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Obeisance to the Guru!

Over the years, the field of performing arts, Indian Classical Dance in particular, has changed, in terms of learning as well as performing. Almost all the revered Gurus spoken to, regret the loss of the Guru-shishya tradition. They cite too much academics as the culprit. Also a veteran in the field regrets the loss of commitment among the teachers. A younger teacher laments the inadequate space for teaching and the declining dedication of the students. Does the internet bring any hope? Let’s see.
The credit of revival of Mohiniattam goes to Dr. Kanak Rele, a veteran Kathakali and Mohiniattam performer and teacher. Student of late Kelucharan Mohapatra, Jhelum Paranjpe took to Odissi dance after she had completed her M.Sc. Statistics. One of her most interesting experiments is Leelavati, an ancient treatise on Arithmetic by Indian Mathematician Bhaskara II. Sagar Natraj became a Visharad in the Kathak and Bharatanatyam dances and playing the Tabla in his early childhood. He also plays the Dhol, Tasha, Dholki and other wind instruments.
Commercialisation: Dr. Rele admits that there is widespread commercialization in the field. She says, “Attitudes and commitments are very different now. It’s a very different situation. Our commitments and my era were different. When I was young I was taught by my family and Guru not to think too much about money. But the sincerity and the total dedication to the art were the most important things. Now that is not the case. I suppose the days are bad, what with the galloping inflation. They need to earn. I think the entire ambiance of the society has changed so much. We have become commercial in every possible thing. Your religion, your worship, your puja, everything has become commercialized. Under the circumstances, we can’t help it, I suppose. Still some of us are desperately trying to hold on to the old traditions. How long we will be able to do so, I don’t know.”
Sagar reveals the harsh reality. He says, “People dance because the channel pays them. Who dances for the sake of art today? Tell me, is the development of dance happening. Do you feel that anyone of them will become an artiste after 10 years? Nothing like that will happen. They think that with the money, they would be able to decorate their homes and buy a vehicle. They would be able to enjoy. But nobody dances to become an artiste.”
He adds, “The field has completely become commercialized. When money is involved then it is obviously commercialization. They are paying so much money that they are ruining the person and then it is the end. 10 years ago one of my students got 30 lakhs in the dance reality show Boogie Woogie. I had taught her for free. Since the time she got the money, she has not returned to the class!”
On the other hand, Jhelum finds that it is not a bad idea to become commercial. She says, “Well, what exactly do you mean by commercialized? I was asked the same question today in a radio interview. If commercialization means that performing arts teachers are pricing their tuition very high or performing artistes are demanding exorbitant payments, be it Indian classical dance/music or western dance/music or any other type, then the answer is YES. But my query to that is WHY NOT? Is there anything wrong in being commercial? Why can’t performing arts be commercial, when the whole world is going commercial?”
She adds, “‘How much commercial…3%, 10% or 65%?’ is a very vague question. I have no idea. I don’t think it’s an answerable question. But I genuinely feel it’s high time that performing arts go commercial. Look at how commercial painting has gone. Can you tell me how much that field has become commercialized?”


Commitment of Gurus: They admit that the commitment level of the Gurus has changed. Dr. Rele says, “There are 2 types of Gurus. There are certain Gurus, who are totally dedicated to art and keeping up the traditions and theory. There are others, who learn from here and there for a month or so and suddenly you see them using the title. You can’t write home much about their knowledge. They may quietly learn from someone in the morning and afternoon and then they discourse the same thing to their students in the evening. How can you reconcile? We put in so much hard work and we did not dare to teach before our Guru permitted us. I was too frightened to use the title Guru and even today I don’t like it because Guru is such a tremendous entity. I worked hard and earned my PhD, so when people call me Dr. Kanak Rele, I feel happy. But when they call me Guru Kanak Rele, I start getting scared. I feel that I do not measure up to the greatness of my Guru.”
Sagar is unhappy that the commitment level of the teacher, who runs the class, is according to the portion to be studied. He says, “The Guru-shishya practice is a fallen tradition, now. The factory of good artists is closing down and producing very small number of committed and good students. 15 to 20 years ago the academic studies were less and the artists could practice for at least 1 hour per day and perform well for a long time. Today the students learn for 1 hour every week. In one hour, what will the learners learn and what will the teachers teach? Because now-a-days the academic studies are more, the children cannot practice at home. Today the Gurus don’t get the chance to show the commitment level. Previously the parents would give their children away to the Gurus and tell them to make their children like themselves come what may. The Gurus could be strict with them and even had permission to scold and hit the students. Today parents send their children to almost all hobby classes. The child’s energy is entirely divided. He ends up not learning anything.”
Asked if the children become Jack of all trades and Master of none, he says, “Jack is at least something. It is used in repairing a car. They don’t become even that.”
Jhelum says, “The fact that they call themselves gurus, they have to be committed, I know many who are. Otherwise he/she is not a guru/ teacher of a performing art. Those who are not committed are definitely not gurus/teachers, they are hobby developers.”
She adds, “Whether in a strict manner or any other, a guru/teacher will always strive to get the best out of their students. And that does not mean that every student will be a superb dancer, but he/she will be pushed to his/her level best.”

