So what is Attan? In one word it is a dance. It is the dance of the Pashtuns, a people who according to some are the largest tribal society in the world. Since the dance in some cases also serves as a form of tribal identity (although there are exceptions), the large number of tribes and sub-tribes is reflected in the diversity in the various forms of Attans in practice.
Historically speaking, some link it to Zoroastrianism, as the dance was a way to get the early Zoroastrians in a trance-like state. Another version ascribes the Attan to Alexandar’s invasion of modern-day Afghanistan. This ties Attan to the ancient ‘Pyrrhic Dance’, a war dance that was part of military training in both Athens and Sparta. But whatever the history, presently Attan is a highly evolved as well as diversified dance form. From a source of tribal identity to an expression of joy as well as protest, the Attan is an integral part of Pashtun society.
A source of tribal identity, an expression of joy and of protest, Attan is integral to Pashtun society
It is important to mention that Attan is not indigenous to all Pashtun areas. This “Attan-less” zone includes almost all of the northern districts of Khyber -Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan i.e. Peshawar, Mardan, Charsadda, Dir, Malakand etc and also the tribal agencies of Khyber, Mohmand, and Bajaur.
A peculiar aspect of Attan these days is the rate at which it is being documented. Modern technology is to be credited for that; the proliferation of mobile cameras has made Youtube a treasure trove of attan videos. Just typing the word “Attan” in Youtube will yield thousands of videos.
This is an attempt to leverage that great resource and identify the types of Attan that are out there and to highlight variations within each type. Most of these types start very similarly to a very low beat, the steps don’t vary that much in the initial phase. However, once the music picks up in later stages, variations come out both in terms of the dance moves as well as the beat of the music.
One type of Attan seems to be popular among the Wardak, Mangal, Zadran and Niazi tribes. This type seems to be the most common in Afghanistan. The beginning pace is slow, where the dancers step backward and then forward with a clap to complete the loop. At later stages the attan goes into a series of alternate clockwise and anticlockwise full turns. The dhol (drum) used is of a smaller size, and that is the only instrument used. Usually there are two dhol players. One of the most famous singers to go with this style is Daud Hanif. A distinct feature of this type of attan is that during later stages the music stops abruptly and then restarts to launch the dancers into turns. Another very peculiar thing about this version is the presence of a leader. The person leading the pack coordinates with the drummer, the main decision is when the change is made from claps to turns, and the leader gives his command by quickly touching the ground. The drummer then changes his beat to accommodate the upcoming turns while the followers also launch into turns.
Once the music picks up, variations come out in terms of the dance moves and the beat of the music
A second type of attan is most popular amongst the southern districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the North and South Waziristan agencies. Wazir, Mehsud, Salman Khail, Marwat, Bhitani, Khattak and Miani are some of the tribes that dance this type. The basic steps are back-steps consecutively to the left and then to the right, with a forward movement that completes the loop. It is in the later part that the dance takes on various variations. A distinctive feature of this style is the head banging, for which many dancers grow long hair. The dhol used is larger and just like the first type of attan (mentioned earlier), here too, no other instrument is usually used. Similarly two dhols seem to be the norm for every performance. The most iconic singer for this type of dance was the late Kamal Mehsud. The quicker part of the dance, in the later stages, has many variations – these are collectively known as Gadawool or Laibay. Laibay are of various types, but in essence they are a series of clockwise and anticlockwise turns that are carried out in a variety of different ways.
A third type of attan is common among the Pashtuns of Northern Balochistan. Achakzai, Barech, Kakar, Jafar and Kasi are some tribes that dance this version. The basic steps are the same as that for the second type mentioned earlier, i.e. back-steps consecutively to the left and then to the right, and then a forward movement that completes the loop. In later stages the emphasis is on leaping back and forth. The leaps become longer and longer as the beat goes faster. Another version in the later stages includes quicker versions of the basic steps, accompanied by fast clapping.
A distinctive feature of this style is the waving of props such as scarves (dusmal) and shawls in the later stages of the attan. Another subtle feature that distinguishes this style is that during the slow phase the dancer accentuates each step by small hops to complement the main steps. Dhols used could be of both small and large sizes with an almost compulsory use of the surna. It is very rare to find videos of this style without the surna accompanying the dhol. The most iconic singer for this style is Mohammad Shafi.
