The second Indo-Swiss generation tells Namaste Switzerland more about growing up in Switzerland – the place called ‘Home’.

She’s a dancer and holds a PhD in Indian Studies, which includes Sanskrit, Hindi and Pali literature. She elaborates, “In my case, Kannada literature and the subjects that come with studying Indian culture (politics, geography, arts, etc.). In German, they call it ‘Indology’ and in English, it’s Indian studies.”

She’s a mother and a daughter. She is born of an Indian mother and Swiss father. Dr Phil. Sharmila Bansal Rao is candid about her growing up years. She says, “For the most part through my growing up years, I never felt different.”

Perhaps because she is half Swiss?

Sharmila smiles and states, “I had an Indian first name and a Swiss last name. This always caused questions or confusion, but in a good way. I felt important and special because other children would show an interest in me. But, there were some downsides, too. Indian dance was considered quite exotic in the 1980s and1990s. So many children called me names for doing ‘awkward moves to that strange music’. And then, I was vegetarian, an almost unknown thing back in the ‘80s. Having a special diet could be quite embarrassing when going on school camps. Those were the times I felt different from the mould.”

Photograph of Sharmila Bhansal Rao


Creating her own space in the Swiss and Indian communities

Sharmila always found her position and place in the Swiss community akin to that of any other child. She attended local schools and had Swiss friends. So being part of the Swiss community came naturally. She says, “I never considered myself anything else other than being Swiss as I had a Swiss family from my father’s side.”

She reveals that connecting with Indians “a bit hard”

“When I was younger, my parents were quite involved with the activities of the local Indian community. My mother, Vijaya Rao was very close to many of the Indians living in our area. In fact, I even have Indian relatives living in the same city as I do. But, with time, things changed and we hardly attended events of the community. My parents didn’t have regular contact with Indian friends.”

Retrospectively, she adds, “I never felt comfortable as a child in the Indian community. In fact, it was kind of difficult… Perhaps it was the fact that I couldn’t speak any Indian language. Don’t misunderstand me. I identified 100% with my Indian culture. But this is the downside of belonging to two cultures I guess… You never feel that you ‘completely’ belong somewhere. I think much of that was my struggle to finding my own true identity. Now, this has changed.

Dealing with the business of growing up

Childhood was a breeze, but teenage years can bring insecurity – and for Sharmila, that’s just what happened. “At the beginning of my teens, I felt insecure. As a reaction I started acting bold, smoking and drinking with girls who were considered ‘cool’ – I did it ‘just to belong’ in a way.” It was just a phase and then Sharmila’s self confidence soared with her dance tours that took her all over Europe and India.

She says, “On the one hand, it helped that I always had friends who didn’t bother about my dance and being half Indian. I was just one of them. On the other, I had my best friend Smriti, who, in certain ways, was even more Indian than I was. So, I could be my Indian self when we were together and balance my two identities. Being me was the only thing I knew. So there was no struggle. You just live your life and become mature and self-confident.”

Half Swiss, half Indian… and an Indian husband

Photograph of Sharmila Bhansal RaoDid she consciously look out for an Indian life-partner for herself? “It just happened. We fell in love – and by coincidence, we were both Indian. And when it happened, I thought, that’s great, it will be much easier than being with a Swiss guy because I don’t have to explain everything to him – you know, things like ‘no this is not a soup, it’s called ‘daal’,” she laughs. “Besides, he’s born and brought up in Switzerland, too, so there were many similarities in our upbringing. We got married rather young – and that’s when I realised, that his India was an entire different world from my India. I felt like I had to learn my own culture all over again… pretty much like the movie ‘Two States’. I ended up in another identity struggle, but this time it was North vs. South.”

She says with a bit of thought, “It wasn’t just my kids and the PhD that helped me to figure out what kind of Indo-Swiss woman I am, it was also my husband and our North-South-masala.”

Taking the stage

What was tough though, was coping with following in her parents’ professional footsteps. “I never lived in India. So I had to fill the void through my studies. Shaping my own views and understanding my culture on a professional level required a lot of energy and time. But my children and PhD helped me in finding answers. The PhD gave me an objective foundation for my general knowledge about India. That gave me the confidence to be able to become a worthy representative of our culture and art form. People are always very curious and fascinated to know more about India and our customs, so it’s kind of fun telling them more about it.”

“I never consciously decided to pursue a career as a stage artist. After my stage debut at the age of 12, this was just what I did,” says Sharmila, whose parents are professional artists. “They did stage work for a living, and I became a part of it. So, ultimately we were in it together,” she says as a matter-of-fact.

“However, I recall that towards the end of my teenage years, I became very passionate about teaching dance. You could say this was my first conscious choice of what I want to do in future. After completing my ‘Matura’, I dedicated all my time to the dance school and various dance projects. I also chose my subjects at the university according to what I thought would add to my knowledge as a dancer and teacher. I couldn’t think of doing anything other than being a dancer. So I kept dancing. Well, the nice thing about having your job since childhood is, that you can still think of a side career you want to pursue when you grow up! I enjoy research, writing and all that comes along with my Indian studies and working with languages like Sanskrit, etc. But I could never live without dance… I’m extremely passionate about teaching and very ambitious when it comes to establishing Indian classical dance in Switzerland. That’s my calling. But you never know. Maybe, I’ll suddenly opt for a job as a professor. Professor for Indian dance, that would be perfect!” And on that note, she smiles and concludes this interview on growing up in Switzerland.

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