Photo by Judith Ernst

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When I Was a Dancing Girl in Lahore

My ankle bells jingled as I threaded my way barefoot through the seated elementary school students. I was about to do another kathak dance performance, this time for my former elementary school in Southern California, the one I had been attending when my parents pulled me out to spend my father’s sabbatical year abroad, in Pakistan.

The students eyed me quizzically as I made my way to the front of the classroom, the tawny, gold-flecked silk of my costume rustling around me. A peacock feather attached to a teardrop cap sat at a jaunty angle on my head, a cascade of chiffon trailed down my back, past my light brown braid wound round with the colorful strands of a piranda. I was there to perform as part of an international day—to be, I suppose, some sort of representative of Pakistan, a place I had lived in for a year, but with which I had no prior connection.

What the heck is this? they seemed to be saying.

But each time I performed, each time the music started, the setting melted away and I was transported back to Maharaj’s dance class in Lahore.

In a dimly lit concrete expanse in the basement of an arts center, a forest of colorfully dressed women and teenage girls stood in an L-shape facing a dingy carpet in the corner where Maharaj sat, flanked by the musicians, calling out the bols, the rhythmic syllables that accompany kathak.

Maharaj claimed to have been born in 1899 but his clean-shaven, expressive face seemed ageless. Dressed always in an impeccable kaftan, he strode imperiously through the dancers in class or audience members at a performance, his long henna-tipped hair streaming behind him.

I was nine, one of only a few girls in the class, and one of several foreigners, including a couple of American ladies and a French woman. The majority of students were Pakistani women of various social classes, from well-to-do, educated women who considered themselves artists and part of the cultural elite to members of families from Heera Mandi, the ancient red-light district in Lahore’s famed Old City.

Heera Mandi, which means “Diamond Market,” stretches to one side of the majestic Badshai Mosque, built by Aurangzeb, the last of the “great Mughals” of the Muslim dynasty founded in the Indian subcontinent by the Central Asian emperor Babur in the early sixteenth-century. Today, the neighborhood, whose residents prefer to call it Shahi Mohalla, or “Royal Neighborhood,” is still known for its kothas—street-level performing spaces where women performers dance while patrons shower them with money; further arrangements can be made.

It’s still possible to see in the performances in the kothas the vestiges of the ancient South Asian tradition of the tawaifs, or courtesans, which is similar in many ways to the Japanese geisha tradition, in which artistry and culture combine with paid relationships with powerful men. However, much of this tradition has given way in recent decades to more garden variety forms of sex work, often dispensing entirely with any veneer of culture.

As a child living in Lahore in the mid-1980s, under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, I didn’t understand much, if any, of the context surrounding dance there. However, I did notice that Maharaj’s most senior student, who acted as an assistant teacher, only performed for audiences of women or foreigners, and then always under a stage name. She was the wife of a prominent judge and had to protect her family’s reputation.

I also remember hearing about the return of one of Maharaj’s most illustrious students, who had emigrated to the United Kingdom and made a name for herself there as a kathak artist. A planned public performance was scrapped because of “the mullahs,” the mysterious religious authorities who disapproved of dance, movies, music—seemingly everything.

Though I had been a beginner kathak dancer at the start of our year in Lahore, I was already a committed dance student before we had arrived there, and I approached kathak with the same seriousness of purpose as I did my ballet classes back home. After several months of study, Maharaj began asking me to perform—at private parties, charity events, and cultural centers.

Mostly, I danced alone. I was the only student of my age in Maharaj’s classes, though I often performed along with two teenage girls who always danced together. I don’t remember their names but I can still see their faces vividly. One was tall and lanky, with long black hair and a moon-shaped face with a wide smile. The other was smaller, more compact, with the body of a gymnast. She had short hair, which was unusual, and a striking face that seemed very contemporary in its beauty, even as the other girl had a more classic type of allure.

I’m not certain of their status in Pakistan’s rigid social hierarchy, but I’m pretty sure they were located somewhere in the lower fringes, with mothers who seemed, in the manner of stage moms everywhere, to want to catapult them into a brighter future through show business—likely into Lahore’s film industry (known, fittingly, as “Lollywood”).

Somehow, my status as a child and a foreigner seemed to grant me passage through the hierarchies—artistic and class—as I performed alongside these girls. I remember one performance in particular, at a public benefit to raise money for victims of leprosy, whose scourge could still regularly be seen on the bodies and faces of beggars. Since it was a public performance, my assistant teacher didn’t perform, it was just me and the older girls. I remember a boisterous crowd of mixed genders and ages, banners proclaiming “End to Leprosy” hanging from the rafters of the hall, the noise of traffic—motorbikes, rickshaws, the honks of wildly painted trucks—sometimes overriding the loudspeaker as an emcee spoke and revved up the crowd.

