From a secure home in a small town in India and a cultural and art centre at the Karnataka University, she was plunged into Western culture. “The building blocks of life had traveled here with me from my parents’ home. And I knew this would help me deal with any challenge that life presents,” says Vijaya Rao as she tells us of her journey of settling in and creating a unique place for herself as a performer in the Indo-Swiss cultural space.
Equipped with a Master’s degree in German and French, and a year of research on her PHD thesis on Herman Hesse, Vijaya Rao landed in Switzerland in 1977 to pursue her PHD. On arrival, she was quick to switch to Swiss German at the University level.
Apart from pursuing her education, she started teaching dance at the ETH sports club. Talking of her student life, she says, “Back then, I easily secured jobs in renowned companies like Shell, Mercedes Benz and Limmat Versicherung. I made friends. I wrote a seminar assignment in Linguistics ‘Comparison between Zürich-Bern-Basel Dialects’.” And through her studies and engagement with dance, she quickly realized that neither the Indians here, nor the Swiss people were aware of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music.
Taking on that observation, she says, “In all my dance programs, I explained the art of classical Indian dance and the meaning of the lyrics in German – the meaning of love and longing, which shows its parallel in daily life and in devotion. Through this, I could transport the Indian spiritual thought to my audience, and simultaneously, my social life and communication with the local people got easier.”
An unplanned career that came as a challenge
She continues, “Right from my first Bharatanatyam performance here in 1977, I unknowingly took the challenge to make Indians as well as the Swiss understand my art. I realized that there is nothing equal to this living art, which is so complex in its technique of dance, drama and lyric. The tool to get through my challenge was my ability to communicate in German. At this point, I guess, my career had already begun. And when my husband, Anton Tonz proposed to me in 1979, my answer was: “Yes, but I will always dance”. He promised that it would. My PHD got grounded and I’m still dancing. And it’s 2019.
Creating her place in the society
Vijaya firm conviction that has helped her create her own place is: “Belief or faith in the authenticity, purity and beauty of this art, my live performances with over 20 international tours, the support of my teachers, and proper communication with my audience. The Indian associations, communities and Indian Embassy in Switzerland welcomed me with an open heart. I performed extensively in all main cities and renowned places. My most prestigious performances 1985-2004, included the ‘Apana Utsav’ in Museum Rietberg, Zürich. And most importantly, I believe it was my ability to speak Swiss- and High-German fluently that could make people understand my art and culture – and led to my selection as Cultural Ambassador of UNICEF 1987. In the same year, my book “Abbild des Göttlichen” (Image of the Divine) was published. That said, complete respect to the society where I have my home and my school. This, until today, has been the secret of my well secured place and position within the Swiss and Indian communities,” she says with humility and pride.
Carrying forward Indian culture
“I came here with my rucksack full of qualifications, knowledge of classical Indian dance and music, different Indian languages, indigenous home traditions (vegetarian food culture and Ayurveda). My spirit is adventurous and spontaneous – and I believe: no risk, no success!” And as she carries forward her culture into her adopted home, she says it feels, “Relaxing, challenging, responsible, and at rare times lonely.”
She continues, “My daughter Sharmila was born in the cradle of Indo-Swiss culture. An adult now, with her own career to pursue; she, at the age of 9, had written article in the school, titled: “Ich werde Tänzerin.” And today, she is a foremost Bharata Natyam exponent and pedagogically skilled teacher and trained Carnatic music singer. Sharmila feels at home and easily brings out the best of both Indian and Swiss cultures – carrying forward the torch of Indian dance and culture.”
Vijaya concludes: “I have received a lot of respect and appreciation in my work. To be appreciated is a task of give and take. I served both lay people and the connoisseurs of Indian art continuously with new dance choreographies. I brought together challenging themes. I take pride in my daughter’s accomplishment and acknowledge the flawless adaption and dancing of my Swiss/European and Indian and Asian students, dancers and teachers. I do not make compromises in my way of teaching this art here – I do it just as I would in India. People appreciate that. I am, indeed, very content.
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