Art Leaps its Way Over the Seas - Part 1

(compiled by NKMWeb Team)

We asked a few successful dance teachers in the US what their experience has been with teaching Bharatanatyam there. They have learnt Bharatanatyam for many years in India before they moved to the US and began teaching children there. This month, we have responses from Vid Subashree Narayanan (Jacksonville, Florida), Vid Roopa Anand (Sunnyvale, California) and Vid Sheela Ramanath (Herndon, Virginia). They run classes in different regions of The United States and their experience with teaching, though similar in some ways, is unique in many ways. Read more to learn about their journey as Bharatanatyam teachers in The US.

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Coming from a Guru-Shishya parampara, what adaptations did you have to make in the pedagogy of teaching/learning Bharatanatyam in the United States?

Subashree Narayanan: I came into the United states in 2001. After having learnt for 18 years under Guru Mahalingam Pillai and 10 years under Kalanidhi Mami, I came here with no direction. I came to a small town in Florida where there were not much Indians then. I had to establish myself first as an art connoisseur first, and in order to do that I had to participate and choreograph for small gatherings at the temple. Eventually started getting some students to learn Bharatanatyam. I had to accommodate teaching students per their parents’ convenient days, timings and duration. I was able to come in contact with the students only for four days a month. If they for some reason they missed classes then there needs no explanation. These children had no clue as to what they had been taught in the class, parents did not come to watch the class either and so had no practice and didn’t remember anything for the following class. All school holidays had to be declared as holidays and also give winter and summer vacation breaks. In order to stay in touch with the class lessons, I started posting class videos. To keep their interest, I did short Adavu sequences to a song. For example, Swarajathi or Notes. I let them perform in small temple programs just to keep them going. Mentally I was prepared for big turnovers. As I was not ready to compromise on the teaching part systematically as it was passed down to me.

Roopa Anand: Dancers stepping into teaching in the US encounter various challenges which they overcome eventually, with experience. Listing from my experience, the primary challenge was the duration and the frequency of the class. We are used to “living” in the dance class, day in and day out. However, falling in line with the norm in the US where each class takes an hour per day, I had to adjust to this arrangement. Once we started performing at a few venues, the need for extra practices was understood by the parents and consequently the students tried their best to manage their schedules to accommodate extra classes.

Another challenge faced was having to specifically teach students values that were naturally imbibed by us. It had to be passed on to the younger generation who had little or no exposure to these aspects such as no slippers with bells on, not cutting in between the student and a teacher, coming to class in full length leggings and long tops. These values had to reiterated. Once the older students inculcated this behavior the younger kids tried to follow their lead.

Exposure to Hindu Mythology is limited with certain students. Since most of our concepts are based on Hindu mythology, it is imperative to explain every detail to all the students to help them understand, associate, and apply their thoughts to the pieces so that the emotions could be communicated.

The other thing is the parent involvement in the child’s learning. Every parent wants the best for their “children” regardless of the interest and level at which the child learns the art form. Getting parents to understand that the child has to develop a relationship with the teacher, away from the parent and articulating this with them was a learning process. Parents are constantly on the lookout for quantitative results more than quality. Expectations had to be set for parents to help their children do better than do more.

Use of Technology: Technology becomes a bane more than a boon when it comes to dancing. While I am not against using technology as medium of reference, it begins to make dancing mechanical due to the overuse of videos of the class, which becomes a struggle to put an end to, and help students and parents realize the significance of training their minds to memorize ,hearts to follow the movement, enjoy the music, and experience the joy of dancing, every single time they practiced the art form.

Sheela Ramanath: When I migrated to the US in the year 2001, the dance scenario was very different from what it is today. Teaching a traditional art form like Bharatanatyam involved great amount of challenges including sustaining the interest of children growing up in a different country alien to our culture and tradition. Initially it was a struggle to offer tangibility to an art that is so vast and hard to comprehend for those who have never been exposed to Bharatanatyam and its nuances. Since Bharatanatyam is a southern Indian art, and the US being a melting pot, we have a class with multiple ethnicities, it’s all the more important to enunciate every little detail pertaining to South Indian culture. Additionally, though the kids I was training were of Indian origin, part of their upbringing were invariably influenced by western culture. So, there’s that part of the challenge to help them distinguish the way things are taught and expected when it comes to an Indian art. And learning any Indian classical art form requires discipline and humility. Growing up in an era of instant gratification, it was really hard for them to understand that learning Bharatanatyam or any classical art is an ongoing process and no matter how many years one would spend learning it, one would’ve barely scratched the surface of it. I had to stress that it takes a lot of patience, practice and perseverance to excel in the classical arts. The word “sadhana” was very new to them and they couldn’t relate to it. Growing up in India, a lot of things are taken for granted; for instance, when we are taught a dance piece, we were expected to know how to sing and practice, the language was more or less familiar, and it was not hard for us to pick up things just by observing our environment, for classical arts are rooted in and around us. But for kids growing outside India, such an atmosphere has to be manually created so they can appreciate to a little extent what we as students in India experienced. I used to tell them stories of my classroom setting, how my teacher would conduct the classes and how we would practice to come to class prepared. I also would emphasize that they need to watch more performances than perform because there are a lot of things one can learn by just observing.

