When Naheed Siddiqi poises herself for Kathak, she transcends reality, forgets her existence and moves onto a fenceless plateau free of worldly restrictions. She is left only with one language and one expression that is the dance form itself, writes Shehar Bano Khan.
In 1978, Payal, a Kathak dance programme featuring Naheed Siddiqi, was suddenly taken off air by PTV in its sixth episode. The decision was in response to a ban on dance imposed by General Ziaul Haq. Despaired by the imposition and what was forced upon her, the critically acclaimed Kathak performer decided to pack up and settle in London, but not without paying the full price of being a performer in a country whose military regime had begun its witch hunt against many artists.
At that time Siddiqi was married to the inimitable TV artist, Zia Mohyeddin, who had already moved to London prior to the coup. With a ban on dance making the atmosphere inconducive to performing arts, she was left with no choice but to join her husband in London.
No sooner had she boarded the plane, she was offloaded and told that she could not leave the country because her name was on the Exit Control List. She needed special permission from the Ministry of Culture to leave the country.
That same evening Siddiqi went to Islamabad where she was made to sit outside the ministry for over one and a half hours. Throughout the ordeal of the ban on dance, having her programme taken off air and being off loaded, she kept her composure.
She had decided not to retaliate and give the regime the satisfaction of knowing how much hurt it had caused her because dance was her lifeline; it was the medium through which she lived and breathed.
Nearly two hours later, she found herself surrounded by Zia’s army officers asking her why she needed to leave the country. “As if they didn’t know, but I was not going to balk under pressure. I was going to play the game by their rules. I told them very calmly that my husband was not well and I needed to be with him,” recollects Siddiqi.
Apparently Zia’s henchmen were not moved by the artist’s reason. They had been obviously instructed to make things difficult for her. To them she represented a culture loathed by the man at the top, in whose opinion Kathak was a euphemism for vulgarity. “They hated me,” Siddiqi continues with a serene smile, “which was evident in the way they asked questions. They said they wanted to see the telegram sent by Mohyeddin as proof of his bad health. When I told them that I wasn’t carrying it, the officers started debating amongst themselves on whether to give me permission to leave or not.”
Permission was granted but not without the final blow to the performer, or so the regime thought. She was told that if she wanted to leave the country she had to sign a document stating that she would never perform Kathak in any part of the world unless permitted by the government of Pakistan.
“They thought they were going to break me with that piece of paper. Inwardly I was saying to myself that I’ll show them what I can do,” says Siddiqi. She did not need to ponder over the document and signed it immediately. Neither did she have to wait long to show the regime “what I could do.”
Soon after she joined her husband in London, Siddiqi received an invitation from France to represent Pakistan in a dance programme held in Paris, which had participitants from 30 other countries. She represented Pakistan without official sanction.
“They showed their disapproval by not allowing the embassy to give me the Pakistani flag. As if that made any difference because everybody at the programme knew I was from Pakistan,” says Naheed Siddiqi with unconcealed delight. Since then she has performed in several countries and continues to practice Kathak as her ultimate expression of freedom.
The officially unrecognized queen of Kathak has gone one step ahead in her determination to keep the art form alive in Pakistan. For the past one and half years now, Siddiqi has been teaching Kathak to young girls and boys at her house in Lahore.
“I have five to six students who come to my house.” Even though she started dancing from the time she took her first steps as a child, she does not take a pupil below the age of eight years. “That’s the minimum age for a child to understand the elementary stages of Kathak,” she says.
Despite the freedom, now, to teach Kathak in Lahore, Siddiqi finds herself isolated in this artistically and culturally dry city. “I feel lonely here because Lahore is a dry place for dance. You won’t find me discussing clothes or jewellery. Dance is my priority in life. But let me assure you that I’m not a victim even though artists are considered victims here. No, no, I’m not a victim. Dance is like an embrace for me and the most natural form of expression beyond language and international barriers.”
And so when Siddiqi poises herself for Kathak, she transcends reality, forgets her existence and moves onto a fenceless plateau free of worldly restrictions. She is left with only one language and one expression that is Kathak.
“If I don’t feel my existence, I’m not there. It’s difficult for me to give one performance after another. A single performance takes a lot from me. Towards the end of each performance I don’t feel like talking to people. I’m not connected with the world.” she explains.
Siddiqi has managed to reach out through a perfect combination of Kathak and yoga. The yogic exercises have helped her to focus in Kathak, which have taken her to a high level of mental peace not found in other forms of dance.
“Yogis say that dancers are a step ahead. I have experienced that sublime level through Kathak, helped by yoga. Unlike Bharatnatyam, which is more angular like the Hindu architecture, Kathak is circular. That’s why it’s natural and in unity with the cosmos,” she explains.
Naheed Siddiqi does not believe in restricting Kathak to a select few. She is trying to get PTV to re-telecast Payal so that people far beyond urban centres can appreciate Kathak. “I have not been approached by any private channel to perform. They show all sorts of programmes, making you wonder how progressive we’ve become, but not when it comes to dance. Besides taking pop groups to countries like India, the government should encourage representation in our own rooted culture in Kathak. Abida Parveen and I are thinking of collaborating Sufi music with Kathak. I’m also going to start summer school with the help of the French Cultural Centre in Lahore,” Siddiqi says.
The student of Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak and Birju Maharaj has made an incomparable place for herself in Kathak. But she remains one of the few icons who do not want to leave their niche empty. “I tell my students not to become Naheed Siddiqi and try to discover themselves the way I did through Kathak.”
I have not been approached by any private channel to perform. They show all sorts of programmes, making you wonder how progressive we’ve become, but not when it comes to dance. Abida Parveen and I are thinking of collaborating Sufi music with Kathak’
In 1978, Payal, a Kathak dance programme featuring Naheed Siddiqi, was suddenly taken off air by PTV in its sixth episode. The decision was in response to a ban on dance imposed by General Ziaul Haq.