In Pursuit of the Dancing Girl

While a Tehreek-i-Insaaf MPA asks for a ban on compulsory dance classes in school, how is one expected to respond to news that a Pakistani barrister, Javed Iqbal Jaffery, has petitioned the Lahore High Court seeking the return of a 5,000-year-old statue of a dancing girl? Excavated at Mohenjo-Daro, now in Pakistan, in 1926, this statue is one of the two most iconic symbols of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation, the other being that of a priest king. The barrister claims the statue was taken from Pakistan 60 years ago on the request of the National Arts Council in Delhi but never returned. However, there is another version of events that suggests the statue was taken to Delhi before Partition by Mortimer Wheeler, director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India and one of the pioneering scholars of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Perhaps not a very strong one, but Pakistan can still make a case for the return of the statue under Unesco’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Adopted in 1970, the treaty reflected the post-colonial milieu of its time where archaeological items were claimed by host countries from former colonial masters who had taken these away. The treaty, however, focuses on items transferred to another country illegally. In this case, therefore, Pakistani diplomats, who tend to be retired generals, would have to stretch their imagination and present the former British government as an illegal government and, hence, the transfer as illicit. But since the Pakistani state is a direct descendant of the colonial set-up, challenging its legitimacy would be akin to challenging its own legitimacy.

Adding to the mystery of how the dancing girl got to India in the first place, there is a story that suggests that at the time of the Simla Agreement in 1972, President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto requested the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to return the figurine to its home. Bhutto comes from Larkana district where the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro is. Tapping on Sindhi nationalism, he was conscious of the significance of the city in the history of the country.

A similar attempt was made by his grandson, Bilawal Bhutto, at the launch of his political career when he decided to organise a Sindh festival at the site of the ancient city, quite insensitively putting the archaeological site in danger as thousands flocked to it. Mohenjo-Daro was being propped up as a symbol of the ancientness of the Pakistani civilisation, an embracive civilisation in contrast to the monolithic, intolerant society the country has become.

It is stated that given a choice between the priest king and the dancing girl, Bhutto chose the former, perhaps rightly so, reflective of the cultural environment of his country. The land where once the priest king ruled is even today dictated by the priest and his kings. Women and anyone who do not fall within the definition of his piety become victim to his tyranny. How would the dancing girl survive in this environment, her very existence oozing impiety, her naked body, her bold posture, her profession, and her defiance? Let her remain where she is. There is no space for dancing in an Islamic society.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

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