In Pasoori (i.e. conflict), Coke Studio’s recent Technicolor music video that links India and Pakistan over its Punjabi lyrics and heart-pounding beat, features a dancer, in a large black bindi and a temple border mustard saree. She moves back and forth, pivoting gracefully in an old Karachi haveli, to a melodious jugalbandi between Pakistani Ali Sethi and Shae Gill, in the latter’s debut album. Sethi’s lyrics, inspired by the lines Agg laavan teriyaan majbooriyaan naked (set your worries on fire), which he found written on a truck, is layered with interludes on baglama (a long-necked lute used in Ottoman classical music) and electronic drums and octopads. Sethi and Zulfiqar “Xulfi” Jabbar Khan’s composition, which crossed all borders, has become a worldwide reference and has accumulated more than 11 million views on YouTube in the four months since its release.
The song, which is about estranged lovers and the forces that separate them, could well be a metaphor for the two countries. Sethi had composed it a few years ago, after he was barred from India to collaborate on a project in Mumbai. He knew that music, like all good music, would find its own way. Appearing in the video, Pakistani classical dancer Sheema Kermani has become a symbol of harmony, tolerance and freedom of expression, representing the subcontinent’s composite culture that has paved the way for cultural collaborations despite political differences.
But Pasoori is just a short stop in Kermani’s accomplished artistic life. She is also a social activist, a theater person and leads Tehrik-e-Niswan, a cultural action group that works for women’s movements. “I thought it (Pasoori) would bring some meaning to classical dance and its roots in the younger generation of Pakistan, which I hope she could be drawn to. In Pakistan, parents or families do very little to encourage their children to get closer to the classical arts,” says Kermani, 70, who initially feared being part of a song whose language (Punjabi) was foreign to him, and also because five decades of his human rights work have focused on capitalist societies.
Born into a progressive “military family” in Rawalpindi and raised in Karachi, dancing for Kermani began in the 1960s when the fledgling nation was about to find its feet. She was eight years old when she started learning Western classical music. But Kermani’s mother, originally from Hyderabad in India, who had learned Bharatanatyam, wanted her daughter to discover the vitality of dance. At home, Kermani danced to records by Noor Jehan. At the age of 13, Kermani enrolled in a Karachi-based dance school run by Guru Ghanshyam and his wife Nilima, who had been students of Uday Shankar in Almora.
The prospects of a film had brought Ghanshyam to present-day Pakistan in 1952, the film was not made but he stayed back and taught dance. He established the center in 1954 when Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a patron of the arts who would become Prime Minister of Pakistan, attended a performance of Ghanshyam in Karachi. Ghanshyam was Suhrawardy’s neighbor in Calcutta in the 1940s and that’s how the two knew each other. Kermani came to his and his wife’s home in 1964 and learned for two decades, until the early 1980s. General Zia’s military regime deemed the dance un-Islamic and banned it in 1977. The first television program to be banned on PTV was Payal (1978), Kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui’s show explaining the art form. Later, Siddiqui lived in exile in England, where she taught dance until she returned to Lahore several years later and established an academy.
Before the Ghanshyams left Karachi for Calcutta, Kermani traveled to India in 1983 and enrolled in the dance program at Delhi’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. India’s capital felt familiar yet distinctive, Kermani began studying Bharatanatyam under Leela Samson, Kathak with Ram Mohan Maharaj and Odissi with Aloka Panicker and Mayadhar Raut. “Dancing was like freedom for my body, physically and emotionally,” says Kermani.
Kermani kept coming back in the 80s; once with a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “I came to immerse myself in the arts. I had a wonderful time in Delhi. I shared a room with a Bangladeshi girl who was there for classical singing. So sometimes I went to Pt Amarnath classes with her. I knew I wasn’t here forever, so I wanted to absorb whatever I could. I ran to every class I could and attended as many performances as I could in the evenings. It turned out to be the happiest moment of my life,” she says.
In India, wherever she went, she encountered a slight curiosity. Since dancing is banned in Pakistan, Kermani gurus in Delhi would joke if she went back to dancing in her bathroom. “I never encountered resentment from anyone. They taught me with great affection and I always felt this dynamic cultural liveliness,” Kermani says, adding that she now encounters assaults when she talks to people in India.
Her socio-political awakening occurred in the late 1960s, when she was studying fine art at Croydon College in London, and found herself in the midst of a social movement (Summer of Love), resurgence of the movement left-wing politics, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the seminal book Sexual Politics (1970) by feminist Kate Millett. Upon his return in 1979, Kermani founded Tehrik-e-Niswan to organize seminars on domestic violence and Aurat Steps.
But dancing was not easy. As the only dancer living in Pakistan during the Zia years and having frequented India, she was hated by the government and the men of her country. “When a woman stands up on stage with confidence, is ready to perform and demands respect from the viewer, the message she gives is that this woman is in control of herself, her life and now they can’t control her; that the power transfer is what men find difficult,” she says Kermani, who loved a good challenge. “I wanted to play and do it in a smart way so I wouldn’t get caught or arrested,” she laughs.
Students were always scarce. Kermani, a Pakistani Muslim woman, wore the forbidden sari and a bindi, out of political defiance and for aesthetics. For years, she went from one government office to another to obtain no objection certificates. If she said “dance show”, she wouldn’t understand. The “cultural program” worked. She did not advertise her institution as a dance academy, but said she taught movement classes and eventually used it for protest theater.
“I sometimes performed without the ghungroos (considered haram) because that’s what they had a big objection to,” says Kermani, who improvised to get people dancing. “If I had been a purist, I wouldn’t have been able to do everything. As I took it as a challenge and not as an oppression, I was able to fight it,” she says.
His performance as a Sufi dhamal at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan Sharif, just days after the 2017 suicide bombing that killed 88 people, garnered a lot of attention. “I didn’t want this attack to change anything, so I went dancing there,” she said. The “fundamentalism” of the subcontinent has harmed its cultural environment. “Religious minorities did not feel as discriminated against as today. And there is no other dialogue more impactful than cultural dialogue,” says Kermani, who believes the only way forward is to integrate culture into politics. “The politics of our two countries must mean what it should mean: justice, freedom, equality. And those things can only happen when there’s a conscious cultural shift in people’s minds,” she says.