“My Guru slapped me after I won the Padma Bhushan”
So read the headlines of an article expressing the concerns of Guru Sonal Mansingh. And
naturally the sense of shock and curiosity egged me on to read on. The article speaks about the
changing trends in the Indian classical art forms and the format of learning the art form - dance
specifically. She opines that learning dance has become a transient experience rather than a
As I read the article, I was immediately taken back to the initial days of my training in
Bhartanatyam with Guru Dr Hema Govindarajan. She was ‘strict’ in every sense of the word.
There was a sense of discipline in everything that she taught us. Now looking back at the time
that I spent with Dr Hema, I realise that her way of teaching and the discipline that she has not
only moulded my Bharatanatyam learning but also in many ways with my day to day living.
When I started teaching Bharatanatyam to children, I tried to emulate the one way of teaching
that I knew - which was being strict. But with time I realised, that I wasn’t getting the results that
I expected. I could not maintain the same sense of discipline and punctuality with my children as
my teacher had done with us. I wondered where I went wrong. It changed all the more when I
moved to the Netherlands and wanted to teach the art form to children there. The children were
hardly exposed to Indian classical art forms, let alone the way of living and learning in India. In
the Dutch culture of education, children were encouraged to question and not accept anything
just because the teacher told them so. The equation of teacher and student was very different
and though I cannot say they were disrespectful towards their elders, the relationship was very
This is when I had to make a lot of changes, some that I liked and some that I didn’t but had to,
to kindle an interest in the children for Bharatanatyam and keep it going for a long time. Where it
became difficult for me to comprehend this kind of behaviour, at the same time I grew to respect
my children’s way of learning and in turn it helped me learn and grow. I would constantly evolve
my style of teaching and understanding to suit the needs of these kids so as to make it easier
and interesting for them.
The changing trends in the learning of classical art forms has come a long way, not just in the
teacher - student relationship but in every aspect of learning and performance of this art form.
This is probably due to the sheer number of performers and teachers and increased
competition. The students have the option of quitting a teacher to go on to learn with someone
else. Also, the purpose of learning Bharatanatyam seems to have changed to a large extent.
Many children are initiated to Bharatanatyam so that they can participate in TV shows and
perform at popular platforms, and not purely for the sake of art. The children are urged to
achieve “success” before they move on to their high school after which they may not continue
the practice of the art form.
As for the class itself, the children are much more comfortable with their teachers. The teachers
are much more open to having a friendly relationship with the students. It makes it so much
more easier for the students to question the teacher and in turn learn much more. Learning itself
is no more strenuous. Children are not afraid to say no when they cannot do something. When I
was teaching in the Netherlands, the onus was not just on teaching the techniques of
Bharatanatyam but also it was a window for these children, growing away from India, to
Indian-ness. I had to introduce them to the culture of India - which was not just about dressing
and the celebration of festivals. But right from act of touching the teacher’s feet before and after
a class, to enlightening them about how classes in India were conducted, besides the technique
of dance. This made the class more interactive.
The approach to learning the art form has undergone a tremendous change. Songs are readily
available on the internet or youtube. Once one is trained in the basics of the dance form, they
can easily learn further by watching videos. Even basics are being taught on the internet for a
price. Once a step or an item is taught, the students immediately record a video of the lesson.
This is a significant difference compared to a few years earlier, when there was limited access
to such instruments. More effort went into memorising the lessons, both on the part of the
student and the teacher. As a result, the adavus that I learnt and the dance items that I’ve learnt
will always stay in my memory simply because of the number of times I’ve done them over and
over in order to memorise what was taught in class.
Speaking of teachers, I remember, my teacher refused to be addressed as Guru during my
Rangapravesha as she felt that she had still a long way to go in learning the art form and
mastering it before she could be addressed as Guru - this despite the fact, that she was very
knowledgeable and was continually involved in research. But now the term Guru seems to be
very loosely used to address any teacher who is teaching Bharatanatyam, regardless of the
knowledge that they have attained.
The popularity of the Bharatantyam has grown many folds in the last decade. Being a
Bharatanatyam artist is plus point on your resume. When I enrolled myself to study MA in
Bharatanatyam, I clearly remember there were a couple of queries where people would ask -
MA in Bharatanatyam, what do you do with that? or Yes, Bharatanatyam but what else do you
do? But the scenario now is very different. There are a lot more universities offering Masters in
Bharatanatyam and hence a lot more students studying the course. There is a more wider
acceptance of being a performer or a teacher - which is a very big positive for artists. There are
many platforms and openings for performers. And so artists are continually experimenting with
new aspects of performance. Thematic presentations are no more limited to ancient Indian
stories but also include social themes and present day struggles. At the same time, while being
innovative, are we losing sight of the basis of Bharatanatyam - the Satvika? Is there more focus
on displaying physical flair over subtle experience? This is reflected even in the
Rangapraveshas today, which seem to have moved from being a platform to launch a dancer
who is ready to sustain a solo performance, to a social event with more emphasis on grandeur
This growing popularity is also largely due to technology and social media. Networking amongst
artists is so much more easier and hence you’re always in the know of what an artist in any part
of the world is working on and that creates competition. This also has helped in artists from
different teachers coming together to form dance companies and collaborate on productions.
Even research on subjects is so much more easier with widespread access to Google.
Flipside of the era of technology, however, is that it tends to create a disconnect. With everyone
now owning a smartphone, the onlookers tend to get so preoccupied trying to record an event
that they lose out on relishing an excellent performance.
They say nothing is permanent except change. And change is always for the better. So it is with
regards to the changing trends in Bharatanatyam. But there is the question - to what extent? Is
Bharatnatyam evolving or is the art form being diluted? Is it progress or industrialisation of the
art? But this is also not the first time that Bharatanatyam has come at crossroads. And it has
always gone around in a circle and come back to its origins. Bharatanatyam can never lose its
basic essence and will always retain its roots, because along with those who are drifting away
from the essence of the art, there will always be artists who appreciate and practice the
classical art form in its purest form. I can say this with conviction because of the Guru that I’ve
been lucky enough to come under the guidance of Guru Bhanumati and my mentor Sheela, who
have struck the perfect balance classicism and innovation. Both Bhanu Ma’m and Sheela have
managed to preserve the traditions of their teachers and yet with their choreography and
creativity is a proof of their open mindedness to accept and grow with the changes.