While dancers are still expected to surrender to their gurus, the questioning atmosphere under which modern students grow makes this deference to the guru seem strange

The role of a teacher, mentor or guru is a crucial one in any field. The teacher-student relationship is a revered one the world over. Upon examining the meanings of and transformations in dance pedagogy, the teacher-student relationship in India is invariably complex and fascinating.

In traditional India, the Gurukul system laid out norms for the relationship between the teacher and student. Students spent an extensive amount of time with the guru. The gurus were traditionally the male nattuvanars, and dance students dedicated more or less their entire time to their art. They even learnt other art forms such as music to enhance their understanding and practice of dance. Still, the transmission of privileged knowledge required the student’s demonstration of worthiness. All in all, the guru-shishya relationship remained peaceful as long as the guru had what Ananya Chatterjea calls the ‘student’s unconditional surrender’. In Kumudini Lakhya’s words, there was no room for questioning in the gurukul system.

Amongst the changes that began in modern India with regard to the guru-shishya relationship, Rukmini Devi’s example is noteworthy. After just a brief period of training with her guru, Rukmini Devi performed her debut or arangetram in 1935, against her guru’s wishes. Moreover, the institutionalization of dance education since the 1930s with the establishment of institutes like Kalakshetra and Kathak Kendra, took away the role of the traditional gurus and therefore a part of the gurukul system as well. Further, with this institutionalization, the one-to-one method of dance training more or less disintegrated. According to Mrinalini Sarabhai, by the time independence dawned on India, the ‘teacher’ had replaced the ‘guru’.

T.G. Vaidyanathan argues that when the harmony and symmetry of this guru-shishya relationship is broken – as it often does in modern India – there is a crisis of identity and authority. I believe this is so because the transition from tradition to modernity is sketchy and incomplete.

On one hand, dancers in the classical world today are still expected to surrender to their gurus and be ‘photocopies of their gurus’, as Kumudini Lakhya puts it. On the other hand, the questioning atmosphere under which modern students grow and live makes this deference to the guru seem strange, notes Leela Venkataraman. While the modern guru is still seen as the ultimate imparter of knowledge, knowledge is often held back from the student. One of the reasons for this, according to Leela Samson, is that the current market forces can result in a guru and shishya competing for the same space and funds. According to Anjana Rajan, a student can even lose out on performance opportunities if they fall out of favour with the guru. Finally, with dance institutions springing up all over the country, students of dance are exposed to a sort of democratization of dance – they elect to train in several dance vocabularies and with several teachers at a time. Yet, dance institutions do not allow their students to train outside of their academies, arguably restricting their learning potential; and despite being taught by several teachers, the inevitable question of ‘Who is your Guru?’ continues to shape a dancer’s identity, says Stacey Prickett.

In India, the concept of guru-shishya has survived despite all the modernizing mechanisms adapted in dance pedagogy in India. But it has not survived entirely unscathed. The modern guru-shishya relationship is, at the moment, an uncomfortable blend of the traditional gurukul system, and the modern (and sometimes western) teacher-student relationship. It is altered by institutionalization, democratization and current market forces even as it simultaneously tries to maintain the stark hierarchy and unquestioning reverence that existed in the traditional gurukul system. The modern guru-shishya phenomenon is yet to find its balance in the constant renegotiation between tradition and modernity that Indian dance is currently undergoing.