Training Students in the Classical Performing Arts of India


 Sharon Lowen


Sharon Lowen

Sharon Lowen looks at the pros and cons of the Guru-Shisya Parampara vs. learning in institutions for the arts, as well as the place of arts in academia, with a view to maintaining the highest standards of training and aesthetic education in the arts to enable future artists to creatively explore and develop tradition.

Before approaching a discussion of the place of performing arts in academia, it is necessary to consider the much debated subject of training in the traditional arts through the traditional guru/shishya parampara vs. learning in institutions for the arts.  Rather than viewing these methods of learning as opposite poles, it may be more useful to see these as different paths to the same goal.  Each has its pluses and minuses and the realities of the world we live in can be better served by realistically seeing how the advantages of both methods can be maximized to maintain the continuation and vibrancy of these arts today and in the future.

The ideal of the guru/shishya tradition in the performing arts is a model of one-to-one training with the guru imparting knowledge to the student in an atmosphere free of outside distractions.  The student lives with the teacher and imbibes the attitude of the guru towards every aspect of life and philosophy through example as well as direct teaching.  The guru guides the student as a mentor, combining masterly teaching with virtually parental responsibility from first initiation to the shishya's career development as a performing artist.  In return, the student has the responsibility to work hard with sincerity, accept the discipline of the guru, and serve him or her with devotion and respect throughout the guru's life.  If both parties fulfill their responsibilities, the student should become a master in the art, in time.

The downside of this relationship is that a less than ideal teacher could withhold knowledge from a shishya for some selfish reason, such as not wanting a student to excel beyond his own family members or other favoured student, or from insecurity that the student might leave the guru when s/he comes into her own as an artist. Exploitation of the student can be easier in an environment of isolation and dependency compared to the less cloistered atmosphere of an institution where the student has a broader frame of reference.  The guru-shishya relationship is based on trust, with the guru having more influence than a parent.  Unfortunately, many teachers call themselves gurus without fulfilling the responsibilities of this role, thereby doing irreparable disservice to sincere students.

In the ideal of learning dance (or other performing arts) within an institutional framework, the student can presumably rely on the consistency of teachers who will offer regular instruction at fixed timings in a professional manner, i.e. focused on using the time so that the student will move forward in learning during each and every session together, rather than as and when the mood strikes the teacher.  In this institutional ideal, pedagogy is taken seriously and the fundamentals of the art have been structured into a curriculum so that there are no gaps or imbalances in the basics of learning technique, philosophy, language and history in so far as these will enable the student to become a better artist.  In a model institution, the gathering of students and teachers enriches the student's exposure, interaction and dialogue with others so that s/he is capable of developing the confidence of a personal sense of aesthetics and a view of the range of creativity in the traditional form.  A master teacher can share his or her art with many more students and thereby increase the odds that it lives on.  Students learning in an institution of arts need not be restrained by the bonds of the guru-shishya tradition.  Rather, they have the right and personal responsibility to seek the best training available and move on to other teachers if they are ready for a more advanced level of instruction or simply wish to explore other dimensions of the art form.

The above advantages of learning within an institution of training in the traditional performing arts of India, whether we call it academy, kendra or vidyalaya, does not frankly sound much like the actual practice in the majority of institutions that come to mind.  In fact, most of the risks of a dysfunctional guru-shishya system seem to be perpetuated in many art institutions without enough of "pluses".  When a teacher in an institution indulges in irregular and inconsistent teaching as though the student had 24 hours a day and many years with him to eventually learn; when a teacher exerts paternalistic control over the students' loyalty without in return helping and guiding them in their career path in the arts; when the teacher jealously withholds the kind of training that would develop the student into a performing artist in favour of family members or exploits students financially or otherwise, then we have the combination of the negative possibilities of both methods of learning.  This model is perhaps what gives supporters of traditional arts a fear for the future of performing arts taught in institutions.

