Taking the lead

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There are different kinds of storytellers — some prefer to express themselves vocally, by song while others prefer to communicate via the written word. Omar Rahim, on the other hand, chooses to express himself via a medium that isn’t literal in its context and known for the sheer amount of discipline and hard work needed to master it: dance.

Upon meeting Omar the connection between him as a dancer makes sense — motion is deeply entrenched in his being and he tends to carry himself with a pronounced but controlled agility and gracefulness that tends to separate him, although not very starkly, from the rest of the crowd.

His interest in this study of art began at an early age when he was encouraged into gymnastics, discovering that he had an innate love for movement. Joining the Student Television Arts Company (STAC) during high school, Omar received training in music, drama and dance among other things while also being exposed to music, dance and Broadway productions in New York City. He then pursued his interest in dance in college, enrolling in a programme titled College of Letters (CoL) that incorporated the study of history, literature and philosophy. He also went on to attain a scholarship to study ballet and subsequently went on to join Susan Marshall and Company (SM&Co) and worked with them for three years, retiring from the company in 2000 — also the same year that Susan Marshall was given the MacArthur Fellowship (the Genius Grant) for her contribution to the field.

What is interesting to note is that Omar also performed a cameo in the Hollywood film, The Guru, where he made an appearance as the Indian prince opposite Heather Graham and also assisted Mary Ann Kellog in choreographing some of the dance sequences.

“I was a pretty good student, so I didn’t compromise on my studies,” says Omar when confronted with the question about his parents allowing him to study a field not considered as the approved norm, “in college the compromise that was made was my major was CoL which was my declared major and my additional, undeclared major was dance.”

What is interesting to note is that his thesis was based on the works of Chandralekha — an controversial Indian dancer who combined the disciplines of Bharatnatyam, Kalarippayyat and Yoga in her choreography, and who is also known for reinterpreting classical traditions in dance and was often criticised for the inclusion of erotica in her sequences.

The fact that Omar was brought up in the US and that his field of study exposed him to western studies of dance, one can’t help but wonder why he chose to single out the works of Chandralekha as a subject to form his thesis on? “Although my major gave me terrific tools of analysis, of understanding history, contexts, how to see one thing in a different meaning. I was interested to spend all of that time and research not in the western cannon,” said Omar, going on to state that he had read about her in a magazine sometime in 1993-94 and as luck would have it, she happened to be showing her work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music around that time.

“When I saw the work I was mesmerised because I could sense that there was a depth of meaning that was very non-western. But even as a South Asian aesthetic it also had an abstraction, it had a philosophical kind of content. I found tremendous depth there, depth that I could sense but I couldn’t necessarily articulate. I then reached out to her but she was initially very skeptical because her politics were very interesting.”

Chandralekha has been deeply involved in women and human rights movements at several points in her life. “There wasn’t very much written about her so it was a challenge for me to do research,” said Omar about preparing for his thesis. “But it was great because that became the springboard for a very deep and profound friendship between Chandralekha and I. She unfortunately passed away about a year ago. I had the privilege of being able to spend time with in and out of hospitals when she was unwell.”

Whereas most writers interpreted her work as being deeply feministic, Omar is of the opinion that: “Her life can be seen as a struggle between the superficiality of decorative art, dance as decorative art, versus dance/performance/action as a political process, as a political dialogue, even within oneself.”

Hearing him talk about Chandralekha, one can’t help but wonder whether Omar attempts to consciously make a statement when choreographing a set himself? “Honestly, I don’t know how much people know how to read what I do. Because in Pakistan, I don’t think we’re a very seasoned dance nation: People are not used to watching and analysing dance. We have this notion, that I get from my grandmother often that ‘tum to mirasi ban gaye ho’. It’s sort of like you’re a low-class entertainer,” he says and then adds thoughtfully, “And I think that’s changing. But again, there isn’t that kind of respect given to dance as a text. Also as something that deserves legitimate study.”

Does he think it is because, as certain local musicians are of the opinion, that a dominant part of the local population does not understand music or art that is not literally spelt out to them? “I think that’s part of it. Among the so-called higher arts in Pakistan, I think abstraction isn’t understood. However, we have another, very fertile cultural space that embraces abstraction in a very sophisticated way. If you go to Bhit Shah and listen to the fakirs, they make the strangest most unusual sounds. There is an abstraction to this experience of sound. To me that is how seriously and how humbly people are exploring abstraction in their art. It’s also very emotional, touching and moving. But it’s not so obvious, it’s not so crass.” Pausing for a moment, he concludes, “But there is a way in which the literalness of everything else is dumbing us down.”

A part of what Omar does, other than dance, is that he’s established his own home-textile business as Soof Designs in New York and London, working in collaboration with designers such as Paul Smith and Tracy Feith. It predominantly focuses on the print and textiles that have been indigenous to Pakistan — which also explain his frequent trips to the Bhit Shah and other interior areas of the country.

“I think that to understand this culture, this land a little more deeply, one has to step out of the living room. What interested me, first of all, as an entrepreneur, was to find terrific folk heritage and artisanal tradition which is very much alive still. It’s hanging on by a thread but it’s still here in Pakistan,” he says talking about how the idea of introducing local textiles in a foreign market took place. “I could see that that kind of work is really appreciated in the states. I thought it would be worthwhile spending some time and money investigating that.”

Talking about his plans for himself, he says, “I’m at a point now when I want to invest a little more in my own performance, because I haven’t been performing for the last many years but I do want to get back into performing and get back into making work that is not perceived simply of as entertainment but is actually, in a sense, ‘textual’ dance.” Adding further he says, “Something that people would want to study, that’s content driven.”

Photography by Amean J

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