Tehreema Mitha Dance Company, a South Asian dance ensemble, performed at Carleton College last Thursday in the Weitz Center. Although classically trained, Mitha performs contemporary pieces as well as the classical.
Her work has become extremely controversial in Pakistan, a largely Muslim country, because she performs in the Bharantanatyam Style, which is rooted in Hinduism. She has challenged the traditional style by using the dance to explore secular themes instead of Hindu mythology.
Mitha came to Carleton thanks to Assistant Professor of History Amna Khalid, who wanted Mitha to help solidify themes in her History of Modern South Asia course.
“Bringing in a female Pakistani dancer was perfect,” Khalid said. “Her work speaks to so many themes we are covering in this course: construction of national identity, issues of gender, life under martial law, and reinventing the self in the Diaspora. I wanted my students to meet someone and begin to appreciate what South Asia is.”
Khalid decided to collaborate with Assistant Professor of Religion Kristin Bloomer’s Sacred Body course, since Bloomer was keen to explore similar issues in her class.
According to Khalid, over the course of Mitha’s visit both classes began to understand “why the idea of nationality is so political, and at the same time question the divide between what is Pakistan and what is India.”
“Her work revealed the superficial and arbitrary nature of national boundaries in the south Asian context,” Khalid said.
Students of the two classes had the opportunity to attend two documentary film screenings about Mitha, a dance master class led by Mitha, the Ensemble performance and a question and answer session. Khalid’s class also conducted short film interviews with Mitha.
Khalid’s interest in Mitha developed long ago, when she wanted to dance as a child. There was a social stigma attached to dancing in Pakistan, and it was difficult to find a teacher, but Khalid took lessons from Mitha for four years and later studied with Mitha’s mother when she returned to Pakistan as an adult to complete her doctorate.
Part of her interest in this dance form “stems from the complete shunning of dance in Pakistan because it is labeled Indian and Hindu,” Khalid said. “That never sat right with me, and informed my interest in exploring it further.”
Swathi Varanasi ’14 was also able to understand the innovative and provocative nature of Mitha’s work. Varanasi is a professional Indian classical dancer in the Kuchipudi style, training for 12 years, five of which were in the style presented at the dance performance.
“I was particularly surprised that even in the modern pieces, although their costumes were more contemporary (for example, the pajamas in the last dance), they kept their traditional expressions and bells on their feet,” Varanasi said. “I could tell that the director, Mitha, put a lot of time and effort into crafting each of the pieces.”
Varanasi said that recent interest in learning Indian dance has shifted from classical style to Bollywood style, and she is “very pleased that there are still dance companies preserving the art form and adding their own interpretations.”
Anna Jarman ’14 also attended the dance performance.
“I really liked the bright and colorful costumes and beautiful flowers that they scattered during the first dance,” Jarman said. “The flowers really transported you by turning the stage lush and vibrant.”
The dance performance provided students with hands-on exposure to an aspect of South Asian culture of which many are ignorant. Rafadi Hakim ‘13, Peter Joy ‘15 and Bibek Babu Pokharel ‘15 even had the chance to perform alongside Mitha and her company in one of the dances, gaining insight into the discipline and rigor of a dance company.
Events such as Mitha’s visit are crucial for sustaining the ideals of a Carleton education. “I believe a vital part of the liberal arts is learning about and appreciating other cultures,” Jarman said. “It is important for Carleton to provide its students opportunities to experience new forms of expression.”