Shadow of a living tradition
Indu Mitha's 80th birthday was celebrated with a dance performance, aptly titled "Tribute to Indu Mitha: A life long journey of teaching dance"
By Sarwat Ali

Dance has been completely neglected in Pakistan. In the absence of any training institution, the art form has only struggled to survive in the shadows. The result is that not a single significant movement or trend has emerged in dance. Put in other words, it does not have a living tradition in the country.

Language barrier
The scheme of using indigenous names for art activity of all kinds is superficial to say the least
By Quddus Mirza
'I am a Czechoslovakian, sir' says the one.
The other slaps him and says, 'So what?'
Bohumil Hrabal (The Betrayal of Mirrors)
But names and descriptions are essential as these sometimes pose serious existential questions. One is reminded of a short story by Intizar Hussain in which a man, during the turmoil of partition and riots that followed, is reluctant to disclose his actual name and decides on names that belong to other faiths. While doing so, the man ponders on the significance of name and its logical link to the person who 'owns' it.

Having studied in Pakistan up until college, then pursuing art education abroad and now as an artist and teacher in a prominent art school in Karachi for several years, I have been exposed to a new group of eighteen year olds each year. A new mindset and familiar and young outlook on art, and every few years it seems like the entering group evolves being a generation on its own. The mindset of incoming students and their guardians often is synonymous with the word "easy option." A few months into college, they realise such is not the case.

Art education at higher levels is to a certain degree considered as another easier option. There have been instances of applicants who have simultaneously applied to business schools to study economics, marketing or finance. Baffled at that approach and lack of direction, I often wonder what the primary and high schools are teaching these students about the arts, and what is it that makes them so clueless about what they plan to commit themselves to.

Common terms used at most schools and homes when talking about art are -- natural flair and inborn talent. Is there any such thing? Perhaps there is. People are naturally attracted to certain paths, ways and resolves depending on their internal make-up, personality and experiences. The words we hear and things we see as children stay with us. Hiding somewhere in our memories, our eyes and our touch when investigated; through direction and education, those memories come back to determine the way we touch things, the way we look and how we think. Curiosity and interest, therefore, are the keys to exploration. The natural flair and inborn talent therefore applies to all pursuits not just art.

Art is the key to development of culture and the catalyst to reform. Art enables people to feel, analyse and choose. Aesthetics are something that develops with appreciation and observation. At school level though, art is often taught as not art but craft. Craft is a colourful and exciting way to make children discover their aesthetic abilities in a hands-on way. Children love making "real objects," objects they can take home and set out on display or use -- pasta jewellery, painted flower pot, or the tin can pencil-holder. The obsession with creating things that are close to reality and the superiority of technical excellence often overshadows the free thinkers and the ones who are actually communicating through their art.

As learning for myself, some years ago, I conducted art workshops for children between the ages of six and twelve. Each session was titled and designed in way that it could apply to any age group. A four-week course titled "Karachi -my city" dealt with the physical aspects of the cityscape. Karachi and its history and people, and ultimately its soul and character, was the subject. The group explored this concept through collage, drawing, painting, discussion and critique. It was fascinating to see emotional details in the art, honestly and truthfully portrayed through simple lines and thoughts.

Recently while teaching sixteen year olds at a school, I realised that these students are not used to looking at details, or even noticing the obvious. Young, bright and privileged students are so consumed with daily urban stresses that their senses refuse to acknowledge the basics. I often ask students to name a few striking sights they noticed on the way to the class, or a touching painting, film or song they have come across, or even if they noticed any new advertisement billboards on the road. I am often amazed at the responses that lack interest, excitement or opinion. Why are they not looking?

Visual art the term is self-explanatory. Visual artists look, wonder, visualise, imagine, emote and share. A young student at school must be taught to unlearn rather than learn. Have we as educators and parents ever wondered why in most of our children's paintings, every cloud is blue? Why the sun is a yellow space at the corner of the drawing? Why do all houses have sloping roofs and chimneys? Or why are trees without branches?

