“When I am creative, I am fearless”

Scan10046The city of Karachi has always been associated with a vibrant lifestyle and a tradition of good performing arts being available. Although not being the crucible of art such as Lahore, this city has still managed to attract quite a few “creative” people into its fold. On the 9th of November 2009 many of them got together again to bring to us the Shanaakth festival once more. The last Shaanakth festival had its share of problems and was closed early due to the controversy that befell it. However this time around both the venue and the organization seemed to be much more efficient and inviting.

There were photo exhibitions by Amean Jan and the Citizens archive as well as documentaries by artists and foundations like Mauj and Lowe and Rauf. This time around a vintage car collection was also on display throughout the 3 days of the festival called “Chalti ka naam Gaari” but the best were the evening events featuring a story telling event “meri kahanai meri zabani” and a play by Tehrik-e-Niswan Pakistan which is the brainchild of Sheema Kermani called “Rang badal do bhai”

This scribe had the good fortune to meet Sheema Kermani before the festival began and Scan10028was given an introspective look into the hard rehearsing going on for “rang badal do” as well as to her life and work. She is for all meanings of the word an artists, artist. Dedicated, passionate about her theater and classical dancing as well as the Tehrik, sheema come across with a big neon sign on the top of her head shouting “no regrets”. Her organization Tehrik-e-Niswan has been fighting for women’s rights and against the polarization of our culture for the last 30 years, and have still managed to put out a new theater performance every single year. In a society which is perhaps as un accepting of the performing arts as it was 30 years ago, in an environment like our country’s, sheema has managed to cause a gradual difference in the national psyche even if she is too humble to ever admit it. Leave aside the fact that our so called main stream media or corporate culture has shirked back again and again from supporting people like her, she still teaches, performs and works for her cause untiringly. In her own words

Art is about the betterment of a person and through that bettering our society, it is not about titillation or exposing ones body, classical art can never be vulgar

She is inspiring to say the least and could not care less about the material comforts of the life that could have been, as she chose this path of self realization many years ago. To me she is best described from a dialogue in one of her plays “When I am creative I am fearless”

Scan10030Rang Badal do Bhai is a satirical, commentary on our society and the way we shift with the times without giving any consideration to our values or traditions. We are chameleons and not for a good cause either. Following are the questions I put before its driving force, Sheema Kermani and the answers she candidly gave

1) When did you decide to join the Shankath festival and why? Were you concerned about security in lieu of what happened in the last one?
S: The first time we participated in the Shanaakht Festival was in 2007 when we were invited by them to perform our play “Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya”. I believe that our play was one of the highlights of the Festival and it was very successful.

2) As a Kathak performer and teacher do you believe the art has sufficient outlets in this country and are the new generations willing to learn?
S : First of all I would like to clarify that I am not just a Kathak performer and teacher. I am a classical dancer and I teach many of the classical dance styles- Kathak being just one of them. It is important to understand that
Kathak is not the only dance style – there are many classical dance styles and I teach and perform them. Some of these are Odissi, Bharata Natyam, Manipuri and Kathak.
Perhaps I should add that I am the first person to introduce some of these forms in Pakistan. Odissi is my forte and there was no other dancer in Pakistan who knew this style. I went to India to learn it and have taught it to many students.
Yes there are many young people interested in learning classical dance, but like study of any classical form, it is an arduous and long journey. This is something that most people find difficult – they basically want to learn and become performers overnight. Perseverance, dedication and hard work are important for the classical arts – generally people here want ‘instant’ results.

3) Sheema Kermani is a name associated for a long time with classical dance as well as activism for women’s rights, how does that translate into plays and live theater? Do you feel that this sort of medium has enough reach?
S : Oh I am convinced that the Performing Arts are the most powerful medium that we have at our disposal to
move people’s minds and hearts and to convey messages about Human Rights. Yes I am a Women’s Rights activist and an artist who believes that art and artists play a definite role in society and history. If the artist is a thinking person, someone with intelligence, then her/his art must reflect the concerns of society. Art has no boundaries and can influence minds and hearts and move people to think, to reflect and even to try and change lives so that a better world can be created.

4) Tell us something about your current production being performed in the Shankath festival today and its goal.
S: The play that we have chosen to perform in this Festival this year is a play called “Rang Badal Lo Bhai”.
This play reflects both in a serious as well as in a humorous and hilarious way how we Pakistanis have become
like chameleons- we change our colors to suit the way the wind blows! So as the name of the play suggests the play is a satire on this characteristic. Of course it has moments of intensity and seriousness but they are broken with moments of wit, fun and humor. The play is in the ‘nautanki’ form, with a story teller and live musicians.
It spans the different phases of Pakistan, opening with 1947, turning pages of history, going through the various periods of Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Musharraf.

5) In respect of the current trend with mujra style songs and dances even making it into our mainstream channels do you feel we have lost our prestige for an art like classical dance?
S: Yes I am sad to say that in spite of the number of TV channels there is not even one serious dance or music program on air. Though there is no censorship but the kind of dance and music that is shown on these channels
is ever so pathetic. Surely this is not our culture or our heritage! Why do these channels not want a good music and dance program? But then I feel that even the drama on television has deteriorated drastically. This is very sad because TV is a tool that can be so useful for education and propagation of good, serious and thought provoking programs.

6) The fact that the Shanaakth festival is free is not lost on our readers, they think it is a great step but in the end putting up theater costs money, do you think the economic model of shanaakth works with Tehrik E niswan?
S: Well unfortunately the arts especially the performing arts in Pakistan have not been able to find financial
support and that is the reason why they have not developed as they should have. We have to fight a constant battle to make people understand that we are professionals and need to be paid for what we do – ie provide good and meaningful entertainment. All over the world it is the corporate sector and the governments that support serious theatre and arts and we hope and which that those in power in Pakistan understand this now.

7) What would you say to the fact that some arts have been suppressed over time in our country like dance while others like singing are still flourishing?
S:  No I would not say that any classical art is flourishing in Pakistan. And this is a very sad state of affairs. I believe that our society will not move forward or develop in a positive manner unless we decide to support the art forms of dance and music. I believe that if we could dance and sing freely then there would be less people going towards violence and terrorism, because dance and music help to lift the soul and to make us better human beings.

8/ The Shanaakath festival is going to be for a limited number of days do you feel this is enough as seating for your play is going to be a finite number?
S: No certainly it is not enough. But they can only do what they can do. Of course we would like to go on performing for a hundred days, or better still a thousand days, but what can we do that? We can only try our best to do as much as possible in the given circumstances.


As published in “The Friday Times” on 13/11/2009

  1. Why only dance?? there are many other ways to show one’s creativity… speeches/dramas/literarure/ medicine/ technology… nowadays, every single field has a potential to exhibity some sort of creativity. Why start from something which is already criticised in our society… Abu Dhabi held Formula1 Grand Prix to attract tourism.. no body could point fingers at them, yet it was successfully watched all around the world… Creativity in Pakistan will include NO Criticism, as this nation needs to tread this path vary cautiously. Sorry, if i have offended anyone with passion for such arts.. I am not against arts, but against any critical art in the present scenario.

  2. Why not dance Rumaisa? Dance is a form of expression like writing, singing, poetry or acting. Its high time that we come out of the mentality where dance was associated with MUJRA or the vulgar stage dances in Punjab. Artists like Sheema Kermani provides this art form the dignity which is usually downplayed in society like ours.

    Great interview, loved her answers wrt Shanakht!

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