Blogging from Germany: Shany

Shany Mathew Photo: Leonhard Kieffer 
I first met her through gauzy pink curtains and over glasses of Turkish ayran in a courtyard in Jungbusch. There was a party at the Orientalische Musikakademie Mannheim (OMM), not far from the Pop Akademie, and cycling back to my flat, I saw Emiliano Trujillo and Peter Hinz who introduced me to Shany Mathew, glittery jewel-eyed Bharath Natyam dancer from Frankfurt. I was in Mannheim to work with the Schnawwl ensemble for Das Lied Von Rama and of course we had plenty to talk about.

I met her again in April 2013, with the fabulous photographer of musicians - Roland Rossbacher, and she had just returned from a tour of Eastern Europe with Bombay Jayashree and Priyadarshini Govind. She wasn't performing, she went just to be in the atmosphere of the tour. We talked for a long while at the cafe-bar of the Altefeuerwache in Mannheim. 

I was intrigued by her experience as a second generation German of Malayali origin who had somehow and against all odds developed an abiding love for Bharat Natyam. How does it hang, I wondered? A Syrian Christian girl who is clearly devoted to her dance guru.  How do you stretch past the stereotypes (Non Resident Indians attracted to Indian traditional arts etc) and come into your own? 

So...here is the journey of Shany Mathew, a unique and wonderful soul!

About life in Germany:

I was born in Germany. My father took me by my hands and exposed me to the world of Indian dance and culture at a very early age. He was a senior member of the Indian community in Heidelberg and organized several cultural programs that involved Indian musicians and dancers. Sometimes there were professional artistes who came from India and I was fascinated by their stories and performances. For NRIs like us, it was always very special to be dressed in Indian attire thrice a year and participate in the revelry. It felt like a small Indian oasis and a welcome break from the mundane German lives that we led. At the same time I was watching Malyalam movies at home and mesmerized by dancers like Shobhana and Revathy. This upbringing entrenched Indian classical music and dancing deep inside my soul in the formative years of my life!

About that first moment when she fell in love with dance:

I remember vividly the first live classical performance I watched at the tender age of 4. I was awed by the twin sisters from India performing Bharatnatyam in a community function at Heidelberg. Apart from getting swayed by their beauty and costumes, I was lost in a world of expressions and hand gestures, thoroughly impressed by their power and attention to perfection. I had this surreal feeling that they were talking to me and nothing could distract them from anything that was happening around us… as if they were goddesses and telling me something through their story…as if my mission in life was conveyed to me at a very early stage by god through the medium of humans. I felt very peaceful after watching this performance and something deep inside me told me that I have to learn this dance form..
Seven years had to pass till my wish could be fulfilled under the tutelage of Alexandra Romanova  in Germany, who was a disciple of the renowned dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy.

With Alexandra Romanova
About being brown skinned in an all white village:

Indeed I was brought up in an area where there were very few foreigners or Indians. In the bigger cities like Cologne, Frankfurt etc. where there were many foreigners, it was common for the kids to interact and socialize with fellow Indians, who sometimes were in the same school or classroom. They played together,  had a sense of belongingness and never felt isolated. But I was strongly connected with Germans; the German way of life, as my friends and surrounding was predominantly German.  I learnt German folk dances in school, had classes in western violin, went for artistic gymnastics, was an altar girl and an active member of church activities.

My parents claimed that when I was a kid and saw unknown Indian or brown-skinned people, I turned my face and walked backwards to observe them. I must have felt that they somehow belong to us and my original folk.  The aunties would then wave or wink at me! My desire for India and my origin was very strong.

20 years ago it was much more difficult to be brown skinned or “different”. India was only known as a third world country and the media had mostly negative reports to write about Indians. I never experienced overt discrimination or racism, but there was always an underlying feeling that you don’t really belong to this community and that you are “different”. It didn’t matter, how fluent you were in German, how qualified you were or how rooted in the German culture….

Meanwhile I could feel a change and a kind of open mindedness enter society due to globalization and a positive focus on India. To be brown now, seems to be even “in”.  Moreover, Asians and Africans are also taking important positions in the society like teachers, doctors etc. and even the smaller towns are getting more cosmopolitan. I believe that a good period has started; a time of opening borders in the head, interest in other cultures, cross over projects. But still, like every transition phase, it needs time, patience, and understanding.

About dreams for her dance:

I am already fulfilled and happy, grateful for all the projects that I have worked on. They have already far exceeded my expectations.

But, I do have a few dreams...

I am blessed to have a wonderful Guru, Rangaprabha Girish, in Kerala, who has been training me under the Guru Shishya tradition for the last 21 years. Normally, people choose a Guru who is very popular and marketable as it helps them in their performances to mention a more international acclaimed and renowned teacher. But I was very much impressed by the value system of my Guru, his passion and true devotion towards the art and especially towards his students. He gets the best from everyone, and magnanimously helps underpriviledged children bring out their hidden talent. These qualities made me always return to him and continue my studies even after my Arangetram. However, though he teaches even renowned senior Gurus in Kerala, due to social ostracism, he never gets his due.  

This is why I would like to bring out this hidden gem and reveal him to the world so that more deserving students from across the world can benefit under his tutelage. This is not just a dream but my primary mission. May my dance always be a dedication to his work and personality and bring an awakening among the people.

And last but not least, I would wish that my performances leave the audience touched. Through art I see a wonderful opportunity to unite people and blur the boundaries between countries.

About life as an "Indian" dancer living in contemporary Germany

I am performing and teaching in institutions where there is a promotion of cultural exchange, especially between India and Germany. On one hand I have my very pure traditional classical programs, where I am explaining exactly the meaning and content of the art forms and the story of the performance.  On the other hand, I am participating in cross over projects with foreign musicians, thereby reaching an extended audience who would normally not go for a traditional performance.
This is the a good time to be in Germany, as a lot of Germans are looking towards Indian values and beliefs to enhance their quality of life… dance being one of them. Moreover, since I keep visiting India often, I am also able to explain to my audience the socio-cultural significance of the dance.

About working with western artists and breaking away from the 'NRI' groups?

There was no significant moment when I decided this. It just happened to me that I got an offer to perform with western musicians and I was open minded to try to implement my ideas and own creativity. Also, since there are dearth of South Indian musicians in Germany to accompany Bharatnatyam performances I was a ‘recorded perfomer’ largely dancing on my Guru’s compositions.
With western musicians and senior Indian musicians, who brought influences from jazz, rock and other genres, a new world was opening to me. It was an amazing energy exchange and I felt that we were speaking the same language though we belonged to different parts of the world. 

At the same time, I wasn’t very motivated with just being an NRI dancer, as largely the performances were for keeping the superficial tradition alive and not necessarily for understanding the soul of this dance.

Nevertheless, I blend my performances effectively, keeping the roots and the traditions of the Indian classical dance so that it doesn’t create confusion.

With a string quartet
About influences:

More than dancers or choreographers, musicians who are experienced in world music inspire me. They gave me ideas and I tried to implement them without losing the roots of the classical dance form. So I am influenced by global artistes - Oriental, African, European. Subconsciously I take something from every artist I meet. Furthermore, my first teacher Alexandra Romanova is definitely an inspiration with her work. She translates poems and uses our Indian art forms as a medium to communicate contemporary themes through -ballet, contemporary dance and the classical Indian dance -Bharatnatyam. 

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