“Violence needs to be curbed and it can only be curbed through art, culture and dance”
  • 25 Aug - 31 Aug, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

The Arabic tides thrash against the shores, stinging the air with salty spray. I feel an instant wave of calm and tranquility wash over me as I step barefoot into Sheema Kermani's residence by the sea. It is like walking into an art gallery, multi-coloured crafts and ageing oil paintings adorn the walls, rustic wind chimes patiently remain suspended in the air, awaiting a gust of wind to tinkle their bells. Fresh flowers crown a crystal vase in the centre and behind it, she sits. In a pink cotton sari, kohl artfully smudged on the rims of her secretive eyes, flowers peeking from her hair bun, a pink bindi dotted her forehead, Sheema is quite the presentable hostess. 

No introduction I pen can do justice to the woman sitting across me. Sheema Kermani is not just a force to be reckoned with, she is an unwavering force which has set ablaze the archaic patriarchal society of Pakistan, making it a rein of women, again. She does this masterfully through alternative communication, mobilising classical dance, theatre and art to say it all for her. As I sit across her, I wonder what instances went into the making of the person she is today.

"I was born in Rawalpindi. A lot of my childhood was spent in small, close-knit towns, areas which were very close to nature. I had a very intellectually nurturing childhood. My parents were very interested in literature, music and all forms of art, which served as my first exposure. Our lives weren't tainted by television or technology, so most of our hobbies included reading encyclopedias, collecting and drying flowers, making scrapbooks and singing. Creativity was vastly explored,” says Sheema.

Dance has been an inherent and pivotal part of Sheema’s life, something she earned from her mother’s interests. "I got my first exposure to dance through my mother’s ustaads on our frequent visits to her maternal home in Hyderabad Deccan during summer,” she shares. "I believe it was a generation where these forms of arts were considered vital and everyone I knew was learning some form of artistry."

"When we came to Karachi, my mother found me a dance teacher. There was a couple by the name of Mr and Mrs Ghanshyam who used to teach me dance."

Since 1979, Sheema has been converging efforts to elevate the status of women in Pakistan by founding and spearheading the women organisation Tehrik-e-Niswan. But where did the idea took root?

"It all started during my student life, I was always very much a part of theatre, dramatic and debating society," she tells me. "I used to read and research a lot and I began to question the unsatisfactory status quo of women around me. When I left for England to study further, I garnered a wider exposure through film and art societies, exhibitions and museums. I gained insight from meeting people from different school of thoughts. It gave me direction,” she continues. “And that's when I first began to think about the suppressed state of women back home. How they have no rights, no power to make decisions about their life. It irked me no bounds. This led to me founding Tehrik-e-Niswan, a group of dedicated feminists to bring to light the many issues women face."

She reinforces the opinion that a woman’s freedom of choice – the choice to wear what she likes, to do what she wants or who she wants to marry is her basic human right.

“In Pakistan, when a woman takes to the stage and performs, she makes herself very vulnerable to backlash and contempt. Men find my expression through dance as a challenge towards them,” she croons the words now, reflecting at the irony of it. “But I know in my heart, that there is nothing wrong with what I do.

To me it’s a beautiful, most profound way of expression. I have no qualms about what others think of it, particularly the conservative faction of the society. If you find my work inappropriate, which it is not, you have a choice not to watch it,” she simplifies.

Sheema has often called her dance, her expression as a political act.

“To me, my creativity, my dance is not just to entertain. It has the prowess to go beyond that; to harness, to seize the hearts of the audience and instill in them a power to move and morph,” she smiles. “Whenever an audience comes to watch me perform, apart from receiving joy, I want them to connect and communicate with me. I want my synchronised movements to leave footprints in their minds and hearts,” she relays.

Kermani has learnt many forms of dance through her travels and collaborations with many trained artistes. She has excelled in Bharatanatyam and Odissi during her visits to India. She is also a trained choreographer, who has been teaching dance to students and groups for over 40 years.

“The human body is like a mirror,” she tells me. “When you are performing on stage, people can easily tell if you are being earnest or you’re just performing for the sake of it.” She stresses on the importance of depicting core emotions and conveying a message through dance. “You see, while speeches and words can fake many promises, as well as lies in the tenor of the voice, but with dance you can’t get away with it. And hence, it is so pure,”

Sheema’s most memorable performance as of late was a dhamaal at the shrine of Sehwan Sharif after the barbaric suicide attack. She also gave a passionate performance at the Faiz Aman Mela, Lahore, where she paid a tribute to Asma Jahangir.

She has been subjected to serious death threats in the past. It must have instilled a fear in her, I ask. “Yes, there have been countless death threats. And yes, at one point it used to baffle and scare me, but not anymore,” she steels. “Fear of death imparts no obstacles to my work. It shall go on, even if I one day die doing it,” declares the brave soul that Kermani is.