Certainly no method of training can guarantee production of a great artist, yet a plethora of artists of the highest calibre and individuality have been trained in Western classical dance and music with combinations of group instructions by dedicated teachers in institutions and schools in conjunction with master classes by visiting artists, private instructions by master teachers in the level and aspect of art appropriate for the young artist, and education in related arts and subjects to evolve a well rounded individual, finally trained in form with personal depth in content.  There is little question that the Indian classical dancer or musician must have direct instruction as part of his or her training to develop and improvise and create within the tradition, but this is not antithetical to combining this personal training with the advantages of many minds and technologies available within an institutional framework.  Even a cassette player makes it possible to hear the nuances of music of the guru repeatedly even with the teacher far away, invaluable to dancers and musicians for rehearsal, review and even learning some aspects that might have been missed and forgotten in the original training time.  Video/DVD is another simple tool for review of what is first learned directly from the teacher, enabling the student to add what might have been missed before the student could absorb more, and also to encourage self correction.

Technological tools do not replace teachers, but are a rich source of additional input in the process.  A student should have an enhanced learning experience if technique and theory, music, literature, history, related visual arts, language are available as adjunct courses.  This is a possibility in a model institution for the arts, as the knowledge and experience of a faculty would logically add up to more than any individual teacher, no matter how great.

There are models for both institutional and guru-shishya parampara combining to create new models for learning the traditional arts of India.  These models are not necessarily definitive examples, but simply point out the directions of alternatives.  Starting from a point closest to the guru-shishya end of the continuum, consider the example of Odissi dance since Indian independence.  Odissi became both recognized and respectable for girls of any strata of society to learn, yet many traditional teachers gave years of one-to-one training to a handful of talented disciples only to see them give up their careers before they'd even started, because of marriage.  Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra had the confidence and perhaps the foresight to take the risk of sharing his teaching over a huge number of students who were free to use or misuse his teaching without the usual situational control of the guru over his students.  Yet out of the hundreds of disciples who came and went, he was satisfied that he produced perhaps fifty or more quite competent performing artists, and of these five to ten that he felt happy to have represent his art anywhere in the world.  It was a very modern concept to put the onus on the student to practice and maintain his art.  In the process, he also developed a pedagogy of teaching and movement analysis to facilitate learning that was efficient for teaching group classes in concentrated time frames.  While it still takes years for an artist to be trained and is difficult to predict whether one has the intangible qualities to excel as an artist, Kelu Babu's methods have gone beyond the student teacher parameters to include a few of the advantages of institutional learning with positive results.

Long established at the other end of the spectrum, Kalakshetra, just outside Chennai, has taught the classical dance of South India in an institutional framework according to the aesthetics of the form called Bharatanatyam, as received by its pioneering founder, late Rukmini Arundale.  Besides creating a respectable and peaceful environment for young people to receive training, Rukmini Devi was wise in establishing a clear structured curriculum so that Kalakshetra graduates have a solid foundation in the many related facets of dance, music, texts, history and aesthetics of stage production.  Any institution today should do no less while attempting to further discover how best to create an optimum atmosphere for performing arts students to learn and grow as artists and individuals in today's world.

Performing arts and academia have a fairly recent history together.  The production of performing arts work existing in charged and concentrated time and space rather than in published articles and books makes uncomfortable demands on the usual process of evaluation in academia.  Despite this, the arts have made a great contribution to and established their place in universities in the United States and recently have begun to do so in India as well.

As the performing arts, and dance in particular, established a place in western academia, the lack of research and study materials for students was sorely felt.  The limited amount written in the field was not necessarily researched with the vigor required for reliable scholarship.  This is still very much the case in India today.  The practice of conjecture and personal theory being represented as fact, the lack of creditable sources and even standard foot notes, makes it difficult for the serious student to separate fact from theory with the exception of obviously primary sources such as the Natyashastra and other early texts.  The writers who have taken up the challenge of adding to the body of literature on the arts run the risk of repeating inaccuracies that they themselves have found repeated in various sources, thereby inadvertently adding to obfuscation of the subject.

With time, and consciousness of the problem, the graduates of academic programs of the performing arts in India will correct the problems and add to the needed scholarship in the arts as happened in the Westin the last quarter of the twentieth century.  As M.A./M.F.A. students of dance at the University of Michigan around 35 years ago, we felt like pioneers in discovering resources and translating research methods in other fields to our needs.  Today there are libraries of research on dance in its many aspects, including history, kinesiology, social anthropology, movement analysis, therapy, notation, world dance forms, etc. and organizations like the Committee on Research in Dance, Dance Scholars Association, and The Dance Notation Bureau.