It seemed strange to have a performance of kathak at such a gathering—a refined dance form that was formerly the province of courtly entertainment. The crowd went wild for the older girls, who beamed at the audience, seeming to feed off their energy. When I went on, the crowd hushed, as though they were one person. It was, in retrospect, the inverse of my audiences later in California, confronting an unknown art form. Here, the art form was local but the performer wasn’t. Who is she? the crowd seemed to be wondering.

There are many things to think about when you’re performing dance. The choreography, even if you know it well, has to be attended to with the majority of your awareness, as even well-rehearsed dances can suddenly slide out of conscious thought. Sometimes the body takes over, the steps continuing without conscious thought, but not always. Yet, even with most of my consciousness focused on the task of dancing, of responding to the musicians and staying on the rhythm, of orienting my body in an unfamiliar space, even then, I could see the surprised expressions of the audience as I danced.

We dance with our bodies; when we are questioned about our dancing it can feel like we have to justify ourselves. I think I adopted, starting in Pakistan, a protective layer that I’ve worn during my life as a dancer. You sheath yourself with it and don’t let anyone in; you go about your steps and your expression, your interpretation of the dance, the music, the art form, while keeping the world outside at bay. Basically, I learned, back then, to dance for myself.

One of my last performances in Lahore was instructive—in ways I wouldn’t fully comprehend until years later. Maharaj asked me to perform with some other students at the wedding of the son of an important general. I went with my parents. The wedding was at night in a huge mansion in a fancy neighborhood. Outside, an enormous tent had been erected for the wedding festivities. But the performers—me, the older girls, and a couple of young women from Maharaj’s class—had been relegated to a dingy bedroom somewhere in an unimportant part of the house. I sat with my parents and put on my bells. Soon, my father was invited out to meet the wedding party; my mother stayed with me.

Maharaj and the musicians arrived and suddenly the room was filled with laughter and banter. Apparently, we were still waiting for another dancer to arrive, a woman named Mobila. Her name had a powerful effect on the people in the room, like the name of a notorious movie star, someone surrounded by fascinating scandal.

Several young men, guests of the wedding party presumably, appeared in the room. By now whiskey flasks had been passing back and forth between the musicians, and Maharaj had produced his own silver flask from his robe, which he was known to do in the right environment. Alcohol, prohibited by Islam, was technically illegal in Pakistan, though it seemed to flow freely in private homes. The talk of the young men was breathless and hilarious—I know now that they were quite drunk—and I was puzzled by their behavior as I went about my warm-ups, which included ballet exercises done in my kathak costume.

At one point the most brazen of the young men stopped to observe me, arms crossed over his chest. He was clean-shaven, with tightly curled hair. He said something to the effect that he couldn’t believe that I was a kathak dancer, that I would be performing. Maharaj assured him that I was a trained kathak dancer.

“Do something,” the man demanded, waving his hands at me. “Show me something.”

Perplexed by his demands, I wrapped that veil of distance I had been cultivating around me and ignored him completely. I calmly went on with my exercises, even starting in on a walk-through of the dance I would perform, marking the steps, when I ran out of warm-ups. I was terrified, for some reason, of standing before him with nothing to do, to face whatever it was that he wanted. At any rate, my strategy worked—he seemed to grow tired of my unresponsiveness. He turned his attention instead to the older girls and young women, who responded eagerly to his questions and demands.

Nearby, my mother seemed to be dumbstruck by the whole scenario and our place within it. I think it was dawning on her that the dancers in this milieu were playing a different, and far older, role. Here, we had an ancient set-up—a powerful family, essentially the ruling class of the country—and the performers were part of a traditional patronage arrangement with the ruling class. Again, as a foreigner and a child, I had the ability to transcend the hierarchies—or maybe I just didn’t fit into any of them.

And then, Mobila arrived.

She sashayed into the room like a starlet, already in costume and made-up as though for a photo shoot. In my memory she has hangers-on, but I’m not sure if that’s my mind, embroidering already, as a future writer of fiction. Mobila seemed to know everyone and everyone knew her. She greeted Maharaj respectfully, as a former student should. The young men had clearly been waiting for her; immediately they shifted their attention to her, clustering around her in a way that brought a strange image to my mind, which evidently had forged important neural pathways in my brain, from the early years of MTV, when I was a young child: that of Madonna in her video for Material Girl, in a pink gown, surrounded by suitors in tuxedos.

