Ammara Ahmad: Do you see your dance practice as a spiritual exercise?
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh: I think spirituality is very subjective and I think for me personally it’s not as if every time I dance, I feel “Oh I am transcending something or the other.” But at times it does happen and I welcome those moments.
This is not exclusively why I am doing it. But it is a way of life. There is an aspect of the physical practice, the emotional, the mental – and it gets intertwined. I mean: I am one person, one body, one mind. And whatever chemically happens to us – even in athletes, you know endorphins are triggered when the body is exercised in a particular way – it does mentally elevate you to a different place.
AA: So you have somewhat of a secular approach to this?
FYS: Yes. For me there is a great deal of reverence for the art form and what it stands for historically – its respective influences. So I offer a great deal of respect to the etiquette of the form. I am a big believer, as my guru jee was, in the way we approach the space where we dance. My students – including my daughter, of course – have a lot of pressure on them as far as the etiquette, the tehzeeb is concerned. That, I feel, is not a matter of religion. It’s the flow of the tradition as it was passed on to me.
AA: So what is the art, the tradition and the etiquette that you just talked about?
FYS: Kathak has these influences if you are to look thousands of years back, it started in the Hindu temples, so the space that you walk in is very sacred. The stage in modern days is an extension of that. So for me, even when I am not performing on a stage, I don’t wear my shoes in the place where the dance will take place. It’s frankly very hard for me when people do those things – but they don’t have the same concept of etiquette and they are not really being disrespectful: it’s just something that has not been passed on to them.
There are many musicians here who wear their shoes on stage. But the ones that I work with in America, most of them have been trained by India-based musicians. We all cringe at that sort of thing. Like I would never wear my ghungroo and wear shoes – that would never happen! Or go to the bathroom with my ghunghroo on, for instance. These things have been passed on to me because my Guru Jee felt that more than anything, consciousness was important. The way we treat our dance, our ghungroo, if we don’t give it the highest respect, how can we expect anyone else to?
AA: You were 18 when you started dancing?
FYS: Correct. More specifically, I was 18 when I started Kathak. I was five when I started dancing!
AA: But that is still a very ripe age to begin Kathak.
FYS: It is, but that’s the irony. People say you have to be very young when you start but it’s not about your age. It’s about how much time, energy, discipline and commitment you want to put forth. So I could have started Kathak at the age of five. And in the US there are plenty of students that I have taught from an early age – but they come once a week. How much are they really practicing? I think it was a great blessing that I started Kathak at the age of 18. It was a decision that I made on my own as a young adult: to say “This is something I would like to try.” And to go in with that intention.
I didn’t really know anything about Kathak except that it was a form of classical dance of India. Through the process, I learned more about it and then made the decision to make a deeper commitment. And because I was in control of how much time I wanted to give it […] I was in it at an age where, you know, I was in my first year of college too. I was making decisions that would really affect my future. Dance became a big part of that. It became something that I was able to recognise, within a year or two, as something that I wanted to make a part of my life.
“There are many musicians here who wear their shoes on stage. But the ones that I work with in America, most of them have been trained by India-based musicians. We all cringe at that sort of thing”
AA: How much did you start practicing? Guru Jee would have had limited time?
FYS: Well, so when I say ‘practice’ – practice is on your own. Training is in front of the Guru. So I was also very lucky because my Guru Jee was my first teacher.
As his organisation grew, as his school grew, he could not teach all the classes. So people such as myself were teaching many of the classes. I had 200 students in his institution at one time. I even had teachers with me that I was overseeing. So they were getting introduced not through the senior-most, the Guru. But I, from day one, had access to him. And because I had dance training, so I took to the dance with relative ease. I had a sense of coordination, posture, presence – that was what my Western dance training had really instilled in me. What was new to me was the sense of taal. Just the idea of taal, rhythm, ley (tempo). And this idea of abhinaya – expression. In Western dance, yes you need to have an expression but it’s really monotone. One smile. You don’t have to show myriad emotions. But in Kathak and all the classical forms, you have to show Karuna (sadness), disgust, Rudra – these are the Sanskrit words based on what we call the Navarasa – the Indian aesthetic. It was pinpointed. Then one has to have the South Asian aesthetic. Just because I look like this wasn’t enough. […] Because with the expression, you have to start on the inside, and what you feel and connect with on the inside is what comes out. I think being a young adult, I could embrace all of those things more deeply and again I was making my own decision to be there. A parent wasn’t there telling me that you must go. Initially, I had a class with Guru Jee twice a week at the university. Then I started taking classes at his institution. By two years, I was dancing in front of him, at least four to five days a week. And I would practice pretty much any day that I was not in front of him.
It was sheer desire, it wasn’t performing. I just loved it so much.
AA: Were you not a normal teenager?
FYS: So you know, ‘normal’ is such a relative word. I was born and brought up in the US. Both parents came from Pakistan. After they got married they moved to Pakistan. So as compared to my white American friends, my parents were very strict. In comparison to Indian and Pakistanis that we knew, my parents were very progressive. I was very lucky. They were open.
We were not overly restricted. But there were very clear lines that could not be crossed.
They let us grow up as Americans, but they never let us forget our culture. Religion was not one of the things that guided us. We didn’t have a strict regimented structure of religion but we accepted the faith. We enjoyed a different aspect of Ramzan and Eid.
I had the normal teenage angst but dance for me was not an act of rebellion in any way.
My mother had put me and my sister in dance classes at the age of five. When I started to become more serious about Kathak, I told my father, and he was like “Really? Who is teaching it in San Francisco?” When I told him the name of my Guru, he said “He is one of the best in the world and you have to take it up.”
