Rohini Dandavate uses technology as a means to teach dance, a discipline which fosters better cultural understanding
It is always interesting to observe the resilience of arts labelled traditional in appearing steadfast even as they transform and adapt themselves to new environments and changing times. So it is that the Indian classical dance forms that were once taught solely through the guru-shishya parampara are now widely shared through a number of mass communication techniques, including the Internet and electronic teaching devices. Dancers trained in the mid-20th Century in India, who had the chance to learn from old school maestros, are now actively engaged in furthering the reach of their art through these means. Among them is Rohini Dandavate, trained in Odissi under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and others, and settled for nearly two decades in the U.S.
Based in San Francisco, Rohini works on creating learning tools for students and teachers of Odissi dance. She has brought out two DVDs titled “Fundamentals of Odissi Dance”. The first came out in 2011 and the second, “Language of Hand Gestures”, in 2012. The third, “Fundamentals of Odissi Dance 3: Abhinaya: Technique of Expression in Odissi Dance” is expected to be available for sale on the Internet in September. Besides online on Createspace, the DVDs are also available in India at Pune (ArtSphere) and Bhubaneswar.
“Odissi has found place on the world stage and there are students in remote corners of the world,” says Rohini, who teaches at various universities besides offering individual lessons. “With the limitation of time and distance, these learning tools will make appropriate reference materials and facilitate daily practice.” The traditional theatrical arts are associated with observing nature and the discovery of the body as the primary – and magnificently versatile – instrument of expression. Teachers sometimes struggle to bring about a balance between this relatively uncluttered simplicity of life and the gadget-based existence of their students.
“I truly believe that any classical dance cannot be learned using technology alone, and these DVDs are not a substitute for in-person lessons given by a guru,” notes Rohini. “These are meant to be learning resources for facilitating daily practice. That being said, technology offers a great opportunity to make Odissi dance accessible to many more students than in the past.”
The language of instruction being English, she hopes to help students across the world in their pursuit of Odissi. “This is rooted in my own experiences. In my initial years of training, I noticed the limited availability of reference materials for use in my home practice sessions. Also, since Oriya was not my mother tongue, as a young girl I had difficulty reading reference literature in Oriya. When I moved to Mumbai and started teaching, I came across students, who felt the same need. These experiences motivated me to produce more accessible learning tools.”
The advantages of the format, such as the chance to repeat lessons and set one’s own pace, bring the art form within accessible distance of a wide range of learners. “Every student has a different learning process, and technology gives all students the opportunity to excel through extra practice and preparation at home.”
The dance forms of India are recognised worldwide as sophisticated performance arts. However, in a world torn by differences, surely they can serve a greater social purpose, and Rohini taps into this potential by conducting courses in building cultural understanding through the arts. “I often conduct seminars or workshops in schools and community organisations to encourage students and community members to explore the technique of Odissi dance. In the process of exploring the technique they also learn about the social, cultural and political history tied to the Odissi tradition,” says Rohini, whose courses attract participants of diverse ethnicities. “I have enjoyed teaching and sharing my art, because teaching in the U.S. has led me to delve deeper in my understanding of the dance form and the history of India.”
Rohini, who worked as Programme Officer (Dance) at the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi in the late 1980s, received her doctoral thesis in Cultural Policy and Arts Administration from Ohio State University in 2006. She has taught a course called Ethnic Arts: A Means to Intercultural Communication at OSU’s Department of Art Education.
“This course is designed to understand and appreciate the cultural diversity in America through world art forms. Besides sharing my Indian culture, I invited scholars and artistes from other ethnicities to share their art and culture. Trips to museums, concerts, home interviews, tasting new foods, exploring diverse cultural practices and trends have been ways of helping students understand cultural nuances, similarities and differences,” she says.
This approach is increasingly relevant to a world where community isolation is fast fading, but it has always been so to the cultural crucible that is the U.S. Take Rohini’s workshop on Indian folk dances. Conducted with 10 participants who met over four weekends, four hours each evening, the workshop had five participants originally hailing from different States of India and five whose origins were in other countries, she relates. “The group was taught three folk dances — Garba from Gujarat, Karama from Odisha and Kolattam from Karnataka. During the workshop, besides experiencing new dance movements and music, they formed friendships, got exposure to different languages of India, discovered their strengths and weaknesses while working in the group and learned to adapt and help each other on and off stage.”
A project that aimed at greater understanding among artistes was “Cultural Contrasts in Dance of Fire”, which received funding from the Ohio Humanities Council. “Another memorable workshop was “Asia: Cultural Memory”. Funded by the Upper Arlington Arts Commission, Ohio, this was a six-week celebration of Asian cultures, where Rohini collaborated with visual artists, photographers, dancers, musicians, and culinary experts. Besides performances, exhibits and lectures, “a marketplace was organised at the community centre, with a view to share the cultural traditions and practices of Asian countries,” says Rohini.