Guru or Shishya?

By Sukanya Mahadevan
Growing up in India, dancing Bharathanatyam was part of my life and spirit. At first it was forced on me by my mom. After several teachers and my mom’s failed attempts at motivating me to be the famous dancer that she could never be, we hit the jackpot with my aunt.

I learned early on that there were no special privileges for being a ‘niece’. I had to call her aunty or ‘ma’am’ like the rest and there was a line of reverence that you never crossed. Well, never say never!

There is always one bad apple in the class! And if you decided to exercise your raging hormones and dare be one, then beware of the wrath of the ‘Guru’. This one girl comes to mind, let us call her Leena for anonymity. Leena and her mom were both very opinionated on almost all topics. Leena waltzed into class late, this one time and was not one bit apologetic. I was very nervous for her. You see I secretly admired Leena for her confidence. Others thought she was just plain insolent. To me she was everything I dared not be.

Our guru asked her why she came to class late. “I am in high school. I had important homework and projects to get done,” replied Leena, with a smirk on her face. After a moment of shocked silence, our guru politely said “Why don’t you leave now and spend the rest of your precious time finishing your projects and come back when they don’t burden you anymore. The rest of us have unimportant things like finishing up dance class for today.” Poor embarrassed Leena never came late to class ever after that. All said and done, the Guru had the final word and you did not argue. That was how you celebrated the guru in those days. Not only did I learn a lot from her but she is still one of my role models in life.

When I started teaching dance in the US in 1997, I started teaching in my local middle school, in the evenings. The audience ranged anywhere from 10 years to 35. Here were some of the questions the school principal asked me at my interview.
–    ‘Can you explain the dance in English?’ (How do I explain ‘Araimandi’ in English?)
–    ‘You cannot yell at the kids.’ (I guess there goes the option of tapping the kids’ knees with the cane to make them squat.)
–    ‘Try to logically explain your moves to them.’ (Logic and art!!!)

Well, on the first day of class, here are some interesting things that happened….I thought a good way to explain ’Araimandi’ would be ‘bend’. This command caused some kids to bend forward and touch their toes and some squat, but all the way down to the floor.
I told the kids to raise or wrinkle their eyebrows to express ‘roudra’, the angry expression. They looked at me like I had lost my marbles. Then there was this one kid who was so intense that she looked like an adult disguised as a kid. “Why should I dance?” she said. “Why should I do anything at all? After all we are all going to die one day.” she said. If I had asked my guru this, I truly would have died, after being made to dance more, for being insolent.

After a very frustrating first class, I had to rethink my approach. The ancient gurukul approach of just dispensing wisdom and expecting the student to pick it up doesn’t seem very effective these days. Years of teaching kids in this country has taught me that ‘one shoe does not fit all’ Dance is after all an art. Assimilation of it, also therefore, is subject to human variations. For example I can teach some kids the basic beats using technical terms such as ‘Thakita’, Thakadimi’ etc. However, some do much better with explanations like the ‘three beat step’ and ‘four beat step’.

To some kids learning the technical terms in dance is a fulfilling challenge. Therefore instructions like ‘Use the Katakamukha hand’, would work for them. For others it is simply a frustrating experience, where they have to spend more time learning how to pronounce the word rather than use it. These kids work better with instructions like ‘Use the blessing hand’.

While the art has to be taught within the constraints of the required tradition, it is also a service that has to be customized to fit each one differently. While the Guru is the tool to propagate the art, she does not exist without her Shishya. How effective and popular is the Guru going to be if she lost her students, due to her focus on tradition instead of love for the art? A Guru’s teaching skills have to go through the same revolution that the NRI parenting skill has had to go through. Just as ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is an outdated notion today, the authoritarian Guru has gone the way of the dinosaur.

 Knowledge can be attained only by enjoying the process of attaining it. That is why, in my humble opinion, in this day and age, the Shishya is more important. Continuation and propagation of this art today is at the mercy of the Shishya. I named my school the Shishya School of Performing Arts and my focus is the need of the Shishya.

Sukanya Mahadevan is the founder and artistic director of the Shishya School of Performing Arts in New Jersey. She would love to hear of other teachers’ experiences with the new generation.

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