Theatre in Pakistan
"I just want to dance"

Young performers in Lahore are shaping their lives outside the perceptions of Pakistani society, which views many art forms as obscene. As part of a new generation that hopes to change the country, they find themselves taking on conservative mullahs, censorship bodies and sometimes even their own families. By Karin A. Wenger with photos by Philipp Breu

Fatima, a 25-year-old dancer, presses photos of her parents into the doorman's hands. "On no account are you to let these people in," she tells him. This Saturday is her big night; she's playing the lead in Mirza Sahiban, a tragic love story. Her parents know that she has choreographed the piece herself and is directing too, but they must never find out that she will be taking to the stage herself to dance.

Fatima is one of 30 young Pakistanis on stage this evening at The Colony, an arts centre in Lahore, the country's second-largest city. The centre is a microcosm for young people; it provides creative minds with a space that previously did not exist in Pakistan. Saad Sheikh, 27, founded The Colony in the summer of 2019, but later had to close the centre for almost a year due to Covid-19. Theatre, dance, singing and exhibitions only resumed at the centre last December.

The performances at the arts centre are not intended for the eyes of the wider public. Many of society's unwritten rules are robbed of their power at The Colony, a building in the industrial style. Different rules apply at the centre: say what you think; dress as you please; move however you like. Most people in Pakistan would politely describe what Fatima and her group perform onstage as "immoral", thinking them "whores". Fatima is well aware of this, as are her dancers and the 150 young people in attendance who make up the audience. They are all part of a new generation growing up in the big cities, craving a new awakening instead of conservatism.

Fatima is already wearing her costume: a long skirt with black leggings underneath, the top is closely fitted to her delicate frame. Aside from the neckline, which ends just beneath her clavicle, she has no skin on show at all. Nevertheless, there's something sensual in her appearance, her dark locks falling over her shoulders, her eyes lined in black, and her nails painted red. Later, in the dim light of the stage, she will lie in the arms of the male lead dancer and her red lips will come so close to his that the audience will hardly be able to tell if they kiss.

Performers in the rehearsal room of The Colony, Lahore, Pakistan (photo: Philip Breu)
Rehearsal room in the arts centre The Colony in Lahore: "The centre is a microcosm for young people; it provides creative minds with a space that previously did not exist in Pakistan. […] The performances at the arts centre are not intended for the eyes of the wider public. Many of society's unwritten rules are robbed of their power at The Colony, a building in the industrial style. Different rules apply at the centre: say what you think; dress as you please; move however you like," writes Karin A. Wenger

It's scenes like these which, the night before, left Fatima's father yelling, "Get out of my house!" Fatima does not think there is anything immoral about her dance piece, that's why she invited her parents to the premiere, where another woman was dancing the lead role especially for the occasion. Fatima wanted to show her parents what she — the director — had created. At home, she argued with her father, who she describes as "not especially religious", but still conservative. He forbade her from going back to the centre the following night. Fatima implored him: "I'll do anything you ask of me, I'll look for a husband and marry him, just please let me out tomorrow!" Finally, he replied: "I won't condone it, but if you want to, then go."

Dying for a dance video

 

There are few Pakistani fathers who would allow their own daughters to dance on stage, no matter how liberal they are. For their daughter to perform alongside a man they don't know would be damaging to the entire family's reputation. In Pakistan, the female body is constantly moving between honour and sin; it is subject to society's highest command: Log kya kahain gay? (Urdu for "What will people say?").

Mirza Sahiban, the piece that Fatima hopes to dance tonight, was written by a poet in the seventeenth century during the Mughal Empire, but the content remains up-to-the-minute: Sahiban, a young woman, falls in love with Mirza. Her brothers will not tolerate the union and murder the couple. Even today, women in Pakistan are killed by their families or relatives for falling in love or dancing in a video. Human Rights Watch estimates that around a thousand Pakistani women fall victim to so-called "honour killings" each year. These crimes often take place in the countryside, but women are dying in the cities too. Three days before the show at The Colony, one newspaper ran a story about a mother of two daughters who was allegedly tortured to death by her in-laws "for not giving birth to a baby boy".

In the rehearsal room, Fatima is busy practising parts of the choreography with her troupe when the door swings open. Fatima's younger brother bursts in, wide-eyed. "Fatima!" he shouts, holding out a mobile phone. They exchange a few frantic words and Fatima runs out of the room, her brother following after. He is her ally in the family, accompanying her everywhere because parents in Pakistan are not keen for their daughters to go out and about on their own.

Performers pray together before a show begins at The Colony, Lahore, Pakistan (photo: Philip Breu)
Performers at The Colony pray together before the show: despite opposition from conservative, religious mullahs, the performers at the colony refuse to be alienated from their faith: Saad Sheikh, founder of The Colony is adament: "My Allah is too open and too great for my Islam to be small and closed-off," he says.

