Kathak dancer
San Francisco, California

 Farah Yasmeen Shaikh carries on the 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 itinerant storytellers 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 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 skills in many Western styles. During her freshman year at university, Farah’s parents—who were born in India but relocated to Pakistan during the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition—encouraged her to enroll in a course offered by legendary Kathak dance master Pandit Chitresh Das. The experience was pivotal for Farah, saying, “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 Das 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 telling stories spanning Pakistani and Indian history. As a Muslim, Farah has often found herself an anomaly among Kathak artists, who are typically Hindu; she celebrates 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.

Similarly, Farah has built an ethnically and religiously diverse touring troupe united in their dedication to the tradition. She will be joined by vocalists Athena Nair and Deepti Warrier, Raaginder Singh Momi on violin and Yousef Kerai on tabla at the Lowell Folk Festival.

Artist Website: arahyasmeenshaikh.com