Tete a tete with Meher Malik
Interviewed by Divyanshi Chugh
Belly dance may be a new dance form to India but it is slowly and surely picking up in cities like Goa, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai, and we can thank one person for it, Meher Malik. She is the foremost exponent of this traditional Egyptian art form in India having spent more than 15 years learning, training, mastering and now teaching and evolving the same through her ‘Banjara School of Dance’, a first of its kind in Delhi. Known for her strong performances, Meher mixes Egyptian belly dancing with Bollywood moves and songs to whip up a heady concoction. She has managed to carve a niche for herself in a relatively short time. Meher has received huge recognition after her appearances on India’s Got Talent 1 and the Hrithik Roshan judged Just Dance.
1. Talk us through the challenges that you had endure, before you reached where you have? How difficult or easy was it?
I lived in the Middle East for 17 years. Let alone countries like India, Belly dance, a dance form that has taken birth in Egypt, is banned even in many middle eastern countries. In the Belly dance world, I am not the only woman struggling to establish it as a professional dance form! Even Egyptian artists do so, every single day. At one point in time in history supposedly, girls from good families didn’t learn Kathak but today it has found a standing in the classical world. Belly dance went through a similar progression. As it often happens, an image tends to stay with people. It is somehow easier to stay ignorant. I believe it’s easier than searching for the truth, which can be very tedious. Not everyone has it in them. Of course the biggest challenge is convincing people that I’m an artist and that’s where it ends. I admit belly dance is sensual. So is a sari. So is the bindi. So is the kajal. The whole female form is. And it’s best that way. We have to be sensual to make up for the crudeness that men exhibit. It’s nature’s way of balancing things out.
I’ve had people ask me “toh aap humein package mein aur kya de sakte hai?”
I’ve made enemies and lost work because of my stern attitude. But because I have proven to be worthy of appreciation solely through my work, the situation is slightly different today.
Now people say “Humein woh Russian dancers nahin chahiye, we want a real artist”
India is changing. And in the 6 years I’ve been here, it’s growing and developing every passing day.
We’re in on this together.
2. Tell us something about the traditional Belly Dance? How different is it from the other dance styles?
Since Belly dance is as old as the Egyptian civilization, there isn’t adequate theoretical information about the real origin of the dance form. But theorists believe belly dance has its roots in India (Rajasthan) that it originated in among the gypsy community who travelled through the Silk Route.
We can say this because when the ‘ghawazee’ or the first belly dancers were described, they were believed to have different features compared to the Egyptians and the Egyptians also quoted them as being people of the east.
Belly dance has the ability to put together all the elements. There is fluid soft motion like the water, there is aggressive muscular movement like fire and there’s an earthy base to it too! It has it all. I don’t believe a lot of dance forms have all these elements together. Traditional belly dance retains its cultural aspect as compared to many other dancing styles today. It has the ability to empower like no other dance can.
I’ve experimented with various styles before belly dance and have found true solace only here.
3. How did the idea of the ‘Banjara School of Dance’ come about? Was coming to India, something that was planned or was it a Coincidence?
India was planned for sure. I came to India only because I wanted to study in NIFT. I wanted to be a fashion designer for 7 years of my life but dropped out in 3 months of being there. I hated the experience completely. It wasn’t anything I thought it would be. Dancing on the other hand was not planned at all. It was a decision of the universe to put belly dance in my hands or let’s say belly.
I was a salsa student at Salsa India when they said they were looking for a belly dance Instructor. I had never taught before but I had been belly dancing and told them I could try. And to my disbelief, they actually liked it. I started my own class there. A year after being there I realized a school was required that just promoted belly dance like it was promoted all over the world.
There’s been no looking back ever since.
4. Why choose the name “Banjara”?
On the surface level, because it’s said to have its roots in the ‘banjara’ community of Rajasthan. On a deeper level, I believe that all artists deep down are lost souls, always searching for something more to satiate the sense. They are all travellers, seekers and gypsies.
‘Banjara’ just seemed perfect the day I thought of it.
5. Are there plans of expanding with the school? What are your Future Plans?
The idea of course is to expand throughout the country. When it comes to goal setting Shiamak is definitely my inspiration. I want belly dance to be as big in the country as he has made Indo jazz and Bollywood. In another 10 years, I think ‘Banjara’ will atleast be operational in all the metro cities. My personal goal is to also become a name on the international Belly dance circuit, which is happening for me right now, and travel the whole world to teach and perform.
6. India’s got Talent and now Just Dance, how was the experience? Has life changed post these shows?
Of course life has changed. After IGT people started believing in the fact that an Indian can belly dance too as compared to the ‘Stone Age’ thought, that only skimpy clad Russian dancers could. It obviously influenced the number of students enrolling in and the number of shows I did.
After ‘Just Dance’ life has completely changed. People actually ask me “how does it feel to be a celebrity now?”I’m no celebrity. True celebrities are those who spend years mastering one particular art form and keep going. Just because I was lucky enough to get media exposure doesn’t mean I’m a celebrity. I have a long way to go. As flattering as it is I don’t take adulation too seriously. I’m just glad that belly dance has found a space in India and people are slowly opening their arms, hearts, minds and of course their bellies to it.
We’re on a beautiful road. Belly dance has a wonderful future in this country.
7. Has the journey till here been satisfying? Is there something you wish you had not done/done differently?
I don’t regret anything. I don’t believe everything happens for the good but everything definitely happens for a reason. My decisions have brought me here today and I don’t think I would have had it any other way. It has been truly satisfying for the body, mind and soul and every day, I know there’s so much more that’s coming my way. The sun, the trees and the breeze, all say this to me.
8. Tell us about an incident that’s had a profound influence in your life.
I’m a very observational person and sometimes I take away more from a small incident as compared to a profound one. My learning is not marked by incidents. It’s marked by everyday. No experience is big or small. Good or bad. Beautiful or ugly. It’s all unique.
9. A word for all your fans, dancers and those who aspire to become belly dancers. Any words of caution and advice that you would like to give them.
I would only say, first train your mind. Figure out if you truly believe in it without any prejudice or bias. Because till you don’t have true knowledge, the mind can never be truly fair.
Study with a good teacher, who isn’t afraid of sharing his/her knowledge with you. And if you find “that“one guru, believe in them. You’ll have to try a few till you find the one you connect to. But when you find them, give them your all. Live healthy and respect your body. I don’t drink or smoke. I feed my body well and it serves me well. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own. Don’t neglect injuries. Dancers can be very egoistic. We sometime believe we’re invincible. Reality check – we’re not! Truly speaking we’re at more danger than people do other jobs. The last thing you want as a dancer is a broken back.