December 25, 2014

Experiences of the traditional gurukul system: past and present


A fellow dance friend was dismayed when her teacher told her she was going to the US for a series of summer workshops and would be away for two months. “Not to worry,” her guru assured her, “we can continue our classes via Skype.” I thought of a musician friend in Calcutta who holds regular Skype lessons with his students in Europe, and reflected that this new trend in ‘tele-teaching’ seems far removed from the traditional gurukul system where students used to live and study under the same roof as their gurus. Students were able to interact closely with their teachers, who gave them dedicated and focussed training, and often taught them not only an art but also a way of life. In today’s world where the study of the arts is often an extra-curricular activity, and teachers are also performers with busy performance schedules, teaching and learning has moved far away from the romantic ideal of the gurukul. Taken in today’s context, the traditional gurukul system does not seem practical or even feasible.

Curious about this traditional system of learning and its viability today, I spoke to musicians and dancers who have had the benefit of training in a gurukul. Some are attempting to continue this same tradition by teaching their own students in the same way. They shared with me their learning and teaching experiences and the challenges of replicating the gurukul system.

An experience learning under the traditional gurukul system

Chennai-based singer, composer, nattuvanar, and music and dancer teacher SK Suresh lived and studied for many years with his great-uncle, SK Rajaratnam Pillai, a renowned Bharata Natyam guru who trained many well-known dancers including Malavika Sarukkai, Priyadarsini Govind, and Vidhya Subramanian. Having closely worked for many years with well-known Bharata Natyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayanan as vocalist, co-choreographer and composer, he also has his own dance school in Chennai. His mastery of not only music and nattuvangam but also dance, choreography and music composition reflect the all-round training and personal attention he received from years spent in close proximity to his guru from a young age.(Left: SK Suresh)

Hailing from a family of temple musicians serving the famous Murugan temple in Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, SK Suresh was surrounded by music from a very young age and grew up listening to his father Pandanallur P.V. Kalidas playing the nadaswaram. Noticing the interest he had in music, his great-uncle and future guru, suggested to his parents that he should study music and dance with him. At the age of 12, he left his family in Swamimalai and went to live with his guru and his family in Chennai.

The young disciple spent the whole day with his teacher, observing all his classes, assisting him by singing, and imbibing all there was to learn about music, dance and nattuvangam. “In the early mornings I would practice my singing and then spend the rest of the day with him,” he recounts. “I didn’t have any proper lessons. I learned through observation and imitation and by absorbing everything. Of course he would correct me if I made mistakes and this is also how I learned. I was the only one learning with him in this way under the traditional gurukul system. Also, no one else learned nattuvangam with him. At that time gurus wouldn’t teach all the detailed aspects like laya calculation, choreography and nattuvangam – only dance.”

Another salient aspect of the gurukul system was seva. In return for training, the student was expected to assist in household and other chores, something the young SK Suresh did not mind contributing to: “I would wash his clothes, take him to the doctor, buy his medicines. I would go to the market to buy things, climb up the coconut trees to pluck coconuts, I even did the plumbing and electrical work!” (Right: SK Rajaratnam Pillai)

Having studied directly under his guru for seven years until his death in 1994, SK Suresh believes that this traditional system of learning is ideal for the mastery of an art and feels that this unique experience has been the foundation of his artistic development. “The gurukul system is the best way to master an art because it offers an all-round education,” he says. “At that time, the gurus were all-rounders, they mastered music, dance, nattuvangam and knew all the intricacies of tala, how to compose jatis, the structure to be followed for items, how to compose music, which beats of an adavu should be hard and which soft. When I’m composing, I think back to my time with my guru, remember his rendition of jatis, go through the composition and then compose. The training I had with him provided a strong foundation for me which still guides me today.”

Reviving the gurukul system

Today, of course, the way music and dance is taught and learnt has changed. In India, as elsewhere, music and dance students usually study part-time, commuting a few times a week to meet their teacher and learn in a classroom environment. The study of music and dance has also become institutionalised, with universities and schools offering diplomas and degrees in these disciplines for those who wish to study them full-time. However, there is a renewed interest in the traditional gurukul method of teaching which some schools are trying to replicate. Though there are several residential schools offering training in music and dance ‘in the guru-shishya parampara’, students do not usually live with their teachers, and teacher-student interaction is limited to class hours. Also, a student may have several teachers and not the dedicated attention of one guru, as was usually the case under the traditional gurukul system. Though this concept endures, its form has changed, just as the nature of the traditional teacher-student relationship has evolved.

Pune-based Dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar, a frequent performer in London’s Indian classical music circuit, studied in a gurukul for many years and teaches his students in his own home, applying the same approach to intensive full-time training as the one he experienced under his gurus. I happened to meet the singer and three of his students in Varanasi during the Dhrupad Mela in 2010. They were having an impromptu class on the terrace of the hotel. Though they were away from the gurukul, this did not take away from class time, and they had even practiced on the long 25-hour train journey from Pune. During the concert that evening, the students accompanied their guru onstage who provided them with many opportunities to showcase their own talent. (Above: Uday Bhawalkar)

Bhawalkar had left the family home at 15 to study and live with Dhrupad maestros Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, spending 12 years with them in Bhopal and Mumbai. “The daily routine was learning and practicing music from 4am to 5pm, apart from the household work of the gurukul,” he says. “I dedicated myself to my gurus, and learning music from them has taught me a way of life. The Ustads gave us a vision, perspective and approach towards the note, raag and music and made us realise its depths. To learn Indian classical music, the guru-shishya parampara is the only option to learn in a proper manner. It does not have restrictions or constraints relating to time or any other issues. The student learns the subtle nuances of the note and the mood and personality of the raag the moment the guru is inspired to do so.”

