There is no dearth of people who are fascinated by the sheer variety and vibrancy of India
Countless people around the world have been enamoured by all that is intriguing, beguiling and unexpected about India and its culture.
On the surface level there may be many westerners lapping up all things Indian, but dig a little and you will find many Indophiles who have engaged with India professionally, personally, and in many cases, passionately.
In this Indian Independence Day edition we profile Australians who have a relationship with India that goes beyond curiosity. Their love for India is more than a passing interest and surpasses geographical boundaries and ethnic or linguistic peripheries.
From the French/ Hungarian dancer who teaches and performs Bollywood style dance as a profession, to the music maestro who is equally at home playing sitar as he is with the tabla and dilruba, to an influential businessman who can articulate Hindi like a local, each person we interviewed has registered a deep fascination for the land of paradoxes.
When French model Babushka Ferenczi launched her Bollywood dance group, Jalwa, at the Telstra Bollywood dance competition, as part of Indian Film Festival Melbourne 2014, the judges were more than impressed. After her performance, Indian actress and dancer Malaika Arora Khan, who is also a judge on India’s Got Talent, and Dhoom 3 director Vijay Krishna Acahrya praised Babushka for her dancing prowess and stage presence.
When someone in the audience asked the judges whether Babushka would do well because she resembled popular Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif, the Dhoom 3 director grabbed the mike and said, “Babushka does not need to look like Katrina Kaif to be famous. She will be famous for being Babushka and even Katrina Kaif may benefit from learning how to dance from her”.
Babushka laughed good-naturedly when she was reminded of the exchange.
“I have always wanted to be an actress in Bollywood and I have just been given an opportunity to do lead role in a Hindi film however I cannot disclose too many details at this stage,” she said.
“My favourite Bollywood number is ‘Maar Dala’from the blockbuster film Devdas. For me this is such a perfect routine, full of elegance, crystal clear facial expressions, and perfect dance technique. Madhuri Dixit is by far my favourite actress (Bollywood and Hollywood included); such grace, beauty and great acting skills. I absolutely loved her character in Gulaab Gang – that would be a dream role for me!” Babushka said, with a trace of French accent.
Babushka grew up in France and worked as a high school teacher but became entranced by Bollywood and India. “I mostly got interested in India after watching the film Slumdog Millionaire. The belly-dancing troupe I was part of in France started performing to Bollywood music around that time and I was introduced to the Bollywood culture by a lovely Pakistani couple who used to import our costumes and jewellery from India and Pakistan”.
”What I love most about Indians is how colourful and energetic they are and how dancing is such a present element of their culture, ” Babushka continued. “While we westerners tend to dance in a somewhat self-conscious way at parties and events, I find that Indians generally dance more freely and are constantly interacting with one another. Indian dancing is more dynamic as the dancers express themselves eloquently through their movement. I particularly like Bollywood dance as it tends to continuously evolve and is such an upbeat fusion of different genres and styles,” she said.
Once Babushka was hooked on Bollywood there was no looking back. She taught herself all the intricate moves with the help of DVDs and research on the internet, adopted the vibrant colours for her costumes, and rehearsed and fine-tuned her performance until she got it right.
She moved to Australia in 2011, after doing a stint in 2007, to be with her partner. She joined another Bollywood dance troupe and started performing with them. Her partnership with the group ceased and Babushka launched her own troupe Jalwa in May this year.
Jalwa comprises of dancers from various parts of the world unified in their love for Bollywood dancing. Besides performing at corporate and private events, Babushka has also started offering Bollywood dance classes and workshops.
“I am currently teaching myself Hindi but since I do it on my own (computer software), and due to my hectic schedule, it is taking quite a while. I have been meaning to learn Hindi for a long time, especially the script, since I find the symbols very beautiful. Lately it has become imperative that I learn the language to be able to communicate better. It will also help with my dancing and acting career,” Babushka said as she shared her plans for the future.
A universal language
“Mujhe thoda Hindi aati hai,” claimed music virtuoso Josh Bennett with a smile that could warm hearts, just like his enthralling, almost subliminal music. Josh, who is one of Australia’s leading exponents of the Indian sitar, is also a multi-instrumentalist who can effortlessly trade the sitar for a tabla and the tabla for a dilruba or guitar.
