The Making of the California Gharana: Farah Yasmeen Shaikh
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh is an internationally touring kathak artist, and the Founder and Artistic Director of Noorani Dance, having received her training for two decades by the late Pandit Chitresh Das. Farah is a former member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company and former instructor of the Chhandam School of Kathak. Touring extensively with the company nationally and internationally since 1998 and later as a soloist with her first solo performance in 2007. In 2015, Farah presented her first full length production of her own original choreography – The Twentieth Wife – an adaptation of a novel by Indu Sundaresan. Farah continues to tour the follow up to this project, The Forgotten Empress, with an original script written by playwright and director, Matthew Spangler.
In 2016, Farah founded her own organization, Noorani Dance, providing in depth training to students and offering traditional and innovative performances. In 2018 Noorani Dance co-produced her newest work based on the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan – The Partition Project – in collaboration with EnActe Arts. Farah has been a guest choreographer for the World Dance Program at Alvin Ailey Extension in New York City, the Mona Khan Company, a consulting choreographer for the theatrical adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair, and the lead choreographer for I’ll Meet You There, a feature length film directed by Iram Parveen Bilal. In addition, Farah performs and teaches extensively in Pakistan throughout the year with performances at the Faiz International Festival in Lahore, the Urdu Conference in Karachi, and the Islamabad Arts Festival, including many other prestigious venues and institutions.
What is it like to look back on your very first experience of kathak dance? What encouraged you to take your first kathak class with Pandit Chitresh Das, and what was your very first class with him like?
Born and raised in Salinas, California, at some point I may have heard of kathak, but knew little to nothing about it. Though I danced as a child, I didn’t have access to the arts of South Asia for learning purposes. From the age of 5 until 18, I trained in ballet, jazz and baton twirling. I had been exposed to the music of India and Pakistan growing up – some classical, light classical, Ghazal, and quite a bit of Qawwali. My parents would take us to concerts, and though I didn’t realize it then, I was being introduced to living legends of various musical genres of South Asia.
It was when I was in my first year of college at San Francisco State University that I was itching to get into a dance class as it was the only form of physical activity I had known growing up. Seeing that “Classical Dance of India” was offered, I decided to give it a try, but still knew very little about what I was enrolling in, or who the teacher would be. I was also drawn to learn more about my culture through the arts, but I had some reservations based on my own cultural insecurities. I thought that my previous dance training would likely help, but was still uncertain about taking the class. When I told my parents of this class, and mentioned the teacher’s name, Chitresh Das, I still remember my father saying to me, “You must take it. He is one of the best.” To this day, I credit those words, and that nudge from my father for forever changing the course of my life.
I can’t believe that my first kathak class was 25 years ago. I still remember it all so clearly. Guruji was on his winter performance and teaching trip to India so our class had been taught by one of his senior students at the time, Jaiwanti Das Pamnani. There was quite the buzz amongst the students, as there were some who had taken his class previously, that the man we were about to meet was intense, and likely comparable to no one we had ever met before. This could not have been more true.
Guruji walked into the room, pulling his tabla bag on wheels behind him. He used to sit and play tabla at that time, so as his tabla was being set up, he walked around the room. He stopped near me and asked me my name and when he heard my Muslim name – he asked me where my family was from. When I told him Pakistan, he nodded, but then he asked, “but are you an ABCD?” I looked at him with confusion so he quickly knew I didn’t know what he meant so he asked, “Where were you born and brought up?” When I said, “Salinas,” another nod and a peculiar look in his face, followed with, “A Pakistani Salinas girl. Interesting…”
Within moments of that dialogue, he was teaching, we were dancing, and I could feel that my kismat had led me somewhere special.
Our lineage of kathak emphasizes a very deep study of kathak, including physical readiness, rhythmic facility, beauty, and delicacy, an understanding of Hindustani music theory, South Asian philosophy and culture, and storytelling. Which element or elements of kathak came more easily to you, and which have been the most challenging?
I honestly wouldn’t say that any of it has come easy to me. My previous dance experience helped me to have an awareness of my body, feel a comfort with coordination of movement, and also be rhythmically connected. BUT, the ocean that is the classical arts of South Asia is so very deep, that though the skills I had prior to studying with Guruji were helpful, I was introduced to so many elements that I never experienced before. I distinctly remember feeling very challenged by the aspects of dancing and reciting in taal. And actually, now that I think about it, when I had to sit and recite, I found it most difficult. I can now reflect on what kind of learner I am, and I believe that for me, executing through movement, and consciously or not, dancing in taal, felt far more natural to me than reciting and keeping taal with my fingers. I had never learned music before, so this was my introduction to this, and my body and mind often felt closed off to it.