Nrityagram: a modern-day gurukul


Any casual visitor to Nrityagram on the outskirts of Bangalore cannot help but be charmed and inspired by the unique creative atmosphere of its beautiful rural campus of rustic buildings, sculpture gardens and outdoor performance spaces. It was founder Protima Bedi’s dream to establish a dance gurukul here, and today, 24 years after its conception, her disciples and now renowned dancers Surupa Sen, artistic director, and Bijayini Satpathy, head of the Odissi gurukul, continue her legacy. (Above: the Nrityagram campus)

Known for high standards and rigorous training, students train here for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Scholarships are offered to deserving residential students who wish to pursue dance as a career. Also, over 300 local children have been trained in Odissi for free through the village outreach programme. The residential students participate in the running of the dance community by working in the organic garden, cleaning the gurukul, helping in the kitchen or the office, and assisting the teachers. The running of the school is almost entirely sustained through the proceeds from the performances of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which has received critical acclaim worldwide and tours regularly.

For Satpathy, her guru was not only a teacher but also an inspiration and role model. “She was a multi-tasker and did everything to a high level of excellence. She practiced every day regardless of how hectic the day or how late in the evening it was. To see this as a living example was inspiring and easy to admire and imbibe.” Satpathy and Sen have obviously not only received meticulous training, but have also been inspired by their own guru’s work ethic and strive for excellence, which instilled a total dedication to the continuation of her dream and vision. “Our's has been an exploration and revival of traditional gurukul education keeping intact the core values that govern this system of pursuing art: an intense discipline combined with a shared belief of excellence couched in a community environment,” explains Sen. “We practice dance here as if it was life itself and learning has meant living every moment with acute awareness of the smallest things that impact our lives and therefore our art. Living with a teacher who teaches by example, working for the community, growing our own food, sharing space with people from different backgrounds and most importantly, spending a minimum of 8 to 12 hours in the dance class. To my mind, there is no better way to pursue a dream of being an artist other than this. And I am grateful to have found it.” (Right:Protima Bedi)

The challenges of traditional learning in a modern context

For Sen and Satpathy, there is no doubt that living and studying in a community gurukul setting is the ideal way to gain thorough training in a dance form like Odissi. However, attracting the right kind of student willing to live in a setting removed from the outside world where total dedication to an old tradition is expected, can be a challenge. “Becoming a good dancer is faster when you live and learn as we do at Nrityagram, compared to attending weekly classes, but it is rigorous, physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Satpathy. “To succeed you need patience and humility. Unfortunately patience and humility are becoming non-existent in our youth and without these, this tradition cannot survive.” Sen adds: “Finding dancers who 'believe' in our art like we do and want to pursue it in the traditional gurukul system seem few and far between. Short term 'fixes' seem more the norm and we are constantly trying to find ways to inspire and impact young minds in the modern context to appreciate and help preserve this deeply beautiful art form.”



Though the gurukul system may offer the dedicated intensive training and personalised attention required to excel, it is fraught with other contemporary challenges. “The psychology of this era is that academic education is a basic requirement and art is something additional one may pursue,” points out Bhawalkar. “In this case, there is a division of time and attention. Secondly, most of the gurus today are performers of the art which makes them travel extensively which may lead to less time for the students.” SK Suresh agrees that academic study is given higher value in India today than the study of the arts and that students’ attention is dispersed due to multiple extra-curricular activities, of which music or dance is just another. “The gurukul system is not possible today,” he maintains, “because there is a lot of importance put on academic studies today, and young children today have so many things to do: drawing, swimming, music, violin, etc.” Of course, resources are another obstacle. A teacher may not have sufficient space in his or her home to accommodate students and not have the funds required to provide a dedicated space for a community learning environment. “Finding the funds is an ongoing ordeal,” concurs Sen. “Art requires the support of the government and people to develop and build an aesthetic and nurturing society. Yet this appears to be the least deserving of all in the modern Indian and global scenario.” (Above: Bijayini Satpathy and Surupa Sen. Photo: E. Rousseau.)

In this new era of Skype gurus, the traditional gurukul system seems outdated and a challenge to sustain. However, we have seen examples of how those who are committed to this method of teaching and learning have revived it, adapting it to modern circumstances. Though there are challenges, the outcomes are often fruitful. Sen shares the tangible results she has observed: “Participating in the teaching of an old tradition is a great responsibility and I approach it as such and try to do the best I can. Old methods sometimes have to give way to new to suit a changing psyche. For the most part the transformation that I have noticed in students who come to Nrityagram has been astonishing. Almost like seeing a 'before' and 'after' photograph! And not just in their abilities as dancers but in their overall personalities. And always spectacularly for the better! The passion for the dance is what I try to pass on along with a deep understanding of the language that makes up this art form. In the end, we hope that they will emerge as better dancers and better people.”

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Pulse magazine.


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