A decade ago if you had told Khanzada Asfandyar Khattak that he would be dancing in Peshawar every week, he would have probably laughed at you.
But as terrorism has receded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the mood has changed, cultural capital has started to return.
In the 1980s, his parents settled in Islamabad, where he studied from Beaconhouse School. After his A’ Levels, he began learning kathak from a teacher in Islamabad. After that he did a BBA and MBA from COMSATS. In 2007, he started taking serious lessons in Indian classical dance, which was generally looked down upon in society. He started learning dance from Guru Mrs Indu Mitha at Mazmoon-e-Shauq in Islamabad. Mrs Mitha has been teaching Bharatnatyam, a South Indian classical dance, for five decades.
“I was terrified from the beginning that the Taliban would come to power and would ban dance across the country,” he says. “For art, you have to have freedom of speech. Asking questions was taken as a sin. And if you were dancing, you could be killed.”
Khattak sees dance as a way to not only break a social taboo but also counter radicalization. He believes that after a long spell of extremism, there is growing realization in Pakhtun society today that force alone cannot end violence.
“I have been performing since I was a child,” he says. Now he even teaches it and his classes have boys and girls in Peshawar. “What I wanted to do was try to create something that we can call traditional Pakhtun dance [mixed with classical] to show solidarity with other parts of the region that connect with us through the love of art.”
The traditional Pakhtun ‘dance’, for lack of a better word, is called Atanr (or Attan in the Anglicised version) and if you watch Khattak perform, you can see how he mimics some of its moves and merges them with classical Indian gestures. According to Professor Dr Abseen Yousafzai, the chairman of the Pashto department at Islamia College Peshawar, “Attan dance is a legacy which not only provides physical fitness, but also gives spiritual relaxation as it releases mental stress.”
Dr. Yousafzai feels that the time is right to encourage culture and the arts as the Pakhtun have gone through a long period of intense hardship. He gave the example of Nishtar Hall where events are being held. “Our generation had seen the lows of Pakhtun cultural moral values, and now it should be corrected,” he says. “The situation is unfortunate for Pashto music, art, and shows in the aftermath of this unchecked radicalization. Art is a token of love for the people and can fill a vacuum in society.”
The progress is slow, but so far Khattak has performed at the Lok Virsa in Islamabad and at the Pakistan National Council of Arts. He doesn’t get paid for any performance and he teaches students free of cost but manages to support himself because the family has land in Kohat. It is a slow struggle to make dance acceptable but there have been small successes along the way. For example, he recently promoted dance in Swat, something which was unthinkable until a few years ago.