A passionate girl who witnessed her share of turmoil and childhood trauma, Nighat Chaudhry didn’t know how dancing would transform her life for the better. The young ballet enthusiast who soon enough wished to adapt the classical dance forms of her own culture, moved to Pakistan from London when she was 17 years of age. With her impressive education, exceptional skills in expressing dance in its true aesthetic sense, Nighat has become the epitome of change- shifting rigid mindsets, allowing Kathak and other dance forms to be embraced as a true classic form while paving the way for educational institutions to realize its potential and power. Speaking to Social Diary magazine, the Sufi & Mystique Kathak classical dancer reflected on her journey so far and what more she yearns to attain.
SD: What was it about dancing or specifically ballet that had garnered your interest?
Nighat: I went into ballet when I was around 5 years old. I grew up in London and that place provided me with an atmosphere to embrace learning arts. I naturally gravitated toward it as it made me feel free. I had a challenging childhood and dance made me forget all the problems at home.
SD: And how did the interest transition towards Kathak?
Nighat: When I was 9 years old, I was asked in one of my dance classes to write a paper on the dance styles of my country. I started doing my research and interestingly discovered there were only a few books on folk dances in Pakistan while our neighboring country ‘India’ had a plethora of written work on various dance styles. There was nothing solid or concrete in classical dances in Pakistan. Soon after, I took on Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan when I was 12 years old. However, I didn’t really feel close to it as the country and language was different. Urdu always had a strong prominence in my household and I knew I was missing that connection. Things changed when one day I saw Nahid Siddiqui’s poster; I was mesmerized by her. I went to see her perform and was bowled over. I began attending her classes and that is what connected me to my roots.
SD: Looking back, what is that one thing you learned from Nahid Siddiqui which holds significance for you when you prepare to perform every single time?
Nighat: The most amazing thing about her was her consistent practice. She truly worked on her art form including her presentation and emphasis on her costume. Her finesse and the way she presented herself on stage were truly magical. That is what I kept going in my performance, emphasizing my own form on stage. Elegance and professionalism are the values I embraced from her.
SD: Was there any critique from your family when you suggested kathak as your true calling?
Nighat: As long as I was in London, everything was okay. The actual problem started when I decided to come to Pakistan. See in the beginning my family probably didn’t realize how serious I was and thought it was a hobby. When I was around 17-18 years, I decided to move to Pakistan and there was a whole clash down where I had to meet major scrutiny from the family relatives in Pakistan who mocked how “A Chaudhry’s daughter will do raks ( dance)?” While my grandmother was much more supportive as she was exposed to music and dance, my uncles were completely against it. I ended up leaving my home when I was 19 and began living with friends in Lahore. There was a definite critique and disowning from the family. But I knew what I wanted and was headstrong in attaining it. Eventually, they all came around when they saw the level I had come to and how I had created a respectable name for myself.
SD: What kind of mindset and challenges did you have to face when you moved to Pakistan to officially pursue Kathak?
Nighat: While in London people wouldn’t bother with the perception others had of you; Pakistan’s society however had a rigid mindset on how this was a sin. There were girls from respectable and elite households who would learn Kathak but wouldn’t dare perform. It was plainly rejected because many associated it with the dance you see in films or something coming from Lahore’s infamous Red Light area. But that is what I have been advocating and projecting that Kathak is a classical dance which is an art form where we cover ourselves and it is not vulgarized in any way.
SD: Is it safe to say your parents’ divorce played a role in how you brought your distinctive style of performance?
Nighat- Definitely. I was a sensitive child and would get affected by various concerns. My parents broke up and the emotional upheaval came about when I was 8 years old. I recall a period of instability, living with both parents, and having social services visiting as I had to endure trauma as well, as my father was abusive. But I channeled all of that through my dance. I have always been a deep performer in that sense where I wish to highlight social themes with my talent.
SD: Do your performances bring forth a spiritual awakening?
Nighat- Oh yes. That is one of the most powerful aspects of my being right now. I was always a spiritual kid and I gravitated toward spiritually evolving myself. From Reiki healing, which helped the phases of abandonment and trauma to getting deeply rooted in Sufism and implementing its concepts into my dance form, all these spiritual connections had a great influence in my life.
SD: Do you feel Pakistan has come a long way when it comes to embracing kathak as a classical art form?
Nighat: Interestingly at the time when I came here, there was a stronger hold of Kathak in its true form. However, we can see how the influx of social media has led to a preference for something more glamorous with a hint of Bollywood added into the mix. But the urgency to learn it is still strong. Many are realizing that you don’t need to learn it only if you wish to become a performer. It has so many amazing effects on you, allowing you to grow, evolve and connect with your inner self.
SD: Looking back at your amazing plethora of performances highlighting your career, which remains your absolute memorable performance to date and why?
Nighat: When the World Cup happened in 1996, I did Anarkali at the Lahore Fort. It was a contemporary version using modern Kathak and folk storytelling, directed by Rana Sheikh. What an epic night with me signing over 500 autographs.
SD: How was the experience working on ‘Kathak Union’ with Wahab Shah and Waqaar Samraat?
Nighat: Kathak Union was a collaboration that aimed to preserve the legacy of the Samraat Gharana of Kathak. It began when I got into a brainstorming session with Waqaar and we talked about how we need to bring more awareness through aesthetic videos. It was a commitment as we all dedicated 3 months to making it happen. The dance was challenging as it was old-school, more so relating to the Lucknow and Jaipur Gharana of Kathak. Yet it was a wonderful experience where the three of us made sure everything was presented in perfection. Wahab was great with the costumes, the jewelry selection, and even the way my hair was styled. The success of this project has led us to want to take on more such tributes to the majestic gurus of Pakistan and India.
SD: Why do you think the Kathak heritage needs to be highlighted now more than ever?
Nighat: It has to be otherwise we will lose it forever. We are trying to revive our country and its people to its Kathak legacy and dance legacy. I am committed to the Nighat Chaudhry Foundation which is all about documenting, preserving, and archiving the folk dances of Pakistan including the classic dances of the various provinces.
SD: One thing you feel has been done right to make Kathak a gift of expression in Pakistan?
Nighat: I think the biggest thing that happened is the educational nudge it has attained where some of the schools have inculcated Kathak as an art form and some universities have introduced it as a course in undergraduate programs. It’s becoming institutionalized and that is a major achievement.
SD: Any other interesting projects/shows we can look forward to from you in 2023?
Nighat: There is plenty happening. I will officially be launching my YouTube channel ‘Dance Pakistan’ consisting of tutorials and documentaries with Kathak gurus, other dance gurus, and folk dancers. It will be a diverse channel that has something for everyone who enjoy dance as an invigorating sensation. I am also working on a coffee table book and will be collaborating with female dance artists of various genres for some poignant performances.
SD: What kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind?
Nighat: My efforts to institutionalize dance is my legacy. I wished to put the roots back into Pakistan and adapt the aesthetic sense of Kathak and dancing into the theory and educational aspects. Dance is a way of evolving. It is a way to become free where you are able to channel its power and energy to overcome stress and other irregularities in life. It is for all who wish to realize its power.