Observers often comment about the grace I have as a dancer, and don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for these compliments, but I believe there is an assumption that this came easy to me. Again, my ballet training had me holding my body and hands a certain way, but modifying to fit the kathak aesthetic was important to me, so I would take a lot of time on my own to refine these aspects of my dance.
And oh the physical vigor of Guruji’s style! In all honesty, it was, and in my ways continues to be a love-hate relationship, but ultimately I love the feeling of getting to that place of liberation through dancing so hard I think I am going to collapse. To this day, this remains my greatest reward (when I don’t feel breathless because I’ve been consistent in my practice and thus my stamina reflects it), and my greatest challenge (basically knowing what I could have done to prevent the feeling of not dancing as hard as I know I can because I didn’t stay true to my riyaaz and sadhana).
With regards to abhinaya and storytelling, this developed slowly over the years for me. I couldn’t force myself to get there – it wasn’t like other aspects of the dance for me that through repetition it would come. This is probably the most centering aspect of kathak for me as it has led me to a place of empathy of which I truly believe that to be able to express emotion on the outside, you have to feel the emotion from the inside first. When I think back to the years of training with Guruji, he rarely “taught” us abhinaya. He would demonstrate, but he would rarely tell us exactly what to do. It was those years of observing him tell the most heart wrenching to the most uplifting stories, that more than how he looked or danced, it was the feeling he brought to the most nuanced of movements. I am so very grateful for what those experiences of watching him gave me, and how they have informed my own dance from the inside out.
You were a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company during an era of incredible trajectory towards high production value artistic works of Pandit Chitresh Das that were presented on mainstream stages. Can you talk about this experience? Do you have any particularly meaningful or memorable experiences to share from your time in the company?
Watching Guruji create and choreograph was pure joy. Of course there were days where it flowed better than others, for him and for those of us that he was choreographing on and for. But when Guruji was on, he was just so on. He would bring this oneness to his movement and the music, and he would get inspired by the story he was telling, the taal he was exploring, sometimes even a movement that one of us would make. Leading up to a production definitely involved some blood, a lot of tears (I was the crier in the group) and tons of sweat!
Thinking back to the many productions I was able to be a part of, there are just so many special memories. I did always have a very special place in my heart for Darbar as it was the first production that I was involved in in 1998, and also because Guruji involved my father in this reciting Urdu poetry.
The first version of Pancha Jati in 2002 also stands out in my mind. The way we had to physically train to meet the standards of his choreography at the time was insane, and yet the demands of our weekly training classes were already so high. I suppose that is the point though. To Guruji all was limitless, and he expected us to have the same boundless aspirations in the way we approached our dance abilities.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention about the unique experiences that came from each performance tour to India with Guruji. I feel grateful to have accompanied him on so many trips, share iterations of what we performed in the U.S. and get a window into the performing arts world, and who he is as an artist in his homeland.
The second to last production I did as a member of CDDC was Shiva in 2013, in which Guruji cast me as the somewhat errant disciple. This project took a toll on me emotionally to say the least. My relationship with Guruji had started to shift in the couple of years leading up to this production, but when tensions had come up, it had never bled into the artistic expression in this way. As was Guruji’s style, there were always messages woven into everything he did and said, but somehow this time felt different, and though as always there were aspects to the choreography, including my role, that I loved and felt wonderfully challenged by, this was also a turning point for me in my connection to him, sadly in the direction of creating greater distance.
You were not only a dancer with CDDC/Chhandam, you also devoted many years of your time in various aspects of the organization – as an administrator, teacher, and branch director. Can you talk about what you learned in that process, what is required to mobilize communities, and what it takes to build a culturally-specific organization of this caliber in the western world?
Being involved in the administrative aspects of CDDC/Chhandam began pretty early for me in my association with the organization. In fact, I believe I was the first South Asian to fully commit my time to the organization through my dance and administrative responsibilities, as it had been the non South Asians that had taken on this level of commitment prior. Initially I was a volunteer, helping out with tasks related to the school and other odds and ends, but pretty quickly that developed into me working alongside Celine to help with multiple aspects of not just the school, but also quite a bit of outreach related work for performances for Guruji and the company. I am deeply grateful for the amount of experience I gained through this aspect of the work as it uncovered the multi layered environment of arts administration, and after accumulating so many skills over the years, it is what enabled me to not go into creating my own organization, Noorani Dance, blindly.
