Nobody needs an elaborate rhetoric to introduce the Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer Shamim Ara Nipa. The iconic status of this modern-day dance exponent has already been established. She has won the hearts of people over the span of her career that began in the late 1970s when she was only a teenager. With a history of elegant dance performances in the country and abroad for more than forty years, her place in the mantel of the accomplished dancers has been cemented long ago.
Her contributions to the field of dance, including in both classical and folk genres, have made her one of the top dancers in the country. In many occasions, be that an opening a gala event related to sports tournament, international summit hosted by the country or entertaining local and foreign cultural enthusiasts, Nipa embodies Bangladesh’s cultural achievement with her every dancing step and motion.
Her dedication secured her a place among both cognoscenti and the masses. The artiste has been honoured by many prestigious awards including the Ekushey Padak in 2017.
Alongside continuing her passion for dance performance and choreography, Nipa and her fellow dancer Shibli Mohammad run a dance institute they lovingly named Nrityanchal. The platform is regarded as one of the prominent dance training centres in the country. In a conversation with New Age on Wednesday, Nipa bared her mind saying that she had always desired Nrityanchal graduates to be both creative dancers and good human beings.
Nipa’s concept of a good person developed over the years. She was initially inspired by none other than her father MA Kuddus, a physician by profession.
Kuddus was a former medical practitioner of Dhaka’s Mitford Hospital (now, Sir Salimullah Medical College and Hospital) during the Pakistani period. He left his job and returned to his ancestral town Kishoreganj to serve the fellow people as per his grandfather Elem Sarker’s wish.
Kuddus, Nipa’s source of inspiration, ran an export-import business of medicine, besides providing private medical services. Neighbours and even distant villagers admired him as a philanthropist as he did not charge medical fees as well as cost of medicine from the insolvent patients.
Indifferent to public exposure, Kuddus patronised many philanthropic activities including development of public health and education in his area. Nipa said, ‘My father was an introvert. His admirers later let us informed about his social contributions.’
‘Till the very end of my father’s life, during the late 80s when he was suffering from cancer and receiving treatment in Dhaka, he wished to count his last days surrounded by family and friends in Kishoreganj,’ Nipa recalled her homesick father’s plea.
Nipa’s mother Rahila Akhter inherited one Zamindari legacy of Kishoreganj’s Tarail, endorsing cultural programmes for the greater good of the community.
‘I was fortunate to born into a culture-enthusiast family that patronised many cultural shows while participating in the traditional music events and Jatra Pala. Hal Khata was an annual festivity when all the family members used to celebrate wearing new cloths and taste traditional dishes,’ Nipa recalled.
Nipa and her other 13 siblings were encouraged to learn singing, dancing and playing musical instruments like behala, sitar and tabla since childhood. The then Kishoreganj society had two extreme forms of norm — conservative and liberal.
She recalled, ‘As the communication was good with the Bangladesh-East India localities, who inhabited the border areas, many cultural maestros regularly visited Kishoreganj, turning the town into a cultural hub. At the same time, there were extremely conservative people. When my sisters and I were growing up, the conservatives often advised my father to stop our dance tutorials. Although my father was a practicing Muslim, he paid no heed to them.’
Nipa trained-up under a Dhaka-based dancer Nikunja Bihari Pal who paid monthly visit to Kishoreganj. Kamal Sarker and Sushanta Saha were among the senior disciples of Nikunja who supervised Nipa’s everyday dance tutorials.
She grew up at a time when ‘all the Kishoreganj-based cultural personalities felt a strong bond among themselves and were like members of a single family.’
‘We used to have joyous travel in a packed rail compartment when we set out to visit Dhaka for cultural competitions. The Kishoreganj-based performers dominated among the award winners,’ Nipa recalled.
In 1977, Nipa was selected for a government-funded foreign cultural tour to Myanmar. Afroza Kamal, Sharifa Zahan, Rathindranath Roy and Shifat E Rabbani were among the performers. At her teenage, the opportunity to represent the country was simply seemed overwhelming to Nipa.
