Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
I sat frozen on the stage. I was at my first major dance performance, at the 2010 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony, and my cue had come. Ten seconds passed, and I was still frozen. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. No movement.
This was my performance: keeping my body still as a statue. My role was to use subtle facial expressions to depict the guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship sitting under the Tree of Knowledge.The piece depicted how teachers impart wisdom from the tree of knowledge to their students.
With a large bright-red tilak mark on her forehead, eyes outlined with black kohl and a body swathed in Sambhalpuri sarees, my guru brought a sense of other-worldliness to our institute (Shri Kamakhya Kalapeeth) for Indian Classical Dance Odissi. Her love of tradition was reflected in her teachings. For instance, she opposed the use of props and set decorations: if we dancers were truly embodying the story, our expressions and mudras would be enough. Our performances were not for mere entertainment; we served as cultural ambassadors. She never verbally complimented anyone. Approval was tacit, usually indicated by selection for some performance. Some students did not get a chance to perform for years.
Surprisingly, I got my chance rather early. At the age of ten, I was one of the youngest to receive ghungaroos, which are anklets with metal bells that serve as vessels through which the guru confers a blessing onto the student. This was a pivotal point in my journey.
After this, I started performing all over India. Whenever I stepped on stage, I got lost in the performance, and for those few moments nothing else mattered. At times, I was called on stage to play several characters in the same dance just through a change of expressions. I started to truly feel the power of pure Odissi to inhabit other characters, and other worlds.
So much of my energy went into dancing, I found myself involuntarily living dance – painting canvases with dance themes, practicing dance moves while taking phone calls, and even revising steps in my mind during long swim workouts. This was when I realised that Odissi was more than a hobby; it was my passion.
On my 15th birthday I received a gift I will cherish for life–my teacher booked an auditorium for my Rangapravesh: a debut solo-dance recital. The coming months were intense. I came home exhausted from rehearsals, but my tired feet ached to dance again.
As the practices got longer, my bond with my guru grew stronger. Then came the penultimate day of practice for my Rangapravesh. After completing one of my longest and toughest compositions, “Dashavatar”, I was going to change my sweat-soaked clothes when my teacher called me next to her. This was odd; usually I would simply be dismissed. With arms wide open she said, “I see my reflection in you.” Trembling, I went closer and hugged her. After nine years of training I had finally received my first compliment.
Ever since, I have felt inspired to carry forward the Odissi tradition. In order to preserve my guru’s legacy, I want to immortalize her dance style by using motion capture suits to transfer her movements onto robots. This way, people all over the world can experience the aura and magic of Odissi. Dance has no boundaries, and progressivism is how I perceive Odissi can be preserved. As I embark on university study abroad, I want to be in an environment that is not only engulfed with reverence for knowledge and tradition, but also where I can challenge ideas and craft my own style of teaching.
During my dance journey I have learned that education does not emanate passively from a tree of knowledge, but takes hard work, self-motivation, dedicated teachers, and supportive resources. And sometimes, when you are training for a dynamic future, you need to start by sitting still.Published in