With her origin, her homeland and her choice of expression, Annjali Shah exudes an aura of exoticism. Varied yet blended, her personality rounds up an international charm.

Her grandfather, Shantilal Shah, hails from India (Gujarat). Her grandmother, Adelaïde Lanfranchi, is Italian and was a dancer with renowned Uday Shankar. Arvind Shah – her father – is naturally half-Indian and half-Italian. Clearly, love knows no boundaries, for he went on to marry Brigitte Shah, who is half-Swiss, half-Austrian. Her elder sisters: Devika (biologist doing research in cancer) and Chandrika (physiotherapist and pilates teacher) and she, herself, Annjali (dancer and kindergarten teacher) are therefore quarter Indian, quarter Italian, quarter Swiss, and a quarter Austrian. They have a fourth adopter sister Prasanna, who is Indian in origin.

Neuchâtel-born Annjali Fiona Shah has quite a few intercultural aspects to her – and not just nationality-wise.

NautankiWhile her Italian grandmother was a dancer alongside the famed Padma Vibhushan award winner, dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar; her father established himself as a scientist in the field of solar cells and in politics. Annjali’s mother blends the world of art and life sciences as a puppeteer, teacher and art therapist. She founded Theatre de la Cardamone in Auvernier, a village in the city of Neuchâtel. Needless to say, art has played a major part in Annjali’s life.

She says, “I first went to the theatre when I was 6 to watch my mother doing a puppet show. From that time, I wanted to become a clown. I did my primary school and secondary college from Neuchâtel – and then dance came along.”

Moving towards dance

Done with her basic education, she completed a pre-professional dance training at Akar, in Bern, a one-year-pre-professional ‘Formation in Dance’ course in Geneva, and contemporary dance lessons with the troupe of Marchepied (based in Lausanne).

Annjali attended JC Equilibre (the school that is now named Danse Equilibre, and Annjali teaches there today) to learn Flamenco. She recalls, “I always loved gipsies and, somehow, identified with them. I liked the charm of this dance, the warmth that the gipsies share and the colourful costumes. At JC Equilibre, I met Catherine Dethy, a dancer from Bejart Ballet and fell in love with contemporary dance forms. I danced with her in a group called EMDN (Ensemble Dance of Neuchâtel). I enjoy the freedom that you get in the contemporary dance. Back then, I also started to admire the work of Clown Dimitri, Akram Khan, James Thierrée, Carolyn Carlson, Pina Bausch.”

Photo of Annjali with Sandhya Desai When Annjali was 19, she went to Ahmedabad for six months to know more about her origins. She says, “I started to learn Kathak at the Kadamb Dance Institute owned by Kumudini Lakhia. I trained under Sandhya Desai, who always sees the positive side of any situation. The more Kathak tales I listened to, the more that little girl dreaming to become a clown seemed to be finding her destiny in Kathak. I found it so joyful to mime the mischief between Krishna and his beloved Radha. I learned the basic techniques of Kathak. My roommates, Sanjukta Sinha from Lucknow and Atsuko Maeda from Japan, made me discover dance shows in Ahmedabad. I assisted rehearsals under Kumidini Lakhia. I’m really thankful for this school. I’m always amazed how Kumidini Lakhia lets her students free to become the Kathak dancers they want to be. Then, I came back to Switzerland. I decided that I wanted to be a dancer by profession. I met my other guru Sharmila Sharma.”

Photo of Annjali with Sharmila SharmaWith gleaming eyes, she excitedly says, “I have to tell you an amazing story. I also trained at a painting academy and I wanted to paint a Kathak dancer. So, I took a picture from the internet of a Kathak dancer that I found the most beautiful; and two years later, when I was learning under Sharmila Sharma, I realised that I had actually painted Sharmila Sharma at the time – without knowing her! Since that moment, I believed that there is an energy which has continually guided me towards my destiny.”

She humbly says, “I’m very thankful to Sandhya Desai and Sharmila Sharma, who’ve guided me into Kathak for the last 11 years. In Kathak, you stay with your gurus for your whole life.”

But why Kathak?

She smiles, saying, “Kathak is like a vast ocean. You never finish learning. You keep improving. There are so many aspects in Kathak: expressions, finesse, grace, elegance, strength, rhythm, precision, body alignment, mime, storytelling, knowledge of the Hindu mythology, knowledge of the Mughal history, styles and colours in the costumes, lighting of the scene, music, choreographies, scenario of a show, etc…”

Photo of Annjali Shah

She continues, “The first Indian dance form I learned was Bharatanatyam. I tried also Kalaripayattu (martial art of Kerala). But I discovered that Kathak is the most suited for my body, soul and heart. Kathak fills my heart with happiness, peace and courage. It is my meditation. If I’m angry, I can stamp hard with my feet and empty my negative energy without hurting anybody with my words. If I’m sad, I can express a sad song and think about the lyrics and know that so many people have shared the same feelings. The best is when I’m happy or peaceful. Kathak just makes me more joyful!

Two professions

Annjali is a Kathak dancer and teacher as well as a Kindergarten teacher. “It is difficult to make a living out of only Kathak dance in Neuchâtel,” she says, “ I enjoy the creative options that Kindergarten offers. I like to teach. You discover so much about others.”

Regarding Kathak, she says, “In 2015, I created Company Nimbu, an amateur dance company with my adult students. We presented ‘Gulzaar at Theatre du Passage in Neuchâtel. It was a success. And currently, I am contemplating the finer nuances of ‘Muskaan’, a piece for schools, which combines Kathak and mime. I’m also working on ‘Nautanki’, a piece on freedom with my young students in Danse Equilibre.”

Photo of Gulzaar at Theatre du Passage in Neuchâtel

Supporting her in her endeavours is her husband from Ahmedabad, Shashin Garach, who is a yoga teacher and a businessman. “To grow together in our passion, we have created an association for yoga and Indian dance called Association Dilwale,” she concludes with a smile so becoming of her. Know more about Annjali Shah in her website.