In the tenth decade of her life, despite all the uncertainties that artistes live with, New York City based Vija Vetra celebrates every moment of life. âAs long as I dance, I know I am aliveâ, she says, reinforcing that âdance is a symbol of lifeâ. In her native Riga, the capital city of Latvia, ever since a child, she âreacted to music by dancingâ. A chance to see Swan Lake convinced her that she wanted to dance professionally. Since there was little support for this idea at home, she ran away to Vienna. When World War II intervened, she lived several years as a refugee and eventually, at the end of the war, she went, along with her family to Australia, where she began her career as a dancer and choreographer. It was here that her life as an Indian dancer commenced, in a very unusual way.
âI was asked to create an Indian dance for a temple dancer in a play on the life of Buddha. I warned the director, that I knew no Indian dance, though I had always wanted to learn it. I was told by him to go to work and I took it like the finger of God pointing me in a specific directionâ. The âworkâ consisted of going to the museum studying Indian sculptures and researching them. Only later she realised that in the reconstruction of the classical dances this was one of the processes that the masters employed themselves. It was also then that she encountered Ram Gopal, in the form of a book on him replete with photographs of him in dance poses. âPage by page I copied those movements and he became my Guru in absentiaâ recalls Vija. Only later she discovered the story of Eklavya the tribal archer. âFor me the story came a full circle when Ram Gopal saw me dance in London and invited me to partner him for shows in London and a tour to Switzerlandâ.
After her performance in this play in Australia, it was normal for members of the Indian community to come backstage and start talking to her in an Indian language, when Vija would beg their pardon they assumed that she was from another part of India and spoke a different language, but that she was not Indian would not be easily believed. Eventually they took her into their social embrace and exposed her to other images, films and cultural knowledge. They encouraged her to create, and perform and would also ask her to teach. âAt that time the Indian High Commissioner in Australia was General Cariappaâ. General Cariappa, a Field Marshall â became my patron and invited me to perform at Canberra where he had the entire diplomatic corps in attendanceâ.
At that time the Broadway show âKismetâ came to Australia âand I got the role of an Indian princess. I was allowed to do my own choreography which became so popular,â claims Vija, âthat I was asked to teach and so in-between the matinee and the evening show, I ran my class!â It was while she was performing for Kismet, that ran for eighteen months, that she got the citizenship of Australia. When the Lord Mayor presented her the certificate the press ran a story the next day with an image of the moment. The headline said âVija Vetra, the Indian Princess from Latvia, is now Australianâ. That she embodies a transnational life is undeniable and this headline captures quite that.
Vijaâs story was picked up by the information and publicity bureau of Australia and circulated amongst the diplomatic missions. Conversations began as a result of it and âI got a small grant from the Indian government to travel to India to learn dance, and finally after doing it for so many years my way, I was going to learn the correct way. I was so excitedâ.
This was the first of the three times that Vija would go to India. In 1961, she had a chance to meet Indiaâs first Prime Minister, Pt. Nehru. âHe was very kind to receive me and we had a wonderful conversation. Normally his slots were given for thirty minutes. I noticed that the time had exceeded, and apologised for it. He instantly reassured me that he would rather talk to an artiste, than the American journalist who he was next to meetâ. When asked what they talked about Vija recalled her conversation with him about her country that was under Soviet occupation. âI told him how our people were being driven to certain death in Siberia and how our culture was at threat. He touched me when he felt my pain and reassured me that my native country will be free one dayâ. That happened in 1990, but by then Nehru was no more. âI was on a coast to coast tour in USA and Canada in 1964 when when I got the news of Nehruâs passing. I just burst into tears.â Nehru, she remembered, had been good to her, walking her to the gate and seeing her into her taxi.
Vija has also studied Sanskrit at Fordham University and has learnt about the commonality between the Latvian language and Sanskrit, and to prove it draws my attention to the name of the capital city Riga and the Rig Veda. Even with reference to her own name she tells that her first name, Vija, in Latvian means a garland of victory, while the Sanskrit word Vijay means victory. About Vetra, her surname, she tells that in the Latvian language it means storm, while in the Rig Veda Vritra is referred to as a negative cloud that keeps the waters in its custody, and has to be destroyed by Indira, the lord of the clouds.
On her first trip to India, soon after her arrival she was supposed to dance, in a pre-fixed show. âI was hesitant as it would be an affront I felt. But the people, especially the journalists were insistent and so I called the show âImpressions of Indian Danceâ. The write ups were good and encouragingâ She repeated this show in Madras, âI havenât got used to calling it Chennaiâ she said apologetically, to very favourable reviews. A three day journey by train had taken her to Chennai and she her Guru in the late Chokalingam Pillai. âThe Guru did not speak any English, just a âyes yesâ and âno noâ. But whatever he taught me, I reproduced faithfully by copying himâ. In Madras she became good friends with Vayjayanthimala who was striding both world of dance and cinema by then. âShe presided over my first performance in Madrasâ recalls Vija. She even got a chance to meet Rukmini Devi at Kalakshtra.
Vija Vetraâs second trip to India was in 1972-73. In this trip the Government of Indiaâs Films Division made a documentary on her taking bits of her performance at Patankar Hall in Mumbai and in the Elephanta caves. That was the time that India was carrying forward the Nehruvian policy of u sing culture for diplomacy and the Fact that this New York based transnational artiste Vija Vetra was being repeatedly drawn to Indian dance was reinforcing the soft power narrative. It was not surprising that the film was shown on television and circulated to all Indian embassies overseas.
Her last trip to India was made in 1981-82. This time she was based in Delhi. She continued with her studies and learnt Odissi with Guru Mayadhar Raut, and Kathak at the Kathak Kendra with Guru Kundan Lal Gangani. âI remember that Kathak Kendra would get very cold in the winter and both Guru and I would have cold feetâ. While she doesnât dance Odissi, she does dance Kathak, using some of the pieces taught by the Guru and some âthat I created,â she says. âWhen you study the style like that you learn the building blocks, and make your own creations. I observed that the Gurus were doing that tooâ
By her own admission, âit is improvisation in dance that I like most. Even if you dance the same steps it can never be the same. The accent is bound to change. Improvisation in dance is like being in life itself, for in life not one thing repeats itselfâ. She is now looking forward to celebrating her 95th birthday in Riga on June 18, 2018, which also marks seventy five years of her performance career and the centenary of the Latvian Declaration of Independence.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 14 Issue 20, Dated 31 October 2017)