Training Students in the Classical Performing Arts of India
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
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
Long established at the other end of the spectrum, Kalakshetra, just outside Chennai, has taught the classical dance of
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
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
With time, and consciousness of the problem, the graduates of academic programs of the performing arts in
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
The University of
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
First, the classical dances of
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
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
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
The classical dance forms of
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