San Francisco, California
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh carries on the revered tradition of Kathak dance, earning accolades for her expressive dancing and historically rooted choreography. She is also a bridge-builder, using Kathak to, as she says, “help shift perspectives and perceptions of the world today—in a way that both challenges and enlightens us alongside our audiences.”
Kathak is one of the six major classical dance traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The tradition goes back to the first Kathakas, a hereditary community of professional storytellers who travelled from village to village in what is today northern India and Pakistan. Kathakas were keepers of local history and lore; they also used dance, music, and gesture to weave spellbinding accounts of the great Hindu legends of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kathak dance eventually became central to celebrations at Hindu temples, and then, during the three centuries of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), served as ceremonial entertainment in the courts of the Muslim emperors.
Growing up in a Pakistani immigrant family in Salinas, California, Farah Yasmeen Shaikh was passionate about studying dance, developing strong skills in a number of Western styles. Her opportunity to study Indian dance came in 1996, as a freshman at San Francisco State University. Farah’s parents—who were born in Bombay, India but raised in Pakistan after they were among approximately 15 million Muslims displaced by the 1947 partition—encouraged her to enroll in a course offered by legendary Kathak dance master Pandit Chitresh Das. The experience was pivotal for Farah. As she says, “I was so challenged by the rhythmic complexity [and] I loved the fact that I was learning in a very different way about my culture and Indian history.” By 1998 she was a member of Das’s professional troupe and his teaching assistant. She studied under her guruji for nearly two decades, eventually becoming a lead dancer in the Chitresh Das Dance Company, and senior instructor at his Chhandam School of Kathak.
Today she is internationally known for her evocative and eloquent presentations of traditional Kathak dance and for original choreography like The Forgotten Empress, about the Mughal Empress Noor Jahan. As a Muslim, Farah has often found herself an anomaly among Kathak artists, who are typically Hindu; she celebrates and educates about the “confluence of Hindu and Muslim, or rather Mughal, cultures” in Kathak. She is part of a growing revival of arts in Pakistan that includes diaspora artists like herself who return to teach and perform, revitalizing dance and other arts that were either suppressed or banned under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988). As a U.S.-born artist, Farah is breaking ground as a teacher of the next generation of Kathak dancers, both in the U.S. and Pakistan.
Similarly, Farah has built an ethnically and religiously diverse touring troupe—the ensemble includes Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh performers—united in their dedication to the tradition. Ben Kunin is a master of the sarod, the fretless, lute-like instrument that, along with the sitar, is one of the primary stringed instruments in the Indian classical tradition. Kunin studied for over 25 years with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri began his studies at age five under the tutelage of his father, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri; today he is the director of percussion at the Chitresh Das Institute. Violinist Raaginder Singh Momi is the son of not one, but two, classical Indian musicians; trained under Sisirkana Dhar Chowdhury, he plays a modified five-string violin that reflects his reverently experimental approach to classical instrumentation. This outstanding troupe is completed by another of Chowdhury’s students, singer Deepti Warrier. Accomplished in both Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) classical styles, her rich and subtle vocals add another layer of depth to the storytelling so compellingly presented through Farah Yasmeen Shaikh’s Kathak dance.