A new look at history
Wir sind Osterrreicher: Erwin Traxl by Shovana Traxl Narayan portrays the struggles of a non-Jew Austrian family from the eyes of an Indian. By Ankita Jain
Often when one speaks of the rich tradition that kathak is, it resonates with the plethora of artistes the dance form has provided us with. For someone like the impeccable Shovana Traxl Narayan, who breathes dance, this is the tradition she has lived by all her life. Over the past few decades, she has added to her collection of unusual themes using the kathak idiom: from the life of Mahatma Gandhi to dowry deaths, the trials of Draupadi to injustice against the girl child, from fusion with other Indian classical dance forms to duets with flamenco and tap dancers. And this time she has taken the root of writing to talk about the struggles of non-Jew Austrians during Nazi regime.
Talking about her first book Wir sind Osterrreicher: Erwin Traxl, which means A story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, she says, “The book talks about the tumultuous and twisted period in which my father-in-law (born 1884, died 1975) lived in. And as the title says — Wirsind Oesterreicher (i.e. We are Austrians) — deals a lot about identity, what they were, what they are and what they became.”
Shovana, who has derived her entire existence from dance, heard stories about her father-in-law from her in-laws and was inspired to pen it down in first person. “I am a balanced person; at harmony with myself and my surroundings. I learnt to appreciate different cultures alongside our very own Indian philosophy. And when I got married and was told stories about non-Jew families in Austria who were anti-Nazi, my level of curiosity increased.”
Describing the struggles of a non-Jew family then, she says, “I have written a story which recounts a family saga placed against the dramatic backdrop of Austrian history. This volume provides insights into Austrian history from the old monarchy to the modern times, from the intimate and personal perspective of a family that was engaged with the great events unfolding around them.”
As someone who has taken the domain of dance to a global level, Shovana reveals some unknown facts she discovered while researching about the book. “First every family then was trying to find their own answer to the issue of nationalism. Second, we never made any difference between German people and German-speaking people but there lies a huge difference. Third, most of us are aware of the sufferings of the Jews under Nazi regime but many of us are not aware of the sufferings of the non-Jew Austrians. They neither could protest nor say anything. All they had to do is follow what they were asked to do. Fourth, even in schools and colleges, teachers were being replaced by the hardliners to change the mindset of the young generation. My sisters-in-law were punished and forced to change schools. The Nazis also defined what is good music and bad music. And last, the book also sums up some of the factors that led to catastrophic developments in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. “
Shovana maintained a balance between writing the book and her passion for dance in between. “It took me two years to complete the book. I was digging out letters and photographs and also performing in between.” She further adds, “The way stories were narrated to me was very pragmatic. I relearnt history not from the colonial angle but from the perspective of a non-Jew Austrian.”
One also learns so much about the development of history and philosophy through arts, she says. “For instance, the references to ghoonghat (veil) only come in the medieval period. But today, it is the most used gesture to portray a woman, regardless ofthe dance form. One is able to trace the social changes that have taken place in this regard,” shares Shovana.
In between, she also talks about how dance as a subject needs to move from the extra-curricular to the mainstream in a balanced manner.
“We’ve lost sight of the traditional Indian educational system which we had centuries ago, only for reasons too well-known. That needs to be revisited. Our roots lie there and they make us global citizens. Not everyone is born to become a great musician or a dancer but the sensitivity to appreciate these things is important and that comes only with awareness. We need good rasikas too. Even if someone only learns it as a hobby, that person is able to appreciate it a little more, which is a big thing.” she says.
Shovana’s approach is extremely interesting when it comes to addressing people who say that one dance form is better than the other. She says that every one of them uses the rasa to express emotions. “The eye movements in kathakali or the subtlety of Manipuri or the clarity in footwork and speed of kathak — each has its own level of difficulty and mastery. As a soloist, I am able to perform five different characters using mudras, something a Western classical ballet dancer is not trained for. But on the other hand, their movements are anti-gravity, which is something Indian classical dancers are not familiar with,” she concludes.
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