Teaching an Ancient Performing Art in a Modern Context: Bharatanatyam Connects Students to the Traditions and Beliefs of a Bygone Era

By Poursabahian, Joyce Paul | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Teaching an Ancient Performing Art in a Modern Context: Bharatanatyam Connects Students to the Traditions and Beliefs of a Bygone Era


Poursabahian, Joyce Paul, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


This article briefly discusses the challenges of teaching the 2,000 year-old classical dance form of Bharatanatyam to a student population that is alienated from its mythological framework. Bharatanatyam teachers today are responsible for passing on the technique, grammar, and artistic character of this ancient performing art to the current generation of students. Since no written texts notate what the actual performance may have looked like in the past, we depend on the celebrated treatise on dramaturgy, the Natyashastra, which includes chapters on dance. Specific movements, hasty madras (hand gestures), mandalas (Hindu or Buddhist symbols of the universe), types of heroes and heroines, colors, and props are all described in detail (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011). For example, the treatise contains the classification of different eyebrow movements, their names, and scenarios in which they can be used. Teachers today teach a version of the art form that resulted from revivalist attempts in the early 20th century to salvage what was left of a body of work that was molded over the past 300 years by patrons, kings, priests, social movements, and political alliances. What it may have looked like before that is left to speculation based on temple friezes, architecture, sculpture, and scripture.

Who Is Learning this Art Form?

Many people are learning Bharatanatyam today. In India, they range from families for whom learning an art form in childhood is considered important to students who learn of their own accord, inspired by watching dancers in the media. In the United States it is mostly parents who want their children to connect with their "roots," or young relocated Indian adults who, as kids, were not allowed by their parents to learn dance. What inspires students to come to class week after week to learn such an "alien" art form that can take up to 10 years to master at a basic level? The answers have been many, including the desire to perform, the dazzle of brilliant costumes and jewelry, and the wish to learn something that relates to their Indian identity. Responses that teachers yearn to hear, such as "for the joy of it," "for the transformation it does to my soul," or "for the elation I feel in my spirit at a metaphysical level," are more rare. This is understandable, though, because it takes many years of grueling training and discipline to even feel that attaining such goals is possible.

For students who grow up in the United States, far removed from a culture that spawned the nuances of this dance form, concepts that are not nritta, or purely dance-related, seem exotic, somewhat incomprehensible, and almost alien. The sense of alienation is not limited just to the mythological stories that are danced as part of a choreography or the thousands of gods and goddesses with nonhuman features that are glorified and praised through dance, but it extends to the basic behavior in class and the expectations from a guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship. Given the fact that the modern desire for instant gratification has subconsciously changed people's expectations of the process of learning, teaching itself has become a complicated performing art!

Challenges

The two main challenges for teaching Indian classical performing arts are generational and geographic.

Generational. Before moving to the United States, I had taught dance in India for many years and had attended classes taught by senior dance gurus. In all classes was an unstated, predefined behavior-expectation pattern that students simply slipped into. No one talked about it, and there was never any announcement for new students either. Back in India, I taught with a strict demeanor and had very high expectations. Students never really questioned my instructions, and I pushed them harder and harder and watched them excel and grow into brilliant dancers. Then life changed. I accepted a job with Microsoft and moved to Redmond, Washington, a city with no Bharatanatyam teachers. …

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