Dancing between Worlds

Jahanara Akhlaq in 1997 (left) and Bageshree Vaze (right). Photos courtesy of Bageshree Vaze.

Growing up in Ottawa during the ‘90s, I saw very few representations of myself in popular culture or theatre. For large portions of my childhood I was the only brown kid in my class. Even when I wasn’t alone, I felt like an anomaly who had company. From a young age, I was drawn to history, but nowhere in what I read or learned did I see myself. I found no representations of South Asians, no stories of them set in South Asia or here in Canada, where we have been present for well over a century. Even if I looked beyond South Asians for others who were different like me, there were no Indigenous or Black bodies, no other racialized immigrants in my history books, except as the occasional sidebar. Our stories were token throwaways at best. This lack of representation in the world around me left me feeling invisible, unsure of where I belonged.  

To some this may be old news and, happily, things are changing. Yet I find myself frustrated by many of the stories and characters we now seeparticularly immigrant narratives. By and large, the immigrant narratives we are exposed to exist solely in North America. While it is unfair to expect existing voices to speak to a myriad of experiences, what is frustrating is the repetition of a singular narrative of diaspora. For so many of us, our lives exist in between homes on the other side of globe and our homes in Canada.

Perhaps that is why when I heard of Bageshree Vaze’s upcoming dance theatre piece, The World of Jahanara, I was excited by its potential. The World of Jahanara is about the art, vision, and work of Jahanara Akhlaq, a young Pakistani kathak dancer, who was killed in her family home in Lahore in 1999. Vaze’s piece focuses on Jahanara’s life, not her untimely death; my writing also reflects this choice.

I have not yet seen The World of Jahanarathe world premiere will be on December 1st, 2018 at the Aga Khan Museumbut I was curious about Vaze’s approach to form and content with the subject matter. Vaze is a brilliant kathak dancer and, I learned, was a friend of Jahanara’s. My questions for Vaze were ones that I am currently struggling with: how can we, as women of colour, tell stories that have such deep roots in another part of the world for audiences in Canada? How do we represent our people, histories, and experiences in ways that preclude their flattening, simplification, or stereotyping?

Photo courtesy of Bageshree Vaze

I spoke with Bageshree Vaze about her dance theatre piece and Jahanara Akhlaq’s work. Based on my conversation with Vaze, the answer to my questions may lie in finding the right spaces in which we tell these stories.

To understand the world that Jahanara existed in, you need to understand the context of her art, and the world it came from. Kathak is a dance form that belongs to the northern regions of South Asia, in what is now Pakistan and North India. The kathak we see performed today is less than one-hundred years old, but its repertoire can be traced back to princely courts, particularly those of the Mughals. In the seventeenth century, kathak emerged as a syncretic form that built on Persian influences brought to the subcontinent by the Mughals.

While some of this Mughal flavour is still retained by kathak’s modern repertoire, there have been many shifts and erasures in its contemporary practice, particularly in India. The kind of kathak Jahanara practiced, much like her teacher Nahid Siddiqui’s, is uncommon in India and the South Asian diaspora today. Look for clips of Siddiqui dancing or Jahanara’s choreographies, and you’ll find a dance that feels personal. What I love about their dance is its intimate quality. It invites you in, opening up spaces for you to savour the play between drawn out movements, and quicker flourishes and spins. Their dancing emphasized a kind of courtly ada or style that included elements like the salaami, an embellished greeting (salaam) performed by the dancer at the beginning of a performance that has all but disappeared in India. Where the salaami is performed, it is often to exoticize kathak’s Islamic heritage. It invokes the image of the courtesan or tawaifa picture of extravaganceyour Pakeezahs, Umrao Jaans and Chandramukhis. Bedecked, alluring, and relegated to dancing in the margins. The sound of her bells invites your gaze.

Nautch girl dancing with musicians accomp. Calcutta, India.

Music and dance in the early twentieth century in British India were associated with courtesans, which was a problem for nationalists with Victorian moral standards. In the North, tawaifs and baijis sang ghazals and thumris and danced the predecessor of what we call kathak today. The taboo associated with dancing women still lingers on in parts of South Asia. It sits uncomfortably between the desirability of ‘classical,’ and the ‘immoral’ excess of the courtesan.

For Jahanara, dancing in a Pakistan emerging from Zia-ul-Haq’s religiously conservative regime, which had forced her teacher Nahid Siddiqui to flee the country, was difficult to say the least. While Siddiqui later returned to Pakistan, where Jahanara became her student, for many dancers there remained a constant, delicate negotiation between the practice of their art, society, and the state.