If a child is told to look and reflect, he will know that clouds are fascinating shapes, vapours, houses (at least in Karachi) have all sorts of roofs, and no chimneys emit smoke. The sun is a glow and has no shape unless it is sunset, and trees are to be climbed one branch after another. Each person is born with his or her own make-up. The heart, mind, feet, face and hands of each person are unique and different from the other. Then what comes out of the mind and the hands must also be celebrated as its own special mark.

A group of young children I teach are these days exploring dreams. The time we spend painting is called dreamtime. Today an eight-year old boy made rainbow pattern on eggs that had wings. Flying above a navy blue ocean, amidst words written in purple and green, "I dream of peace." A while later looking at the drawing I wonder what he must think, or what he will think when he looks at his painting twenty years from now. Are the eggs children dancing freely in a happy sky? Is the smooth blue depth water or is it a colour field representing calm? His dream of peace is appreciated. Another young boy drew a cityscape and in the shapes between, he found a large multi-coloured mobile phone, a huge pencil and a large lipstick. His urban line speaks of urban objects; it tells us what is on his mind and on that of other city-dwellers.

Art fascinates us all. Good art and true expression changes lives and develops nations. If art curriculums at school level are approached as more of a process and exploration, rather than rigour and timelines, students will fall in love with expression. The beauty of a good education is that it stays with one for life, enabling one to ask, learn and question. In these times, we must teach young children to free their minds and express their individuality. We may just be making visionaries for tomorrow.


(Raania A. K Durrani is an artist & educator, she blogs at


Naz Ikramullah's artistic career began in the 1960s. She received her early art education in painting and drawing from Byam Shaw School of Fine Art, London, completing her postgraduate studies in lithography from Slade School of Fine Art.

Her art, like her life, is quite multilayered. A widely travelled person, Naz has been to Karachi, Ottawa and London -- places she calls home, in both physical and emotional terms. Her use of mediums like acrylic, photography, dry mediums and processes such as Photoshop provide a layering that retains the subtle sensibility of the subcontinent, rooted in the traditions of the ghazal. The following conversation took place recently on Skype, at a time when the artist had just returned to Ottawa after a successful exhibit in Karachi. The purpose was to explore the context that the art references and to initiate dialogue that allows the viewer, the artist and the critic to permeate beyond the image.


The News on Sunday: Tell us when did you migrate to Canada?

Naz Ikramullah: I was married in 1968 and became a landed immigrant. However, this was not my first visit/stay in Ottawa. My father was High Commissioner for Pakistan in 1952 and we were here from 1952 to 1953. I attended Elmwood School and studied Art with Robert Hyndman in a special group of students who took Art after classes ended.

TNS: Has migration played a significant role in shaping your aesthetics and why?

NI: Migration has affected me in a different way -- not my aesthetics just my thinking. I was a practicing visual artist before I came here (Ottawa). I started collage before I came to Canada, but I started acrylics in 1968. I was fascinated by the medium, having seen the work of Sydney Roland, an Australian painter, shown in Karachi and the way his paintings dripped could not happen in oil. Then I found that collage could be done better in acrylics, however, I use archival glues, ultraviolet Plexiglas to keep it fresh and preserve it from light. I also started to incorporate Photoshop processes in my imagery, because it facilitated the layering that is part of my language. So, migration exposed me to new materials.

I developed my narrative in Canada for many years in isolation; initially, my work was nostalgic and one of the first shows when I got back to Pakistan at the Indus Gallery in the late 1980s and at the Art Heritage in New Delhi was tilted 'A Constant Duality'.

Interestingly, the Indian journalists considered me a Pakistani, but they were interpreting the "Indian" imagery as having come back to my roots, after all I grew up as a child in India, and came to Pakistan in 1947. My father, as the first Foreign Secretary of Pakistan opened the first Foreign Office at the Mohatta Palace, Karachi on August 11, 1947.

TNS: It is difficult to place your art in a box that fits the majority of art being created within the diaspora. Your comments.

NI: I don't definitely consider myself an artist from the 'diaspora'. It has really only been a matter of moving my studio from England to Pakistan to Canada. My narrative has not changed; it's the stories that I am telling that have changed with time. I am also constantly travelling back and forth between Ottawa and Karachi.

TNS: So is it also because you have not stayed in Pakistan permanently and have had the time to develop your narrative in a kind of an introspective space in Canada, that it has developed the way it has? It is obscure in both places in a positive way.

