With her Baltic nation celebrating a centenary of the Republic of Latvia this year, Dr Sigma Ankrava sees a lot of similarities in the history of her homeland and her favourite home away from home, India.
“Both countries developed their ideas of national consciousness around the same time, and began their fight for independence in the same century – the Indians from the British, and Latvia from the Soviet Union,” says the professor emeritus of the University of Latvia.
But Sigma’s love for India goes deeper than just a shared sense of national history. Not only has she written a book on one of India’s feminist icons, Sarojini Naidu, she has also helped bridge the two countries. Her ‘academic diplomacy’ is arguably the key factor for the Baltic nation setting up an embassy in India in 2014.
Born in the early 1950s in Riga, Sigma was the eldest of three sisters; their father was a civil engineer and mother an accountant. Sigma had a happy childhood in the suburbs of the capital city, going skiing and ice skating with friends in winter.
She did her graduation in English literature from the University of Latvia, and, after her Master’s, was offered the opportunity to do her PhD at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Academy of Sciences, Moscow. She published her thesis on the Indian poetess Sarojini Naidu as a book when she was 27.
“India is a melting pot of the East,” says the professor, explaining how even the languages here – Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi – are a gateway into so many different cultures and histories.
She began teaching at her alma mater, her fascination with Oriental studies still very much alive. In the meantime, she also got married and had two daughters. One headed to the US to do her PhD, and the other joined Latvia’s foreign services.
In 2012, Sigma was given a two-year scholarship to the University of Madras by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. It was an exciting time for her – she organized an international expedition along the ‘amber way’, an ancient route that linked Latvia and India in amber trade.
Sigma organized a team consisting of her colleagues along with PhD students and a TV crew, who flew to India. They ended up making four films on southern India, starting from the Malappuram coastline, and covering Kannur, Cochin, Bengaluru, Ooty and Coimbatore.
As a result of all this activity, the University of Latvia decided to open the Centre of Indian Studies and Culture, headed by Sigma, offering courses in Hindi and yoga – the latter is one of their most popular subjects even today.
But Sigma wasn’t quite done yet. On a visit to Haridwar in northern India with her sister, she happened to come across “a beautiful gate”. It was the Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya (DSVV). Sigma went in and presented herself to the administration office. “Oh, we know where Latvia is,” she was told. “A lot of Latvians come here to study yoga.”
The visit led to discussions and more discussions, and eventually, the acting vice-chancellor of the university travelled to Riga and signed an MOU with the University of Latvia to set up the Centre for Baltic Studies in DSVV.
But even with all this cross-cultural exchange going on, getting visas for Indian students who wanted to study in Latvia was cumbersome. Finally, largely due to the cooperation between the Latvian and Indian universities, the minister of external affairs of Latvia visited India and, as a result, the embassy of Latvia was set up in Delhi in 2014.
In the spring of 2015, Sigma also helped to organize the first Indo-Baltic Forum on the Humanities and Sciences, and a year later, organized another conference in Riga and hosted Professor Sivaram from the University of Bangalore.
The Centre of Indian Studies and Culture at the University of Latvia even organized celebrations for the First International Yoga Day. Next, Professor Armstrong from the University of Madras was invited to lecture and a steady stream of Indian students began lining up at Riga’s shores for higher education, mostly in technical sciences.
Two years ago, Sigma’s daughter Stella was – purely coincidentally – offered a position at the Latvian embassy in New Delhi. Sigma was gleeful: “Won’t you need a grandma around to babysit your two little girls while you and your husband are out at work?” she asked Stella, who obviously agreed.
And so Sigma took a two-year sabbatical from her university (after more than 40 years of service!) and headed to India once again, this time with her family.
She’s kept herself busy, of course: she is the external examiner for PhD theses for several universities in India, and is writing The Short Dictionary of Hindu Mythology in Latvian. Just last month, she brought in around 70 folk dancers and singers from Latvia to perform at DSVU to celebrate the festival of sun and spring (Ūsiņdiena/Aswini day).
Most of the time, however, she has learnt to take it easy in Delhi. Dressed in a cotton sundress, her cheeks ruddy with the summer heat (which she doesn’t mind), she smiles happily as she heads out to pick up her granddaughters from school.