Arunima Ghosh: Srishti's always happy on stage
Srishti Debroy is a promising young Odissi dancer who performed her manchapravesh in 2022. She is a prodigy because she did that at the tender age of nine years! She is the daughter of Delhi-based Odissi dancer and teacher Arunima Ghosh and photographer Sanjit Debroy. Arunima has learnt Odissi under gurus like Monalisa Ghosh and Sharon Lowen and also teaches Odissi in NCR, which is how Srishti has been watching Odissi since she was four months old.
I first watched Srishti when she was about five and performing in a group recital with her mother's other little students. I was amazed at the little girl's uncanny control over her movements and the precision required of a good classical dancer - it was obviously well beyond any five-year-old's ability - and it was clear Srishti had a talent not explained entirely by early training or exposure. Only five years later, at her manchapravesh, it was gurus like Madhavi Mudgal and Sharon Lowen expressing their amazement at her 'god-given' talent, firmly establishing the talented child as a prodigy.
I wondered how it was to raise and train a prodigy, and so I spoke to Arunima a few months later, when Srishti had turned ten, about being both mother and guru. I also spoke to Srishti, who is shy but surprisingly mature and very intelligent. Like Arunima, Srishti has a love for dance and it was clear that she was dancing not out of any pressure on the part of her parents but simply because she enjoys it. Arunima confessed that she arranged Srishti's manchapravesh on the urging of senior gurus, which included her own teachers and even the late Birju Maharaj.
When did you feel that Srishti had potential as a dancer and that you wanted to groom her as a guru and a mother? Or was it just a natural choice you made since you were dancing throughout?
Actually, it was not like I made a conscious effort. I had started taking classes when she was four months old. Since then, she has been going with me to my class. And then slowly, as a toddler and then in the pram (she was often in class)... So she started picking up bols and some rhythms, and the names of some hastabhedas. She used to say that when she started to speak. When she was three years old I thought, okay, she's going with me every day, let me put her in class with all the other kids. So she started formally when she was three. But it was not a conscious thought that I have to groom her. That came later, much later, that I have to focus her dance. Otherwise, it was completely natural.
|Arunima Ghosh and Shrishti Debroy
I saw that she was picking things up and most importantly, everything was in the right rhythm. Her sense of rhythm was very strong. Even when she was not speaking, she would move with the music exactly in rhythm. I thought she's on the right track. She was happy and a natural from the very first class.
Around what age was she when you felt that she had a lot of potential and that you should groom her in that way?
I didn't think much about that at first. But others like my dance colleagues and my gurus - my guru Monalisa (Ghosh) didi and Sharon (Lowen) ma'am - they saw and remarked on Srishti's talent and then I thought yes, I should do it sincerely. That's when I started training her with my students and separately also, because I saw that she can pick up things.
She did very few performances, but whenever she performed, everybody appreciated it. I have seen that in group presentations also. She changes when she's on stage. She's a different personality. Normally, she's very shy with other people and actually doesn't speak much. But when she's on stage, she's a completely different personality - so natural, so confident. That's the word I should use. That's why I decided to name her manchapravesh production Anandam. She's always happy on stage.
She was I think five or four and a half when she did a solo programme for her play school. It was a mangalacharan in Odissi and that was her first performance on stage. She was very natural and happy and she did everything correctly, exactly in rhythm.
Her actions are also nearly perfect - her footwork, her hands...
I won't say it's perfect, but a few things, intentionally, I didn't make them even finer. I know that if I tell her to do them more precisely, she will do it, but I thought she's a child, so let her dance be like a child's dance, not like some grown-up or mature dancer's dance. So a few things she did like a child.
Now that she's had her manchapravesh, of course, you must be a very proud mother and guru. Have you raised your expectations also, or do you still feel apprehensive about whether it is the right age to sort of put her into that kind of frame? Are you expecting her to do it better?
I haven't thought like that, really... I mean, manchapravesh was one thing I really wanted to do, because I was quite sure that that was the time she would be able to do it. Though she's young - she was just nine years old and dancing continuously for one hour is not very easy - but somehow, as a guru and a mother, I was quite sure about her strength, stamina and ability. I knew she was ready for her manchapravesh, and that has given me also a certain confidence as a teacher. It has inspired her to do her regular practice, and a lot of people appreciated it and that also inspired her. She was also very happy to see her own ability, that has inspired her and she has increased her practice time, but actually what I mean is that I haven't take any further decision based on that. I thought, let it be like this. The way she has taken things and I have taught her, let it be like that only, nothing more or less. I mean, if something more will come, then it will come automatically, there is no plan.
Okay. So you would not push her to do more than what she can?
No, I don't. I mean, regular pushing as a guru, of course, it's part of the job of a teacher, like my gurus have done it. I have pushed her like they have pushed me. But any decision making based on that? No, I haven't done that.
Are there any other difficulties or apprehensions that you have about your child being a prodigy?
