Page last updated at 14:29 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 15:29 UK

Veteran dancer wins over Pakistan

By P Sivaramakrishnan
BBC Tamil service

Indu Mitha (right) and her daughter Tehreema
Ms Mitha has has battled numerous obstacles over the years

In a side street in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, 80-year-old Indu Mitha takes a lesson.

For the last five decades she has been teaching a dance which originated from southern India - Bharatanatyam - to Pakistanis.

There is no sign today that her classes are any less popular than they were in the 1970s.

Highly emotional and delicate, Bharatanatyam is generally identified with the Hindu religion. It has now spread globally and is performed in the US, Russia, Africa and Australia.

Teaching a traditional Indian dance in Pakistan has not been easy for Ms Mitha.

Dance was considered "haraam" - or un Islamic - during the tenure of President Zia ul Haq, when many cultural pursuits were considered taboo and a "no objection certificate" needed for every performance.

Early days

Ms Mitha was born into a traditional Bengali Chatterjee family who moved to Lahore about 130 years ago when it was part of British India. She married a Pakistani army officer.

Indu Mitha performs
Dance was considered 'unIslamic' during the presidency of Zia-ul-Huq

After partition some of her education was in Delhi, where she first familiarised herself with Indian dance routines.

Later she came under the tutelage of Lalitha Sastri, who was one of the earliest students of Kalakshetra - a premier cultural institution in Southern India.

Her early years of teaching and performing in Pakistan were at private occasions such as military functions, Red Cross charity shows or in front of the All Pakistan Women's Association.

But it was a delicate balancing act. She had to adapt Indian mythological content found in the Bharatanatyam to local needs without offending religious beliefs - and often did it by composing her own songs.

Glittering costumes, colourful lyrics and the frequent use of percussion instruments form the fundamentals of this style of classical dance.

Finding them in Pakistan was initially a daunting task.

A dancer at one of Lahore's theatres
Lahore is a centre of Pakistani culture

"I only had a couple of photographs which were taken when I learnt Bharatanatyam in India," says Indu Mitha, "but it was enough to give local tailors what they needed to stitch the dresses needed for the dance."

Later she and her daughter, Tehreema Mitha, managed to bring a Bharatanatyam costume to Pakistan from India, which enabled local tailors to have a better understanding of the stitching intricacies.

Finding instruments to accompany her dance routines has also been a challenge for the octogenarian.

She still lacks the maridngam, a percussion instrument which plays an important role in Bharatanatyam dance.

"I really miss it, its beat is better than my heart beat," she says.

Ms Mitha writes her lyrics in the Urdu language, but by her own admission concentrates more on the dance expressions and music than the lyrics.

"I don't know the Tamil, Telugu or Sanskrit languages, in which the majority of the songs used for Bharatanatyam dances are composed, so I compose my own songs and choreograph them," she said.

The initial breakthrough came when they staged a dance drama in the Urdu language about the life of Amir Khusro, a Persian scholar. It attracted a large audience.

During the days of Gen Zia's tough regime she silenced her critics telling them that if they did not expect her to perform in public, she did not expect to do so.

Rosy future

"The art of Bharatanatyam should not be confined to India and its temples alone," said Ms Mithu, "if this happens it will only serve to harm the art."

"Since the essence of Bharatanatyam is its delicate and beautiful movements, expressions and sound, it will survive not only in Pakistan but the world over."

However she sounds a word of caution - the influence of Bollywood music could succeed in ridding the world of Bharatanatyam where Gen Zia failed.

"But I believe that Bharatanaytam has a future the world over and will also survive in Pakistan," she says optimistically.

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