‘A fellow dance friend was dismayed when her teacher told her she was going to the US for a series of summer workshops and would be away for two months. “Not to worry,” her guru assured her, “we can continue our classes via Skype.”’ The new trend for Skype gurus seems far removed from the traditional gurukul system where students live and study under the same roof as their gurus, learning not only an art but also a way of life. Isabel Putinja examines how the system is responding to contemporary challenges.
The traditional gurukul system
S.K. Suresh is a Chennai-based singer, composer, music and dance teacher and nattuvanar (expert musician who sings, plays the cymbals and conducts a bharatanatyam recital). He lived and studied for seven years with his great-uncle, S.K. Rajaratnam Pillai, a renowned bharatanatyam guru who trained many well-known dancers including Malavika Sarukkai, Priyadarsini Govind and Vidhya Subramanian. S.K. Suresh’s mastery of not only music and nattuvangam (cymbals) but also dance, choreography and music composition reflect the all-round training and personal attention he received from years spent in close proximity to his guru until his guru’s death in 1994.
Hailing from a family of temple musicians serving the famous Murugan temple in Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, S.K. Suresh was surrounded by music from childhood and grew up listening to his father Pandanallur P.V. Kalidas playing the nadaswaram (a wood and metal wind instrument). At the age of 12 he left his family and went to live with his guru and his family in Chennai.
“In the early mornings I would practise my singing and then spend the rest of the day with him… I didn’t have any proper lessons. I learned through observation and imitation… he would correct me if I made mistakes and this is also how I learned. I was the only one learning with him in this way under the traditional gurukul system. Also, no one else learned nattuvangam with him. At that time gurus wouldn’t teach all the detailed aspects like laya (rhythm) calculation, choreography and nattuvangam – only dance.”
Another salient aspect of the gurukul system was seva (service). The young S.K. Suresh did not mind: “I would wash his clothes, take him to the doctor, buy his medicines. I would go to the market to buy things, climb up the coconut trees to pluck coconuts, I even did the plumbing and electrical work!”
S.K. Suresh believes “the gurukul system is the best way to master an art because it offers an all-round education… At that time, the gurus were all-rounders; they mastered music, dance, nattuvangam and knew all the intricacies… The training I had with him provided a strong foundation for me which still guides me today.”
Reviving the gurukul system
Today the way music and dance are taught and learned has changed. In India, as elsewhere, music and dance students usually study part-time, commuting a few times a week to meet their teacher and learn in a classroom environment. The study of music and dance has also become institutionalised, with universities and schools offering full-time courses leading to diplomas and degrees in these disciplines. However, there is a renewed interest in the traditional gurukul method of teaching which some schools are trying to replicate. Though there are several residential schools offering training in music and dance ‘in the guru-shishya parampara’ (the direct passing of knowledge from teacher to student), students do not usually live with their teachers and teacher-student interaction is limited to class hours. Also, a student may have several teachers and not the dedicated attention of one guru, as was usually the case under the traditional gurukul system. Though this concept endures, its form has changed, just as the nature of the traditional teacher-student relationship has evolved.
Pune-based dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar, a frequent performer on London’s Indian classical music circuit, studied in a gurukul for many years and teaches his students in his own home, applying the same approach to intensive full-time training as the one he experienced under his gurus. When I encountered the singer and three of his students in Varanasi during the Dhrupad Mela in 2010, they were having an impromptu class on the terrace of the hotel. Though they were away from the gurukul, this did not take away from class time, and they had even practised on the long 25-hour train journey from Pune. During the concert that evening, the students accompanied their guru on stage, providing them with many opportunities to showcase their own talent.
Bhawalkar had left the family home at 15 to study and live with dhrupad maestros Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, spending twelve years with them in Bhopal and Mumbai. “The daily routine was learning and practising music from 4am to 5pm, apart from the household work of the gurukul… I dedicated myself to my gurus, and learning music from them has taught me a way of life. The Ustads gave us a vision, perspective and approach towards the note, raag and music and made us realise its depths. To learn Indian classical music, the guru-shishya parampara is the only option to learn in a proper manner. It does not have restrictions or constraints relating to time or any other issues. The student learns the subtle nuances of the note and the mood and personality of the raag the moment the guru is inspired to do so.”
Nrityagram: a modern-day gurukul
Nrityagram, on the outskirts of Bangalore, is known for its high standards and rigorous training. It was founder Protima Bedi’s dream to establish a dance gurukul here and today, twenty-four years after its conception, her disciples and now renowned dancers Surupa Sen, artistic director, and Bijayini Satpathy, head of the odissi gurukul, continue her legacy.
Scholarships are offered to deserving residential students who wish to pursue dance as a career. Also, over 300 local children have been trained in odissi for free through the village outreach programme. The residential students also participate in the running of the dance community. The running of the school is almost entirely sustained through the proceeds from the performances of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which has received critical acclaim worldwide and tours regularly.
For Satpathy, her guru was not only a teacher but also an inspiration and role model. “She was a multi-tasker and did everything to a high level of excellence. She practised every day regardless of how hectic the day or how late in the evening it was.” Sen explains: “Ours has been an exploration and revival of traditional gurukul education keeping intact the core values: an intense discipline combined with a shared belief of excellence couched in a community environment… We practise dance here as if it was life itself and learning has meant living every moment with acute awareness of the smallest things that impact our lives and therefore our art. Living with a teacher who teaches by example, working for the community, growing our own food, sharing space with people from different backgrounds and most importantly, spending a minimum of eight to twelve hours in the dance class. To my mind, there is no better way to pursue a dream of being an artist other than this.”
The challenges of traditional learning in a modern context
However, attracting the right kind of student willing to live in a setting removed from the outside world where total dedication is expected can be a challenge. “Becoming a good dancer is faster when you live and learn as we do at Nrityagram compared to attending weekly classes, but it is rigorous, physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Satpathy. “To succeed you need patience and humility. Unfortunately patience and humility are becoming non-existent in our youth and without these, this tradition cannot survive.” Sen adds: “Short-term ‘fixes’ seem more the norm and we are constantly trying to find ways to inspire and impact young minds in the modern context to appreciate and help preserve this deeply beautiful art form.”
The gurukul system now is fraught with contemporary challenges. Bhawalkar points out that “academic education is a basic requirement and art is something additional one may pursue… Secondly, most of the gurus today are performers… which makes them travel extensively which may lead to less time for the students.” S.K. Suresh agrees and adds that as well as academic studies, “young children today have so many things to do: drawing, swimming, music, violin, etc.”
Resources are another obstacle. A teacher may not have sufficient space in his or her home to accommodate students nor the funds required to provide a dedicated space for a community learning environment. “Finding the funds is an ongoing ordeal,” concurs Sen. “Art requires the support of the government and people to develop and build an aesthetic and nurturing society. Yet this appears to be the least deserving of all in the modern Indian and global scenario.”
In this new era of Skype gurus, the traditional gurukul system seems outdated and a challenge to sustain. However, there are some who are committed to this method of teaching and learning and have revived it, adapting it to modern circumstances. Though there are challenges, the outcomes are often fruitful. Sen shares the tangible results she has observed: “Participating in the teaching of an old tradition is a great responsibility and I approach it as such and try to do the best I can. Old methods sometimes have to give way to new to suit a changing psyche. For the most part, the transformation that I have noticed in students who come to Nrityagram has been astonishing. Almost like seeing a ‘before and after’ photograph! And not just in their abilities as dancers but in their overall personalities. And always spectacularly for the better! The passion for the dance is what I try to pass on, along with a deep understanding of the language that makes up this art form. In the end, we hope that they will emerge as better dancers and better people.”