I have a very vivid memory. The stupefied faces of India’s got talent’s judges in her first performance. The moment I heard belly dancing, she is the first name that popped into mind. Well, after a generic image of Arab women dancing in movies. Meher Malik’s life changed from that point on.
Meher grew up in the middle east. Belly dancing wasn’t looked at as a respectable dance form in India then, but a luxury for rich people who could afford to learn or have shows from foreign dancers. Certainly, things have changed now.
“I lived in Muscat, Oman till I was 17, after which I moved to Delhi with my parents”, she says.
Naturally, she was a part of the Arab culture for long. She grew up amongst her friends from the middle east, their traditions, and, dance. Dance, at a social gathering, a mode of celebration, is how she looked at it while growing up. Never did she think that if they were the seeds, that would make her India’s first professional belly dancer.
“When I was 14, we went on a school trip to Cairo, Egypt. We were on a Nile cruise, and a belly dancer picked me up to dance with her, and I could. I think even just as an observer of belly dance had a lasting image on my mind.”
She was intrigued by the Arabic culture but even then she had not contemplated she would choose to make a profession in dance. Meher had topped her boards in the middle east, she had secured the 5th rank in NIFT. She was on her way to becoming a fashion designer.
“I left NIFT-Delhi within 4 months, because I had realized dance was my true calling.”
“How did you come to realize it?”, I asked her. I realized she was interested in fashion designing but there was a greater pull towards dance I suppose.
She tells me how she went to London to attend the belly dance festival between a small gap after her school boards had concluded and before she started at NIFT. This is where she was jolted for her love of belly dancing.
“I met a lady by the name of Leila Haddad in London. She is a woman of substance, I must say! She is a Tunisian who lives in Paris, a very sought after name in the world of belly dancing. Attending one of her sessions, I saw the aggression, fierceness, power, mingled with grace and elegance in her performances. That was a life changing class for me.”
She tells me how after talking to Ms. Haider she saw the dance form in a new light. A lot of her knowledge about belly dance comes from her.
The attire a woman dons on while belly dancing isn’t considered respectful. Many of her student’s parents are against it, justifying by the argument that they don’t want men to look at their daughters in that clothing.
She shares an incident wherein she received a mail from someone saying – “Aap ko apne kamar par kapde pehan kar naachna chahiye”
“And what did you reply?”, I ask, amused!
“I simply replied, aapko aankh par patti bandh kar mera dance dekhna chahiye!”
During the conversation, Meher shares how they’ve also broken some gender restrictions.
“A guy came up to me as he was passionate about belly dance. His parents used to say, ‘humare gharke ladke ye sab nahi karte’ (boys in our household don’t do these kinds of acts). He was called nachaniya (dancer). When he performed and it came to limelight that a man was bellydancing, he gained acceptance and appreciation.”
Tracing back the origins of it, belly dancing was passed on from mother to their daughter. A woman’s hips are shaped to give birth, and hence are biologically different from that of men, which allows free movement. It comes more naturally to women. A man has to train harder, but it’s not impossible. Banjara School of Dance recently did a documentary called Warriors of Bellystan, to educate Indian masses about the dance form.
“India ki to baat chhod hi do,(let alone India) even in middle east, belly dance was banned for many many years. Countries like Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and other gulf countries, were narrow minded, who didn’t allow belly dance as it went against religious beliefs, unless it is of spiritual nature.”
Talking about her struggles with her students’ parents, I asked her how her parents felt when she told them that she was going to leave NIFT.
“My parents have always been enabling me to pick up a lot of things. I started Bharatanatyam at the age of seven. I am a national level swimmer. I have completed 7 grades of Piano from the British School of Music. So, goes without saying they weren’t against dance. But they didn’t think I could make something out of it. They gave me a year to prove that I could make it through.”
In 2006, she stopped taking money from her parents by teaching young kids, then a studio approached her to teach belly dance. From then on a lot of dance companies started approaching her to dance professionally. Then while she was pursuing her belly dancing studies, she met another lady from Israel.
“I met Michal Godfrey, a renowned Israeli dancer. She stepped into a class, where I was teaching salsa and told me she wanted to pass on her knowledge. She hasn’t taught anyone in India except me. I think my knowledge about the Arab culture, belly dancing, impressed her.”
I asked Meher as to which dance forms she knew and she replied with the answer that only someone who understands the effort behind learning an art form.
“I wouldn’t say know, but I can tell you which ones I have studied. Bharatnatyam, which I learnt when I was young, Kathak, and Odissi, which I am still studying. Then I really love studying Hip-Hop, popping more particularly. For some time I have also focused on Jazz and Bollywood.”
Well that was quite a list. But it doesn’t end here. Meher was an NIFT student, which also means she can paint and design. Using this skill she runs her own social initiative called Project Lifejacket.
“People can donate to recycle anything from clothes, cushion covers, bedcovers, accessories, etc.. With this initiative, we support a tailor’s family. I design and bring them work. Using these unused material, we’d make jackets,, and very recently, we have expanded to making bags as well. We then sell these to support an NGO called Tapaswini Navsadhna in Delhi.”
Meher had the talent and love for dancing. But the sole reason that she was able to move ahead, breaking stereotypes was certainly because of her hard work and training. The journey hasn’t ended. She tells me that she now wants to learn how to sing. She wants to make a difference, which is very much evident from the efforts she is putting in.
You can support her Project Lifejacket by donating clothes or money by contacting Meher at mehermalik(at)hotmail(dot)com
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