Jhelum Paranjpe
Jhelum Paranjpe

No More Biggies: Hardly a few big names are coming up in the field after late Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj, Dr. Kanak Rele, Mallika Sarabhai or Chitra Vishweswaran. Dr. Rele is hopeful about the next generation of dancers. She says, “That’s again a matter of generation, isn’t it? Kelu Babu was much older than me. So is Birju Maharajji. I don’t know why you are asking this question because there are very promising youngsters around. I have watched them and I have hopes of them doing something great. Kelucharan Mohapatra, Birju Maharaj and I are some of the most traditional teachers and performers. We are absolutely dedicated. Though we experiment we do not lose sight of the traditionalism and traditional theory. Some people try to experiment. That idea is going to the youngsters. Today dancers, at their 43-44 years old, who has just arrived on the scene, start thinking about experimenting. They start losing sight of the theory, technique and dedication. Indian Classical Dance is not secular, it is religious and spiritual. All these things are getting lost. Now if you ask me, everybody knows that I have done experiments. And for that people have respected me. I have not lost sight of the content and the theory of Mohiniattam. For that you must have proper training and education, which we are trying to do at my institution Nalanda. We try to give the right background.”
Sagar Natraj agrees, “The people you listed worked hard for their art from early morning to late night, right? That is why they attained that level, isn’t it? Our children don’t have that kind of time. They go to the school in the morning. In the afternoon they have tuitions and then in the evening participate in their other activities. They get tired. Tell me how much studies did the people, you talked about, did. Does their bio-data have their school or college name? Let’s take the example of late Kelucharan Mohapatra. He used to invent dance steps by spending his day looking at the idols in temples. He at least had those idols to get inspired from. Our children don’t have even that. They are living in a concrete jungle like Mumbai. There is not even a museum nearby. ” He means to say that the only museums are in South Mumbai, inaccessible to many children, due to various reasons.
He adds, “Today we don’t even get space to teach in. The owners prefer to give these halls to marriage parties. Again it’s commercialization. They get more remuneration from these marriage parties. Birju Maharaj was sponsored by an organization and that organization was strongly interested in developing the Kathak dance. Where do we have such organizations today?”
Jhelum is upset at the suggested list of biggies! She says, “How can you even take the names of Mallika Sarabhai and Kelucharan Mohapatra in the same breadth? Firstly they are a generation away and hence their genres of work are totally different. If you had said Mrinalini Sarabhai, that would have been okay. Kelucharan had revived Odissi, in the same mould come Vempatti Chinna Satyam, Kumudini Lakhia, Sitara Devi, Birju Maharaj, Yamini Krishnamurthy, and then we have the younger Sanjukta Panigrahi, Sonal Mansingh, Padma Subramanyam, and younger Alarmel Valli, Malavika Sarrukkai and so many more in the even younger generation. There are plenty of them. Unless your definition of “super stars” is something I do not understand.”

Dr. Kanak Rele
Dr. Kanak Rele

Online Innovations: With the development in technology, performing arts may go hi tech. But, Dr. Kanak Rele laughs, “Quite frankly Gayatri, I have not seen that phenomenon. From morning till evening I am at my institution. My very senior students, who are getting National Awards, come to me for practice. One of the best one is Sunanda Nair, who is now stationed in the US. Last year she got Kerala State Sangeet Natak Academy Award for Mohiniattam. Every 3 months she would come to me for practice. I’ve never taught her or anybody else online. On skype and what not? And I don’t think you can teach like that. I am sorry. Dance is 3-dimentional. I will go a little further, it is 4-dimentional. I mean unless the Guru stands up and dances in front of you how will you learn? Even at this age, I stand up in front of my students and teach them while performing. This online thing I don’t believe in. I don’t know if it is remunerative or not. I don’t know its pros and cons. In a recent workshop we had a prominent Guru from Chennai, Adyar Lakshmanan. He is a disciple of late Rukhmani Devi Arundel. It was a rare occasion for the students to watch him and listen to him. He told them and I quote, ‘to take your Guru as your God. Don’t treat your Guru like dirt. The day you accept that your Guru is your God then only art will come to you. Otherwise art is going to give you a kick.’ He is older than me. When he was conducting the workshop I was the coordinator and the convener. But before entering the hall I would always do namaskaram to my Guru, wherever he is. He died many years ago. Then only I would do the rehearsal or perform. I would request my Guruji to give me strength to dance properly. Unless one does this there is absolutely no hope for that particular person.”

Sagar Natraj
Sagar Natraj

Sagar says, “Online you have Ramdev Baba’s yoga classes also. How much they will learn online? Maybe a couple of steps? But they learn it wrong. That is why there are more health problems, now. Since the time yoga was started to be taught over TV, this is what is happening. If they tell you to lift your leg, the people at home lift much more than needed and end up injuring themselves. Any interaction is better if it is face to face. If I give you a CD to learn Tabla, you will not be able to learn it. You will need my explanation. Guru Dronacharya asked Eklavya’s thumb as a Guru dakshina. No more Eklavyas are made now. He was the only one. Take for instance these noveau choreographers. They don’t know what beats are being hit. They just know their steps. They don’t know what steps should come when a particular instrument, for example, a violin is being played. They don’t know how to synchronize the beats and the steps. Online you can get confident that you can learn. But you won’t actually be able to learn the whole dance.”
Regarding online concerts, he says that the ambiance, itself, is not created. He says, “The aura in the auditorium is something different. You will not get the same experience at home on TV. When you appreciate the finer nuances of the concerts at home, you are alone. But when you are in the auditorium, the impact is altogether different. You will know when to clap. You learn appreciation of art as an audience.”
Jhelum says, “I am not too aware of this. But we at Smitalay have brought out a DVD of learning the basics of Odissi and we plan to upload it online.”

This article was first published in Eve’s Times magazine and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor, Swati Amar.


About Gayatri T Rao

A double post-graduate (MSc. - Botany and MA - English Literature) Gayatri T Rao is a Senior Multimedia Journalist with vast experience in writing on varied topics.

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