As I started to get more involved, my mom said, “I have to admit to you, I have a hard time accepting the idea that my daughter would be a professional dancer.” But she said that she loves coming to my performances and all. She said, “I am not telling you not to do it. It’s just something that I have to work through.”
AA: What does your Guru, Pandit Chitresh Das, mean to you?
FYS: That’s a very complicated question. There are layers and layers within that word. ‘Guru’ itself means “one who removes the darkness”. My Guru was not the type of person whom we called “Guru” from the day one. He thought that he needed to earn that title and he thought that the students need to understand the depth and meaning of the word. I never officially became his shishya. There is an official ceremony for that.
Mine was scheduled but he said that I wasn’t ready. There were certain actions I took that gave him the impression that I wasn’t ready. And he was very old-school. He had a very tough-love mentality about him. So it was both a blessing and a curse being trained by him. He trained with every part of his body. But his expectations of us were very, very high. And not just on the dance floor –even more so off the dance floor. It was more about how he walked into the dance room than how he danced. […] He was a prodigy. But he was always in the shadow of some of the really big names in India. His Guru Jee was also in the shadow as well. So he had a lot of frustration about that. His discipline for his practice was immense. He had a lot of frustration from a lack of acknowledgment for his achievements. Rightly so: I mean he worked tirelessly.
We had a lot of ups and downs – which is not uncommon in relationships of that intensity. Unfortunately, but possibly, it was part of my kismet (fate), part of my path, that the relationship got pretty strained over the last few years of his life.
And I made a decision which is very much against the tradition: to step away from my Guru.
I had every intention and I still do of honouring him. He is the reason I am dancing. It wasn’t about the dance form: it was he that drew me to it. But it got to a certain place where I don’t think I was growing with him. […] There were just a lot of internal dynamics within his organisation. I just wasn’t receiving what I needed.
AA: This is fairly common in arts through: a student moving out of the teacher’s shadow?
FYS: Correct. As a teacher, even now I don’t consider myself a Guru. It is a challenge to know when to let go: to make sure that you are not in any way holding them back or controlling them. And yet, also to avoid prematurely saying “Yeah, yeah, go do your thing” when the students don’t yet have the knowledge and training to go and do it. Even in my young tenure, I have already experienced students who thought that they were beyond where I thought that they actually are. And I am, in many ways, using the tactics that my Guru Jee was using on me! But I know that they are far from where I was when I left my Guru.
Sadly, five months to the day that I chose to depart from his organisation, he suddenly passed away.
AA: What from?
FYS: It was from an acute Aortic dissection. So sadly in some ways, he died from a broken heart.[…] He was under a lot of strain. He had many disciples. He was 70 years old. He was still dancing and he was set to visit India a month later. He was dancing with a young 30-year-old Tap dancer. Physically he was in the best shape.
AA: When was this?
FYS: January 2015.
I left him in August 2014.
AA: How long did you know him?
FYS: I met him when I was 18 – in 1996. He passed away in January 2015. It will be 22 years in January.
AA: Can you sum up who your Guru was in a couple of phrases?
FYS: He gave selflessly when it came to his teachings – on and off the dance floor. I think that he never quite got to the place with me or with others to know how to let us leave the nest and then maintain that connection to him. In my ideal world, I would have loved to spread my wings and yet to have the nest to come back to. But that was never the way that it was. I have no regrets. I don’t look back and say that I wasted any time staying too close to him. I mean that’s the thing. He was a genius.
AA: Did he have children of his own?
FYS: He did and sadly they were younger than my own. Ironically, his wife is also the same age as my husband.
AA: Why did you choose to perform the role of Empress Noor Jehan?
FYS: I had read a novel by the name of Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan. She has published six books and three of them are referred to as the Taj trilogy. Two of the books from the Taj trilogy are on Empress Noor Jehan, her birth name being Mehr-un-Nisa. I have always been drawn to Mughal history. And so the opportunity to read even historical fiction – I was intrigued to do so.
And I loved the way she wrote the story. So initially, when I got the idea, I approached the author and said “I would like to adapt your novel.” And we did. We premiered the show in January 2015, two weeks after my Guru Jee passed away. I was on that show. So it was a very interesting time, to say the least. However, after the premiere, the author was not able to travel with the show. The author was also the narrator in the premiere. […]
Last year, the contract with the author was coming to an end. So we decided that rather than keeping the story tied to the novel, I wanted to evolve it, go a little deeper into the history. Hence the new title and new script. You know, what captivated me about the story of Noor Jehan was how unknown it was. People don’t know much about her. That is indicative of itself that she was suppressed in history – because she was that powerful. And generally people who tell the stories, they want you to know their version. I just felt compelled to tell her story through the medium that I knew. It’s her, its all of the things that were happening around her. In my performance, we really explore the relationship between Salim and Akbar. I think it is also very profound. I think it has also attracted a lot of the men to the show – this idea of a father- son relationship. We look at the way women in the zanana treated one another and what it was for Mehr-un-Nisa to come into motherhood and loose her first husband. So it touches on these levels of emotion that I think are so pertinent to the present day.
But the historical aspect: to see a powerful Muslim woman with that much influence in a male-dominated empire is fascinating to me.
AA: What is the one thing that compelled you the most about Noor Jehan?
FYS: Her fearlessness.
AA: How much acting do you do?
FYS: I don’t consciously work on my acting. I consciously try to connect to what it is I am performing. For me, it’s just about going to the deepest place possible.
Ammara Ahmad is based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her complete works can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com