The development of programs of academic study in the performing arts is the essential first step in this chicken and egg process.  As students begin to understand the difference between expertise as a performing artist within a particular discipline and the broader framework of understanding aesthetics, history and development in the more analytical environment of academia, the future of arts can be better understood and developed in a national and world context.  The students of today will have to be the pioneers of the research needed for the training of students who come after them.  It will be helpful if they understand that "study" and "research" are not synonymous word choices.  Reading books in the library and writing papers based on them is study.  After thorough study of the chosen subject and a grounding in research methodology, one is prepared to research a theory or reassess a line of inquiry that requires digging into primary sources, both written and aural or even visual.  This is a challenge for post-graduates from academic programs in performing arts such as those at the University of Baroda, Rabindra Bharati University, Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, Central University of Hyderabad, and most recently, JNU, Delhi.

The University of Hyderabad's Sarojini Naidu School of Visual and Performing Arts and Communication was until recently the only Central University with M.A., M. Phil. and Ph.D. programs in dance.  As a member of the advisory school board set up in 1988 to establish this program, I had the opportunity to be part of the process of its creation.  One innovation which could be emulated elsewhere is the common course in the first and second year bringing together students from, dance, theatre, painting and communication to study the evolution of the arts and culture and societies in modern India.  This syncretic approach provides students with an inter-disciplinary awareness of the subjects covered.  The university's enthusiasm for establishing this academic program in the arts and communication has resulted in a committed program.  Yet the greatest challenge to success, more so than even offering students an adequate library of studies and research, is finding faculty with the academic background and perspective to orchestrate such a program.

There is no dearth of excellent dance teachers/gurus for practical courses, but few faculty with the scholarly experience and vision to train the dance scholars needed for the future.  The stopgap solution of supplementing available qualified faculty with a wide range of visiting faculty is the best solution possible so far.  Until the present generation of student academics in the arts matures into young scholars and then experienced ones, the chicken/egg situation will face the challenge of contributing as pioneers to the breadth of knowledge in traditional as well as contemporary aspects of their field of art so that the arts are on par with other academic disciplines in India, as they are abroad.

There seems to be a growing debate as to whether the classical dance forms of India still have a place in the modern era as we approach the year 2000.  Innovation is pitched against "purity" while fusion of dance genres is scorned by some and embraced by others, whether out of sincere commitment or simply to energize careers confronted with the increasingly familiar question, "What are you doing that is new?"  From the cross-cultural point of view on the question of guru-shishya parampara vs. institutions of performing arts, the interest of the art and the artists are not served by an either-or debate.  This simplistic polarity neither takes into consideration the history and development of the traditional dance genres of India nor the relationship of form to content in personal and cultural aesthetics.

First, the classical dances of India are hardly static traditions.  While one can look to signposts of dance in the past such as relief sculptures of dancers in second century B.C. Orissa and even the systematic codifications of Bharata's Natyashastra, these cannot inform us of the performance practice of the dance in ancient or even medieval times.  These traditions have grown and changed through various periods of resurgence and ebb which are a fascinating reflection of cultural history in the subcontinent.  The classical dance forms as we know them today are neo-classical in that little of what we see on the concert stage goes back more than two hundred years in its present form, and some have seen considerable reconstruction of the regional traditions of dance.  This process of recognition of forms and their revival has been written about considerably and is a rich vista of research possibilities for a generation of new dance scholars.  From Rukmini Devi's "chastening", as she said, the temple dance of Tamil Nadu and naming it Bharatanatyam, to the extraction of dance portions of the Kuchipudi village dance-dramas and their performance by women on the stage rather than men in the village, to even the "sanskritization" of the classical dance of Orissa so that it could be recognized as an independent classical form rather than an offshoot of Bharatanatyam as recently as the late 1950's, dance continues to evolve and change wthin the parameters of tradition. 

The point is that while the antecedents of Indian classical dance are long and rich, the traditions are constantly changing and developing.  In fact, I would say that it is the responsibility of performing artists to contribute to this growth when they have reached a level of maturity in the form, rather than to simply go on replicating what was learned from the guru.  These traditions survive precisely because of the creative range of artists working within a grammar providing a language evolved by masters over time, evolved out of a spiritual consciousness that speaks to the inner world that we all share.  "Purity" and innovation within the tradition go hand in hand to insure the long life of the arts.  To question the intrinsic value of the classical dance genres to communicate meaningfully to today's audience is perhaps less a failing of the dance genre itself than of artists who only present the outer shell of the form without breathing into it the content.