No, and that's also not something on my mind. I'm a mother also, so for me the only challenge was during the preparation of Anandam. I faced one conflict, which is the conflict of being a mother and a teacher. The mother inside me was telling me she has done a lot and she must be tired. Let me stop it now. But the guru inside, the teacher inside me, said she can do more, push a little more. And at the same time, taking care of everything is a challenge. Yes, that's a big responsibility. I feel that since she has that ability, I should nurture that. And I should nurture that as a mother also, taking care of her health and inner stamina. I make sure that she reads a lot. I didn't instruct her to, but I did encourage her to take up Sanskrit as a language at school. She has taken that and she really loves it. She reads many mythological stories. She loves to read the Mahabharata, and sometimes she picks up some stories and tells me that she wants to choreograph these. She's still too young to develop those things but she plans them. I wanted that, that she should have that knowledge. It helps children develop emotionally; if they can feel it, only then can they express it through their abhinaya. So in that way, of course, I have taken care of those things - that she should read books and she should know some languages also. I mean, knowing multiple languages can improve her thinking ability. And she learns vocal also - learning vocal and rhythm helps a dancer greatly.
How do you maintain the balance between studies, going to school, learning dance and taking care of her?
The best thing is that she's very obedient and she loves to do these things. She loves everything, whatever she does - she loves to do her studies. And I have always made sure that I never tell her that this is my wish. That was like a mother's trick. I told her (in such a way) that she should think that these are her responsibilities and nothing from my side. So she thinks in that way and she does it as part of her routine. But for her dance practice I have to sit with her. For her regular practice also she will do everything on her own, but for her dance practice she needs me. Whenever I sit with her, she does it properly.
Since you are her guru, it makes a difference, maybe.
Maybe that's the thing - she thinks that ma is my guru and that if she sits with me it's easier and better, so maybe she prefers that. She never says no, she does it with love and there is no pressure from my side. I just initiate things and I try my best with our conversation to increase her love for that subject. We discuss a lot about many things - mythological stories, language, dance... regular conversation is in our routine.
In the present times, we see that the arts are not very well paid. Do you think it will be a viable choice for her, taking up a profession in the arts?
If she wants to be a dancer, then no one can stop her. If she doesn't want it, then no one can put her in that field. So it's not my choice or about the pros and cons of that field that I know very well. I believe completely that it's her choice. Whatever she does, I will be with her.
But thinking of professional viability, would you want her to take up a different profession and let dance go side by side or would you be okay with her taking up dance as a profession?
Yes, I would be quite okay with that. I know she will find the way to sustain and survive.
Being a mother and a guru, there are a lot of dilemmas you have to face.
Yes, there are. Like when she was small, she used to feel very sleepy, but I had to take her to every class, which was not the right thing, but I had no other option and sometimes I thought that taking her out too much maybe would push her away from dance, but it didn't happen. She was irritated temporarily because she was very young. But she adjusted with me a lot. I mean, it didn't matter what the weather was, whether she was sick or okay, she adjusted with me each time. That has also helped me to overcome my dilemma.
Hi, Srishti. Which school are you in?
I'm in the Millennium school, Greater Noida. I got promoted to class 5 in April (2023).
What all are you studying these days?
Hindi, English, Maths, Environmental Science and I've also chosen my own third language, which is Sanskrit.
Do you like Sanskrit?
Does Sanskrit also help you with understanding what pieces you are doing in your dance?
Yes, that's the very reason I took it. It really helps me.
Do you have many friends?
Yes, I have many friends.
And in your dance class also do you have friends?
Yes, all of them are my friends!
Do you enjoy dancing? Or do you want to sometimes you know, rest or do something else or play?
I love to dance. But I also love to do other things, like I learn singing, and I do small nature workshops in which I love to read about nature. We are learning different techniques in the class. It's just a small three months' workshop that I attended to enhance my writing. We are using these techniques to write stories which will inspire the people to not destroy the environment, to not pollute the environment, the water, the air. Just as I was about to start writing my story, I fell sick so I couldn't write it.
Okay. But that is very interesting, no?
Yes, it's very interesting. I got to know many things which I didn't know.
When you are presenting a piece like Madhurashtakam, how much do you understand? Because your bhavas are very nice ...
Actually, it all started with Dashavatar. When my mother was doing a workshop for her dance class, she was teaching Dashavatar, which I also performed. From that, the stories which she told in short, I was also helping in reading them. And then when I read, I thought that I loved to read about these ten avatars. And so I read more about Vishnu. And then I read more about Shiva and the goddesses. And that's how I actually learnt the feeling, I could get the feeling. I also love to read short mythological story books.
Do you have to watch over your eating or exercises for your dancing?
I don't have a specific timing for dancing lately. I practice when I get the time, and that doesn't actually happen daily. Whenever I get time, like Thursdays I get more time, I learn dance from my mother too and do practice on Saturdays and Sundays, and I also attend classes and help her in her classes of the junior batch.
You are a beautiful dancer. Do you know that?
Thank you. I enjoy dancing. I do it with all my heart.
Note: This interview first appeared in narthaki.com
Pics: Anoop Arora