NI: Yes, absolutely! The Urdu ghazal and film have permeated my thinking and my art; and nurtured it. Nostalgia has been part of my experience hence the titles of my shows -- 'My World' (2004 Karachi) 'Walking Back', 'Dreams are Free' (1997), 'Time Past, Time Present' (1994, Ottawa), 'Personal Realities' (Ottawa, 1992), 'States of Mind, Constant Duality' (1990 Bombay) Ottawa. It is like living in many worlds and living in your head in two places simultaneously. As Sara Suleri says in Meatless Days, something about thinking in Urdu and speaking in Urdu, and about thinking and speaking in two languages.

TNS: Your work is placed within a niche audience in Canada and you do not promote or exploit your ethnicity through your aesthetics. Do you think it is a difficult position to be in?

NI: I don't show in any Asian shows in Canada as such-- so I am not in any niche. I have shown in the past in an exhibition through the Pakistani High Commission which was at the Public Archives. I am already a mix of European and desi (subcontinental) style, so I don't need to incorporate more. I don't use perspective in the European way because I utilise the special definitions in miniature. Thus, my paintings are divided into several stories much like miniature paintings are. My technique is European and subdivisions come from different aesthetics.

People have said that it is spiritual, although I have not intended it to be. This could be because I do believe in the timelessness of my themes. My recent work on Swat was not horrific. Because I am not there, not as a photographer, I want to communicate without trying to shock. Just like a ghazal has a lot of layering, it is addressed to the political situation and also to the beloved. Therein is the link and I am comfortable with it.

TNS: Can you share with us the dynamics that exists within the migrant communities in Canada or in Ontario, and is there any connection with the mainstream or is it a position of the marginalised?

NI: I don't consider myself 'marginalised' simply because 90 percent of my Canadian friends are also marginalised! They are doing very good work and not necessarily included in major shows. In Canada, the Canadian artist does not get the respect he/she deserves. In India and Pakistan that is not so. I was with a very well-reputed gallery from 1983 to.2003 in Ottawa, and before that I had shown in a few juried exhibitions. As I teach Art in Ottawa, I have a good profile in the city. In Toronto there are several artists from different backgrounds; most of them try to show in the mainstream galleries. There are galleries or groups that focus on South Asian art.

TNS: Is there a space for discourse within artists from different cultural backgrounds in a place like Ottawa?

NI: Recently, Paul Dewar a local MP, whose mother was a dynamic woman who did much for the Arts in Ottawa as Mayor, started a discourse with local artists to try and galvanise the art scene here. This is still in its infancy but we are hopeful. It was an inclusive call to artists of the area to participate and make their voices heard.

In my research for educating art in Canada, I developed a way of looking at two cultures, and bringing them together. While teaching Canadian students about Linocut, I took the motif  in block printing  in India and Pakistan, and using the same thinking process, showed them historical or diverse social perspectives of a medium. I taught them to use wrapping paper using colours and symbols of different cultures. It was called Multicultural Art for schools and communities. I was the founding member and we taught in elementary and secondary schools. The idea was to educate about the cultural diversity of different ethnicities in Canada.

TNS: How do you sustain your creativity in a place so culturally removed from "home"? Where is home anyway?

NI: My home is where I live, here (Ottawa) and Karachi. It was difficult when I first moved to Canada, as I'd already had to move from London to Pakistan and back and forth in the 1960s. Now, because I have friends who are artists as well, a dialogue is possible.

By now I think I straddle my two worlds quite easily -- when I was younger the grass was always greener elsewhere, and I was very nostalgic about different places I'd been in. This is not a problem now.

TNS: If you were to link your aesthetics to poetry, which writers or poets have held a special place for you?

NI: In English poetry I've enjoyed MacNeice particularly and T. S. Eliot. Shahid Suhrawardy, my uncle, had a deep influence on the way I thought and on being an artist. He did not want me paint a woman with an urn on her head.  He said not to paint "coleur locale" and it stayed with me.

TNS: Who are the artists in the diaspora who you relate to or admire and can you tell us about them?

