Dance: A Language of Love and Divinity
By Chintan Girish Modi
Pakistani Kathak dancer Rehan Bashir Jalwana speaks boldly about art breaking boundaries.
At a time when religious extremists in India and Pakistan are trying to outdo each other in their divisive rhetoric, Pakistani Kathak dancer Rehan Bashir Jalwana boldly states, “Kya Hindu? Kya Muslim? We all speak the language of love and divinity.”
The 34-year-old is also an assistant professor of visual art at the National College of Arts in Lahore, apart from being a yoga teacher and designer of bespoke bridal wear at the House of Kamiar Rokni. His most recent work is Shahgird, a dance performance that premiered at the Dakshina Dance Festival in Washington DC in October 2016. In keeping with the mentor-disciple tradition that is central to his training in Kathak, the performance is planned as a tribute to his guru Nahid Siddiqui who trained under Pt Birju Maharaj in Lucknow. Under the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, she was banned from performing because her art was labelled as promoting values that were anti-Islam. She was compelled to leave Pakistan, and move to the UK for several years of her life.
While Siddiqui is back in Pakistan, and is much sought after as performer and teacher, the view that dance, especially Hindustani classical dance, is un-Islamic has not completely vanished. Dance is the turf on which complex questions around national and religious identity are played out.
In an email interview, Rehan Bashir Jalwana talks about his devotion to Kathak, the new production, his guru, and the potential of art to break barriers between religions and nation states.
CGM: How would you describe your relationship with Kathak?
RBJ: Kathak is my worship. It has been taught to me by my guru, Nahid Siddiqui, as a divine spiritual form of movement. Physically and mentally, it has been very challenging, but the struggle and this beautiful dance form has nurtured my spiritual being. It breeds a heightened self-awareness.
CGM: What drew you into the world of Kathak?
RBJ: My guru and her art drew me to Kathak. I saw Payal (a Kathak-based television series, which was aired in Pakistan shortly before General Zia ul Haq’s military regime banned Nahid Siddiqui in 1978) on VHS while I was in school and remember being instantly taken by the poetry of her limbs. I did my first workshop with her shortly after graduating from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2007. I formally started after I returned from New York City on the completion of my graduate studies in 2011. I think I could be far more disciplined, but I am working two jobs and that only allows me a small window to do my riyaaz. I try and make the most of that time, though.
CGM: As a Kathak dancer in Pakistan, what does the cross-border, inter-faith legacy of the art form and your taleem mean to you in the context of India-Pakistan relations and growing religious extremism in both countries?
RBJ: My guru has always spoken with a lot of love and utmost respect about Pt Birju Maharajji, under whom she trained, and she fondly remembers late Pt Durga Lal, with whom she had the chance to collaborate. She has and continues to collaborate with artists from India and many other nations. I honestly don’t care much for politics. It has created such an unnecessary divide and bred hatred, and continues to do so. I can’t be an artist and freely expressive or share my passion if I harbor these negative feelings about India or any other country, race or religion for that matter.
I have been lucky to have experienced Odissi performed by the dancers at Nrityagram in New York. More recently, in Washington DC at the Dakshina Dance Festival, I have been awed by Aswathy Nair’s Mohiniyattam and Indira Kadambi’s spellbinding Bharatanatyam. I can say that by just experiencing them perform, I have learnt a great deal. Art truly has no barriers. Kya Hindu, kya Muslim? We all speak the language of love and divinity.
CGM: Tell us about your new work, Shahgird. How does it convey your relationship with your guru?
RBJ: Shahgird is an ode to my teacher and the simplicity she preaches. It’s about the growth I wish to experience and the improvement of each movement and gesture through hours of learning and observing. My guru has spent so much time just working on my alignment. If we are physically and spiritually aligned, only then will our dance convey beauty.
CGM: Apart from being a Kathak dancer, you are also a yoga teacher. How is your yoga practice connected with Kathak?
RBJ: I cannot dance without my yoga practice. It is a very important aspect of Nahid Siddiqui’s teaching. She made sure she introduced us to yoga first and then dance. You need the silence and peace that culminates through a regular yoga practice to be able to convey peace and meditation through your dance.
CGM: The themes in your work might be identified in Pakistan as “having Hindu roots” — something that is actively discouraged by many clerics as un-Islamic? What keeps you going?
RBJ: Kathak is very secular. My teacher has explored Rumi, Khusrau, Bulleh Shah alongside many other themes in her productions. There can indeed be a lot of opposition towards the arts, but luckily, Pakistanis have always voted (whenever given the chance) overwhelmingly for liberal democratic candidates, who have given people like us hope to carry on. There is no room to make this political. Ours is not a tone of resistance but of utmost inclusiveness.
CGM: Is your being a man who performs Kathak often a point of curiosity or surprise?
RBJ: I don’t pay attention to or look at this art form through the lens of gender or the perceived barriers that come with it. It’s a discipline that, unfortunately, not many men want to take up but maybe, in the near future, things may change for the better. It’s my responsibility as an artiste to convey this message.
CGM: When you visited India, what was your experience like? Do you feel safe visiting now?
RBJ: I have been there twice — 2011 and 2012 — and I fell in love. Chandni Chowk in Delhi felt like Anarkali in Lahore. There are just way too many similarities. My childhood friend is a Parsi girl and I have a vivacious Punjabi friend from Parsons New School of Design in New York City. They are both from Mumbai and had such glorious stories of the city, which I witnessed when I visited for a friend’s wedding. I did not feel unsafe for a second and have faith that if I ever go again, my friends will do their utmost to make me feel at home. My dadi migrated from Ferozpur. My nana and nani barely escaped the riots while migrating from Shimla. I still have a few relatives in Delhi. The extended family moved from Amritsar, Delhi and other parts of East Punjab.
Note: An edited version of this interview first appeared in The Indian Express. All photographs were obtained from the personal archives of Rehan Bashir Jalwana.