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That Mama: HR Executive and Ethos Odissi Dance Founder Soumee De Girotra

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That Mama Soumee De Girotra balances a career in corporate HR with a passion for ancient Indian Odissi Dance performance — and sharing it with kids in Singapore

I first came to know Soumee De Girotra through our children’s preschool, where she’s often come in to do hands-on art and dance projects with the kids over the years. It took me a while to connect the dots to realise she was the same woman gracing posters all over town as a leading performer of Odissi Dance, an ancient Indian classical dance form that originated near her home city of Kolkata. Soumee’s passion for Odissi led her to form her own dance organisation, Ethos Odissi, which provides instruction to both adults and children as young as 3 (including workshops at one of our fave play spots, The Artground!). In addition to raising her two sons, Sahir (5) and Armaan (9), Soumee also maintains an active career in Human Resources; she holds an MBA and is currently a Workforce Advisory Consultant at Ernst & Young. She obviously has unique insights about helping people find career satisfaction (be sure to check out her advice relating to the Japanese concept of ikigai), and also shares her wisdom about making time to pursue your hobbies. Read on for a lovely interview and gorgeous photos as always, courtesy of Irina Nilsson Photography!

Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I grew up in Kolkata, India and work (in a large Fortune 100 Bank) brought me over from Mumbai to Singapore more than a decade ago. I met my husband in Singapore, had a fantastic career journey in a regional pan-APAC role, had two adorable boys (age 5 and 9), started a dance collective, and have now made the Little Red Dot our home.

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Life before the kids can be described as two dimensional — professional work during the week and a personal life over weekends. Life after kids turns out to be multi-dimensional — it’s like 3D or a 4D experience of life. I knew that maternity alone would not be the reason to take the plunge out of a professional life.

I believe in the growth mindset introduced by the American psychologist Dr Carol Dweck and believe that most women can develop new abilities due to their love of learning and resilience, and this will bring them successfully to the higher dimension of life. With a lot of support from the family and systems, as we move from the experience of 2D to 3D to 4D phases, we adapt, grow and evolve into zones in a life that is irreversible. I have been lucky to have given birth to both my children in a Singapore that offers one of the best motherhood experiences, with adequate maternity leave periods, shared parental leave, reliable child care facilities, lactation rooms at work and trained home caregivers, and I’ve received the full support from my family. 

How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
Wearing the green hat of growth mindset and receiving the support of wonderful family and the Singapore infrastructure, I was committed to returning back to work at the end of maternity leave. This target date ensured that I stayed on track with plentiful schedules for both of us and the caregiver (breastfeeding, milk-pumping, feeding, bathing, napping and sleeping). The handover was emotionally overwhelming, but there’s the promise of joyful evenings when you come back to be reunited every day.

In 2010, when we had our first son, life changed for us completely. Right before I was set to head back to work, my manager excitedly called me up and said, “You will be traveling to Europe to teach what we’ve done in Asia!” I had not prepared at all for this long-haul travel over the last four months! Within the first week of returning to work, I was panic-stricken while planning my week long trip.  I solicited breastmilk pumping and storage tips for travel from my paediatrician-cum working-mum, received help from my kind co-travelling colleagues, and sought advice from experienced mum-friends and many blogs for working mums (not to mention my own mother’s unconditional support). All of these things combined to see me through this first challenge back at work. That’s when I realised, it does take a village to raise just one child! In 2014, when my second born arrived, I thought I had it all sorted, until the day arrived when I was supposed to return back to work. Panic strike re appeared as the breast pump stopped working that Sunday evening! A frantic post on a blog site and a few phone calls later, I had kind hearted friends drop three breast pumps at my doorstep before the next Monday morning! The warm feeling of the supportive village behind me helped me overcome every challenge that faced me in the next few weeks at work that week.

How has having a child/children changed the way you define work?
Be in the moment”: that’s the way I perceive work and life. Balance is hard to achieve unless we shift our focus away from time management principles to energy management principles. Just like you can’t be physically in two places, mentally it is near impossible to perform two thought processes at the same time. I prefer to give 100% energy towards what I am doing and thinking at that moment. When I am at work, I have to be in the moment so I can make the best use of my time and energy and perform the role thoughtfully. The same principles apply outside of work. When I am with the children, I keep the work gadgets away (until they sleep) to spend the  quality moments with them. It could be playing, or giving them a bath, or reading a book or tucking them to sleep. A ritualistic discipline helps others understand and adapt to both the mother and the child.