In the next room, several people are talking to Fatima at once; she clutches her body, her otherwise straight, graceful back bent forwards. Her mother has called and said she's heard that she's dancing, someone in the audience is going to send her a video. Her brother tells her that if her parents really do know, then it no longer matters whether Fatima performs or not. She stares into the distance, is silent for a moment, and then says with determination: "I'm going to perform. The show must go on."

When she opens the door to the rehearsal room, her troupe cheers. "Pray for me," she tells them. They all form a circle at once, holding their open palms aloft. Bismillah, in the name of God, they begin, then they call out good wishes, shouting ever louder to expel the fear from their bodies.

Pakistan is home to countless different opinions about what form of Islam is the right one; even members of the same family often disagree on the matter. Over 95 per cent of the Pakistani population is Muslim, majority Sunni; religiosity is high here compared with other Islamic countries. Among those who oppose the young creatives at The Colony are the conservative, religious mullahs, but the young people refuse to be alienated from their faith as a result. Saad Sheikh has bands tattooed on his upper arm, wears a smartwatch and a dark red scarf draped about his shoulders. "My Allah is too open and too great for my Islam to be small and closed-off," he says.

Treasuring and protecting an oasis of freedom

 

It is 8 pm, and the show is about to begin. Young people sit tightly packed on cushions in the theatre, all of them wearing masks. Fatima and many of the other dancers have more to fear than the coronavirus; they worry about photos or videos finding their way onto social media. That's why there's another rule in place — all mobile phones are to be switched off. The dance troupe are quite aware that there's still a risk, but they are putting their faith in the fact that everyone in the room tonight is an accomplice, hoping to treasure and protect this oasis of freedom.

When Fatima takes to the stage accompanied by the rhythmic music of the band, she glances momentarily, uneasily, at the audience, but a few seconds later her features relax. The man dancing the lead is Ibrahim Rana, 27, who unlike many others has been supported by his parents, because he comes from a family of artists. Many of his male colleagues' parents are less understanding; dancing is considered immoral for Pakistani men, too.

Two female dancers in the rehearsal room of The Colony, Lahore, Pakistan (photo: Philip Breu)
Two female dancers prepare for the show in the rehearsal room of The Colony: "The Indian subcontinent has a long history of dancing," writes Karin A. Wenger, "women were once considered respected artists when they performed at the royal courts. When the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq islamised Pakistan in the late 1970s, he banned many forms of art and entertainment, and dancers were obliged to go underground"

The Indian subcontinent has a long history of dancing; women were once considered respected artists when they performed at the royal courts. When the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq islamised Pakistan in the late 1970s, he banned many forms of art and entertainment, and dancers were obliged to go underground. To this day, fundamentalist groups remain a considerable social force in the country, capable of paralysing whole city districts with mass protests, fighting the liberalisation of society and culture.

Fatima throws seductive glances at Rana, sometimes she gently strokes his shoulder, sometimes she spins around him, faster and faster, her skirts and her hair flying through the air; she's radiant. "I am most myself when I'm dancing onstage. It's as if, in that moment, no one in this world is in control of me," she says.

"Any single word can be used against you in the outside world, that's why we use this stage, to express everything that we, and other people, cannot express in public," says Ibrahim Rana. When he and Fatima almost kiss, a murmur goes through the audience, some clap or cheer. Rana is also rehearsing a theatre piece about passion and seduction. "Sex is the most normal thing in the world, so there's no reason we shouldn't address it," he says.

Art as an act of resistance in a conservative society

 

Taboo subjects hardly ever appear on stage at The Colony, says founder Saad Sheikh. They are particularly careful to avoid openly attacking religion or the military. Many have found what they perform morally objectionable, but it is all completely legal. A few years ago, Sheikh organised a flash mob in the old city in Lahore. Women danced to Beyoncé's song Who runs the world? Girls! Footage of the flash mob went viral, and then Sheikh received calls from people threatening to cut off his head. "I believe in living in a democracy and that means that we don't all have to agree, but we should be able to exist alongside one another in peace," he says.

Many young Pakistanis have had enough; they want to leave the country. Fatima has considered doing so too, but she wants to stay. "If all the artists and thinkers leave, who will be left behind to save the country?" she asks. "For me, dancing is a form of resistance." Saad says he stays because he wants to create opportunities for young people that weren't available to him.

The show is over. In a room backstage, the dancers are cheering, falling into each other's arms with relief. Fatima knows that her parents won't kill her even if they do see her in a dance video — unlike other, more conservative and perhaps less educated parents. The punishment will be harsh, she says. She might not be able to leave the house for a long time, have her phone confiscated, and have no contact with the outside world. But she's not afraid for her life. "I think my mother just wanted to scare me; I'll just deny everything," she says. And she's right. The next evening, she is back dancing on stage again.

Karin A. Wenger and Philipp Breu (photos)

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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