Dance Without Frontiers

Bringing Bharatnatyam to Pakistan is something octogenarian Indu Mitha has been involved for the last fifty years.

Mitha was born Indu Chatterjee to a Bengali family in 1929. Her father, Gyanesh Chandra Chatterjee, was a professor of philosophy and president of the Government College in Lahore. She was trained in the Uday Shankar style of modern dance by Zohra and Kameshwan Sehgal at the Zoresh Institute, Lahore, before partition. After partition, her family moved to Delhi from Lahore. While in Delhi, she learned Bharatanatyam from Shrimati Lalita Sastri, who was one of the earliest students of Kalakshetra.

As her life story unfolds, tradition held no bounds for her. She married Abu Bakr Mitha, an Army officer against the wishes of her family. She along with her husband was a Memon from Bombay (now Mumbai), moved back to Pakistan after partition.  Her husband set up Pakistan’s Special Services Group and rose to become a major-general but, caught in the maelstrom of 1971, was bumped out of the Army just short of his 50th year. He died in 2000. BBC writes about Mitha’s “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.”

Her daughter Tehreema Mitha is also an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer.

During Zia ul Haq’s reign in 1980s, dance was considered “haraam” – or an un-Islamic act. Many cultural pursuits were considered taboo and a “no objection certificate” needed for every performance. Mitha managed to keep the art alive in her job as the dance teacher at Lahore

Teaching a dance which originated from southern India – Bharatanatyam to Pakistanis is a great challenge indeed. Mitha takes it one step forward, when she actually composes Bharatnatyam dance songs in Urdu, not in Sanskrit, Tamil or Telugu, three languages she doesn’t speak and traditionally the three languages in which Bharatnatyam tunes are composed.

To customise Bharatnatyam to local cultural norms, she has changed the performance and style of the dance she teaches, developing her own style of the ancient dance form.

She is currently working at Mazmoon-e-Shouq in Islamabad where she conducts regular dance training and community outreach projects. Indu Mitha is also a visiting faculty member of the Department of Theatre at NCA, Rawalpindi.

Still unstoppable at 80!

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