Keeping the Kathak alive in Pakistan


Nighat Chaodhry hopes to preserve the form of classical Indian dance and, with it, part of Pakistan’s history and identity.

Pakistan is a vibrant and colorful country, but you might be surprised to learn that the land of cricket, parathas and ladoo also has a rich but hidden dance heritage.

Dance styles are abundant in all parts of this vast country and include a fine variety of folk and classical dances. Dance forms and their stories are inextricably linked to India, its history and heritage. Although the subcontinent was physically divided in 1947, the British carving knife butchery has not been able to separate a connection that dates back millennia.

Nighat Chaodhry, a professional Pakistani dancer, now based in Lahore, has been one of the main proponents of classical Kathak dance in Pakistan. She grew up in the UK and studied contemporary dance and ballet, but after being exposed to her own cultural dance heritage, she never looked back. Nighat found his calling to return to Pakistan, immerse himself in the dance and preserve the art form hidden for the nation.

“Unfortunately, dance has been heavily politicized in Pakistan. It used to be more dynamic and open, but for several decades now we seem to have lost acceptance of dance as a spiritual expression, ”said Nighat.

Nighat has been practicing Kathak since the age of 13. “Dancing was a breakthrough for me personally. Through dancing, I found myself, and within myself, I found God.

Photo by Nighat Chaodhry. (

In the early days of Pakistan’s creation, there seems to have been a more tolerant attitude towards dance and the performing arts. In 1966, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) established an Academy of Arts to positively promote the culture of Pakistan.

The Academy of Arts was very important in his day, and the well-known actor and performer, Zia Mohyeddin, was appointed director between 1973 and 1977. He married Nahid Siddiqui, a world-famous Pakistani Kathak dancer, bringing his Sufi style and spiritual aesthetic to classical dance. Siddiqui immersed herself in Islamic principles and geometry, to further develop her movements, poses and Kathak body alignment.

My family hosted the Pakistan Arts Academy on their visits to the UK and had the privilege of attending their performances at close-knit family reunions at my great-aunt’s house in North West London.

My grandmother, Farida Khan (middle), with two PIA Arts Academy dancers to her right and left as my family dropped them off at Heathrow Airport after a performance in the UK.

My grandmother, Farida Khan (middle), with two PIA Arts Academy dancers to her right and left as my family dropped them off at Heathrow Airport after a performance in the UK. (Nadia Khan)

The direction of the journey for acceptance of dance in Pakistan began to change in the late 1970s and 1980s, when dancing was banned by the government of Zia ul-Haq. Unfortunately, this has led to stagnation and decline of the practice at the formal level. Internationally, many would assume that there was no dance legacy in Pakistan, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Despite the strict edicts of those in power, eradicating dance and expression has not been an easy task; Pakistanis continue to dance, with folk dances being extremely popular.

“Folk dance is very dynamic in Pakistan,” says Nighat. “We have community folk dances including bhangra, balochi and lewa, to name a few. These dances tend to have a greater mix of gender as it is normally a family affair, and it is inclusive.

Where there are people, there is always a presence of dance and movement. While some governments attempt to suppress or ban dance, this does not negate the existence of dance and the role it plays in the history and identity of communities.

In Pakistan, dance is used for rituals, community activities and celebrations such as weddings, but also by Sufis in a spiritual and devotional context.

Sufism is very popular in Pakistan and India. This Sufi heritage is the result of traditions that Indian Muslim rulers brought from Central Asia and Persia. The Mughals were very Sufi in their conception and patronized many Sufi saints and scholars. Sufism practiced in Pakistan is rooted in this heritage and is an integral part of the social fabric, including poetry, literature and music.

Traditional Indian classical dance also permeates dance forms in Pakistan, but it is not promoted. Nighat believes Kathak and Bharatnatyam appear to be the most controversial dance forms in Pakistan due to their obvious ties to India.

Nighat is adamant that there is more to the non-acceptance of dance in Pakistan than just a religious proclamation against it. While it is true that some orthodox elements of society believe that dancing is not allowed in Islam, this is not everyone’s view.

Kathak dancer Farah Yasmeen Shaikh performs a classical dance during the Faiz International Festival at Al-Hamra Arts Council in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 18, 2017.

Kathak dancer Farah Yasmeen Shaikh performs a classical dance during the Faiz International Festival at Al-Hamra Arts Council in Lahore, Pakistan, November 18, 2017 (KM Chaudary / AP)

The real barrier seems to be more political in nature and based on a deep trauma of partition and a willingness to develop a culture and existence that is completely different from India. “The establishment wanted no connection with India, including through dance. Although I hope that in the future that might change, but maybe not in my lifetime, ”said Nighat.

The irony is that the Kathak is deeply rooted in Indian Muslim history; in its contemporary form, the dance is a beautiful fusion of indigenous Indian tradition with the Islamic culture that prevailed in northern India during the heyday of the Mughal Empire, from the 16th to the 18th century.

Many elements of Kathak come from its ancient past as a classical dance which communicated the stories of Hindu mythology and epics, before evolving under the Mughals into a court dance. In its aesthetic as well as in some of its technical aspects, characterized by linear poses and pirouettes, the Kathak clearly reflects Islamic influences, largely from Persia.

While the Kathak thrives in India across the border, unfortunately it is not frequented. Pakistan’s rejection of this classic style also rejects much of its own history and identity. Sufi dance is probably the most accepted form of dance in Pakistan due to the popularity of Sufism and its connection to spirituality.

Nighat herself believes in the power of dance to impact spiritual healing.

“I run my own dance institute and I also give dance therapy classes. I strongly believe in the power of dance to have healing powers, and I promote the use of Sufi dance practices and movement therapy to help those who are suffering mentally and emotionally.

“There is so much more to dance than the linear view of its connection to immorality. There are many layers, and it has the power to uplift people, tell stories and pass on the rich heritage of a community.

As Pakistan’s reputation grows as a cultural and heritage center, thanks to a younger generation of YouTubers and travelers, Nighat’s hopes could perhaps come true sooner than expected.

She wishes that the rich history of Pakistani dance would be recognized and that it would be extremely valuable to embrace this art form and its related stories, in the years to come.

Source: TRT World


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