The image would be an apt one, it turned out. After I performed, I sat at Maharaj’s feet, next to the musicians, on a carpet at one side of the stage, watching, as the music wheeled and reeled around us under the tent in the general’s garden.

Mobila took to the rickety plywood stage like she was in her own music video. She danced not in the refined way that I had learned, but in a way that seemed to take the technique of kathak and overlay a veneer of Bollywood-style flounce, adding hip thrusts where I’d never seen them before, as kathak is generally danced in an upright posture without any settling into the hips.

Predictably, the crowd went wild.

Well, most of the crowd did, I suppose. The audience was stratified, like layers in a geologic formation. Closest to the stage sat the older women, their dupatta scarves tucked piously under their chins, spectacles reflecting the stage lights, expressions of supreme distaste on their faces. Behind them sat the younger women, lovely in their wedding party attire. They beamed and swayed to the music, like they wished they were dancing onstage themselves. Behind them, the older men sat, many in army dress uniforms, clapping along discreetly with the music. And at the back, standing, the young men clustered, whooping and hollering, deep into their bootleg whiskey.

The dancing went on into the night. At some point, my parents escorted me from the stage and we drove home. The older girls were performing and I wanted to watch, but instead, I fell asleep in the back of the car. I remember going to school the next day with my eyes still ringed with make-up.

We left Pakistan a couple of months later, returning to California and another life, where I resumed ballet and tried to pick up my old life—of school crushes and complicated friendships.

My mother found an Indian kathak teacher in Los Angeles who took me on as a student. She was from a different gharana, or school, of kathak. Whereas I had been trained in the Lucknow gharana, which prioritized gracefulness and purity of line, my new teacher was from the Jaipur school, known for its virtuoso footwork and fiery spins. She seemed to both disapprove of my previous training (there was an India vs. Pakistan subtext at play, I suspect), and consider it a wonder that I, without a drop of South Asian blood, had been trained in kathak at all.

After my family returned from Lahore, I received all kinds of invitations to perform kathak. My ballet teacher had me perform as part of a recital in an amphitheater in the local park, right after my ballet class danced a perky sailor’s jig, dressed in white shorts and striped shirts. I changed breathlessly out of the sailor costume in the makeshift dressing room, shimmying into my kathak dress, pinning on the hat, and coiling my bells around my ankles.

Onstage, this time alone, without my ballet class, I faced the same audience, but they stared at me in a different way. The ballet numbers were over, from the little girls in their frothy tutus to the assured teenagers in pointe shoes, and here I was standing before them, a white girl with long light brown hair and hazel eyes, decked out like a Mughal dancing girl, dancing to recorded music from the other side of the world.

Once I began performing with my new kathak teacher, the strangeness of my earlier performances in California, when I had just returned, started to fade. I became one of several members of her junior company, performing around LA at Indian Independence festivals and various concert halls. The abstract imagery of my Lahore kathak training—stylized walks that depicted a peacock or a woman longing for her beloved—were replaced with dance narratives depicting Hindu mythology—Krishna and the Gopis, Rama and Sita, the festivities of Holi and Diwali.

Eventually, around age fourteen, I left kathak behind to focus on ballet and modern dance. The main reason I gave then was the growing level of commitments in both types of dance, as I advanced, and the discombobulation I felt from switching from one genre to another. I think, too, that I succumbed to some sort of pressure, perhaps self-imposed, to make it easier to explain the type of dancing I did.

I still miss doing kathak, the way the floor felt under my bare feet as the footwork swelled faster and faster and the sound of my feet slapping the floor played off the rushing jingle of the bells. I miss the spins, sailing around on my bare heel, arms opening up front and back, reeling me back into my center, stopping on a dime. When danced well, kathak has an almost unbearable beauty.

With all of its contradictions, kathak remains the main legacy of my time spent in Pakistan as a child, the thing that ties me most to that place. I returned to California as a different person, a different dancer; kathak was the portal that marked a transition in my life as a dancer, when I started to became aware of all that is at stake when the body dances.

Dance is perhaps unique, as an art form, in that when learning the dance form of a place you learn to embody the principles that define whatever characteristics are considered desirable in that form, that culture. The posture, affect, movement dynamics, relationship to rhythm, and countless other minute things that go into dancing, become part of the body’s vocabulary. And, like anything else we put into our bodies, the essence of a dance form lingers. Whenever I see kathak performed, my body responds, the rhythmic cycle of teen taal, kathak’s 16-beat rhythm, coursing through my veins, or my brain, or wherever it is that the lived memory of dance resides.