NI: An artist whose work I really admire is Shahzia Sikander. I am fascinated by Rashid Rana's digital imagery though I see that on a Mac Computer they manipulate images in a similar manner... Zarina Hashmi is another artist I really have a lot of time for. In India I like Ghulam Sheikh and Anupam Sud.


Shadow of a living tradition
Indu Mitha's 80th birthday was celebrated with a dance performance, aptly titled "Tribute to Indu Mitha: A life long journey of teaching dance"
By Sarwat Ali

Dance has been completely neglected in Pakistan. In the absence of any training institution, the art form has only struggled to survive in the shadows. The result is that not a single significant movement or trend has emerged in dance. Put in other words, it does not have a living tradition in the country.

Due to misconceptions and taboos attached to it, the inheritance of a tradition has almost disappeared and only been reduced to either the folk variety that one sees, mostly performed by men, or the ones seen at the various shrines, again exclusively performed by men. The other form of dance that has persisted has been in the films.

And, if there is a shadow of a tradition of classical dance, it has been Kathak. The other forms of dance like Odissi, Manipuri and Bharatnatyam have always been almost non-existent except for an exponent or two. And, if there is one person who has persisted with the form it has been Indu Mitha. One can only admire her tenacity and it was an apt occasion in Lahore when her 80th birthday was celebrated by holding a dance performance, titled "Tribute to Indu Mitha: A life long journey of teaching dance." Joining her in the performance was Tehreema Mitha, her daughter and, as the invitation read, her "only true professional shagird".

It is usually a tragedy with dancers and also singers that they impart training to youngsters who have no intention of taking up dance or music as a career or at least opting for it seriously. It is only an exercise to acquire a grace, some semblance of an accomplishment as an addition to their CV. It, thus, becomes very frustrating for the teacher, ustad or guru to train the shagird. This has also been the case with shagirds who are amateurs. Indu Mitha has been lucky in that at least she has had one shagird who took up dance with a certain degree of commitment. Tehreema has not abandoned dance, though she has moved away from Pakistan and performs all over the world, but on visiting her family in Pakistan, the mother and daughter team up for an evening of dance as they did on the said occasion.

Indu Mitha belongs to Lahore. She started her career from the city before partition by formally training herself. She then had to move from station to station where her husband would be posted, but she never abandoned her first love. Wherever she went she lit a torch, albeit small and flickering. But there have been a fewer committed persons who, realising the importance, have braved the hopelessness of carrying on in the field and have persisted without either reward or appreciation.

Indu Mitha has been passing on the craft of the classical tradition to the next generation irrespective of all odds she has encountered. Initially trained in Bharatnatyam, she then experimented and incorporated other forms and styles, given the limited options available in the country. Besides the few performances that came her way in the classical tradition she also created in her repertoire dance dramas based on historical characters like the Trails of Buddha and on folk, poetic and philosophical approaches like Masjid-e-Qurtaba.

The celebration programme was a mixture of classical and contemporary numbers. Tashnaa e Lubb Zindagi Jaagti Hai and Rut Malhar Ki Reet were classical numbers while Tillana in Bhoplai was a mixture of classical and contemporary dance. The other three numbers were contemporary such as Khala, Khabt Savaar Hua and In the Spirit of Things.

Tehreema Mitha has been employing her skills as a classical dancer to choreograph dance based on contemporary situations. And, it seems she has a team, though the dances have been choreographed by her, the list of vocalists and musicians like Shobha Shankaran, Arun Bagal, Asad Qazilbash, Muhammed Ajmal, Muhammed Azam, Irshad Ali, Taj Multani, Nighat Seema, Shamin Begum, Ghulam Ali Wafa, Dilawar Hussain, Vishwas Shirgonkar, Samia Mehbub Ahmed, Srinath Balasubramanium, Bill Barner, Haroon Alam have been part of her endeavour. These vocalists and instrumentalists have worked with her on international performance circuit. In a way, she has been lucky that she had the opportunity to perform to a wider platform compared to Indu Mitha who chose to stay back and sweat it out in the country.

