Wahab Shah on the evolution of identity through dance

Renowned dancer, choreographer and teacher Wahab Shah has teamed up with fellow choreographer Bridget Fiske in a project about self-exploring dance and what the art form means to them.

The project, aptly titled On Time: Kahanyan Dancecontains a 20-minute documentary titled Quote movement which encompasses the Kahanian dance journey. As the artists explore their deep connection to the embodied and conscious experiences of dance, Wahab and Bridget travel to Manchester and Karachi respectively. In these foreign cities, they are seen connecting with local dancers on the fringes as well as local dancers in the mainstream to learn about cultural preservation, as well as the universality that dance entails.

Sponsored by the British Arts Council, the project is launching its final season Pakistan/UK: New Perspectives which also includes two creative short films from the choreographers. Wahab’s short film, titled Ki Jaana Main Konsees eight youngsters from Thethar village, Lahore, as they perform a haunting routine on a Kalam by Sufi poet Bulleh Shah.

As Wahab spoke to The Express Grandstand in an email conversation, we got better insight into the project, Wahab’s evocative short, as well as the complexities of aspiring dancers trying to clean themselves up as drivers of today’s culture.

The routine in Wahab’s short film Ki Jaana Main Kon, based on the question of self and identity, was taught by Wahab and created from choreographic scores and materials generated by the travels and exchanges between Wahab and Bridget. Wahab outlines his process behind selecting Bulleh Shah Kalam and telling stories through dance, saying “It goes without saying that Baba Bulleh Shah asks this question, everyone asks the same question, and after 100 years today, even I am asking the same question. These kids I worked with Ki Jaana Main Kon, also ask the same question. So the tribute of storytelling through dance was a very natural process. It was all questions and answers. On the contrary, there was no answer, only a question.

Asked about the contribution of dance to the development of self, identity and community in a unique way, Wahab said, “So when we are born with a unique identity, we have a unique retina in our eye, we have a unique fingerprint, we have unique hair follicles, we have a unique voice box that we speak with and to top it off, when we are born we are all given a unique name to identify with. So inherently we are all born into this world as unique beings. And then, as we grow, we’re meant to adhere to the generic construct of society, and within those boxes of society, we also have to find our own unique way to contribute.

He continues, “What the dancer is doing is a dancer is actually looking at the universe and looking at the world they exist in and picking up a point as a unique way of explaining that concept to the world. And I think it’s only the unique identity that the dancer is born with and the idea that they have had that is important for the evolution of the human, or the evolution of the arts, or the evolution spirit. Because everything we live in and everything we live in today was thought up by a unique person in a unique way and now it’s part of our life, and we use it in a daily context.

During her years of choreographing for the local and global stage, Wahab addressed her historical perspective on the dance community in Pakistan, saying, “I think the dance community in Pakistan is misunderstood because of various factors. I may be completely off the mark, maybe a little controversial, but I have to say it. I think that if we achieved physical freedom in 1947, we remained the people of the subcontinent. We were never warmongers, we were artists and dancers. So when that line was drawn, we fell into our ego and decided that we had to form our own identity. However, we never created this new identity, we simply adopted the Middle Eastern identity to detach ourselves from our Hindustani identity. We were neither here nor there.

Wahab further stresses, “I think we will never fully develop until we along this line or border recognize our existing heritage. The good, the bad, the ugly is all us and we have to embrace it. The more we embrace it, the more beautiful and individual we will appear globally. Internationally, people have no interest if a dancer in Pakistan performs a second-grade Bollywood dance, or if they watch a bad hip-hop rendition of a dancer in Pakistan who tries so hard to copy someone another. I think if we change the context of self-understanding, we can still do hip-hop. But what is our local hip-hop? What is he influenced by? What are the reasons behind this?

“The dance forms that have emerged over time, whether American or Bollywood, we have simply copied them. Instead, we need to look within ourselves and discover the beautiful things we have. By perfecting our tools and our craft, we can create work that is true to ourselves, through which we will stand out as individuals on a global scale. That’s how I feel, that on a global scale, we’re still not understood. It’s because we haven’t really understood each other yet. So it starts within the country, within the borders, within the dance community and society to first accept yourself and really work on it. And then once you start working on it, the manifestations of it will have an echo, which will be global, concluded the choreographer.

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