We have heard from our teachers saying “more you watch, more you learn”. How have you dealt with this requirement?

Subashree Narayanan: Coming from a small town in the United States there aren’t many opportunities for children to see any standard programs of good artists. All they get to watch is their own peers which is a very big disadvantage. I try to forward any good Youtube links that I come across for the students to watch. However 99% of the time they did not even acknowledge the receipt of the URL. So the effort in most cases is in vain.

Roopa Anand: This is certainly true for any performing art. One thing that helped me with this , is my location. Being in the San Francisco bay area, we are always surrounded by a galore of artists with immense talent. We do have a lot of visiting artistes frequenting the bay area to showcase their talent and for workshops as well. As a teacher, I have always encouraged my students to watch many performances of other schools/artistes and attend workshops of experienced teachers. When they go out to watch a performance I ask them to make notes of the piece, raaga, ThaaLa and composer and the gist of the piece if they have understood what was being conveyed. This exercise is very exciting for pre - teens and teens, since they feel that they can voice their thoughts and, they watch the performance with more enthusiasm and surprisingly they turn out to be very keen observers. Their enthusiasm and excitement after watching and partaking in the discussion of a dance event motivates the other kids in the group to watch the next event. I do not believe in insisting or forcing any of the students to watch a performance. However, I do strongly recommend certain events and many students go out to watch the performances of senior dancers and visiting artistes when a recommendation is made.

Sheela Ramanath: Since there were not many performances in the US in those days, I used to make the rest of the class sit and observe while I was giving individual corrections to the students. Today, the classical arts scene is very different. Technology has brought the world closer than ever before. I feel that the world has shrunk and for a very good reason that cultural exchange is happening very smoothly. Kids born in the US are very much in touch with Indian culture and in fact, far more traditionally rooted than some of the kids growing in India. They are more serious in pursuing the art and some, even migrate to India for considerable period of time to undergo advanced training under eminent Gurus.

For the most part, in the USA, students who learn dance eventually discontinue when they move out and enter college. What is your experience/opinion around this existing scenario, as a teacher?

Subashree Narayanan: So far in 16 years of teaching in the United States I do not have any student come back to dancing after leaving for college. This maybe also due to the structure of college years. Living in dorms, sharing with other people does not permit them to continue dancing in the room on Skype with me or self- practice. I am not aware of to help this situation for some who are really interested in continuing to dance.

Roopa Anand: Unfortunately, this is the scenario with many students here. My Gurus have always taught us inculcate passion for learning and to use dance as a medium of self expression and gain spiritual connection. I opine that if the students are “helped” to enjoy dance use it as a medium of relieving negative energy and transpose oneself to another space which is your own, they will certainly yearn to retain dance as a part of their lives. The lifestyle of college students is taxing. It is hard for them to add on another activity apart from their regular routine. Nonetheless, there are students who come back to dance class during their break time, to visit, to hang around in the place that their childhood memories are collated, AND to “just” dance in the class. A few of my students who have moved on to college have taken these memories with them, and come back to their “second home” every time they visit, and share with us as to how much they miss dancing. A few of them also wish to return to the Silicon Valley to continue dancing. It might not be possible for all of them to pursue dance at a professional level, however students expressing their gratitude for having been introduced to this art form which has become a part of their lives now, is very satisfying for me as a teacher.

Sheela Ramanath: It’s been 17 years since I started Kalavaridhi Center for Performing Arts LLC (an alliance of Nrityakalamandiram) and I’m proud to say that all along I’ve followed the footsteps of my Guru , B Bhanumati and she is the reason for shaping me into the person I am today. If I have done justice to her teachings and shared what I have received from her, I feel truly blessed and honored. Some of my students who studied under me for several years are in colleges. Although it is hard to be in touch with dance once they’re out of school, they do visit me often during summer breaks and also attend my classes and also workshops conducted by gurus visiting from India. That in itself is a promise that they will continue learning and keep this art form alive.

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Wait for the next edition where we’ll take a peek into a few more teachers’ experiences in teaching bharatanatyam in the US.


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