Seeing contemporary dance it was clear that grounding in classical tradition is crucial. Since the classical tradition has suffered the most the lack of a reference has allowed dance to adopt a freewheeling approach, which has not really had time to find a maturity of form for itself. Following a tradition has an advantage. It is conditioned by certain formal aspects and provides the discipline under which innovation can be made. In this age of globalisation, the most difficult aspect is to bring into any kind of discipline and order all the various influences that one is subjected to all the time.

Our classical dances are extremely stylised and have evolved a definite language of their own, and many choreographers who have attempted to seek a new idiom have come to grief by reducing it to the mere illustrative.

It is ironic that in Pakistan only classical dance has been discriminated against as a form of art. There has hardly been a film, which does not have dance numbers, and the heroines of late have been successful because of their skills as dancers. In music videos, dance seems to have become as important as music. Actually, these videos have more dance than music.

-- Photo by Naeem Safi.


Language barrier
The scheme of using indigenous names for art activity of all kinds is superficial to say the least
By Quddus Mirza

'I am a Czechoslovakian, sir' says the one.

The other slaps him and says, 'So what?'

Bohumil Hrabal (The Betrayal of Mirrors)

But names and descriptions are essential as these sometimes pose serious existential questions. One is reminded of a short story by Intizar Hussain in which a man, during the turmoil of partition and riots that followed, is reluctant to disclose his actual name and decides on names that belong to other faiths. While doing so, the man ponders on the significance of name and its logical link to the person who 'owns' it.

Names have acquired much value and visibility in our cultural scene especially in the art world. Lately there has been a tendency to use local terms for art events, galleries and publications such as Vasl, Shanakhat, Khayal Khana, Taza Tareen, Nukta, Nigaah, Rang, Nairang, Majmooa, Kunj, Koel, Khaas, Royaat, Gul Mohr etc.

To baptise an art activity with commonly used language is not odd; we are already familiar with plates bearing names like Ashiyana, Kashana, Gulshan, Khayaban, Baseera, Aafyaat, stuck on houses and similarly so for businesses. However, in the realm of art, the local terminology is slightly paradoxical. The education of art, its discourse whether in the form of art criticism, seminars, magazines or books, titles of art works, invites of shows, lists of exhibits and usually the comments by visitors are all conducted in English. Initially, students in art schools with their limited knowledge of English feel left out. But, with the passage of time and with greater exposure to the language, they become well-versed and confident in conversing, reading and writing English.

With this dominant position of English, it seems strange to put Urdu labels for an activity that is carried out and documented in English. Artists' workshops, galleries and magazines employ English. Two of our art magazines with indigenous names Nukta and Nigaah are solely printed in English. One may read a kind of contrast or conflict in this practice. Maybe, the people who are opting for Urdu terms are choosing it for a completely different purpose -- perhaps they are seeking to resolve this contradiction in the realm of art and aiming to establish a link with the people and place. Because art activity, even though it is designed to include a few public-oriented projects like public art, site-specific art, graffiti and performances, by and large fails to reach out to a majority of the population. This is akin to the practice of adorning modern houses with ethnic crafts, so as to create a connection with the past and the region. It is besides the point that the link stays superficial, imposed and short-lived.

One feels that if a real change is sought -- in bringing the silent majority (and its diction Urdu) and a select group of individuals engaged with art (in English) close to each other -- something else is needed, other than labels and titles. There is not one course of attaining this goal but the superficial scheme of Urdu-ising it is certainly not one. Maybe the inclusion of reality of our existence into art is a better idea. Since artists, commentators, spectators and writers engaged with art know about the limited impact of their discourse -- carried out only for those who are well versed in English -- they may admit the fallacy of localising major art events through Urdu. If a person is able to read the whole issue of an art magazine in English, its name in Urdu is just a forced exercise. Similarly if a gallery invites viewers by sending cards in English (sometimes with elaborate, almost convoluted texts), it does not need to adapt an Urdu title in order to justify or indigenise the making and showing of art.

As long as we have names such as Shanakhat, Khayal Khana, Taza Tareen, Nukta, Nigaah or Rang for community art projects or magazines (publications are another form of community art), we know there is a gap between the artist and his presumed audience, which can not be bridged by such cosmetic efforts. It may be relevant to drop this indigenous name exercise and admit the limited, exclusivist and elitist fate of our art.




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