The Friday Times
I remember when my Urdu teacher at primary school in Karachi asked class to write an essay on what we wanted to be when we grew up. Seeing my mother, Tallat Siddiqui, as a role model, I wrote that I wanted to be an actress. She showed my essay to the entire class and told the girls not to talk to me because I wanted to be an actress. I was humiliated. The next day, my mother came in to complain to the principal and give the teacher a piece of her mind.
I remember seeing my mother as a very strong woman. When I was about seven, Ayub Khan came to power and my father, a government servant, was sentenced to jail for 10 years because he had allegedly printed material against martial law. That changed our life. I remember becoming very sober and quiet during my childhood. I think this incident had a lot to do with my dance because I could not express myself in other ways.
I remember when neighbours felt their neighbour’s problems were their own. Now people don’t know who lives next door to them. At the time that my father was imprisoned, my mother used to wear a burqa. She was educated till about 5th grade. Our neighbour was a news reader at the time, Shakeel Ahmed. He suggested that my mother, instead of going to relatives for financial help, give interviews at the Radio Station to see if she could sustain her family by her own earnings. She liked this idea and passed the station tests for singing and acting. She became a star.
When my father was released from jail after two years, I remember he was shocked to find my mother’s face on billboards. He could not adjust in the beginning and they came close to leaving each other. But he quietly appreciated my mother for not approaching anyone for support. His world changed. My mother was now the breadwinner. Her work brought us to Lahore in 1969.
I remember that within a week of coming to Lahore, everyone colour changed; our real colours came out. There was peace, the kind one sees at iftar time during Ramadan, with hardly a car on the road in Gulberg. You could see your face in the Canal. I was taken by the freshness and greenery which we had missed in Karachi. It was like coming to a very rural area. People still had values – they would give way on the road. I didn want to do my BSc, but my mother insisted, so I entered the programme for her. But I forgot everything when I met the person who was to become my guru, Maharaj. This is when I started learning kathak. Everything else became meaningless. I would go to him in the mornings and my mother would come in the evenings to collect me. I would often send her back.
One day he was very angry with his students and he told us all to leave his house. It was raining outside and he shut the door on us. All the other students left. I sat on a step outside his door. Maharaj opened the door after an hour. I was still sitting there, in the rain. “You come in,” he said. The others didn’t have the passion to take his anger. It’s the same today. People are distracted with television and fast food and short cuts. Many of these pop groups that have popped up are nothing more than noise pollution; there’s no differentiation between good and bad. We are ruled by money. People don’t have time for real and pure things because they give clutter priority. Clutter is removed by real knowledge, which humbles you. Even though he never went to school, I learnt so much from my guru. He gave me my philosophy. We were the greatest of friends.
I remember the level of professionalism at the PIA Arts Academy. It would have matched any dance ensemble in the world. I was invited there in 1973 by the director Zia Moheyuddin to perform as Heer in the ballet rendition of Heer Ranjha. With Zia Moheyuddin’s connections, we performed at places like the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and New York’s Madison Square Garden in front of 5,000 people.
I remember being asked to join Bhutto’s entourage in 1976. This was to be the first time a Pakistani prime minister was to be accompanied by cultural troupe. There were six musicians, Zia Moheyuddin and myself. We took a two month tour of Europe, North America and East Asia. Bhutto understood that the only way we could communicate an image of peace and beauty to the world was by showing the arts.
I remember my performance was delayed by 10 minutes in Sweden. A gentleman in a rain coat came up to me and apologised, “I am very sorry I am late. I didn’t get parking and my wife was ill so I had to wash the dishes.?Later I found out that he was the prime minister. We don’t get that same sort of respect from our own politicians.
I remember being banned from dancing during Gen Zia ul-Haq’s regime. I was doing a television serial on kathak at the time. The Minister of Culture said that this was the most vulgar programme and we must stop it immediately. I remember reading in the newspapers that ‘Nahid Siddiqui is ruining our younger generation.’ And as a result of Zia’s purge of pure classical dancers, we now have the baseless, rootless, vulgar dancers that he most feared. We got what we deserved.
As told to Imaduddin Ahmed