Life is a quest

For some it takes a lifetime to know what they want to do with their lives. For some even a life time is not enough. SHAZIA KHAN reports the twists and turns in the life of, perhaps the only, Kashmiri Muslim Baratnatyam dancer.

Muhammad Shafi Mir.

In his childhood, listening to music was discouraged in his home. But he developed an interest for music and dance. He kept it a secret.

Muhammad Shafi Mir’s only interaction with dance, music and theatre were the monthly school outings where the students will be taken to different stage shows. “I was studying in Mission School Nawakadal. Our teachers encouraged us to participate in extra-curricular activities that included music,” Mir says.

Born in 1934 at Nawakadal Srinagar, Mir was brought up by his grandparents. “Playing or listening to music was not allowed in our house. Although my father, a post master, who would usually be away from home, had a harmonium but I never heard him play that,” says Mir.

These certain restrictions at home stifled Mir’s love for music and dance. Mir passed matriculation in 1950 and was appointed as an employee in the government. After getting a job he continued his education passing FA (intermediate) before joining SP College Srinagar.

Mir’s suppressed love found a vent during college days. During a twenty day NCC camp at Pahalgam, where a number of students from different colleges of India had gathered to receive arms training, Mir was asked to sing at its concluding function.

“Our instructor Nasruallah Mir asked some of us to perform in the function,” he says. Mir suggested a Kashmiri song, which he had heard his father sing. His friends agreed on it.

Before they could rehearse the song the announcer called them on stage. “As we reached on stage I realized that I had memorized only two lines of that song. I thought of fleeing from the stage but the fear of the instructor made me stay,” Mir says.

As the lead singer, Mir asked his chorus to repeat whatever he sang. “The moment I finished my lines the chorus started repeating the similar words in same rhythm. Once we finished first two lines of the song suddenly some more words came in my mind but they were not the exact words of the original song,” he says.

Muhammad Shafi Mir performing classical dance in a file photo.

Mir still remembers the ‘tampered’ lyrics he sang in the Army organized NCC function. “Bagi Nishat kay guloo…Naaz karan karan waloo …Tail bal tye jeel Dal, jeel Dal tye tail bal ami apur nai tagaan… baghi nishat kay guloo… Mastaran logunas tavnas …dupnam stages peth guvaoo…baghi nishat kay …”

“Kashmiri knowing people in the audience burst into laughs. The rest enjoyed it also and thought I was singing something very romantic, that’s why there was uncontrolled giggling. We received a cash award for that song,” he says.

For him the event began the journey. Later their college organized a charity programme for Bihar flood victims. “I and one of my Pandit friends performed on a Hindi film song …our performance was highly cherished and that boosted my confidence.”

Soon after that he participated in a dance competition in the college. “A number of students participated in that competition but I won the title,” says Mir.

Later he would win many more competitions and awards. Mir bagged the best performance award in Bharatnatyam in 1988 in an all India level event. “It shocked everyone. They had never expected that somebody from North will ever win that award.”

After his performance in the college, he caught attention of several people from theatre, and cultural academy who would invite him to take part in stage and radio shows. However, his parents Mir says were ignorant about his newly discovered talent. “I never revealed anything to them,” Mir says.

In 1958 a radio stage program was organized at Sheetal Nath Temple (Habba Kadal) where he was invited to perform the ancient Hindu devotional dance. “It was much more different from what I used to do earlier.” Bharatnatyam dancer Moti Lal Keemu, taught Mir some steps of that dance and he performed before hundreds of people. “Bharatnatyam is communion of expression, melody and rhythm and put a great impression on my mind,” he says.

After that he started assisting Moti Lal Keemu on his every show. Bharatnatyam was performed by the Devadasis in ‘dasiattam’ temples. The dance mainly features Hindu mythological stories.

To gain proficiency in the dance, Mir landed in Art and Fine College established by J&K cultural academy in Goni Khan Srinagar in 1960’s. He opted for two part time courses – Baratnatyium and Drawing.

“A renowned instructor Inder Dev Saniyal from Bengal taught Bharatnatyam. As I had already learnt a lot from Keemu ji, it took me only three months to learn the dance,” he says.

During his course Mir got a leading role in a stage show –Legend of lake- a story based on Srinagar valley. “It was the first time in the history of Kashmir that a number of classical dance forms were performed in a single show. Besides that there were huge costumes with effective lighting and sound arrangements that were used first time in stage,” he informed.

Some of his famous stage shows include Vitastha, Himalaya Kay Chirag, Tipoo Sultan, Zainul Abdeen and Haseena Loluk Sharab.

It has now been five years since Mir started translating holy Quran into Hindi poetic expression. He has translated first five chapters of the holy book

Apart from classical dance Mir has also worked as “Radio Drama Voice” for several years. He also used to teach IGNOU students the history of Music and dance in Valley. Mir says, he never stuck to one thing. He also tried to learn Kathak – another classical dance form. Besides choreography, acting and singing Mir would participate in Musharias and Kawi Samelan.

Meanwhile, Mir got married and family became the priority. His tryst with dance came to an end in 1998, when he saw an eight year old girl perform on a Bollywood song. He says the girl was too young to understand what she was doing but I realized that dance can also be used for vulgarity. “Throughout my life I faced stern opposition from different quarters of society but I never realized that what I had done in my life was un-Islamic,” says Mir.

With that incident Mir’s life began a new journey. “After that (incident) I asked myself, was it dance only that I wanted to spend my life with…I talked to my wife about it and she suggested me to take a break from work.” Meanwhile Mir performed Hajj. His dance career had already stopped. After his retirement from service, as a Senior Auditor, he had more time to spend on his new found love.

It has now been five years since Mir started translating holy Quran into Hindi poetic expression. He has translated first five chapters of the holy book.

“The exact translation of the verses of holy Quran is a tough job. You have to be very careful while dealing with words. The Quran is the book of Allah and translation of its every word needs your full devotion and patience,” Says the 76-year-old, who lives in Chanapora Srinagar, now.

Besides the poetic rendition of Quranic verses, Mir has also published a religious book “Arkan e Islam”, which is about basic beliefs of Islam, and the way to offer namaz. Apart from that he has also wrote several poems praising Allah and Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Mir says, “It took me my whole life to realize what God wanted me to do and I discovered it in the later phase of my life.”

On his transformation, Mir says, “The philosophy behind learning classical form of dance was to search the creator of universe. All my performances were devoted to God but it was also a dance event that made me to stop practicing it and lead me on another journey to search the real meaning of life.”

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