Indian Classical

With its emphasis on training rather than education, ‘learning’ in classical dance requires an urgent and critical rethink

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Learning in classical dance is conceptualised more as training than an education. A student is taught to effectively embody an aesthetic through physical training, with little reflection on what it means to do so historically, socially or politically.

With an interest in generating accessible writings that makes the connection between the larger social and political landscape of the country and its performing arts more evident, this monthly column is an attempt to un-bracket the dance discourse from its contained category of “Arts for Art’s sake”. Read more from the series here.

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The business of teaching is the lifeline of the classical dance industry, indispensable yet underrated. For dancers, it functions both as a mode of propagation (of the teachers’ style/brand of dancing) and a means of income. In a field where income is unregulated, class fees generate regular earnings for many dancers. Given that the majority of classical dancers are women, it opens up an option of financial independence, bringing a much required relief from dependence on familial wealth.

Matangi Prasan, a Bharatanatyam dancer and dance teacher based out of Bengaluru, says that she is able to treat her class fee as her salary, increasing it marginally on a regular basis. She is able to pay her rent and cover her basic expenses with the fee she generates through teaching.

For Poornima Kartik, an Odissi dance teacher and a dancer who runs classes in Bengaluru, teaching becomes important as a means of sharing all that she has learnt. “The torso movements which I learnt as a part of my training, are slowly disappearing from the Odissi we now see. I want to make sure that this doesn’t disappear.”

Despite being indispensable to the sustenance of the industry, teaching continues to be falsely perceived as secondary to performance. It attracts far lesser attention, debate and discussion than performance. Consequently, the current discourse on pedagogy has not evolved much beyond the tautological debates around the relevance of Guru-Shishya parampara, arangetrams and state examinations. This lack of critical discourse in pedagogy is reflected in the stagnation of a learning trajectory standardised decades ago. A typical road-map for a student of classical dance consists of learning basic steps followed by a repertoire of “items” (arranged in the order of their difficulty level) and an arangetram.  Mimesis without active inquiry continues to be the primary pedagogical tool. This formulaic route does not equip the student with many crucial tools required for living the life of a dancer: choreography, learning to teach, research, drawing on material to make performances, responding to the context.

What does one learn while training in classical dance? Learning in this field is conceptualised more as training, than an education. Representational photo. Getty Images

Then what does one learn while training in classical dance? Learning in this field is conceptualised more as training, than an education. A student is taught to effectively embody an aesthetic through physical training but with little reflection on what it means to do so historically, socially or politically. The training remains severely cut-off from other art-forms and disciplines, with any intervention being seen as dilution rather than dialogue. In a recent interview with this writer, historian Davesh Soneji emphasised the need for classical dancers to “read outside of the field of dance itself and try to connect with theories of the state, caste, gender, race, Orientalism, religious majoritarianism and the politics of Hindu nationalism”.

The transfer of knowledge from teacher to student also happens in a context, outside of institutional spaces, where the teacher assumes an exalted position as a figure of authority. Speaking of classical dance spaces in Canada, Vidya Natarajan says “The dance class tends to be the place of unquestioning respect — despite much cajoling, I have not been able to get my 20-something students to call me anything other than ‘auntie,’ which at one stroke signals respect and assimilates the dance instructor into the world of home and family, rather than the world of education. Since most dance teachers typically occupy the entire space of inquiry, there is no room for independent research; even history is entirely mediated by the teacher.”

Paulo Freire, one of the leading advocates of critical education argues against what he calls a “banking model of education”, where the student is assumed to be an empty vessel who can be filled with knowledge. True education for him, can occur only when we can reimagine the student as a co-creator of knowledge. How can classical dancers reimagine a teacher-student relationship where a student is not an empty recipient of “tradition” but a participating agent in it?

Education is essentially an experience where a student becomes cognisant of her agency and is empowered to exercise it in the form of dissent, supporting oneself and others, recognising the needs and problems of the field, producing critical and relevant nuggets of knowledge. Classical dance education side-steps these responsibilities by either outsourcing them to other institutions or rejecting them: financial empowerment is outsourced to marriage or a day job and intellectual empowerment is outsourced to mainstream education.

A group of dancers have recently begun a Master’s programme in Dance Practice at Ambedkar University in Delhi that addresses some of these concerns, and gives us an insight into what a critical education in dance in the Indian context might look like. Our next column will be a conversation with some of the dance-educators who are involved in designing, running as well as facilitating this course.

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