Immigrating Mudras

Mudras adorn the New Airport (Delhi)/ Source: The Hindu/ Reference: Mr. Ragothaman

Teaching Indian Arts in alien soil always provides fodder for enough discussion. A number of searches for “Teaching Bharatanatyam outside India” brings readers to this blog. (At another instance I will share the unbeleivable search terms that I get to see!)

Anyway getting back to what I was talking about, it seems like teachers, students and parents alike, believe and expect that special techniques are needed to transfer the” know-how” outside India . The reasons for this expectation and line of thought could stem from the following basic differences between the home and host environments:

  1. What constitutes to being “acceptable” social norms in the country of residence of the student. This would include issues such as the dynamics of teacher- student relationship, general approach to issues (some kind of items may be difficult to teach in environments where Jeevatama Paramatma principle cannot be used easily to describe the erotic content in a  few items)
  2. The heterogeneity of the students coming to one class. Students come from a variety of homes, with different mother tongues, different amounts of exposure to “-Indian-ness” (knowledge of Epics and Mythology included, exposure to Indian History and Art etc.) I agree that some amount of this diversity is seen in the bigger cities in India too, but rarely would it be this heterogeneous a crowd. It then becomes the teachers priority to bridge the gap. He/ she may even need to say ” Saraswathi is not addressed at Mrs. Bramha”. And I am not joking!
  3. The existing environment of the student. This could include aspects of peer-pressure, the language of communication the student is more fluent in, the common patterns in body language and attire . I know of students’ who learnt Bharathanatyam either because they were in love with it  or their parents forced it down their throats. Either way, these students maintaianed their dance instruction sessions a secret, for the fear of being labelled  “odd and different”. And when it comes to body language the successful student may have to unlearn and appreciate the subtle differences in even small movements that would involve the muscles of the face, shoulders  and in body posture.
  4. The approach to learning the art form. Art for arts sake may not be entirely a possibility these days. These kids are now attending other extra-curricular activities which are goal oriented, that specify small steps and short-term achievable goals and targets which may range from 3 months to an year at the most. I could give you examples of the various Math classes the students attend (Kumon for instance) or the ABRSM piano course with grade levels. It may not be quite appropriate to compare these with learning Bharathanatyam. But what I am trying to say is that these students and parents are now more attuned  to having their goals specified for them in tangible terms and a gratification or reward system and it happens within a short time span. Whereas, learning Bharathanatyam traditionally focussed more on individuals initiative and the achievement was proportional to the former with the role of instruction being less specific. And it takes quite a long time for a student of Bharathanatyam to have enough grasp to understand and appreciate his/her achievement. This can be frustrating for students who are used to saying “I have passed such an such  grade/level  within this many months”. I do know that ISTD (UK) and a few online degree programs are attuned to this specific- goal target- exam method of teaching.

I am not coming to the conclusion that all students in India learn the Art, solely for its sake. Things have changed drastically there too. Teachers praise and appreciation was at one time more reserved for mighty achievements. Today it comes a little more easily since the end  outcome of Bharathanatyam training and the kind of involvement from the Gurus side is constantly changing too. I am not going to go into the parameters and perspectives of judging the effectiveness of a particular school’s curiculum and style of instruction. To an uninitiated parent it is as much a challenge in India as it is abroad. But then learning art for the sole reason to put it down in the CV for college applications definitely gives a different outcome.

Ms. Soumya Tilak shared this link with us “Immigrant artists and gurus make Indian classical dance a California tradition”. This article has interesting quotes from a few successful dance teachers in USA ( Mythili Prakash, Ramya Harishankar and Katherine Kunhiraman)

6 responses to “Immigrating Mudras

  1. Nice article Sangeetha. In my experience of interacting with dance students and dancers at a US university, I understood that irrespective of whether they understand the story or the intricate mudras, they understand aesthetics and exploring the physical space. They analyze BN with this angle and some (not all) who appreciate this get involved in learning more. Things are changing and at a fast rate even in India. For good or bad we will have to wait and see.

  2. So totally agree with you!
    Well some “outside” productions are really astounding in terms of presentation and choreography. They do really well with spatial utilization bringing a fresh appeal to choreographies. Aesthetic lighting, sound arrangements and backdrops (without ugly sponsor/sabha banners) are other things I have liked about shows outside India.
    At one point of time, I think with the increased to and fro movement involved, it will turn into being a real 2 way osmosis process, with both sides effectively learning from one another.

  3. In your usage, “art for arts sake” came to mean “enjoying the learning process”. If the guru is unable to make the students enjoy the process, what kind of a guru is it? True, the older the students are, the harder for them to relinquish their egoistic stance and viewpoints. The older, the harder to learn anything new.

    As for “goals specified for them in tangible terms and a gratification or reward system”, the guru has to adopt different approaches with different students depending on their motivation (and parents). Typical motivation is a certain status within the group, “to keep up with the Joneses”.

    The “perfectionist” type (typically, less than 5% of all students), who have the ability to become great dancers, learn faster (when they are 10 years old and above) if they are given such interim clear (“tangible”?) goals and rewards (these need not be formal and “tangible”). The guru has to make the terms “tangible” for the student.

    How do you enable the student to understand and appreciate his/her achievement? If a guru grades the students in a way they don’t understand, it is one thing. When these grades are peer-awarded (i.e. the students – supervised by the guru – have to discuss and come to a consensus as to who is good and who is better), it is an altogether different thing.

    There is no excuse for a sloppy and an unproductive freewheeling.

  4. Ragothaman, what US university are you teaching in?

    Katherine Kunhiraman says, “My dream was that some university would be able to support the teaching and propagation of Indian dance. But that has not happened in close to three decades.”

  5. Hi Ashwini,
    Long time no see…
    I do not teach dance at any Indian/US university, if that’s what you wanted to know.
    I came in touch with dancers and faculty who teach dance here in Iowa, US.
    As to the quote, I don’t think there is any university here that teaches Indian classical dance exclusively. There are courses taught that expose students to different dance forms in the world.

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