It was the most spectacular show yet seen in Islamabad, perhaps in Pakistan – ‘Hazaron Khwahishen: A Thousand Yearnings’. Thus was titled Indu Mitha’s farewell to the stage. It proved not just the stuff of dreams, nor merely the magic of music and dance, but something straight out of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’.
The atmosphere was electric at the premises of Lok Virsa on the 10th of August and at the PNCA on the 11th as excited spectators of all ages congregated at the entrance. Ably introduced by the heads of both entities – Dr Fauzia Saeed, herself a shagird of Maharaj Kathak and Syed Jamal Shah, himself a graduate of NCA – Indu Mitha’s petite but powerful presence brought the house down and the audience to its feet for a standing ovation that seemed unstoppable.
It was a focused fusion of genres and styles across the spectrum of South Asian dance. The classical Bharatanatyam displayed by Feryiyal Amal Aslam (Qaseeda e Ibn o Jamal), Zahra Khalid (In the Village of Ayer Sheriyar), Amna Mawaz (Dukhi), Iftikhar Masih (Nachat Hai) and Nadya Javed (Murwa Pankh) was stunningly offset by the self-choreographed input of folk in ‘Loghari’ exhibited by Asfandyar Anis Khattak. He perhaps won the most applause on his concluding comments: “This is the first time my father has watched me perform with my ‘ghungroos’ (bells) on.”
I first met Begum Indu Mitha in the 1980s when my parents retired from diplomatic service to Islamabad. Her husband, the distinguished General AO Mitha founded the Pakistan Army’s elite Special Services Group (SSG) unit in Cherat, and was with my father at the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun in 1941-42.
India’s loss was Pakistan’s gain in her case
She was a striking figure, tiny but with perfect posture, carrying the weight of her formidable reputation as Pakistan’s principal – now for decades, only – Guru of Bharatanatyam as gracefully as she danced, choreographed and taught. She wore an orange silk sari with a delicate gold border, her smiling face framed with a youthful chutiya (braid) and orange/gold paranda; and in classes was likewise simply yet elegantly attired in cotton saris in all colours of the rainbow, always with delicate accessories in matching colours.
For some years now she has refused all requests for interviews and stopped performing on stage. And so, this is written from the perspective of a pupil and family friend who has observed her in action and in repose, with admiration and affection, for decades.
Born into a family of Brahmins converted to Christianity, she was initiated into the magic of this complex classical dance in South India by the sylph-like Rukmini Devi, whom she recalls with enchantment, and has paid tribute to in the current programme too. Much of Indu’s youth was spent in Delhi, and with her father Professor Gyanesh C.Chatterjee of Government College in Lahore, where she shares a common heritage with the eminent writer and classical dance critic Reginald Massey whose Rajput forebears also converted to Christianity.
On her moving with the future General Mitha to Pakistan, India lost a brilliant exponent of Bharatanatyam. This was recounted to me with charm and pride by Uncle Mitha on a visit to my parents. My father, who had encouraged me to seek Baba Maharaj Kathak’s tutelage, instructed me to always touch Auntie Indu’s feet too, as the established protocol of shagird to ustad.
India’s loss was Pakistan’s gain though, as in all forms of expression cultural, its appreciation in this traditionally pluralistic territory has sadly been selective. Throughout her husband’s career and postings across Pakistan, Indu for the sake of it taught delighted young girls the various stages of the dance, gathering around her generous and gifted persona a following which came to include in time the foremost havelis of Lahore: the Sufi-suffused city of Data Sahib – much like Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak, her compatriot from Bengal.
Her daughter and pupil Tehreema is based in Washington DC, where she teaches, has been mesmerising audiences on her visits home and elsewhere abroad. She is, like her mother, among the world’s leading Bharatanatyam dancers. Indu Mitha has trained young women of various nationalities who are carrying on her tradition, dancing and teaching around the globe: in Spain (Lucia Nayyar), in Russia, in France and in Holland to name but a few locations.
Attending her classes was both enlightening and enjoyable; an uplifting experience. Though not her chosen school, the Kathak one learnt from her was as unique in style as was Maharaj’s, who would say of her: “Indu Mitha: wah! Kya grace hae” (“Indu Mitha – what grace!”). Indeed, Indu Aunty held Maharaj likewise in high regard. Whether at Yameema’s school (Mazmun e Shauq) or more recently at AQS amidst the greenery of the Shakarparian Hills, after the ‘salaami’ we would be put through our paces: toras and tukras, antaras and astais, solos and chorus – while Aunty Indu never took her eyes off us, reciting the ‘bol’ and controlling the ‘taal’ with her ‘manjeera’ and rising to show us how to do the difficult. She made it seem to flow, with or without the accompanying melody and rhythm of harmonium and tabla on tape. It was the sort of camaraderie created in Maharaj’s classes, a charmed circle. Our tutor would offer us mugs of tea or coffee, and once done we would sit at her feet listening to her as she spoke softly, telling us wondrous tales of yesteryear: of Rukmini Devi’s classes, of interactions with Chinese and Russian troupes, soloists, and prima ballerinas; and attentively listening to us and our stories of families, friends, and work likewise.
Bewitched, we entered the magical world of Rakhs and Mausiqi of Indu Mitha, whose impact on classical dance in Pakistan has been nothing short of iconic
Her foremost trainee resident in Pakistan, now a master trainer herself, is the similarly diminutive Amna Mawaz; whose ‘arangetaram’ (debut performance) in Islamabad earlier at the PNCA and solo exhibition this year at the LitFest enthralled ‘shayakeen’ and casual observers alike. On either side of her stand Feriyal and Zahra, both Fulbright scholars. With PNCA and Lok Virsa it was the US Educational Foundation and the Asian Study Group dedicatedly led by Parveen Malik that sponsored and supported these events. Amna here and Tehreema abroad are, vis-a-vis Indu Mitha, what Facih ur Rehman has been in relation to Maharaj. To watch either perform a ‘tillana’ (as Yameema Mitha once explained, the Carnatic musicians’ mispronunciation of ‘tarana’) is to imagine oneself in Nirvana or Firdaus.
Until relatively recently, Indu taught children from tiny-tot stage the art of dance, as well as courtesy, culture and country-love, at her daughter’s uniquely-named school.
These are the students who, with PNCA and Lok Virsa expertise, enacted with the star students the amazing exhibition witnessed this month in tribute to their marvellous mentor. Bewitched, we entered – if only for an hour or two, though we are still spellbound – the magical world of Rakhs and Mausiqi of Indu Mitha, whose impact on classical dance in Pakistan, like that of Maharaj Kathak and in Odissi of Sheema Kirmani, has been nothing short of iconic.
“Ap sab ne mujhe hairan kar diya hae!” (“You have all surprised me!”) said a visibly touched Auntie Indu on acknowledging this extraordinary accolade. Verily, sights unseen in our supposedly uncultured capital: spectators all but falling off ledges, lining every available aisle and filling every available space in major auditoria, practically carpeting the floors. Surely this, along with the rousing return of Coke Studio, is a most spontaneous celebration of – and an aspiration, even a prayer – for a positive, progressive and culturally vibrant Pakistan on the 70th birthday of our country!