How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Technology today has highly advanced to provide a rich, meaningful connection with your colleagues, home, and schools remotely. Ensure you (and the others you interact with) have all the access and use them extensively. I spend a good amount of time planning my work-life schedules for the week. For me “week” is a unit of time and I tend to “complete it all” within the week. A guilt-ridden self (guilty mum or guilty at work) leads to stress, and for me the only way to ensure that most things get done is to look at time in a week’s frame.

odissi dance performance by that mama soumee de girotra

In addition to your “day job,” you’ve been able to dedicate a great deal of time to your passion for classical Indian dance, including performances and even children’s dance workshops. How long have you been dancing for, and how have you been able to balance this with your other job?
Dance is one of the dimensions I’ve grown up with since the age of four. When I met an anthropologist a few years back at work, I realised that I’d had the rare privilege of learning this traditional art form from masters and before the tradition disappears, it is my obligation to pass it down to the next generation. That’s when I embarked on my entrepreneurial journey by co-founding a dance collective for local artistes at Singapore called ETHOS and started teaching dance to local school and university students over weekends. If you are keen on learning this traditional dance form called Odissi, you can sign up for beginner classes on Saturdays at ETHOS, or sign up for one of our “Dance-telling” sessions at the The Artground for preschoolers on Sundays! 

Do you have any advice for parents who want to find a hobby but don’t know where to start?
For those who are looking for developing a hobby, I suggest an exercise for you using the concepts of ikigai (which is a Japanese concept on discovering “the reason for being”). 

Question for you: Whom do you envy? Is there a part of someone’s life you’ve always admired? A hobby, a volunteer position, job, skill you’d love to have? Act on your envy — ask the person when you can meet them or shadow them or when he/ she can dabble in what she knows? In this digital age, we have the quick ability to connect with our envy and be inspired to take the next step.

At an operational level, do surround yourself with support. Once you share your dream with your support network, the world conspires with you to make it happen. And if you are looking to try out a dance class for the joy of dancing, do contact me!

As the mother of two boys, have you been able to get your sons involved with dance? Any tips for mamas to encourage ALL their kids’ participation in dance?
When it comes to music and dance education for primary schoolers, the best gift one can give is to provide exposure to a variety of music, dance and performing arts. Once they are seven years of age, they tend to select a choice that comes naturally to them. This is the time to pursue depth of learning.

My sons have been exposed to multiple instruments and dance classes: drums, piano, recorder, hip hop and Odissi dance. They are a keen audience and sometimes very helpful rehearsal masters during our practice sessions.

I wish I had more time for…
Creation of new works. Most of my time is spent in day-to-day management: of the house, the projects, the work, the team and classes. If I had the time, I would like to spend more time in my creative efforts. The need to slow down and be bored is important to fuel the creativity and that’s a luxury in a mother’s life!

I always feel saner after…
An outdoor run! Nature is a humbling, calming and inspiring ingredient and if I ever feel too excited or down or insane I go outdoors for a run. I am thankful to NParks for their diligent effort in making Singapore one of the greenest cities in the world and the preservation of wildlife around this island habitat.

Read more: Our Favourite Parks and Green Spaces in Singapore

What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I live at Grange Road and our favourite haunt is the Botanic Gardens. The garden, its wildlife, national treasure trove of orchids, green patches, Jacob Ballas and the cafes are our favourite. The Quayside walkways along the river at Robertson Quay are also one of my favourite jogging paths.

Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Esplanade theatres! We love to experience different cultures through the year-round kid-friendly festivals at Esplanade. Through the performances by the world’s best artistes we are able to learn about the diversity of nations and their rich cultural performing arts traditions and contemporary works. Esplanade offers free kid-friendly programs at the outdoor theatres throughout the year courtesy of PIP’s Club.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
Food for Tots at The Botanic Gardens; Marché at Orchard, Din Tai Fung anywhere; and Kith Cafe at the Quayside.

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Bali has been our favourite destination for the family. The sun, sand, and seas are a great combination to take a break from the city life.

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Make time to enjoy things that interest you both! My husband rarely has time for romance between his travel, golf and time with children, but he is a movie enthusiast. A getaway after kids’ sleep to catch a movie at the theatres and a quick bite, has been a regular fixture amid our crazy routines.

Favourite date night restaurants?
A glass of wine at Wine Connection!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Do sign up in advance to book the Confinement Nanny! It is the best self-care gift you can give to yourself while recovering post child birth.

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women:
1. Don’t be shy to say yes to reliable support offered to you. 2. The mental health of mums is usually not discussed widely and there is hardly much preparation on how to handle the “low” points of your mental health post maternity. Most new mums are showered with directive instructions on “how to” take care of the baby but there is very little direction on “how to” care for the self. Give yourself all the love that it deserves at this critical journey of your life.

Read more: How do you ‘Self Care’?

As a mama I wish I were better at…
Playing every sport! With active boys in the house, playing indoors and outdoors keeps all of us sane. Wish I’d practiced all that sport in my childhood!

What’s your favourite family ritual?
Playing games with my sons and reading a book to them.

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
Did we miss the activity sign-up timeline? With the plethora of e-journals, notices, WhatsApp reminders regarding classes and activities, I still go to sleep with the fear that I may have missed signing up or paying up for an activity!

My favourite moment of the day is…
When I wake up to the smiles of the family. All of us are “morning” people and when the morning starts with smiles and hugs – we are ready to take on the day!

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your art with us, Soumee! And a huge thank you to Irina Nilsson Photography for the gorgeous-as-ever photos of Soumee and her boys!

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Lead image and image #4 by Apsaras Arts

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