Migrations and Cultural Encounters: Pakistan

February 07, 2019

The second stop on our journey “Migrations and Cultural Encounters: Nomads, Caravans, and Dancing along the Silk Road” is Pakistan. (PART 1)

History & Geography

The land of Pakistan was home to several ancient cultures and has been ruled by kingdoms and dynasties of different faiths. This long history of migrations and cultural encounters has left its mark on this ethnically and linguistically diverse country. Pakistan became an independent secular Muslim state in 1947 following the partition of India and end of British rule, which resulted in the biggest mass migration of human history. Because of the violence and disputes between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, these two countries share a troubled history, as well as many cultural similarities. Pakistan also identifies with the greater Muslim world and has cultural influences from Afghanistan and many other ethnic groups that live in the region. The country is bordered by India, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and has 650 miles of coastline along the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman.

Kathak Classical Dance

Kathak is one of seven classical Indian dances, and is the only one that incorporates both Hindu and Muslim cultural elements. “Kathakar” means “storyteller”. The art form originated with the traveling bards of North India, who would journey from village to village performing songs and dances. The kathakars would sing and dance stories about the exploits of local heros, and share information about what was going on throughout the countryside. Eventually performers were moved into the temples where they became associated with the devotional bhakti tradition, sharing love stories related to Krisna and his consort Radha, as well as other Hindu deities.

Mughal Empire (1526-1858)

With the establishment of the Mughal Empire the dance evolved into a more sophisticated and technically proficient courtly style. The Mughals were Turkic-Mongol peoples from Central Asia, and through alliances and marriages were strongly influenced by Persian culture. It was during this period that the wide turned out position common to other Indian classical dances was abandoned and more emphasis placed on poetic lyricism and turning technique. Islamic spirituality and aesthetics influenced the performing arts, literature, visual arts and architecture of this period. It has been noted that Kathak in general is a more natural form, reflective of the Muslim sensibilities and aesthetics, and not codified to the same degree as other classical Indian dances. Tawifs, who were sophisticated and cultured courtesans catering to the nobility played an instrumental role in the development of the arts during this period.

British Colonialism

When the British Raj overthrew the Mughal empire in 1858, they brought with them their puritanical Victorian attitudes towards the body and dance which led to the degradation of the art form. Dancers were labeled prostitutes and British-educated respectable Indian families no longer would allow their daughters to study and perform dance. The dance went underground and was kept alive as an oral tradition within families, experiencing a revival in the post-colonial era.

Classical Dance in Pakistan

Some Indian classical dance remained alive in the newly-formed Pakistan, and kathak in particular was embraced for it association with Muslim culture. Following civil war in the early 1970’s a fundamentalist attitude overtook the country and public performances of dance, considered anti-Islamic, was banned from 1978-1988. Artists still continued to create under such duress, but many were forced to flee in order to seek opportunities for work. The tawif dance, or mujra, tradition was further degraded as dancers who were once respected for their artistry lost status in the red light districts in Lahore and elsewhere.

Nahid Siddiqui

Nahid Siddiqui, who has received national recognition for her contribution to the arts, fled to Britain where she lived and worked for many years. Though the Pakistani government forbade her to represent Pakistan as a dance artist abroad, she traveled the world teaching and performing before returning to her homeland to support the dissemination of artistic culture to the next generation in Pakistan. Shining light on the virtues of dance and kathak in particular as aligned with Islamic values of beauty, order, and goodness, Ms. Siddiqui’s art is informed both by yogic and Sufi practices and philosophy. She has developed a systematic school of kathak in Pakistan based on her artistic and spiritual perspective, which is playing a pivotal role in uplifting the often-maligned art of dance in Pakistan.

You can learn more about the esteemed Nahid Siddiqui here:






Further reading:



Devi, Ritha. The International Encyclopedia of Dance (Kathak entry). Oxford University Press. (2005)