Previously, we brought to you the reflections of Dasappa Keshava and Esther Jenny, who set up Kalasri. Now, we interview the next generation, their daughter Anjali, who is following in the footsteps of her parents.
With parents who are professional Bharatanatyam dancers and yoga teachers – D. Keshava and Esther Jenny – Anjali grew up with dance, music, yoga and everything that came along with the professions of her parents. She first performed at the age of six years and continued with many more following her debut. At first, she danced with her parents and in the children’s dance group of their school. Later, she performed as a soloist, with her sister Sumitra and in the main roles of many productions of the Kalasri Dance Ensemble.
Anjali says, “I continued learning Bharatanatyam from my father with a lot of interest. We performed in theatres all over Switzerland and sometimes abroad at various cultural events, in churches, schools, in TV programs and at festivals. Through art, my parents connected with many wonderful people who have been very important to me. Almost every two years, we had musicians from India who came on tour with us. And almost every year we performed in India. My parents never tried to convince us to dance. We were free to choose our own way.”
At 16, when doing her ‘Arangetram’, Anjali decided that she wanted to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer. Around that time, I was also appointed as a solo artist in an opera at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria and at the Asien Festival in Basel. Later on, I went on to being part of many Kalasri productions and got involved in various projects as a solo artist.”
She continues, “This art is like a deep ocean, the possibilities to learn and explore are endless. My work as a Bharatanatyam dancer allows me to be active in different fields. I perform traditional pieces, create new innovative productions with my family as well as a solo artist, teach children and adults at our school Kalasri and give different kinds of workshops in Swiss schools.”
Growing up in Switzerland: values, perceptions, perspectives
“I had a very happy childhood in Baselland with a younger brother and sister. I had many Swiss and some Indian friends. Every year, we would visit my father’s hometown, Mysore, for at least six weeks. There, we performed, got costumes stitched, had our music recordings done and took music and dance classes. I enjoyed the time with my cousins, aunts and uncles, who, even today, are very close and important to me. We also spent our holidays with our Swiss relatives, who live in the beautiful countryside in Appenzell and Schwyz. We were very close to our grandmother, who took care of us with a lot of love when our parents were rehearsing or performing.”
Growing up in a Swiss and an Indian environment, Anjali has adopted values from both sides of her Swiss and Indian family. She says, “I enjoyed growing up with two cultures. Of course, I also realized that there were differences, like: in my house, everyone had to take off their shoes and we often had Indian food with our hands. Sometimes, in school, I felt that I was growing up with different values or customs. For example, school friends threw books around with no bad intention – but to me, it felt disrespectful. Or at school camps, when I asked for food with no pork and beef. In general, I often felt that the differences were appreciated by my school friends. They loved to eat rice and curry or chapati in my house with their hands.”
“Being different was quite normal in my family. My grandmother was one of the few girls in her time to study. She was an actress, a very famous storyteller and a politician. I admire her for having had the courage to become a politician in the Cantonal Parliament in Basel as one of the first women. My mother decided to go to India and learn Bharatanatyam when she was 19. This was totally different from anything her parents could think of for her future, I guess. I can only imagine how much will power she must have had to fulfil her dream. My father was the first in his family to take up a profession as an artist and was one of the few male dancers of his generation.”
Anjali continues frankly, “I didn’t look at the differences from a point of seeing them as a problem, they were just part of my life. We celebrated Christmas and Easter in a typical Swiss way, but often wearing an Indian dress and a bindi, the Christmas tree stood beside a painting of God Vishnu, I didn’t even realise these things. Now I believe that growing up with different cultures is an enrichment. You learn from a very young age, that there are different perspectives. What is familiar to someone, might be strange to someone else. We should try not to judge, but to understand. I think I was lucky to have so many open people around me.”
Anjali missed her Indian family a lot., and also the typical Mysorean food. So get over the ‘missing’: “Whenever I could, I would go for a few months to India,” she smiles.
Dance: a parallel career?
“My parents followed their career based on their love and passion for art. My mother was the daughter of a chemistry professor and an actress. I really admire how she took the decision in 1969, to go to South India to learn classical Indian dance and follow her dream. If she would have thought of ‘earning money’, she would have definitely chosen another profession. Both of our parents left it open to us, what we would like to learn and encouraged us a lot. I am very thankful to both of them.