Attans of this type have a lot of Baloch influence as well. This can be seen in the similarity of this type with the Balochi Chaap dance.
The Kakar tribe have some unique innovations within this third type of attan. This is called the Waman and is performed without music. The beginning is quite interesting as the dancers take one step forward and one backward and they complete the loop by hugging each other. The hugs are done alternatively to the left and to the right. Further there is constant chanting, which is very similar to the chanting during Balochi Humu (another folk dance).
Salman Khail, Kharoati, Nasar, Tarakai and Luni are some of the tribes that dance another version of Attan. It is very similar to the first type mentioned above, in the slow stage, where the dancers sway back and forth while slowly moving to their right. It is in the later stages that the dance breaks into variations, most of which concentrate on extremely fast 360-degree turns at the same spot. A distinctive feature of this type is that a dusmal or a shawl is tied around the waist – this makes the rest of the kameez (shirt) swell up during the turns. A peculiar feature of this style is that the dancers make ululating sounds. These sounds are made in many regions as an expression of joy but are usually done by women. Another thing about this style is that contrary to other styles, in this one the upper body turns before the lower body and the feet then follow the momentum built by the upper body. Similar to the second type of attan, head-banging is a crucial aspect of this type. Another distinctive feature about this version is that just music is seldom enough, and usually a harmonium and a singer are present. Large dhols are used and two drummers seem to be norm for this style as well. Major singers include the legend Khan Qarabaghi, Dawlat Qarabaghi, Qandai Kochi and Kher Mohammad Khandan.
Attan has suffered due to the Taliban’s opposition to music
This type is different from all the others that we have seen so far, and that is not only in terms of its steps but also in terms of its music. Zazai, Mangal and Turi tribes dance this version. The dance has some very peculiar aspects to it. If there is to be a “happiest attan” award, then this is the attan that should get it. The variations are too complicated to be put in words, but it begins with three steps in the forward direction, and then the dancers turn towards the middle and after two steps towards the center – they do a united head-banging and a clap followed again by a head-banging and a clap, during this phase the music stops and single beats from the drum accompany the head-banging and the claps. After doing two of each, the loop is complete and you hear happy shouts and the loop begins again. The variations then continue as the music picks up but those are too complicated to be put to words.
Another type is limited to the Khattak tribe and popularly known as the Khattak dance. This has been immortalised by the legendary troupes of Frontier Constabulary (FC) on TV as well as in festivals – it is great to see that the tradition is still alive in villages as well. This type is very different from the attans of the other sort: the beat is also completely different. This type has quite a few variations and they are very well documented; Shahdola, Bangra, Balballah, Qamar Balbala, Chatrali, Braghda’ona, Tamseeli Dana and Charri Dana are the names of the various variations. Qamar Balbala is the most distinctive of these as it is performed using swords as props.
The Mashwanis and Tanolis are Hindko-speaking tribes in the Hazara Division of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Their attan is also known as “Khumbar”. The music is very different from the established Attan tunes, and is very close to the typical Pashto “maidani” tunes. There are also influences of the Punjabi dances of Sami and Ludi, both in the music as well as the steps.
Effect of the Taliban
The Taliban phenomenon has had a very detrimental effect on Pashtun culture and traditions in both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. Attan is no exception and has suffered due to the Taliban’s opposition to music. However, there are videos of some members of the Taliban dancing the attan but without any music. Many jihadist nasheeds also copy famous attan tunes.
Proliferation of Attan:
Given the entertainment value of Attan, the advancement in modern means of communication especially television and internet is greatly facilitating its proliferation. As discussed, thousands of videos have been put up on Youtube alone, but the more formal sources have also had a huge impact on Attan’s introduction to non-native demographics. Pashto TV channels as well as CD channels on cable TV are introducing Attan to the Pashtuns of northern KP and northern FATA, to whom it is not native. This effect can be observed during weddings in the Peshawar valley, as groups of young boys and girls opt for doing Attan to celebrate.
As seen above the same tribes’ names appear in more than one type at times and in my opinion this could be because these dance styles are more distributed on the basis of geography than tribal identities. Tribes living in proximity have developed a similar Attan which might not be the same one danced by their kin living at a distance. More in-depth research is required to explore the different variations in Attan and their linkages with each other.
By Imran Khan
The writer was born in Peshawar and attended Quaid-e-Azam University and Harvard University. He currently lives in Islamabad. (Courtesy The Friday Times)