Few people can boast of having Czech-Nepalese heritage, fluency in four languages and an in-depth knowledge of traditional Indian dance. Few people except maybe Rob Cameron's guest in One on One - Sangita Shresthova. Sangita's childhood was divided between Prague and Kathmandu, but now she lives in Prague, where she studies film, teaches and performs dance. Recently she helped to organise a festival of Bollywood film.
Sangita, tell me more about your unusual background.
"Um, yes, there aren't many Czech-Nepalese, that's true. My parents met here. My father's from Nepal, my mother's Czech. My dad was actually here on a scholarship during Communism. That was one of the policies of Communist countries, to really provide an opportunity for students from developing countries to come and study. So my father came on one of those scholarships, and my parents met here. They're still together, they've been together ever since."
What about you? Where were you born and where did you grow up?
"I was born here in Prague, because my parents were still here. But we moved to Nepal when I was two, then we moved back to Prague when I was six, then we moved back to Nepal when I was nine. So I really spent all of my formative teenage years in Nepal."
So you've had a good dose of both cultures and are able to compare the two presumably?
"Yes, I think so. I feel very privileged, because I have a lot of friends from mixed backgrounds, or diaspora communities, and I think I'm very privileged to have really experienced both cultures as opposed to living in one and having to imagine the other."
As we can hear you're also fluent in English, your background must have left you as quite a linguist - Czech, Nepalese, English...
"I grew up with three languages, Czech, Nepalese and English, because I went to an English medium school in Kathmandu. But then just to complicate matters I decided to study German literature at university as an undergraduate. So I added German to that. I think I really would advise anyone who has a bilingual household to really bring up their kids that way, because it does change the way they learn languages."
What's your mother tongue?
"I don't know. I guess it would be Czech. My mother's Czech. So I guess it would be Czech."
You're a film scholar, and have a great interest in film, where did that interest begin?
"It's actually funny, but I came to that from dance. I'm a dancer, a trained classical dancer, and I became fascinated with Bollywood dance, more from the dance side. It's interesting, because shows that happen around the world, if you have a classical Indian dance, you're struggling to sell tickets, if you have a Bollywood dance show, you're going to sell out. So I started wondering what is it about the films and the dances, and through that I really got interested in Bollywood film, and through that in film in general. So really dance on film is what I focus on, but by extension of course I study film as well."
You were the co-organiser of Prague's first proper Bollywood film festival, at Prague's Aero Cinema. Tell me how the idea for the festival came about.
"There were three of us: myself, a Czech film-maker who's very interested in Bollywood films and then an Indology scholar who studied here at Charles University. We were literally sitting around discussing the fact that we didn't have a chance to watch Bollywood films here, so we said - let's organise a festival. It just happened. Along the way we were like - are we really going to do this? And at every point someone said - no, let's keep going. And then it just happened."
"It depends how you measure success. I think from our side it was, extremely. Attendance was great. Our objective really was to bring Bollywood to Prague, and I think we've succeeded in doing that. We also really wanted to motivate the South Asian community here to be more active, and I think maybe we've succeeded in that. So, yes, I think it was."
That's a quite small community isn't it?
"It's hard to measure. Numbers range from 300 to 800 for the Indians themselves. Then you have the other South Asians - Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Nepalese and so on. I don't have numbers, but yes, compared to London or Paris it's nothing. But still, you work with what you've got!"
You mentioned there that you came to film through dance, and you also teach traditional dance and Bollywood dance. It must be quite difficult teaching people from Central Europe to do this very, very ancient dance from India.
"Yes. I don't call myself a teacher as such yet. I feel like I have time for that later. But the reason I started to teach was that I feel that through dance and through film it's pretty much the same mission - it's a medium to bring other cultures to people, and that's why I do it. I really enjoy seeing students struggle almost, not with the movement, but with the historical content of the dance, and with Bollywood the specific gestures and the background. So when I teach I really don't only teach technique, I really try and explain to them where it's come from, why it's there, what it means. It's interesting. I've taught in Belgium, I've taught in the States, and I've taught here. I find that some of the questions are the same, some are different. I feel that Czechs are really just starting to embark on this sort of multicultural journey, so it's kind of fun. It's really exciting in a way to be a pioneer. You can make a big difference as one person here I think."
There's a fairly sizeable community of foreigners here with their own restaurants and their own meeting places, and the two communities - foreign and Czech - do collide. But often people claim that Czech society still remains rather closed to new ideas, to foreign ideas. Do you think that's changing?
"It's very hard to answer in generalisations. I think it is changing. It's changing perhaps more slowly than we all anticipated in the early 90s, when we thought 'open border, open mind'. So in that sense definitely. I think as people travel more, the young generation is really going to push the change I think. For older people it's probably going to be more difficult to accept multiculturalism as inherent to a society. We'll see what happens. I really do think that it is changing, but as I said more slowly, and differently in Prague than in the rest of the country. I think that's very important to point out."
So no Bollywood festivals planned for, say, North Moravia?
"We've thought about Brno, because there's a sizeable Indian population in Brno. But I think the appeal would be so much smaller, the press coverage would be very different. The excitement is big, but I feel Prague has really moved on a lot further. I recently had a show in Bratislava, and there it felt like Prague was this big city that they looked to. It's funny because when we sit in Prague we compare it to London, we compare it Berlin, and we say it's not multicultural enough. But from Bratislava's perspective Prague is incredibly multicultural!"
Is Prague multicultural enough for you to want to spend the rest of your life here?
"That's a difficult question. I don't think I'd answer 'yes' to any city for that question. I think for me it's really critical to keep connections to places that I've been to. I'm a little bit alone, not completely, but in terms of how I think. I'm part of a big minority, whereas in London I feel that lots of people think the way I do. While I feel the relative impact that you can have here in Prague is bigger, I feel that the connections are really important to keep me going. So I don't know what's going to happen in the future in terms of where I live. I have no idea."
And if you're in Prague on November 30th, you can see Sangita at the Kalaripayat - a performance of South Indian Martial Art and Classical Dance. It's on at the ABC theatre, for more details see www.divadloabc.cz
Growing concern over plight of leading Chinese investor in the Czech Republic
President Zeman’s Chinese advisor arrested
Controversial Russian gas pipeline makes Czech progress
Jan Masaryk’s mysterious death – a “last nail” in the coffin of democracy in 1948
Czech average monthly wages pass 30,000 crown mark for first time