The reality is, Jahanara negotiated the effects of this history, as much as Bageshree Vaze doesas any kathak dancer today does. As tawaifs were replaced by male artists, so were their histories and accompanying repertoires. Versions of history that supported the male gharanedaars’ authority became privileged over others. These male artists’ descendants continue to wield great influence todayand not just over the repertoire. Yes, there are a diversity of styles of kathak, but the decisions around whose art is shown where often lies with the inheritors of these lineages. This was something Vaze and Jahanara encountered, and responded to in their own ways through their art.

Jahanara moved to Toronto with her family in the 1990s, just as she was starting her career in dance. In Canada, Jahanara had found a more welcoming arts space than the one she had navigated in Pakistan. But Pakistan continued to colour the Akhlaqs’ world. In our conversation, Vaze described to me what it was like to enter the Akhlaqs’ apartment in Toronto: “It was like a Mughal palace.” It was a home that captured the world and “the aesthetic they lived in,” as Vaze put it. This was the world Jahanara danced in. No matter where she performed, this world— this inherent reality of her being—made rich by layers of histories and enmeshed cultures that she was raised in, was the one that surrounded her. And with it, Jahanara created for future generations.

This desire to create for the future resonated with Vaze, who creates art beyond the confines of the increasing institutionalisation of the form she shares with Jahanara. When they met in 1996, Vaze was, and is, frustrated by the dependencies inherent in much of the South Asian classical dance world. Even today, many gurus expect students to seek their permission and approval as they begin creating their own work and pursuing professional careers. In addition to this, there was (and remains) the somewhat homogenizing influence of the gharanedaar effect: the monopoly of certain male artists’ histories, repertoires and voices over others. Vaze’s vision is to create with kathak in such a way as to challenge narrowing definitions of aesthetics and repertoire: to keep creating, rather than repeating.

Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Exterior

This desire to experience Jahanara’s aesthetic and move with it in new directions inspired Vaze to take The World of Jahanara to the Aga Khan Museum (AKM). The AKM seemed a fitting home for Vaze’s tribute to Jahanara’s work and aesthetic. The museum, designed by Fumihiko Maki, is a stunning allusion to the diverse architectural heritage of the Islamic world, firmly placed in the contemporary present.

After opening in 2015, the museum has hosted world class artists and performers, but it has also made clear efforts to support work that is relevant, informed, and constructive. The museum has made a mark on Toronto’s culture and performance scene. It operates as a non-traditional performance venue with performances in the galleries, auditorium, on the grounds, and in the yurt they put up during the colder months. This makes them an inviting option for artists whose work is better suited to non-proscenium performance sites. And, the AKM draws in audiences that may not be your typical theatre-goers. All of this inspired Vaze to get in touch with the AKM about her work, where it is now being presented as part of their 2018 performance series, The Other Side of Fear.

The Aga Khan Museum’s permanent gallery is open-concept. Each cultural moment and geographic unit continues into the next. You are invited to trace your own path and watch influences spread across time and space. We need more stories, narratives, and representations that defy the linear boundaries of time and space. For some children of the diaspora, like myself, we spend our lives negotiating the times and spaces that have a claim on us. Why shouldn’t our stories represent that?  

Our stories aren’t confined to one stage, one month, or one nation

When I spoke to Bageshree Vaze, and asked her my questions, she wanted to address  the term women of colour, “Being Indian, my background is just somebody who I am. It wasn’t a marker.” She pointed out that the term assumes that there are people ‘without’ colour. The countless experiences we try to allude to when we using the markers ‘women’ and ‘of colour,’ she said, are incredibly flattening.

To Jahanara, having grown up in Pakistan, the term would have had little meaning either. Vaze’s desire to represent the specifics of Jahanara’s experience does not stem from politics of representation. It doesn’t need to. In representing Jahanara’s story, Vaze is decentering the very binary that “women of colour” is framed around.   

While the descriptor ‘of colour’ does valuable work to address exclusions that marginalized and racialized groups face, it doesn’t reflect a multitude of perspectives. Our stories aren’t confined to one stage, one month, or one nationwhether that of our current home, or the lands our roots reach back to. To try to understand our stories, audiences must travel with us, through time and space, to those spaces in-between.  

Jahanara’s stories of her life and art are ones of in-betweens. These are the stories I want to see not just because they exist in the niche world I inhabit between kathak and history, but because they are full stories. They are complex, woven of many threads, and inhabit many worlds. A single narrative can only reflect back images of ourselves based on the differences of others. But stories made of many threads make space for us. They give us space to see our experiences alongside those we may not be familiar with. There, we may trace our threads back to the places where they meet, and begin share our worlds with one another.

For more information on the history of kathak, Arpita recommends Margaret Walker’s book India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective and Pallabi Chakravorty’s Bells of Change. The World of Jahanara plays on December 1 at the Aga Khan Museum.

Written By

Arpita is a public historian, kathak dancer, and co-director of Staging Our Histories. She finds the Ottawa winter a poor substitute for Bangalore monsoons, which are best accompanied by ghazals or old filmi tunes and piping hot chai.