I Learned to Live Dance

by Shashwati Garaighosh

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I hail from a family of artists: My father is a sculptor, my mother paints, and my brother is an architectural sculptor. Growing up, I was surrounded by canvas, paint, brushes, stone, wood, chisels… the list goes on. Born into a family of artists, it was never an option not to be interested in art. It was both nature and nurture. As a little girl, I was quite convinced that I would grow up to either paint or sculpt like my parents. Alongside, dance (Odissi) was my constant companion — an after­ school hobby that I really enjoyed.

Over the years, that ‘hobby’ became integral to who I am, and a vessel for my creative expression. However in time, merely dancing was not enough anymore. I wanted to learn everything about the Odissi dance form: its history, cultural roots, and how it evolved. At this point, the decision to pursue dance academically and become a classical Odissi dancer, was an easy one to make. I completed my Masters from Rabindra Bharati University while simultaneously honing my art under Guru Smt. Sharmila Biswas.

It was a warm September evening in 1999, when I saw Katha Surpanakha, a group production by Sharmila Biswas, at GD Birla Sabhaghar in Kolkata. The memory of that evening, and Sharmila­di’s performance is as vivid as yesterday. That is when I knew I wanted to dance like her. My decision to join Odissi Vision and Movement Centre (OVM), made me the dancer and performer I am today. The journey has been a dream for me.

Sharmila­di’s first lesson was: “Be the dancer YOU are. Never copy me.” That lesson continues to resonate within, and helps me shape my identity as a dancer. Without a doubt, my guru is a
creative genius, and a dynamic force. She taught me professionalism: the value of hard work in conjunction with dynamism, positivity, and creative honesty. I learned to truly LIVE dance.

During my time at OVM, I learned that dance — be it any form — is not just about movements, but a complete experience to explore. Sharmiladi’s approach to dance pedagogy was not confined to classroom practice. She helped me realise that the true appreciation of an art form happens through the thorough understanding of its heritage. The Odissi dance ­form is a distilled essence of hundreds of years of history, culture, language, geography, traditions, and people.

Sharmila­di’s scholarly approach towards a physical art made my training process both unique and comprehensive. The experience of training in Odisha’s folk art forms like Sambalpuri, Karma, Danda, Chau, Paik, etc. gave our genre a distinct style, and helped me appreciate Odissi’s beautiful cultural heritage even more. Interactive sessions and training with legends like Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan, Smt. Sonal Mansingh, and Guru Sri Durgacharan Ranbir have given me a strong foothold in the style.

Like any professional athlete, a professional dancer must stay fit and avoid injuries. Sharmila­di initiated a regimen of exercises, in consultation with a fitness ­trainer to specifically help dancers stay fit, prevent injuries, and persevere through (manageable) injuries during a performance.

The journey at OVM through classes, training, workshops, research, compositions,choreography, interactions, and tours was invaluable in building my confidence as a dancer and a performer. Discipline, dedication, patience, passion, and now confidence helped to make the next natural transition: becoming a soloist. And my guiding principle — that practice hall is the biggest stage, and I am my own audience — has seen me through many challenges, both on and off the stage.

I feel fortunate to be a part of this dance fraternity. On our shoulders we carry the responsibility a very rich cultural artifact, and through thoughts, ideas, and artistic endeavours we strive to do justice to this beautiful and elegant art form.

With support and encouragement from my family I started my own institute: Angashuddhi – Home for Odissi, in 2006. A small initiative to pass on my knowledge, experience, and passion for Odissi to the next generation, the same way I learned from my guru. In my heart though, I remain a student – learning through experience, exploration, and embellishment.

Dance reflects life… and now, it is through the prism of dance that I view the world around.

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