Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

Expat Voice: Kathak Calling

Ines Smiljanic

Croatia-born Ines Smiljanic saw an Indian classical dance performance for the first time in 2005 and knew in her heart that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

“It was love at first sight. I was also learning classical ballet and contemporary dance in Zagreb at the time and had comprehensive knowledge about rhythm, contemporary dance techniques, music and choreography. But I found the purpose of art when I started to learn Kathak,” Smiljanic, who moved to Delhi in 2012, tells Little India.

Smiljanic teaches Kathak and yoga at Kalashakti Dance Academy and some international schools at Dwarka in Delhi. She has performed Kathak at several dance festivals in Croatia and India. She is also a certified Pilates instructor.

Smiljanic talks about her love for Kathak, training under Pandit Birju Maharaj, and more:

A Magical Land
I have been fascinated with India since childhood. I always saw it as a magical land full of colors, smiling faces, beautiful landscapes and intangible cultural heritage.

I have always been warmly welcomed by the people here. Being a foreigner, many people ask me where I am from. When I tell them I’m from Croatia, I am pleasantly surprised by their knowledge of our football team and tennis players.

Practicing Yoga
When I was 12 years old, I was introduced to Indian philosophy and yoga and soon began practising the same. I strongly believe that coming to India was written in my destiny.

I remember teaching my best friend meditation and breathing techniques when I was in the 8th standard. I grew up in a Catholic family due to which my inclination towards spirituality came as bit of shock to my teachers and parents. They were concerned about my decision to turn vegetarian, as everybody in my family ate non-vegetarian food, except my elder sister. So I started cooking for both of us. Indian dishes would often find a place on our menu.

Ines Smiljanic

Love for Dance

I have been in love with dancing for as long as I can remember. I began training in different forms of dance when I was five years old.

For me, Kathak is one of the most beautiful dance forms in the world. Graceful movements, subtle expressions, hand gestures, intricate footwork and the ability to communicate your message to the audience is what makes the dance form unique.

Learning Kathak is not only about learning the movements or dance sequences. It is like learning martial arts. Kathak teaches us discipline, dedication, patience, hard work and self-control.

Learning from the Legend Himself
When I decided to visit India to learn classical dance, the Indian embassy helped me a lot. I didn’t know how to go about things when I visited the country for the first time. I stayed with an Indian family in Delhi for a while and visited different gurus.

I also went to Pandit Birju Maharaj’s house and expressed my desire to learn Kathak. He saw in me the potential, talent and dedication, and encouraged me to continue learning the dance form. I was eventually accepted in Kalashram Academy to study under the legend himself. From 2007 to 2012, I continuously visited India to learn Kathak under the tutelage of Pandit Birju Maharaj and Smt. Saswati Sen.

Stint at Kathak Kendra
I wanted professional training for which I joined Kathak Kendra, one of the leading training institutions for Kathak dance, in 2012.

I was awarded a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to pursue professional dance training at the institute under the tutelage of Pandit Jai Kishan Maharaj, the elder son of Pandit Birju Maharaj.

Classical Indian dance is not just a physical activity, but a complete art form. It has tradition and history associated with it. To understand those aspects, one has to study music. When I was at Kathak Kendra, I learnt yoga, classical singing and how to play the tabla.

Ines Smiljanic

Keeping the Tradition Alive
Recently, I watched Hindi movies like Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, which had many classical dance performances. I’m happy to see that they are bringing the classical form back in trend.

There is a huge community of classical dancers and musicians who are trying to keep the tradition alive. There are many children willing to learn. However, very few are willing to take it up as a profession. People here are still conservative and skeptical about dance as a career. People were surprised to see me (a foreigner) take up Indian classical dance as a profession.

Adjusting to Life in Delhi
My lifestyle in Croatia was different from that of the people in my country. I was practicing yoga and meditation, and reading a lot about India. So it was not that difficult for me to adjust to life here. I just found it tough to get used to the weather.

The climate in Croatia is mostly pleasant. It’s very hot and humid here. The traffic here is crazy. Setting up work here can be really difficult because paperwork takes up a lot of your time, which can be really frustrating at times. People here are very laidback and flexible with their timings, leading to delays in getting work done.

Shopkeepers here work for about 12 hours a day. It’s tiring. There are no shifts either. I think if things are a little more organized, people would be more productive and happy.

Littering the Streets
People here have a habit of throwing garbage on the streets. There are less dustbins around.

I was at a market once and saw someone throw garbage on the street. When I confronted him about it, he just casually said that it was okay and that the sweepers would clean it later. His logic was that if there was no garbage on the streets, the sweepers would be out of jobs.

India Vs Croatia
Croatia is a relatively small country as compared to India. Life is little more organized. The day starts early, with most shops, malls and government offices starting work at 8 am. The traffic is not as crazy as it is in big Indian cities, which is why people are more punctual.

In Delhi, there is a lot of opportunity to grow as an artiste. There is always something happening in the city. It is accessible to everybody as compared to Croatia, where you have to save a lot of money if you wish to watch dance performances or theater or anything related to the arts. But, in Delhi, it is cheap. There are a lot of international events happening in the city as well. In Croatia, it is difficult to get artistes from India because the budget goes really high.

Indian Visiting Zagreb
I believe India has taught me patience, acceptance and kindness.

Now when I visit my home town, I feel like an Indian visiting Zagreb. People actually approach me thinking I am from a different country.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at expat@littleindia.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.