Real name; Zareen Sulaiman, name known to the world; Panna. Practicing the fine art of dance since the age of six, taught by the gurus, Panna had once been the epitome of the performing art. In the late 50s she made her debut on the big screen, her first appearance was in a commercial that served as a stepping stone for greater milestones. But in her prime, she left the dazzling world of stage and cinema preferring to help her director-husband with the goings-on of behind the scenes.
However, after a long hiatus Panna decided to return to her first love; dance. Three years back she opened a dance institute in Lahore and now has come to Karachi to open a similar institution. What has made her come back and why now? Will she be able to amaze us once again in this time and age?
Zareen or ‘Panna’ is probably still as beautiful as many people might remember. The outwardly appearance of age has done no harm to the confidence and ego of this talented lady. She proudly lists her most memorable achievements, such as the hour long dance she did for Ustad Allah Rakha’s (father of Zakir Hussain) tabla beats in the film Baji and also her performance in Neela Parbat on Roshan Ara’s song. She has also received awards from different organizations. Along with dance, she also acted in many films and even appeared in an Italian movie. She travelled the world and represented Pakistan in every nation she visited.
“I was the first one to represent Pakistan in Thailand. The Queen invited me for a performance in the Palace through the Rotary”, she says as a matter of simple fact.
Watching her speak of the past it seems tragic that a woman with a fan following of royal leaders and heads of states now has only the memories to hold on to. But judging by her demeanour, Panna still knows that she hasn’t lost her touch. Even after she ended her career in films, she kept helping out as a dress designer and doing interiors.
But the one talent she nurtured was her ability to write. She narrates stories about her worldwide travels and to date, her work is published in various papers. Her focus has also shifted towards worthy causes that aim to help out unfortunate children. She has worked for Shaukat Khanum Cancer hospital, helping with gifts and choreographed a tableau for the children.
“I try to give as much time as I can to social work. I feel good that I can do something in any small way,” says Panna.
In the few years since her return, Panna has been mostly working on promoting culture and heritage. She has prepared dances on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Qawwalis. She wishes to prepare beautiful, legendary dances on the works on Hazrat Amir Khusro and Bullay Shah.
“I want my work to become an identity of our heritage, not something short lived that everyone copies and then forgets about.”
For Panna all types of dances are important. She feels very strongly about folk dance and says bhangra, Sindhi thumar, Baluchi dances, need to be promoted and brought to people’s attention. In Lahore she prepared a ballet depicting the famous dancing girl of Mohenjodaro. She has come a long way from where she started, now her dream is to open a dance institute in Karachi that is not restricted to a certain faculty.
“It’s not just for learning dance. This includes grooming, singing, the way to talk and walk, because dance doesn’t just teach you how to move with music, it teaches you how to carry yourself in daily life. Why do you think people say that dancers have grace? It becomes a way of life,” explains Panna, her eyes revealing the true intensity of the statement.
Panna knows that times have changed. She also knows that one needs to change as well in order to keep up with the world. She also understands the needs of the young generation, the ones she wants to take under her wing and train.
“Being old doesn’t mean grey hair and a walking stick. To me it means more experience and an ability to adapt to changes”, smiles Panna.
A big fan of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Panna refers to many famous verses in normal conversation, that fit the mood and situation. That’s why her performances are inspired by the works of great poets. She wants to keep promoting them and she will soon be bringing such a performance to Karachi in the near future.
“I’m returning to Karachi after 30 years and didn’t know how people would react. But I’ve been so well received that it was beyond my expectation.”
She relates the recent classy affair she attended at the Beg’s household that had the likes of media and showbiz personalities where everyone was overwhelmed to meet Panna and encouraged her return and cause. She plans to open her institute by August and would like the support of people to help her along. Her only desire is to be able to transfer the art form to the next generation and to be able to stand on her own feet to earn a living.
“If you see someone smile all the time it doesn’t mean they are happy from inside, but one can’t show their feelings to the world,” says Panna with the overtones of sadness. It seems that there is more than what meets the eye, a sombre side of a woman.
“As long as I have my work and the respect of people I thank God for everything he’s given me. The hard times have just made me stronger”, says Panna with a big smile.