The challenges of being a Bharatanatyam teacher today

As classes go online and requirements of millennial students change, it’s time to revisit the teaching methodology

Published - August 19, 2021 04:57 pm IST

We need to relook at the pedagogy and classroom practices

We need to relook at the pedagogy and classroom practices

Esha enters her first Bharatanatyam class hoping to wear a costume and perform on stage very soon or make a video for YouTube like her friend. She has been watching her sister dance and wishes to mimic the beautiful moves one day. However, when she begins to train, she realises her regular classes involve a mundane drill of adavu movements that cause sore legs. The dream of donning a costume and performing seems far-fetched. As a young Bharatanatyam teacher, the challenge is to find new ways to sustain Esha’s interest, without compromising on the technique and learning process.

‘Teach your students the way you were taught’ has been the pedagogical premise of Bharatanatyam classes for many years. The transfer of knowledge through the guru-sishya parampara relies heavily on traditional methods of instruction. The technique is codified and teachers feel obliged to follow the established practice. This legacy involves the guru, who is considered the ultimate authority, and the student, who is expected to follow instructions with implicit obedience. Despite considerable changes in dance repertoires and in the demographics of the student population, pedagogical practices largely remain the same. And today’s students have access to multiple teachers through workshops, and can enhance their repertoire and technique through easily available online resources.

I ask myself what my role is, as a teacher in this context. In an era, where children insist on actively engaging in the learning process through questions and activity-based learning, my role as a Bharatanatyam teacher is to kindle a love for the form, encourage creativity, and foster individuality. I realise my pedagogy and classroom practices need to go beyond what I have learned, and I draw inspiration from my varied experiences as dancer, scientific researcher, and, more recently, curator. The breadth and scope of my previous experiences influence my pedagogical practices and shape my identity as a teacher.

The requirements of millennial students are changing and there is a need to revisit the teaching methodology. Training in Bharatanatyam requires years of rigorous practice and many students are not able to withstand the demands of the art form in the initial years. They often complain of boredom or feel overwhelmed with the pace of the class and do not have the motivation to continue.

As teachers, we need to ask ourselves, is Bharatanatyam meant only for those who can endure the rigour of the practice? How can dance classes look beyond physical education and kinesthetic literacy?

The goal in the initial phase of Bharatanatyam training is to perfect the adavu vocabulary through repetition and practice. If repetition is made interesting, perhaps by introducing newer ways of executing the same movement, using different spatial orientations, or employing different rhythmic (thala) patterns, it can spark students’ interest. With such adaptations, the student understands the process of recreating a movement better and appreciates the value of practice.

Students of Sri Narayana Natyalaya

Students of Sri Narayana Natyalaya

Learning to express

Children are taught gestures and their viniyogas (applications) as a theory in the form of Sanskrit slokas. There tends to be a disconnect between the theory learned in an unfamiliar language and the technique practice. Applying the gestural vocabulary learned as ‘theory’ to express day-to-day ideas, stories and small compositions can help engage students of any age group. Teaching the nritta (pure dance) and abhinaya (expressive form) in parallel while making connections between them is another way to break the monotony. It is also easier to tap into their expressive abilities when children are younger and uninhibited rather than waiting to complete the course of adavus. Bharatanatyam is inherently expressive and learning to express through the art is both liberating and empowering for students.

The barriers imposed by the pandemic have, in fact, provided teachers an opportunity to explore alternative pedagogical approaches and have conversations with students. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam teachers view concepts such as body awareness, finding the centre, balancing energy, and exploring space as Western notions. But with virtual learning, there’s been a need to verbally articulate movements, so these otherwise neglected ideas are finding an important place in the class now.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The teacher is in the best position to decide, based on students’ needs. A balance of traditional methods with new and adaptive ones that build a student-centered learning environment will work best.

The idea of teaching is to foster in students the desire to engage with the art holistically. We need to create not just dancers and performers, but also choreographers, thinkers, teachers, and an informed audience through our students. The role of the teacher is slowly shifting from an expert to a facilitator. Ultimately, helping students find joy through dance is one of the most rewarding purposes of being a Bharatanatyam teacher.

The writer is a Delhi-based Bharatanatyam artiste

and co-founder of

Re-Cognising Dance.

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