Under a star lit night sky, with Islamabad jammed by containers due to a dharna of religious parties on November 11, a dance recital was underway at Theatre Wallay’s farmhouse despite it all . The opening piece, Blue Jeans, is announced and Tehreema Mitha enters the dark stage and sings “Jb saey maen teri kokh sey niklee/ever since I emerged from your womb”.
Dressed in a modern top and a magenta and purple traditional bharatanatyam sari bottom, Tehreema mesmerises her audience with her perfection in classical bhartanatyam dance rhythms. Her classical/contemporary piece Blue Jeans engaged creatively via the language of dance the immigrant’s assimilation and enculturation issues in an American context, but was grounded beautifully in sounds and taals (rhythms) of her homeland Pakistan. The brilliant performer knew she would draw her audience.
Many of them, like myself, have been following her work on her annual trip to Pakistan over the two decades that she has been based in the United States, and some from her beginnings of dance in 1980s. Why wouldn’t she — with a professional dance career of nearly three decades, and over 50 choreographies!
Next, with rose petals in her hands, Tehreema sways to rhythms as her feet recite ta kitta taka dhimi ta kitta dhik toem , with her sung bol, followed by violin and tabla to perform Pushpanjali or “Offering of flowers”, a regular opening traditional item. It was pure joy for me to see Tehreema play with this otherwise traditional item. With a twinkle in her eye she engages with the audience and the piece, usually performed as a “nazrana”, presenting herself the dancer and her art as the offering instead. In both these two opening dances, we see Tehreema start with slow movements, and then get into a fast tempo, with lightening toras and tihais which are seldom seen at this pace in the first or second item.
It is now rare for serious classical dance lovers to see a solo show such as was once a common practice for senior dancers, but is no longer attempted even by maestro Nahid Siddiqui. In each show, I have watched in awe and inspiration her passion and professionalism in her traditional repertoire, continuing curiosity over her contemporary pieces and falling in love with her classical-contemporary work. Tehreema treats her audience to all three styles, even in a solo show.
Though many across the border may have competing technical expertise in bharatanatyam , her endless curiosity and philosophical interpretations as conveyed through these dances are incomparable. Her stamina, energy and technical expertise in her style, are unmatched by any classical dancer in Pakistan. The audience was also in for a delightful musical treat by the country’s top violin player Ustad Raees Khan accompanied on tabla with the amazing Ustad Ajmal Khan throughout the night. “Sugoi!” “Amazing” exclaimed the Japanese lady sitting next to me and I couldn’t agree more!
After the musical treat, Tehreema emerged in a beautiful turquoise blue banarasi saree with red and gold, wrapped in classical style to pay tribute to her dance guru and mother – Bharatanatyam maestro, dance teacher and choreographer Indu Mitha – by presenting her choreography Mukh Moer Moer from the 1970s. We see here one of Indu Mitha’s main innovations in bharatanatyam, the shift of music from South Indian Carnatic classical music – tradition involved with bharatanatyam (and Hindu themes) – to Hindustani classical music, with space for Hindu and Muslim themes. Tehreema uses the platform of her mother’s trailblazing innovations, choreographing beyond the traditional understanding of bharatanatyam. In Tehreema’s dance we see the brilliant array of ideas, part legacy of her maternal philosopher’s genes, along with the persistence from her father Mitha, and a vivaciousness that is uniquely hers .
It is in her classical/contemporary renditions or “bridge dances” as Tehreema calls them, along with some contemporary ones, that for me she really blooms. Out of the three contemporary pieces that followed the interval, my particular favourite was one of her early contemporary creations, Aasar-e-ghaib. I relished the creative choreography from Tehreema’s genius mind, via an atmosphere of mystery and alien-ness in the dancer’s body movements.
The dark atmosphere and lightning is accentuated by the somewhat weird, extraordinary and ghostly tones of the Shahnai, as the thunder and calls of the night owls heighten the mood. Tehreema doesn’t shy away from getting her audience thinking hard, whether it is commenting on fast-track lives in the Capitalist world in Face the Day, or leaving them with philosophical musing in her finale piece Ray-nu (particle in Sanskrit), a satirical and philosophical piece on a young woman indulging her vanity in privacy before a mirror till she realises that she is nothing more than a particle.
The writer has a PhD in Culture and Performance from the University of California, Los Angeles and is a senior student of Indu Mitha