Through the various roles that I filled, I had to engage with both our base of students, their families, and our donors – most of whom were South Asian – as well as interact with those in the mainstream arts community – other artists, funders, and presenters. There was the constant need to navigate the different ways to speak about our work, educate one or the other on the importance of what we were doing, and attempt to deepen their involvement and interest. I believe both sides – the South Asian community and the mainstream community were often taken aback at what we were accomplishing as an organization – artistically and administratively. It was rare to see an organization that was steeped in a culturally specific artform perform at prestigious venues, receive the types of grants we were receiving, and overall, get the attention and accolades in various ways. This is most certainly credited to Guruji’s artistic vision, and Celine’s fearlessness about positioning CDDC/Chhandam in the same categories as many larger, more established, and frankly more white, organizations. However, a great deal of credit also goes to the many of us, whom over many decades worked tirelessly to contribute to these efforts in various ways – often sacrificing our financial stability and our growth as dancers.
I really did, and still do love, the work that is generally referred to as Arts Administration, and just like any entrepreneur, there is your core business – the art in this case, inclusive of performance and teaching related work – and there is also the infrastructure and operations. With non profit organizations, that includes quite a bit of fundraising as well. As much as I enjoyed the work, trying to balance that with my dancing was always a challenge. If there was something deadline driven related to my administrative role, I may have had to miss a class or rehearsal, and that resulted in quite a bit of resentment on my part. This I believe is the ongoing challenge for many in the arts.
Artists rarely receive a salary that reflects their value based on their skill and merit. The quandary also exists when the artist and/or their organization is trying to save money but needs to ensure that the administrative tasks are being completed so they often end up taking on the tasks themselves. Though at CDDC/Chhandam, Guruji was not necessarily pulled in this way, many of the members of the company were. Also common to many arts organizations, administrative roles received a greater level of pay, so to earn a “decent” living, a dancer would take on such a role, but again, it would pull them away from their dance.
I look towards the time when arts and artists are valued for what they bring to the cultural ecosystems on a global scale. Arts has the opportunity to create jobs for many, even within our relatively small organizations, however the artists must be prioritized as being compensated adequately. I believe this is a challenge faced by many, and getting our base of donors, audience members, etc., to understand this is crucial in sustaining any arts organization.
What did you find most inspiring about Pandit Chitresh Das’ work and can you share your thoughts on observing his evolution as an artist during your time studying with him?
What continues to inspire me about Guruji was the depth of his commitment to both his performance career and to training his students. Even as he was traveling more for performances, when he was around his company or other students, the energy he gave to teaching was far from lacking. He truly believed that both filled his soul and spirit, and it is this influence that has shaped my own thinking about how much I value both teaching and performing.
Additionally, many, especially outside of his organization or close circle, always saw Guruji as being almost exclusively physically vigorous, and some may say he lacked softness or nazaakat. In my latter years at Chhandam, I recall some of my peers saying that they were observing an increased sense of softness in Guruji’s dance style, especially after becoming a father. I however, feel that Guruji was, and still is, one of the most graceful dancers I’ve ever seen. From the first time I saw him perform in 1996 when he did Draupadi Vastraharan, to the days of my last few classes with him, he was certainly ever evolving in all aspects of his dance including this one, but I also want it to be acknowledged that this was always a part of him.
There was of course an excitement he brought when executing his out of this world footwork and physically demanding technique, but for me, I was, and am forever in awe of his storytelling and grace. And going back to me getting compliments about my grace, I’ve sometimes been told that this doesn’t seem like my Guruji at all. I take great pride in responding that my grace is absolutely credited to him, his style and my constant desire to be as graceful as he was.
After studying with Panditji and being a part of Chhandam for 18 years, you made the decision to leave the organization, also cutting ties with Panditji. Can you talk a little about what led you to make this choice?
In 2014, I decided to attempt to navigate this path on my own. The environment within the organization had shifted in a way in which it was no longer fostering growth for me as a dancer, nor as someone that I felt could positively contribute to, or be aligned with the Chhandam community. I was constantly unhappy, and with my daughter Aziza Noor now in my life, I just didn’t want to be this unhappy person anymore. There was a feeling of being stifled and the two things that had kept me happiest for so many years – receiving training from Guruji and feeling myself constantly go deeper in the dance – were no longer my reality. My relationship with Gurji had declined significantly, and in my mind and heart, there was no way for me to move it forward in a way that felt true to myself, or to him, for that matter.
