by D-L Nelson
Sujatha Venkatesh sips Indian spiced tea in her Geneva, Switzerland countryside home as she talks about her real and creative journey from Bangalore, India, to becoming the maven of Indian classic and folk dance in Switzerland.Her work combines teaching, performing, recitals, and working with disabled people.
Although she sits restfully and nibbles on a chocolate-covered cookie, when she talks about her childhood, it is clear why and how she has the work ethic she does, why she gets more done in a day then most people do in a week.
She was the middle child between an older brother and younger sister. Her father was an engineer in charge of a machine tool company. “He wasn’t a typical Indian father,” she says. “He helped with the children, probably an idea he picked up in his many travels.”
Her mother would not allow idleness. Time was for learning, crafts and cooking. “We kept fingers, eyes, feet and voices active,” Sujatha says. The family was up at 5:30 in the morning for yoga, something her father continues at age 80...except it is even earlier.
As a student at Sacred Heart English School, she wasn’t particularly interested in her studies, despite her mother’s admonition that “a girl must have an education to get a good husband.” Although Sujatha heard it regularly, she knew her mother had never finished 7th grade, but had still found a good husband. Sujatha was quick to add that, in spite of the brief schooling, her mother was very intelligent and fluent in three languages.
In 1971, when she was 11 and in poor health, her mother enrolled Sujatha in a dance class to build her daughter up. She didn’t have the strength to perform many of the movements and was sent to the back of the class by her teacher, now 94, whom she still sees today. Despite her early lack of success, her life-long passion with dance had begun.
By the time Sujatha completed her Bachelor of Science degree, her attitude toward studies had changed. She wanted to study microbiology, but now her mother insisted she marry first. Sujatha says some 25 men were paraded by her. Sujatha would wait in her room while her mother sussed out the boy and his family. Only if they passed her mother’s inspection was Sujatha’s dress decided upon, in which she would appear for the introduction.
None of the men appealed to her. Finally her father called a halt to the husband hunt.
She heard of her husband-to-be through a friend. He worked for the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike previous meetings, the couple met in a temple. This time it felt right to the couple and their families, and they married on June 7, 1984, and moved to Geneva.
It was her first time out of India and her transition into a new family and new culture was difficult. His family was far more formal than hers, with planned visits rather than the in and out of family and friends from her old life.
To make it more difficult, tragedy hit when she lost her first baby. Somehow her father, who was visiting Paris, knew and called her as she was on the way to the hospital. He arrived immediately. To recover, she returned to India with her parents for several months. And eventually, she gave birth to two healthy children, a boy and a girl.
Once back in Geneva she knew she wanted to teach dance. Her husband was totally supportive. They put up signs in the UN and Migros, the local grocery store. “We weren’t that good at publicity,” she admits. For three years, she had only three pupils. Some people misread the style of dancing as very sexual because of the hand movements or thought it was religious, she explained. Then she arranged performances for her students locally and in London and things changed.
After the performances, more students came to her, and not just children, but adults.. Some were Indians who wanted their children to stay in touch with their culture. Others were intrigued with the beauty and discipline.
Today her students have performed all over Switzerland. She herself has danced in many European countries. To give her students variety in their instruction, she brings other dance teachers from India, sometimes for several months. On her trips home she finds costumes appropriate for the performances. Unlike her first teacher, who sent her to the back of the classroom, Sujatha adapts the movements to each student’s abilities.
Dance to her is more than perfection. She maintains dancing can cure people. One woman, a pianist, had damaged her hands, which she hid. After a year with Sujatha and learning the sensuous hand movements, the woman was comfortable showing her hands once again.
Particularly moving is the story of a man with Down Syndrome who was fascinated by all things Indian. Sujatha was invited to his place, where he had set up an altar with bells and incense. And he danced for her without having had any training.
“Can I be your student,” he then asked.
Holding back tears, she took him on and he has been one of her hardest working students and has soloed in the class recitals.
For Sujatha dance is a code for what happens in life. She believes if you move like an ocean and feel like the ocean, then the audience will see an ocean.
“Dance is the essence of being. Without it there is no purpose,” she says.
All photos courtesy of Anil Kaza
About the Author
D-L Nelson is a Swiss-American living in Europe. She is the author of two novels, Chickpea Lover: Not a Cookbook and The Card.
She is also editor and publisher of www.Cunewswire.com an electronic news service for Canadian credit unions.