What about innovation that is outside tradition, i.e. fusion of different traditions as well as modern dance in India?  Looking through the prism of my cross-cultural experience, the present day scenario reminds me of the early decades of this century.  What came to be called modern dance or contemporary concert dance, developed in the West.  The antagonism of the first generations of modern dancers toward classical Western Ballet has now been transformed to respect and mutual interest.  Whereas a dancer taking class in the "other camp" would have been considered a traitor in the thirties, today modern dancers acknowledge the basic training in ballet techniques and the ballet dancers expand their movement repertoire with modern dance technique classes to perform modern ballet choreographies alongside nineteenth century classical ballets.  The situation of modern dancers in the West rebelling against ballet to search for expressive movement conveying deeper emotional and social concerns than those of the Romantic Ballet is not directly comparable to the development of modern dance in India.  Here the metaphysical concerns of the Indian dance traditions run very deep into the subconscious area of the human psyche, which the Romantic Ballet did not.  However, modern dancers in India may wish to address societal issues which do not lend themselves to expression in the traditional dance forms.  No one vocabulary of movement is suited to express every idea, literary or abstract, social or philosophical, and it is entirely appropriate to match the ideas to the form and vice versa.

It should be understood that in modern dance it is completely appropriate to try to create new ways of using space, shape, time, energy and motion to communicate whatever is intended in the dance and make one's movement choices from whatever movement choices one knows or creates.  On the other hand, to go outside the codified movement vocabulary in any classical tradition of dance changes the form; this is not appropriate.  The rules of modern dance are that one can draw on whatever aesthetically fits one's intention and the choreography.  The rules of any classical dance genre are that one stays within the range of its stylistic vocabulary.  Therefore, any modern dancer, from India or any other country in the globe has the artistic liberty to create his/her own parameters.  The classical dancer is free within the tradition.  When he breaks out, the result may be valid as dance (modern/fusion) but is not valid as being any particular dance genre.  There is nothing wrong with this as long as the result is not judged by the wrong label.  Fusion dance, drawing on two or more styles, can be very exciting and well done, though often the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  As an analogy, when we know more than one language, we sometimes mix them to use a particularly expressive word or phrase from one to add to the other.  We should have control to do this with intent and knowing that we are speaking to those who understand the mix.  If we mix languages because we are not articulate enough in any one to fully express ourselves, then we have a diluted expression rather than one that is enhanced by the mix.  Generally a language mix or a dance fusion or jugalbandi is of interest in a particular situational context that is unlikely to be of longer lasting value.

The performing arts exist in the moment and repeat performances are always subtly or vastly different.  It is therefore impossible to make a blanket rule about whether a particular form of expression is worth doing.  It depends on the content and the context.  As a cross-cultural artist I have learnt that while an artist may choose to spend his or her life going deeper into one form of expression to plumb the reservoir of creative possibilities in that genre, another artist may reach an equal value of artistic validity and depth by exploring new horizons.  The audience as well can appreciate many kinds of performing arts by viewing each in terms of parameters which the artist and art form set out.  In the West a music aficionado might go to a symphony one night, jazz concert the next, and a "world music" concert of Irish harp the third.  Each form stands on its own with a unique voice and the performing artists have the confidence in what they love doing to share it with the audience without the need to be antagonistic to musicians of other forms.  Similarly, in dance, one might enjoy the ethereal charm of Swan Lake, then attend the powerful drama of Martha Graham's Medea and then the organic images of Alwin Nikolais' contemporary dance troupe. 

The classical dance forms of India are so rich in aesthetic beauty and metaphysical depth that there is no need for any practitioners to criticize artists choosing other forms of expression.  Conversely, the struggle of modern dancers is to find the vowels, consonants, words and phrases in building a new movement language.  We should be supportive of their efforts if we find them sincere and actually interesting, not simply because it seems to be good to be rebellious or novel.  Disparaging artists performing traditional arts cannot validate their credibility; only hard work that produces meaningful art will connect them to audiences.  Whatever the genre, we must look to honesty and authenticity of expression in the content that fulfills the form.  No form of expression need be deplored, only inferior representations of the art.  It is my hope that whether in the east or the West, we can treasure our traditions and encourage those seriously exploring new avenues of expression with both depth and range in the training process.

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