Art Leaps its Way Over the Seas - Part 2

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 Mangala Anand (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Vid Lakshmi Sriraman (Lexington, Kentucky). 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. (Find Part 1 here: link)

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

Mangala Anand: Guru shishya parampara is a very elevated relationship passed on from generations in the field of education. However in today’s world the relevance for the newer generations across, when this has been discussed has been mostly notional with an elusive flavor. To really start with I don’t think students are very different in their thought process when it comes to from where they belong geographically, in all respects the pace of life has become faster people have become more goal oriented and so life and experiences are simmered down to the word transactional in the journey of life, education and does not just confine to just that, it goes over and beyond to even relationships.

When I first moved here I realized that there so much a country has as its core, which is not well summarized through movies and documentaries, hence you cannot learn culture or get the full spirit. So for me it was a learning experience trying to understand people, their perspective in this new country which was certainly alien to me in many ways, as I got comfortable and felt settled that is when I took my next step and started my dance institute in 2007.

The one thing that I worked hard & was sensitive as a teacher was connect the cultural dots in the journey of their learning for my students. It is often seen that children do have a very bird’s eye view to concepts, vedic stories, mythology, aesthetics that are integral to our culture even though parents here in the US try really hard to instill our roots into the younger generation. So this really broadens the responsibility for teachers to not only confine their teachings to technique and the framework to the art form, but also go over and beyond to connect the dots or give them a background perspective of why it is the way it is, this helps them to visualize and relate better and of course have greater appreciation for the art they are training.

Lakshmi Sriraman: Before I attempt to answer this question I want to articulate my understanding of the traditional format of Guru-Shishya parampara. I understand this unique teaching/learning pedagogy, in the space of Bharatanatyam, and as applicable to any teaching/learning environment to be one where the Guru, the teacher, embodies a body of knowledge that through a process of trust, devotion and commitment is transmitted to the Shishya, the student. This has been a time tested tradition that has served those who have taken on this path for learning, and in a spiritual journey, enlightenment.

Initially, when I started teaching in the US I found myself wanting to replicate this experience for me and my students. Through time I have come to understand that while there are many aspects of this kind of a special bond that serve a teaching/learning situation, there are just as many that don’t.

Let me explain.

In the past I used to see a teacher and student as two distinct roles, the one who did the instructing and the one who learned from those instructions. This model has many assumptions built into it. One of them is that of the teacher having almost complete understanding and knowledge that is then transmitted to the student. As I furthered my own spiritual journey through the service of teaching I realized that my experience was on shaky grounds if I chose to function from that space of understanding. Human consciousness has undergone a massive shift in the recent years and what we seek collectively as humanity and individually as humans has also shifted. I realized that what I was looking at more and more was I was, as a teacher, learning through teaching and my students were indeed teaching me through their learning.

This helped me reframe the combined journey I have with my student(s) as a teaching/learning and learning/teaching experience. This new understanding has helped me take a look at my teaching/learning methodologies with fresh perspectives.

I start my classes with the traditional 'Oṁ Saha nāvavatu...' through which I set the intent that all of us in the space walk the path together, enriching our collective and individual experiences and knowledge and every other aspect of growth that is brought out in that space, in the most loving respectful way. While my responsibility as a teacher is to hold the space sacred for all those who have entrusted me to create and hold that space, it is equally important for me to stay vulnerable and open to all queries that arise in me and in my students. We ask questions of each other and many times we realize we don’t have answers to all of the questions asked, at least not on the surface.

Teaching and strengthening techniques aside, I see my role as a teacher to hold spaces for the students to excel and be their best selves. It is like opening a portal into themselves to explore and learn.

If all I did was only teach the idiom of Bharatanatyam I think I would have missed the wonderful opportunity to help these beautiful students to find their true self and help imprint their energy into this world.

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

Mangala Anand: Absolutely a wonderful thought that the more you think or relate to a concept the more your learning becomes effective and one of the ways to do this is from watching good performances. It is not wrong to say that we have limited sabhas / forum here that present good work on an ongoing basis. Despite the fact that art is universal it is still territorial in way that it is structured. So as a presenter myself I sometimes struggle in putting together a few good shows and artists and I am sure this is the same with many other organization that strive to propagate arts. Hence long story short it means that students in their foundational years have limited opportunities to viewing some fine talents and this is where technology has been such a big boon, with some due diligence we sieve out good work for the students to view, recommend good shows to go to and follow good performers in their craft. We conduct workshops and lecture demonstrations with mixed groups where they not only learn along with some good talents, they also get a close view to good performers. Hence in my very own small way have started an annual dance and music festival in the US that showcases some of the fine professional talents to the city of Carmel art lovers and definitely my students benefit a cherished experience.

Lakshmi Sriraman: I too agree that that more you watch, the more you learn. This is an ongoing challenge. I cannot say that I have found a way to make this work effectively. Living in a smaller city where we do not have live Bharatanatyam performances does not help either. However, we make time in class to watch videos online and discuss them. Every now then I will send a bunch of links to performances that I have enjoyed watching online to my students.

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?

Mangala Anand: I have always believed that art is for oneself and for their soul. So this should not be a journey we take with the materialistic timelines, having said that learning arts is an experience and is like everyday life, it definitely starts at a point, it happens, then it is there with you for life. I have seen students who have gone to college and stopped learning and student who have continued so from my perspective it is more being aware and it is a matter of one’s thought process, as teachers we can help mentor and steer their thought on how best they can manage learning and practice in real life. It is opinionating to state that students discontinue after college as the reality goes beyond that there are many other factors that contribute in every phase of life and those innumerous competing factors are compelling reasons where usually individuals makes the choices. This is certainly not an existing scenario it has always been like this across, as I remember many examples from my student days and my personal life experience is an example where I was away from learning, teaching, performing for many years and the reason was a few reasons from those numerous competing priorities.

As their mentor, I always try to help them rationalize their priorities and help them scope out a learning plan so they can stay connected to that beautiful experience that they gathered through their journey. I always say this it is ok to take a stop or break just don’t say this is the END as you never know your fortunate morning that will resume your journey.

Lakshmi Sriraman: I have had both kinds of students, those who continue their studies with me and other teachers, and those who move on to other things. However, many of my students have stayed with dance in one way or the other, I have seen some become part of college dance teams.

Amongst many things I have learned in my journey as a teacher, one of the most important lessons has to be the one about service. Looking at teaching as a service. That and not to look at the duration of the time a student pursues dance as an indicator of my ability as a teacher or as the students' interest in dance.

For the time that our paths converge I am glad to share what little I know, have learnt and continue to learn with any who seek that. With some that path paves way to a longer journey together, hopefully enriching both of us in the process. With some it is short and yet hopefully enriching both of us in the process.

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