Of late, I have been thinking a lot about the implications of cultural values in the in the teaching/learning process. When I started my dance training in the US/Canada, the system under which I learned was more or less on the conservative side, I imagine it was [somewhat] modeled after the Guru-Shishya parampara system in India. The expected behaviors were made clear from the very beginning: how we addressed our teachers/Gurus, how we treated the physical dance space, our dress, attitudes, etc. The learning expanded beyond the classroom and permeated into our day-to-day lives. Even from a young age we had to learn to develop the necessary discipline to incorporate dance into our daily activities. Our teachers/Gurus had a much larger role in our lives than just learning movements in a classroom. When I began traveling to India, transitioning into that system was not that difficult since that grounding had been established from early on. Despite having been born and raised outside of India, I never questioned the system under which I learned, rather I rationalized it as part of the process of the classical arts and accepted it as the way, really the only way to imbibe the essence of the art form. I learned what I was taught and left it to my teachers to determine what I would learn and when. I completely surrendered to this system with full faith.
These days, as I teach my students, I find myself analyzing these rules and expectations further – do my students adhere to the same set of expectations that I did? No they don’t. But the times have changed drastically since I was a student, and these changes are not necessarily attributed to culture as much as they are the generation we are in. Can we expect students to blindly follow what we did? Rarely, if ever. But I do find myself questioning whether they are losing out on something by not adhering to the same set of rules that I did (by not enforcing particular behaviours (strict adherence and discipline, obeying the teacher, etc.). For us, the smallest of details, be it touching our teachers’ feet, sweeping the classroom before starting class, taking off our shoes and neatly lining them up against the wall, what we wore to programs, how we behaved with our peers and elders – were a part of that discipline of being a dancer. Yet many today would find this sort of thing suffocating, binding even. And by not expecting students to follow these behaviors, are we starting to see an erosion of a system in which the classical performing arts have been sustained? What are the cultural values indispensable to the learning process? What are the values that are most needed for them to fully imbibe the art? And is it possible that by not doing so, they may actually be better off? Would it enable them to mature into thoughtful and critically engaged dancers? Times are changing so much now, as are the values and social/cultural expectations – how will this be reflected in our art? These are critical questions to consider.
Bhubaneswar: April 4, 2017.