In conversation with Sheema Kirmani

Her eyes speak about millions of stories, an epitome of elegance, strength and power,bold, beautiful and a living example of dauntless bravery, this month SheemaKirmani is in the spotlight for a candid interview with Fashion Collection Magazine.

What motivated you to become a dancer?

I believed in what I am doing. I thought it was the truth; still think it is a profound form of art. I don’t think that anybody has a right to be critical about it. It’s my basic fundamental right to do what I want to until I am not harming anyone and I don’t think dance, music, performing art has harmed anyone. On the contrary, it has always promoted love, peace, good health and will. I really rose above whatever criticism came and I never took it seriously or ever allowed it be the hindrance on my way.

Were you family supportive and led you do what you wanted to?

Yes, it was my family who felt that their children should be taught the performing art; I went for performing arts, classical music, painting, and classical dance. And my parents felt that this is a part of all children’s learning process. My father and family always supported me.

Have you ever had a stage fear or for the first time you performed?

I think all great performers get nervous before performances. I still get nervous. I have read about Sir Lawrence, a great artist and performer, said in his book that how nervous he used to get before his every performance and going to the stage. So yeah, I get nervous because you are going to face hundreds of people, you are vulnerable, your body and expression, postures, way of talking, everything is going to be noticed there and then so you can slip, forget and of course a human error can occur. This is what performance is about; it’s about focus and concentration. It requires a lot of concentration and discipline onthe part of a performer.

What makes a dancer successful?

You have to be totally into yourself and into what you are doing.  Your mind must not wander here and there, because the minute your mind starts thinking of something else, you may forget what step you are doing to what music. Your performance has to be synced with the music. If, for a second, you lose your concentration then the whole thing can fall apart.

Tell us something about Tehrik-e-Niswan ?

In the 70s, I felt that women in Pakistan need a platform for their creative expression. A lot of girls write poetry, want to sing, act, dance but there wasn’t any platform for this kind of expression. So I formed Tehrik-e-Niswan. The basic ideology was to question the facts that why women don’t have rights in Pakistan? Why their status is so low? Why is there discrimination? In the first couple of years we were analyzing and exploring these facts and for that we heldseminars, conferences but very soon creating plays. Those plays were written by us and these plays had stories of the girls who were working with me. When we presented those plays, which were called ‘nataq’, we did them in low income to upper class areas – we did our first play in Meena Bazar and it had just opened up that time –, we had such a positive response from the women because in Pakistan, literacy rate of women is low that they don’t have a practice of listening to speeches and talks and attending seminars. But when you say the same thing as a story telling as an act, dance, poetry then it is entertaining as well and it attracts and keeps the audience engaged.

The messages which we wanted to give to public are that teach your daughters as same as sons, give them equal rights of education, women must have health facilities. It has been 40 years now and this relationship keeps growing.

You have been doing Bharatanatyam and other beautiful forms of dances. But these forms are never shown in the films produced in Pakistan. Since this industry’s inception,  good dance is watched and promoted more than the form of dance you do. There is a lack of documentation, what would you say about it?

I strongly agree with you. I also always say that this is a classical form of dance and it means that it has evolved and developed beautifully into something big and great and important. Today, there are so many TV channels, not one TV channel, even PTV, has classical music shows anymore. PTV had classical dance and music shows earlier but today not a single channel gives coverage to this form of dance. As you have said, no channel wants to document the people who have been in this profession for so long, what they do, how their journey has been, what they teach, history and what is about. It’s so much part of culture that dates back to Moen Jo Daro and Indus Valley Civilization. The artefacts and sculptures found were of dancing girls, figures in yoga postures and history deeply talks about it. They found masks that indicated theatre and puppetry so that means this kind of art existed that time.

With time, do you see an increase in the number of ladies in your clan, as followers of course but as the ones who are following the ideology?

I have been teaching for 40 years and there are many young people who have learnt from me and now are teaching and are professional teachers also but they are not now just confined to classical dance but also do what brings in money also. Many of them teach at schools, but our society is going through that phase in which one part if going forward and on the other hand is taking steps back. It’s very difficult to say how far ahead we have gone because we take one step forward and three steps backward.

It affects art also in the same way. Sometimes there are many students in my class but sometimes there aren’t any students. This is also because of the tension in the city and security issues also because if parents don’t feel safe to send their children to learn dance and music so they won’t come out of their houses. So it’s up and down but to an extent there is a slight progress that media covers the art but not the one which I want to see. Something is at least moving as compared to 30 years back.

Do you think there is a conspiracy of jeopardizing the concept of Aurat March by just focusing on a few banners that demeaned the March and neglecting the rest of the positive outcome and awareness?

Well I think what everything that happened in the Aurat March – Strategies applied – and what we tried attacking was Patriarchy. Patriarchy is when there is male domination and women are not allowed to say what they believe and feel and the power is in the hands of men. Now who benefits from Patriarchy? Men benefits from patriarchy. And when we speak about patriarchy we aren’t attacking men, we are attacking the system, and it’s against patriarchy not men at all.

When women came out on road, they sought identity, rights, irrespective of our men than women are trying to take control and that’s what they fear. So they attack you in a way calling women and Aurat march ‘Behayai’ and ‘shamelessness’.  Men kill women, they pick up guns, shoot people, men are terrorists, and women aren’t violent in any way. We need to re define all these things.

The banner that said ‘ApnaKhanaKhudGaramKaro’ opened up a debate last year after the Aurat March. Someone asked me to comment on that and I told that man “You go home, heat food for yourself, help and feed your wife too. Tell your wife that we will do it together. It will create a lovable environment and your wife will feel loved and it will create a pleasant environment.”

What is feminism for you?

A: Power is not misbalanced where there is only one section,male section of the society owns power and women have nothing.