Josh spent six years learning the sitar from Alan Posselt, who himself learned from Ustad Allaudin Khan and Sri Mohan Maitre. Josh then spent many months in Ahmedabad, India, studying Indian Classical music from Smt. Manju Mehta, a disciple of Pt. Ravi Shankar.
Josh is a regular on the Australian and global music festival circuit, performing solo or with a number of groups. He has also performed in the Saptak Classical Music Festival in India. Josh has toured extensively with Dya Singh World Music Group and is married to Dya Singh’s youngest daughter, Parvyn Kaur, who is an acclaimed singer and dancer.
So how did Josh’s love affair with Indian music begin? “I heard Indian music for the first time when I was young through it being added to western music such as The Beatles’ songs “Within You Without You”, “Norwegian Wood” and “The Inner Light”. When I was fifteen my guitar teacher Chris Finnen was playing in a band called Indian Pacific, which had a marvelous sitarist Michael Junius. That was my first live concert of Indian music. Why it was that Indian music specifically made my ears prick up initially is a mystery, but as soon as I heard it I wanted to be a part of it”.
For his 21st birthday Josh got a special left-handed sitar custom built from India. With comprehensive knowledge of ragas and a mastery over technique Josh continued to perform Indian music on a myriad of string instruments. He released a solo album Echoes of You and toured in collaboration with renowned musicians BluGuru, Sadhna and more recently with the group Bombay Royale. His musical journey comprises of blues, Celtic, Jazz, African and bluegrass, however his work has always had a strong Indian influence.
“The first thing that attracted me to India was the music, obviously, but as a result of following the path of learning the music I’ve discovered there is a lot to love about India: the food, the culture, the people. Music is my main passion in life however, and it is Indian music that continues to attract me the most,” Josh remarked.
With the shift in migration trends the Indian diaspora is now highly represented in Australia and there is increased interest and better exposure of Indian art, but does that make Josh’s musical choice sustainable from a commercial perspective? “I never looked at Indian music as my breadwinner. It is more of a passion for me rather than a skill,” Josh claimed.
Josh and his wife Parvyn run workshops in schools around Australia and New Zealand where they introduce Indian music, culture and dance to the students. They also teach Indian vocals to primary school children.
Sharing his opinion of Indian migrants to Australia, Josh said, “I’ve travelled enough to know people worldwide are all essentially the same. The place you are born does not define you any more than the brand of tea you drink. In my opinion, people can live wherever on the planet they choose. The Indians who I know that have come here have brought with them some wonderful attributes of Indian culture, and Australia is a better place for it”.
Victorian Chairman of Raine &Horne (Real Estate)
You could sense his wistfulness as Randolph related his experience of growing up in India surrounded by contradictions and contrasts. He was born in Agra, India, where his father was a high-ranking police officer and he spent most of his childhood enveloped by the wafting aromas and full tilt energy that makes India so incredible.
From being teased by local kids as a gora bandar (white monkey) due to his English descent, to learning Sanskrit Shlokas and being nicknamed White Pundit*, Randolph happily recounted memories of his childhood.
“I remember the rickshaw wallahs plying the streets, the condiments and masalas in the bazaars, the trains passing through scenic villages and the ganne wallahs selling freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. I enjoyed the food sold by street vendors from kulfis and golgappas tothe best tasting lychees and Agra’s famous petha. I spent my childhood playing gilli danda (awooden stave and stick game) and kanche (marbles)with the local kids,” Randolph shared.
According to Randolph growing up in India was a very humbling and grounding experience and no matter how successful he becomes he will never change because of his upbringing.
“I was fascinated by everything about India and was attracted to most of the culture. In those days it could be disorganized and chaotic, and your senses could be overloaded with the colours, sounds, tastes, smells and sights of this wonderful country,” he said.
“India had beauty and despair, highs and lows, wealth and poverty all of it in unequal measures. Despite that I saw people who gained a sense of contentment from the simplest of pleasures,” he continued.
