Under a star-lit night sky, with Islamabad jammed by containers due to a dharna of religious parties on November 11, a dance recital was underway at Theatre Wallay’s farmhouse. The opening piece, Blue Jeans, was announced and Tehreema Mitha entered the dark stage and sang, “Jb saey maen teri kokh sey niklee – ever since I emerged from your womb”.

Dressed in a modern top and a magenta and purple bottom, Mitha mesmerised her audience with her perfection in classical Bharatanatyam dance rhythms. Her classical-contemporary piece Blue Jeans engaged creatively – via the language of dance – the immigrant’s assimilation and enculturation issues in an American context, while being grounded beautifully in the sounds and taals (rhythms) of her homeland Pakistan.

The brilliant performer knew she would draw her audience: many of them, like myself, have been following her work on her annual trip to Pakistan over the two decades that she has been based in the United States, and some have been following it from her beginning in dance in the 1980s. And why wouldn’t she, with a professional dance career of nearly three decades, and over 50 choreographies.

Photo credit: Zuhair Ali

Next, with rose petals in her hands, Mitha swayed to rhythms as her feet recited ta kitta taka dhimi ta kitta dhik toem, with her sung bol, followed by violin and tabla to perform Pushpanjali or “Offering of flowers”, a regular opening traditional item. It was pure joy for me to see Mitha play with this otherwise traditional item. With a twinkle in her eye, she engaged with the audience and the piece, usually performed as a nazrana. In both these two opening dances, we saw Mitha start with slow movements, and then get into a fast tempo, with lightening toras and tihais, which are seldom seen at this pace in the first or second item.

It is now rare for serious classical dance lovers to see a solo show, which was once a common practice among senior dancers but is no longer attempted even by maestro Nahid Siddiqui. In each show of hers, Mitha displays a passion and professionalism in her traditional repertoire, continuing curiosity about her contemporary pieces, and a love for her classical-contemporary work. She treats her audience to all three styles, even in a solo show.

Though many across the border may have equal technical expertise in Bharatanatyam, her endless curiosity and philosophical interpretations as conveyed through these dances may be incomparable. Her stamina, energy and technical expertise are unmatched by any classical dancer in Pakistan. In November, the audience was also in for a delightful musical treat from the country’s top violin player Ustad Raees Khan, accompanied on tabla by the amazing Ustad Ajmal Khan throughout the night. “Amazing,” exclaimed the Japanese lady sitting next to me and I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: Zuhair Ali

After this, Mitha emerged in a beautiful turquoise blue Banarasi saree to pay tribute to her dance guru and mother – Bharatanatyam maestro, dance teacher and choreographer Indu Mitha – by presenting her choreography Mukh Moer Moer from the 1970s. We saw here one of Indu Mitha’s main innovations in Bharatanatyam, the shift of music from South Indian Carnatic classical music – a tradition involved with Bharatanatyam (and Hindu themes) – to Hindustani classical music, with space for Hindu and Muslim themes. Mitha used the platform of her mother’s trailblazing innovations, choreographing beyond the traditional understanding of Bharatanatyam. In her dance, we saw the brilliant array of ideas (which are partly the legacy of her mother), along with the persistence from her father, and a vivaciousness that is uniquely hers.

It was in her classical-contemporary renditions, or “bridge dances” as Mitha calls them, along with some contemporary ones, that she really bloomed. Out of the three contemporary pieces that followed the interval, my particular favourite was one of her early contemporary creations, Aasar-e-ghaib. I relished the creative choreography from Mitha’s genius mind, via an atmosphere of mystery and alien-ness in the dancer’s body movements.

The dark atmosphere and lightning was accentuated by the somewhat weird, extraordinary and ghostly tones of the Shahnai, as the thunder and calls of the night owls heightened the mood. Mitha didn’t shy away from getting her audience thinking, whether it was by commenting on fast-track lives in the capitalist world in Face the Day, or by leaving them with philosophical musing in her finale piece Ray-nu (particle in Sanskrit), a satirical and philosophical piece on a young woman indulging her vanity in privacy before a mirror till she realises that she is nothing more than a particle.

The writer has a PhD in Culture and Performance from the University of California, Los Angeles and is a student of Indu Mitha

This article first appeared on Herald.