B: Where females have equal opportunities, rights and power of decision making, where they are treated equally in a society that is what feminism is to me. Just because someone is a female so the decisions and judgments shouldn’t be different. Feminism is equality.

What would you like to say to the people who are calling Aurat March a Movement of ‘Liberal Aunties’ and ‘Burgers’ and tagging it with a lot of titles.

This March was open for everyone. We believe in democracy and tolerance and trying to create an environment where there is acceptance and that is what this March is conveying. There should be a sense of humor among people if they find something odd they can laugh about it instead making it an issue and criticize it and start abusing a whole Movement. There are ways of looking at issues and things.

Women have been facing oppression and discrimination since ages, one banner said “We demand equality, not renege”, so you can smile at it because it could have been more aggressive. AuratMarch was more like a celebration where everyone was singing, dancing, playing and men also need to have a sense of humor instead take everything on their egos and goes like ‘How dare she’?

There is no liberalism in the Aurat March, this is all about each individual woman believes in, she raises her issues in Aurat March.

You have been in the selection board for the Oscar Awards. How films and dramas are contributing towards the betterment of the society?

Well my opinion in this regard is that Pakistan is producing total mediocrity in the arts. Quality work is gone because we are so satisfied with whatever is produced. There is no such hard work instead everyone is quick in copying and imitating and I see that in all art forms that there is totalmediocrity.

I have never heard my parents saying that my child is so brilliant because there wasn’t any self-pride. They always tried to keep it low so we could strive to become better and we were never taught self-pride because that was considered bad manners and bad upbringing. But today people brag about themselves that they have made a wonderful movie, did a brilliant dance performance rather waiting for others to praise them. If there are two write ups on you and two photographs of you in any newspaper so you think that you have become a star.

We have lost humility and the attitude is “Chalta Hai”. Even some of my students copy my choreography and music and don’t have the courtesy to mention my name. Whenever I used my “Guru’s” music I have always mentioned their names because that was a pride for me. But the younger generation will pretend that they have created whatever they have copied.

This is all about morals, we have lost honesty and integrity and that is why we can never produce any sort of art.

How women should be shown in Dramas or films? What are your expectations?

Honestly, I haven’t watched TV since 3 years because I can’t bear to watch such content where constant weepiest coming on the television. They constantly show women as “poor”. I want them to show strong characters who know struggling and made their place in the society for their children and themselves. Every woman next to you has a moving story, but today it’s all about glamour. Every girl on the television looks the same to me; same hairstyle, makeup and etc. There is no such ‘character’ and that’s what media is doing to harm the Movement.

I myself have been given so many scripts but I chose to stay out of the radar of such dramas where every script is showing a mother-in-law is an evil character. Why she has to be an evil? Either you define her side of the story that what has made her or turned her to be such an evil person? Maybe she was victimized, went through an unpleasant journey, and abused but at least show something. My question is why a woman is an evil to another woman without a sane reason? This is not acceptable to me at all.

Why you chose to be a theatre Director, Dancer or an activist? Is it fame, money or just your passion?

When I decided to start this work, one motive was to connect to the other women of the society to make things better in the society and country because I have also suffered from discrimination, abuse and what not. Women go through all these kinds of maltreatments. Where others were opting office jobs and glamourous works, I chose this because I loved what I was doing and that is the arts. I loved the way I could express myself through dance, theatre, painting and singing.

Money didn’t matter to me anyway. When I started there was a little money used to be offered to the artists as compared to what is offered today for the Television artists. My friends would often tell me that “I must find a husband who has a lavish house, big car and provide you with what not”. But I answer myself that these temporary things won’t give happiness to me. I am not interested in cars, branded clothes, big house crowded with a lot of furniture and glittery items.

I don’t even like furniture and I live in an empty room. I like to read, write, dance, sing and write. I will be happier if I will be living my life the way I want to. People might think that I have sacrificed a lot but to me I have not. This is the life that makes and keeps me happy. I would have gone insane if I had cars, servants and luxurious around because that’s not me and it has never been my dream to achieve all this and it has never been an inspiration to me.

So that’s my passion only. At most of the times, I don’t even get paid for my performances because they say that they didn’t have a budget but they had a budget for their lavish dinner where they had four main courses and stuff so I often raise objections on this hypocrisy when people try to take advantage of my love for the arts. This is my right to be paid but for women’s sake, in rallies I don’t ask for money because I want the message to be conveyed as much. I won’t ask for money to those who don’t have a budget, but to those who have a budget they should pay.

I made these choices and I am more than happy. I would have gone mad if I was not doing this. People judge you by your clothes and what brand you wear. I have never worn a brand in my life. My life is simple, easy and happier.

I am very bohemian in my lifestyle. My treasure is my books, recordings and my profession.

Dance for you in one word?

Dance for me is life. I won’t be alive if dance was not in my life.

Any message for the current government to provide funds, security etc?If you want to convey any message through our magazine?

Yes. Being in this profession for more than 40 years, I would request the government to at least grant me a piece of land where I can set up an institute. I have taught so many people and when I am not here then where is this all going? All that I have worked for years and established it; books, performances, knowledge, singing, dance and recordings.

This all has to be at one place and institutionalized otherwise it’s scattered. I want the government to really look after this.

Who is next SheemaKirmani near to you?

I see that potential in a lot of my own students and I see young women with hope for a better future. Even you can also be one of them who can contribute by coming with something brilliant. You never know. Pakistan has a lot of potential.

What should be your advice to the dancers who want to come into this field but scared of the society?

Be brave, come up, fight it out and do it. Rise above and believe in yourself because whatever I am today is what I have believed in and that was it. I believed in myself and I always knew that what I am doing is not going to be wrong. I have survived this far by just believing in myself.