Says Anjali, “Dance has always been my main career. But, as a dancer, you never know for how long you will be able to dance. So, for my security and independence, I wanted to take up another profession as well; a profession with a sense of purpose and which is compatible with my work as an artist. Thus, in 2003, I graduated as a primary teacher. I feel this is now very useful to me for teaching and working in school art projects. Besides dancing, I was working as a part-time teacher for a few years. Then, I concentrated on my work as an artist and did my masters in arts management from the University in Basel in 2008. One thing I particularly appreciated was getting to know many people from totally different fields of art here in Switzerland.
With my children (8 and 5) I continued my work as an artist. My profession was more than a full-time job. Today I try to find a good balance because spending time with my children is very important to me.”
Creating a place within the Swiss and the Indian communities
“I identify myself with my Swiss and my Indian roots. I appreciate both cultures and at the same time, I do not want to stick to something and stay critical. I try to take on what feels good to me and say no to what does not feel right to me. Through Kalasri, I have always been surrounded by so many people with different cultural backgrounds, Swiss who had a big interest in Indian culture, Indians who wanted to stay connected to Indian culture in some way, but also a lot of people of different nationalities who were just interested in this art form and came in contact with it by a coincidence.”
And it’s not just a merger of 2 cultures for her children, but much more! “ I married into a South Italian family. My mother-in-law welcomed me with open arms from the first day on. My children are influenced by three different cultures. In our family many languages are spoken, Swiss-German, Italian, Kannada, English and Spanish (my brother’s wife is Nicaraguan) and we enjoy it,” reveals Anjali.
Carrying forward the Indian arts
“Of course, when we do Bharatanatyam, we also convey a lot about Indian culture and philosophy with our costumes, the mythological stories, the music, the way of expressing ourselves. But most importantly, this art is about human beings. It then does not matter if you are Swiss or Indian. It’s about human emotions and this is a binding element.
India has great diversity and there are so many different cultures. Through the art of Bharatanatyam that has developed in Hindu society, I think I carry on just certain aspects of Indian culture. I have seen over the years that, despite its western orientation, there is a great interest in Switzerland for art forms from other cultures.
Though my parents have done a lot of pioneer work here in Switzerland since 1976 promoting Indian dance, there are still many people here who have no idea that the dance form Bharatanatyam exists at all. Many people are very grateful and appreciate getting to know something totally new to them: a different language of expressing ourselves with our body. At my last performance in a church, a 70-something-year-old woman, who is a musician, came to me and said: “I cannot believe that it took me so long in my life to see that this art form exists!”
The warm reactions and the positive feedback after performances and workshops from audiences of all kinds have encouraged me a lot. Sometimes we perform in big theatres, sometimes in small venues, for art lovers, for children, for elder people… every performance is a special and unique experience.
The dance style and items I have learned from my parents are a precious cultural heritage. They are the direct students of Padmabhushana Dr K. Venkatalakshamma, the doyenne of the Mysore style. I am happy to pass this art on to the next generation. Even if this tradition is carried on, still there is always a certain development, because of people and their environment change.”
She continues, “At the same time, my family has always been very open and interested to try new creations by coming together with other artists and art forms. We have danced to Vivaldi’s Four seasons, to Stravinsky’s firebird or to Swiss and African folk songs. I have choreographed the story of a refugee woman from Ethiopia. Bharatanatyam gives you the instruments to be creative in your own way. So as a dancer living in Switzerland, you try to be creative with your artform just like also other artists do here.
We have very interested students, Swiss, Indians and also other nationalities. We work a lot with them, but we also laugh a lot together. Many students have been learning Bharatanatyam for many years, and it is wonderful to accompany them and see how they grow up, develop and go their ways. When they are on stage, we are happy to see how well they learned the choreography or how they are improving in their perfection. But for a teacher, it is an indescribable feeling to see the happiness in their eyes when they dance.”
“Just like my parents left it open to us, I hope that I will make my children feel that it is their own choice with whom they want to spend their lives with and what profession they would like to take up. I met my Italian husband at a very young age and, for my parents, he was from the beginning part of the family. I feel it would be very strange if I were to be narrow-minded in 2020 when in 1972 my Indian grandparents welcomed my Swiss mother with an open heart and mind.”
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