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  • Writer's pictureFarah Yasmeen Shaikh

What is in an award?

If you don’t receive an award, does that mean you didn’t work extremely hard, or that people didn’t appreciate you/it/your work? Mostly, are you proud of what YOU know YOU accomplished?

I am very grateful to be recognized by the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (Izzies) as a “Sustained Achievement Honoree”. The details of the honor I received are as follows:

“Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, Kathak dancer and choreographer, for her conception, choreography and enthralling performance of The Forgotten Empress in San Jose and San Francisco in March of 2020, which demonstrated her high artistic values, and comprehensive study of the Kathak dance, over the past 25 years, in the Bay Area.”

Though this acknowledgment is truly an honor, it got me reflecting on so much more than this singular moment.

The Forgotten Empress is a full length performance of dance, music and theater, based on the life of 17th century Mughal Empress, Noor Jahan. A true labor of love that was initiated in 2013, a work in progress performance in 2014, a full length premiere of the first iteration in 2015, and the second phase, with a new script and scenes, in 2017. Since 2014, we have shared this project 20 times, and it has toured throughout the US and even to Pakistan (including the city of Lahore where the Empress is laid to rest). We brought it back to San Francisco in 2020, with performances in San Jose and San Francisco, literally just before the lockdown and onset of the pandemic, of which I am being recognized by the Izzies.

Unlike other performances and productions, our run of this show in 2020 came to an abrupt end, and we were stripped of what usually follows a performance season. There were no exchanges with the audience in the days that followed, no opportunity to write gushy reflective posts of lessons learned or conveyance of gratitude to all involved. Even at the performances, we had an unprecedented number of refund requests as the black cloud of “corona” lurked over us, and rightly so, ticket purchasers had concerns about attending public events of this size. Some thought we were lucky to have been able to get live performances before live art went dark for over a year, but frankly, it all left me burnt out.

What I do know is that this has never been a project that could have existed on my own. From the initial inspiration of reading a novel that deeply moved me by Indu Sundaresan, to all of the artists who contributed their time, skill, knowledge, artistry through music, theater and so much more; to the amazing production team and administrative staff - it is this collective effort that made/makes this project what it is.

What I was able to execute on that stage, and to have my vision executed is a testament to the beauty of all of these collaborative relationships. (See full list of credits.)

And to my parents, Shaikhee, Aziza and my siblings… the true wind beneath my wings as this was the first project I did as an independent artist, and yet I never felt alone thanks to them.

Would any of the above be more or less meaningful without being recognized by this award? Absolutely not, and again, I am truly thankful.

Mostly, in this moment, I’m thankful to have this chance to reflect on what this project has meant to me, how it gave me the wings to fly from the nest I had known for many years, and to learn to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and keep moving forward.

I honestly don’t know what the future is for The Forgotten Empress. I’m not ready for our version of her story to be forgotten, and yet I’m also okay with letting her rest until I am ready to reawaken her again.

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