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Lateral teaching
- Nalini Raghu

September 15, 2011

(Courtesy: The Natya Kala Conference 2010 souvenir)

Everyone loves to talk about the 'good old days' and say how wonderful things were in the past. But change is inevitable in every phase of our lives, and change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a cure. Artistes are very good at adapting to changing times and continuing tradition. The very existence of our classical dance and music tradition is proof of this.

In the early days of dance tradition (Sadir), both the teacher and the taught had plenty of time at their disposal. Everything was taught in a leisurely manner and learnt without much time bound pressure in Gurukulawas. The theory and technical perfection were not taken seriously into consideration, in the early stages, and one always hoped to improve slowly with years of experience, while absorbing the practical aspect of dance into one's system.

When Sadir took the name of 'Bharatanatyam' a few decades ago, academically oriented schools introduced teaching theory, along with abhyaasa, and connected art forms. Subjects like literature and philosophy also came into vogue. The basics were taught with great care explaining the lines, angles and the balanced positioning. Teaching and learning became very precise. Form was given priority over content in the initial years of training. Once mastery over form and technique was attained, they devoted time to the emotional content and soul searching aesthetics. The students were better off than those of Gurukulwas because they did not have to bend over backwards to take care of technical perfection in the later years which borders on impossibility. Still, it required long hours of learning and undivided attention excluding other academic pursuits. Then, going to school was no big deal. Schools were close by with no extra coaching classes and most of all, there was no pressure on the child by parents or society to prove her intellectual capacity by procuring a seat in a professional college.

In these modern times of coaching classes, everything is time bound and approached with exacting precision. In the field of art, just as in academics, teaching has to undergo a change again. Children of our urban cities can just about manage two hours a week to learn the basics of this art form. They are introduced to this art as young as 4 or 5 years of age, because 10 ands 12 years are not obeying age anymore.

In recent years, the bombardment from western cultures is motivating parents to introduce Bharatanatyam to children, to keep them disciplined. Hence the population of Bharatanatyam learning children has increased tremendously. The teachers do not have the time to give individual training. There is no way we can start off with early morning yoga training. We cannot keep their interest going while teaching 50 or more adavus for years.

Developing new methods of teaching is inevitable. One must learn to think laterally. Lateral teaching is not the logical, traditional beaten path. You may have to take a completely different route and direction to reach the goal. The method may sound bizarre but the end result will be perfect.

Let us take the basic Tattadavu as an example. In Vilambakala, the foot can be raised high before the floor contact, but not in Dhuritakala. If we teach them not to raise the foot high, but concentrate on pressing the foot to the floor, they can maintain the balanced position of the body weight better, without any deflection of waist or hip. As another example of lateral teaching, we can take the Makuta adavu. It is very difficult to make children finish it neatly with ease. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practical; but in practice, there is! Practically the Dhuritakala movements are different from those of Vilambakala. It works better if Dhuritakala grammar is followed for teaching Vilambakala. One can always learn the theoretical grammar at a later stage.

To get young minds to focus on this difficult disciplined art form, instead of teaching many adavus at a stretch, take selected adavus and teach the relevant body exercise for those adavus to make the learning easy and perfect.

The aim of this lateral teaching method is not to churn out mediocre dancers into the world of dance by having innumerable arangetrams, but to create a knowledgeable audience. Is the new method of teaching going to stop mediocrity in the classical dance, you may ask. For that I can only say that it cannot, because it is Shiva's dance. After all, Shiva favours equally the heights of prosperity and the depths of beggary; partaking alike ambrosia and poison as food; carrying water and fire on his person, satisfied with dwelling in heaven or on the burial ground.

Nalini Raghu is trained in the Pandanallur tradition. A renowned teacher and choreographer, she has been actively associated with the Anushaktinagar Lalitkala Sanstha since its inception in 1975. Her training in vocal and mridangam enhances her ability as a conductor. A graduate in mathematics, her choreography is noted for bringing out the complex mathematical relationship between movements and music.

Dear teacher
It was really nice to read the article. I agree change is hard, but change we must if we need to keep the interest alive in future students of this beautiful art form.
- Anonymous
(March 6, 2012)

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