Stepping away from the Guru is often frowned upon in traditions such as kathak, but carrying the dance forward on my own felt like the best way to continue to honor his teachings, and enable me to discover my own artistic voice. The last time I saw and spoke to him did not end well, but I truly believe that the decision I made to leave Guruji’s direct guidance and be away from his physical presence was actually not cutting ties with him at all. My connection to my Guru has always been through the dance, and in those latter years, both the relationship with him and my dance were suffering. Reconnecting with my dance more deeply allowed me to rekindle the many lessons he shared on and off the dance floor, and reunite me with the reason I do what I do, to deepen my commitment to it, and to share the gifts he gave me over the years.
Just as the time of initiating my study with Guruji, I believe this pivotal shift in my journey was my kismat.
For the last several years, you have performed and collaborated with artists in Pakistan as well as the US. What draws you to that work in particular? What, generally speaking, is the state of kathak in the country today? And would you share one or more memorable experiences from your work in Pakistan?
I had always wanted to do work in Pakistan, but for one reason or another, the timing had never been right. In 2015, following the premiere of my first full length work as an individual artist, The Twentieth Wife, a strong desire to dance in Pakistan resurfaced for me. I contacted family and friends in Karachi, and was overwhelmed by the interest and enthusiasm I received to set up a tour. Though I was excited to achieve a long time goal of mine, I also had quite a few concerns and questions. Was it safe for a woman to dance in public? What labels might be placed on me for being a daughter of former Pakistani citizens, now returning as a professional dancer? Would I be ridiculed for my American accent? What aspects of Kathak should I perform, fearing I would do something “too Hindu” provoking anti-Indian sentiments? What were the musicians going to be like— would they give me respect as a female, as a dancer? How would I connect with these musicians—based on cultural, language and possibly gender based judgements? The one thing I take great pride in saying that I never had doubts about were my abilities. I had faith that the years of training with Gurji, and my commitment to my riyaaz, would allow me to represent myself, this art form, and the style of kathak that had been passed on to me, with confidence and integrity.
Fortunately, my doubts were met with resounding positive outcomes. From the first time I rehearsed with an ensemble of Pakistani musicians, to teaching groups of men and women—many of whom had never taken a dance class, to performing for audiences of multiple generations, people have been excited, appreciative, extremely respectful and encouraging. Since my initial visit I made for the purpose of dancing in 2015, I have gone back multiple times a year to teach at various institutions and performed at festivals and venues throughout the country. Even this year, I was scheduled to be there twice and would have spent over 2 months there of which I was to work closely with other artists for future collaborative projects.
With each visit, I’ve been able to deepen relationships with artists of various genres of dance, music, theater, and fine arts, increase awareness of kathak as an art form, and not only represent myself as a Pakistani Muslim American woman performing and teaching dance, but also influence multiple generations to rethink their perspective on dance and dancers. Through these experiences, I’ve also come to better understand the history of dance in Pakistan and how politics and extremism has and continues to determine the role of dance in daily Pakistani culture.
As Pakistan developed its infrastructure in its first two decades as a nation, music and dance were a beloved presence in the social and cultural fabric. In 1966, the PIA Arts Academy was established in Karachi under the Pakistan International Airlines corporation, and with a heavy emphasis on dance programming. Dance classes were conducted along with performances for people living in and visiting Pakistan, especially at the various embassies located in Karachi.
Upon a military coup in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq became the President of Pakistan, ruling from 1978-1988, institutionalizing military and Sharia Law, religious law derived from religious prophecy. This had a profound impact on the arts, and dance in particular. During this time, Pakistanis were fearful of having any connection to dance—due to claims of dance being “un-Islamic” and the belief that women should not publicly display their bodies. Many artists had either left the country, or stopped teaching and performing. Many adopted a conservative religious mindset including the notion that dance had no place in Islam and thus in the fabric of Pakistani culture. Children were born, and in their most formative years, had no idea that dance was part of their culture. They never missed it because they never had it.
Though there has been tremendous progress in the presence of art throughout Pakistan – music, theater, and dance (I believe however, that dance is still not widely accepted), I also know that my privileged position of being American has offered me many more opportunities than the deserving artists that reside in Pakistan. Without the persistence and commitment of senior dance artists who persisted through the times of artistic oppression such as Nahid SiddiquiJi, Sheema KermaniJi and Indu MithaJi – dance truly could have lost its presence altogether, disappearing from the artistic landscape of the country and its cultural traditions. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a number of amazing musicians, of whom work tirelessly to maintain their craft and share it with others through performances and teaching – neither of which come in an abundance of opportunities.
