Identity / 26.10.2011

By Urvashi Butalia Imagine a large hall in a major city in Punjab. It’s packed with people, mostly women, from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. On the stage are two men, one a long-haired bearded, hairy-chested sardar, the other a clean shaven smooth-chested younger man. They’re engaged in a languorous, erotic, sometimes passionate, sometimes tender, rendering of the story of Heer Ranjha. In the background Madan Gopal’s wonderfully resonant voice sings the story. Tragedy hangs in the air, for most of the people in the hall are familiar with this beautiful story of star- crossed lovers, and after the initial hesitation at seeing two men, they now ‘believe’ that the bearded Navtej Johar is actually Heer, and the supple Anil is Ranjha. Such is the power of their dance. We’re in Islamabad, attending a dance performance that marks the end of a day of conferencing, and of an award ceremony in the memory of a young woman, Meeto Bhasin Malik, whose untimely death remains one of the great losses of the women’s movement in India.