Her performance was highly appreciated by the foreign audience and fellow participants. Two years later, when she was to start her student life at the Institute of Fine Arts (now, Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University), she was called to join at the Performing Arts Academy funded by the Cultural Ministry. The academy recruited a group of young dancers, singers and musicians to groom them with rigorous forms of training.
‘I had to leave fine art to maintain busy schedule of Performing Arts Academy, PAA in short. Every month was hectic — there were more than one foreign trip for cultural shows. Under the guidance of the famous artist Mustafa Monowar and dance teacher GA Mannan, we had to regularly practice, dress rehearsals as well as studying local and international artists’ works,’ Nipa remembered.
She feels indebted to Mustafa, who is to her ‘Montu mama’. She said, ‘I am fortunate to work under Mustafa’s guidance — it is like a complete package that ensured my growth as a professional dancer.
This is very interesting that Mustafa, being a visual artist, had played a significant role as a mentor of performing artists. He could visualise the stage as an elaborate canvas on which to perform. He designed performers’ costumes, stage, set lightings and even chalked out performers’ roles. He made me optimistic to take up dancing as a profession.’
‘At that time, dancing as a profession hardly addressed one’s solvency issues. So, sustenance was a major challenge. But Montu mama used to motivate me saying that if my love and commitment for dance is true, I will overcome all the difficulties by continuing with this profession,’ Nipa dwelt on her mentor’s contribution.
There were some other offers including from the world of modelling and in the movies, but Nipa resolutely kept those enticement at bay. She kept herself focused only on dancing.
‘Once I received an offer for a private show abroad. I went to Montu mama for his consent. He was then designing a dance costume especially for me for an upcoming show. Honouring his plan, eventually I decided to reject the offer. Still I feel proud of following his guidance as he helped me grow without ever getting off the track,’ she observed.
Nipa, under the direction of Mustafa, worked as a lead choreographer of cultural programmes in many mega events like South Asian Games in 1985, 1993 and 2010.
‘Designing choreographs for such mega events with hundreds of schoolchildren and young dancers participating was very challenging indeed. We used to work for day in and day out for a one off show. People would appreciate the final performance. But very few of them knew about the highs and lows of the entire journey,’ Nipa observed.
Among many international shows, performance at the Nobel Concert in Oslo, Norway in 2006 was memorable to Nipa. She led a 12-member troupe in that show attended by internationally acclaimed artistes.
She often feels frustrated that very few of the mega events were archived. She feels the urge to preserve visual documentation of the shows especially those were done under the art direction of Mustafa. Due to lack of fund, she could not materialise her plan.
During general Ziaur Rahman’s military rule, dance maestro Bulbul Chowdhury’s wife Afroza Chowdhury was flown to Dhaka from London to archive Bulbul’s dance work. Coincidentally, Afroza cast me in the lead role for Bulbul’s dance drama Hafizer Swapna, which was a favourite of my mother. Afroza could work for only six months since she had to leave the country when Ziaur was assassinated. The project was abandoned halfway.’
Establishing Nrityanchal, the dance institute, was like a dream for Nipa. Preserving traditional dance styles are its main concern. ‘Members of the institute are not only inspired to focus on dance performances, they are also motivated to work on building a total artistic personality with moral values as a core interest,’ she said.
Classifying Bangladeshi dance style is a challenging job at present, Nipa feels.
‘We do not know from history when and how Bangladeshi dance can be defined. If geographical boundary is to be taken as our guide, there arises the problem of determining the time-frame. Whether our mapping of heritage should begin from Pakistan era, or since the independence of Bangladesh, is an issue that needs to be resolved. Since historically Bangladesh had its own regional dance styles, that can serve as our own identity. If we consider the time when we were part of the Indian subcontinent, especially during the British regime, we can identify a number of dance styles which are all Indian. Hence, more research is the prerequisite if we are to determine an exclusive Bangladeshi dance style,’ Nipa concluded.
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