“I believe things have changed since my last trip to India in 1997 and India is getting more structured due to the rapid development and surge in economy. It will be a pity if in the process of westernisation we no longer have the chai wallahs on train stations or bhutte wallahs on the streets of India that are so unique and form such an integral part of the Indian experience,” Randolph said as he launched into a perfect impersonation of the Indian tea vendors in Hindi.
Randolph’s family moved to Australia when he was 19-years-old and he now lives in Melbourne with his wife Louisa and son Brandon. He commenced a dynamic and rewarding real estate career in 1975 and in 1996 took over state ownership and rights of Raine & Horne and became Master Franchisor of Raine & Horne Victoria.
“I think India is the best place to get training in sales and marketing, as Indians are great negotiators,” Randolph claimed. “I once took my son with me to Agra and showed him how to bargain. It was an experience he will never forget just as I will never forget the myriad facets of life in India”.
Randolph continues his association with India through his involvement with organisations like Disha, where he has conducted auctions for their charity fundraisers on several occasions.
More recently he was invited by Chairman Jagvinder Singh Virk to be part of the committee for the Sydney-based India Australia Strategic Alliance, an organisation committed to the fostering of goodwill between the people of India and Australia.
On a personal level he has several Indian friends with whom he continues to reminisce about his fond memories of India over cups of chai and pakodas.
*(Scholar who has mastered vedic script and is skilled in Sanskrit language)
Try it the Yoga way
The practice of yoga has many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. For yoga teacher Liz Coon, it is a lifestyle and a livelihood.
Liz has been practicing yoga for the past 40 years and is principal of the Harmony School of Yoga, which she founded in 1978 when she started teaching.
As a young child, Liz became ill with rheumatic fever which left her weak and without stamina. Her doctors predicted that she would be in a wheelchair before the age of 30.
At age 17 she discovered yoga from an exercise book and found that it was a physical activity she could do without getting too tired.
After moving to Melbourne in 1972, Liz began attending classes at the Eastern School of Yoga in Glen Waverley, and her passion became a way of life.
“As time went on I could see and feel the benefits of what I was doing and as a result, today I am stronger and healthier than in my early years,” she stated.
Her biggest mentor and influence was her yoga teacher, Margaret Segesman, who had established Australia’s first full-time yoga school called the Gita School of Yoga.
She says that Margaret not only taught her many skills in yoga, but also how to be tolerant and understanding in life.
“I spent 20 years with her,” Liz said. “It was the most wonderful soul connection and experience in my life”.
The Harmony School is now well established with over 300 registered students ranging in age from three to 78. There are day and evening classes, which vary from meditation sessions to workshops on relaxation and breathing, yoga philosophy and of course, the physical hatha yoga itself.
Liz also runs a teacher training program to help her students become qualified yoga teachers.
“I think my greatest challenge as a teacher is training others to teach yoga,” she said.
“I believe anyone can teach yoga, but to teach well and with integrity, and to teach selflessly is an ongoing challenge”.
In 1990, Liz travelled around India for six months. A particular highlight was her stay in a little town in the foothills of the Himalayas called Chilliyanaula.
“I didn’t learn more than I already knew about yoga,” she said, as she was taught intensely by good teachers before she went to India, “But it certainly broadened my knowledge and love for yoga”.
“I was also taught to meditate really well,” she added, emphasising the various styles of the different gurus and teachers of yoga in India, and their unique philosophies.
At the Harmony School, Liz runs private classes for students practicing yoga for healing, such as cancer sufferers. She also holds chair yoga classes for students who cannot walk.
“I get students from all walks of life. For many years, I used to teach terminal patients who would come for healing and meditation”.
However, recently she has found it too difficult to cope with losing her students and has pulled back a bit from this area of teaching.
“Although yoga is not a cure, it gives people the ability to cope with so much, and understand life,” she continued.
“It also keeps you strong, young, healthy and fit,” she added, mentioning the benefits of yoga in easing osteoporosis.
Liz’s ambition is to see hatha yoga and meditation being incorporated into the standard education curriculum.
“I view the school not so much as a business but as a centre,” she said, “a welcoming sanctuary which provides a way to a healthier lifestyle, a sense of wellbeing, acceptance and open friendliness to those who come through our doors”.
by Danielle Mathias