As I hope to continue to do work in Pakistan, I also hope to create opportunities for artists of Pakistan. In 2018, Noorani Dance hosted our first artist in residence, tabla artist Yousuf Kerai, who taught classes with us, as well as accompanied two of our students who were part of our Manzil ke Andaaz program in which they performed their first traditional kathak solos. We hope to continue this with Yousuf and other artists – into the foreseeable future.
You are the founder and director of Noorani Dance. Would you please describe your inspiration for founding it and the role it plays in the local community? Are there any guidance principles, teaching philosophies, or experiences with Noorani Dance you would like to share?
When I started teaching classes on my own, initially I was just teaching private 1:1 classes. Little by little, as more students became interested in training with me, we slowly grew to group classes. There came a time when a group of more advanced students that I had worked with when they were younger were now training with me, and were coalescing into a performance ensemble. It was then that I felt that if we were going to have students performing, I wanted them to feel as though they were part of something that they could really take ownership of, and wanted them to be identified beyond being students of Farah Yasmeen Shaikh.
I thought about what the name of the organization would be, and laughingly recalled how Guruji used to tease me about how when he passed I would be someone who would go and create my own school and call it “Farah’s School of Nazaakat”. Decided that wasn’t quite the name I wanted, and the word Noor kept coming to me for a number of reasons. Literally one day it hit me Noorani. My birth name is Farah Yasmeen Noorani, and this felt like a wonderful tribute to my family who has been an infinite source of support, love and encouragement over the years. They endured a lot in observing my hardships, but never pushed me to do anything other than follow my heart, and they – my parents, my siblings, as well as my husband and daughter – are all so much a part of what I do, and are forever my pillars of infinite support.
Beyond the sentimentality, “Noorani” means bright or luminous, with a dual meaning of enlightenment, and this is really how we developed our tag line for our organization. With Kathak dance as the medium, Noorani Dance is committed to enlightening minds and hearts through the arts.
We try to keep this at the forefront of all that we do, and believe that enlightenment can only be offered when we first enlighten ourselves. We believe this comes from the depth of training and study along with a commitment to welcome dialogue – artistic and otherwise – with others across various artistic genres, exploring topics of historical and social relevance to challenge ourselves and our audiences to think and reflect critically about how the arts can provoke dialogue and systemic change. At the heart of this, we hold immeasurable value, respect and gratitude for the Noorani Dance community of students, families, artists, staff, donors and well wishers – all of whom enable us to do what brings us great joy and what we believe, positively contributes to the world everyone deserves to live in.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your experiences as a kathak artist and educator that the younger generation of leaders could learn from?
I believe we can all learn from one another’s struggles and achievements, however, each person needs to venture down their own path with the understanding and acceptance of the fact that self discovery and awareness takes time and is a never ending process. Work hard, stay humble, and most importantly, do what you do with passion, compassion and commitment, finding your sense of purpose and Heartistry.
PHOTO CREDITS: Photo 1 – 2019, PC: Lara Kaur / Photo 2 – 1999, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 3 – 1999, Jaiwanti Das Pamnani, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, Anjali Jhangiani, Jenny Baker, Charlotte Moraga, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 4 – 2000, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, Pandit Chitresh Das & Jaiwanti Das Pamnani, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 5 – 1999, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh & Jenny Baker, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 6 – 1999, Anjali Jhangiani, Jenny Baker & Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 7 – 1999, Jenny Baker & Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, PC: Marty Sohl / Photo 8 – 2000, Pandit Chitresh Das & Farah at lec demo in Kolkata, India / Photo 9 – 2000, Pandit Chitresh Das & Farah at Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad, India / Photo 10 – 2018, Farah in The Forgotten Empress, PC: Lynn Lane / Photo 11 – 2019, Farah in Karachi, Pakistani, PC: Ammar Zaidi / Photo 12 – 2019, Farah in Karachi, Pakistani, PC: Ammar Zaidi / Photo 13 – 2019, PC: Lara Kaur / Photo 14 – 2019, Farah with Noorani Dance Company, PC: Lara Kaur / Photo 15 – 2019, Farah Yasmeen & Aziza Noor Shaikh, PC: Lara Kaur / Photo 16 – 2019, Farah at New York Kathak Festival, PC: Arun Kumar.