The maestro and her daughter

Indu Mitha’s 90th birthday celebration was an evening of storytelling through an interpretation of raqs

Tehreema Mifha pays tribute to her mother.Photos by Muhammad Azhar Hafeez and PNCA

Indu Mitha is the sovereign, who has championed the classical performance art of bharatanatyam as a teacher to thousands of students across Pakistan, and a supportive mother to Tehreema Mitha, who is the torchbearer of her school. With each passing decade, their contribution to the Pakistani classical art has further deepened our understanding and expanded our compassion. The 90th birthday celebrations of Indu Mitha have been a national tour of performances in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Originally from Lahore, Indu Mitha trained in the traditional dance form in Delhi and Madras. She completed her MA in philosophy from Delhi University in 1951. Her late husband, Maj Gen A.O. Mitha, celebrated her talent and encouraged her to perform, teach, and practice.

This bharatnatyam tradition has been difficult to establish in Pakistan, as many have tried to disassociate themselves from its origins. The dance form dates back 2,000 years. “The first syllable ‘bha’ stands for bhava [emotion], the second syllable ‘ra’ stands for rasa [music], and the third syllable ‘ta’ stands for ‘tala’ [rhythm], together the three constitute the essentials of bharatanatyam” (Meghala Bhat).

Tehreema Mitha meticulously curated and choreographed nine performances — six of which were classical, and three, modern interpretive dances — on March 14 in Islamabad, where patrons and veterans of the art community warmly gathered despite the national panic. Three of Indu Mitha’s senior students, Amna Mawaz, Iftikhar Masih and Khanzada Asfandyar Khattak were also part of the tribute for their guru ji present in the audience. The classical duo of Wajih Nizami and Ustad Nemat Ali Khan gave a special live performance between the dances. Their rendition of Kirwani raga was breathtaking and refreshing. The audience were swept away by the jugalbandi between the two instruments traversing the highs and lows of the complex composition.

Tehreema recited Jab se teri kokh se nikali hoon under a solo spotlight. A haunting narration describing the human condition seeking answers pertaining to love and the tribulations of life. She performed with a Manjeera (clash cymbals) and formal bol (vocalisation of musical notes to the tabla) setting the stage for the descriptive and gestural poses and body movements of bharatnatyam choreography. The melodious sound of the violin and tabla, were met with echoes of her ghungroo and the crisp ring of cymbals. Hypnotic and mystical, Tehreema’s performance took one back thousands of years.

Malkauns raga, set in teen taal, dates back to Emperor Akbar’s court. It has been handed down as an integral part of musical teaching to students learning classical music. The duet performance by Tehreema and Amna has been composed in multiple styles of manipuri, khattak and bharatnatyam to this ethereal raga. Amna began the performance with delicate and soft movements that told the story of a girl enjoying her youth. She was then joined by Tahreema who mirrored her movements in a more formalised body language, creating a conversation between their individual styles. The purely technical dance, called Alarippu, presented by Amna and Iftikhar Masih, is considered the foundation of bharatnatyam taught to every student. Alar is a flower and ippu means to descend. A layering of various tempos and body movements that start with the eyes, travel to each limb and culminate in a complex pose.

The diversity in style and technique was a central theme of the showcasing, the piece titled Aye ree maa was an emotional depiction with Tehreema as the protagonist of the story. The narrator set the scene and introduced the characters to the audience. Tehreema gently told the story through her facial expressions and directional movements, taking the audience from night to day on stage. The words to the piece formed a lament that anchored the dance into the music — a saga of joy, pain and sadness that begins to transform into hope and strength through Tahreema’s selection of formal poses. The blend of contemporary and lyrical pieces included, Raqs-e-Rooh (Dance of the Soul), Khabt Savaar Huwa (Slowly Going Mad), Raga Bhimpalasi and Raga Chandrakauns, gave the audience an immersive and highly memorable experience.

Indu Mitha’s tenacity and passion for keeping the tradition of classical dance alive in Pakistan is a testament to how one woman can change the mindset and perception of millions. Indu Mitha thanked the audiences. She said that teaching had been a force of change and progress in society. She encouraged her students to go beyond tradition and find their own paths so that dance may live forever.

Indu Mitha’s 90th birthday celebration was an evening of storytelling