoke with her about the impact of Kathak on the many areas of her life.
P.K: Let us start by talking about your upcoming production. An interesting choice for a title! The word Nazaakat (delicate/delicacy) is not often seen associated with the word – Taaqat (strength).
F.Y.S: The word ‘Kathak’ is derived from the word ‘Katha’ which means ‘story’. Performers were originally called ‘kathakars.’ In this dance form, the four elements of ‘Tayaari’ (technical readiness), ‘Laykaari’ (rhythmic virtuosity), ‘Khoobsurti’ (beauty) and ‘Nazaakat’ (delicacy/refinement) , are equally important. One cannot and does not take precedence over the other. Here we see complementary yet contrasting elements making up the whole. Kathak requires years of discipline. A dancer certainly has to develop strength (Taaqat), but it is a fragile and delicate skill to maintain that discipline – ‘Sadhana’. So in a sense, delicacy itself is such a powerful thing! Delicacy is also about sensitivity and consciousness. It also speaks to femininity. The stereotypes explored and examined in this production will show that often delicacy shrouds an innate strength and power. The ability to be mothers, possessing a deep sense of nurturing – that in and of itself is a strength!
P.K: What is the main story central to this production? Have you taken a new approach to your craft in terms of choreography?
F.Y.S: The central story is that of Heer and Ranjha – the equivalent of Romeo & Juliet. The opening piece is based upon a light classical film song which has been rearranged musically to fit into the structure of a classical piece. Heer and Ranjha’s story can be placed in so many contexts. I was moved by the idea that two people were forced to separate on the basis of caste, social class and creed. Religion and betrayal play a big part in their story. I wanted to explore how we use religion to our advantage… and how it works against us, even in this day and age.
This production has retained the traditional Kathak style as far as structure. But I am exploring many things that I have tried during my workshops in Pakistan. This is the first time I will be sharing that on stage.
P.K: Reading your blog is a revelation about you – the person, the dancer, the woman. What has dance taught you about cultural and religious identity?
F.Y.S: I believe strongly that my art form, my creativity, is essentially a study in human emotions. For most people culture and religion are two sides of the same coin. But for some, one might supersede the other. There was an instance when I was a student of Pandit Chitresh Das where I was approached by a fellow student, a Muslim like me, who wanted to know how I could relate to or accept some of the aspects of Kathak that might be perceived as ‘Hindu.’ I have always held strongly to the idea that creative expression and art is a language that goes beyond labels. It certainly does not make me less of a person, or less of an artiste – to be who I am, creating the work that I am doing.
During my time in Pakistan I was initially hyper-aware about not performing pieces that could cause trouble. Eventually I learnt that the people who attended the performances were there out of sheer interest regardless of what I chose to showcase. My work was warmly received, and I never felt alienated. My experiences there made me realize that these relationships should be fluid. There is no need to categorize and box myself in any way.
P.K: You have based your work on several female ‘Nayikas’ or protagonists, with productions like “The Twentieth Wife”, and “Forgotten Empress”. What draws you to characters from that period in history, other than the obvious reason of empathizing with them as women?
F.Y.S: Stories need to go beyond just the storyline or characterizations drawn from an epic or a book. Exploring the lives of these woman, taking them out of the zenana, from behind the jaali, allows us to get up close and personal with them. Noor Jehan was labelled as having been a shrewd woman because she managed to hold on to her power from behind the scenes. Why is that so wrong?! I wanted to explore all aspects of her attributes and celebrate them. For me personally, this exploration took on a new dimension in my understanding of Kathak.
As for the time period in history, there was an amazing spirit of tolerance, an acceptance of diversity in all forms – in arts and culture – during the Mughal era; especially during Emperor Akbar’s time. It must have been an incredible time to have been an artist! That is also why these women were able to exert such an impact on the world around them.
P.K: Speaking of watershed moments in history, you performed as part of the Partition Project in March of 2018. The Partition of India and Pakistan in many ways rewrote your own family history, did it not?
F.Y.S: Yes, I grew up watching movies from that time period and was always very interested in the topic. My parents’ families lived in Mumbai in 1947 during the Partition. They were both very young at that time and did not move to Pakistan until 1948, following the civil unrest after Gandhiji’s assassination. Although they do not have direct memories, I have heard stories about what it was like during that time. My grandfather left behind a thriving business to make the decision to move his family, only to realize how difficult it was to start over from scratch on the other side. The helplessness and demoralization that he and others in his situation experienced was heartrending. But despite this, many people survived and made something of themselves. Noorani Dance partnered with EnActe Arts to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Partition in March 2018. Titled ‘The Parting’, the production was very close to my heart!
P.K: Since your first solo performance in 2007, your journey with Kathak has been about personal exploration and self discovery. It is evident from your blog posts that it shares space with social activism as well. Is this a natural progression for you as an artiste?
F.Y.S: Yes, it is! My Guruji, Pdt. Chitresh Das, planted a seed in me which went beyond my love and passion for the art form in and of itself. It was the idea of creating art within a larger context and message. While I absolutely love Kathak, and it enriches me in so many ways, it also has incredible power as a medium and a vehicle in the realm of storytelling. Visual display, movement, music – all these layers make for a powerful instrument. I find myself naturally gravitating towards issues with social and political merit. It is exciting to be able to find ways to express my opinions through the medium of Kathak, with an inherent message underlying the elements of dance.
P.K: Can you share with us about your time training with Pdt. Chitresh Das Ji?
F.Y.S: I have an immense amount of gratitude for the skill and knowledge he imparted in the years I was his student. My training with him began when I was a student in SFSU. It was in many ways an intense and demanding relationship. He was very old school in the way he trained. It was all about tough love and lessons happened both on and off the dance floor. He was an exacting teacher and I definitely benefited from his demands for perfection!
We live in a liberated society in the U.S, but this traditional art form, like many others, requires a complete submission to the Guru. Many people who are committed to traditional art forms face challenges when it comes time to allowing their students to explore on their own. This is quite common. Unfortunately it became challenging to study with him when that time came in our relationship. I had to make a hard decision very much against that ‘Parampara’ (tradition), and struck out on my own. As difficult as it was for me, and I am sure for him as well, I will always honor and cherish my time with him forever!
P.K: What are the next steps for Noorani Dance?
F.Y.S: I don’t envision a large institution for Noorani Dance, but want quality over quantity. Forming a nonprofit organization is at the top of the list. And as always, I have several new ideas for projects! Keeping my work in Pakistan ongoing is very important to me. I would like to travel and work there, building bridges between Indian and Pakistani artists, even if that happens here locally in the U.S.
P.K: How do you see yourself evolving as a teacher?
F.Y.S: As an artiste, I see two aspects that are equally important; my performing career and being a teacher and mentor to my students. Teaching is so much more than just imparting the dance form. It is a combination of having clarity, but being fluid and open without becoming rigid about evolving. I don’t call myself a Guru – that label has to be earned!
“Nazaakat aur Taaqat – A Delicate Power” opens on May 4th, 2019, at the Mexican Heritage Theater in San Jose. Featuring an impressive lineup of talented musicians and singers, along with the dancers from Noorani Dance, the production promises an evening of visually rhythmic journey of dance and music to enthrall our senses.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.