Teaching Odissi Classical Dance: Creativity within the Pedagogy of Guru Shisha Parampara

Recently I joined an inspiring professional development program lead by Kaustavi Sarkar for Indian classical dance educators hosted by University of North Carolina in association with SPICMACAY. We were given a number of thought provoking writing assignments to better understand our own teaching philosophy as dance educators.  

This blog entry asks a fundamental question:What is the role of creativity in teaching Classical Indian Dance? 

Learning to me is a creative act: forging new understandings and pathways to a wider range of possibility.  Learning is generally defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills, but that knowledge remains commonplace until it develops to the level of embodied wisdom.  

Whenever I consider study, I am reminded of a teaching given to me by my spiritual Guru, Swami Vidyadishananda Giri; it is that learning has 3 phases: information, knowledge and wisdom.  Most commonplace is the gathering of information.  We live in an information age.  With just the click of a button we have access to limitless information on a limitless number if topics, be we are none the wiser as a civilization for it.  For learning to progress to the next phase, information must be recalled at the correct moment and applied in various situations.  This is knowledge.  Finally, wisdom is when the essence of that learning permeates someones whole being.  Wisdom is when we have distilled the truth of a topic so deeply that it even overflows into other subjects. 

Dance mastery is based on embodiment.  When a great dancer takes their first step on stage and we feel the energy in the theater change, they bring with them the embodiment of years of rigorous study, and training lifestyle.  This ‘embodied wisdom’ is a truth or a deep sense that permeates all parts of a dancers body and their choices.  We aim for this kind of mastery or ‘embodied wisdom’ in classical Indian dance.

I believe as a learner, the creative part of training in a highly codified traditional dance form (such as Odissi) is finding where our own values, spiritual insights, emotions and shifting self perceptions fit into the practice.  In my experience the patient repetition of an exercise over years has allowed me to peel back layer upon layer of nuance and meaning.  The movement becomes a symbol for a deep metamorphosis that has taken place within me.  Our Gurus knew this when they asked us to “repeat, repeat, repeat”.  But the young student often feels – where is the room for my self expression in this continuous repetition?  It would seem they prefer the dance form to shift to match their self identity, rather than allow the art form to evolve their self perception. 

If we focus our creativity on constantly re imagining the technique, we loose this unique opportunity to find depth through the repetition of practice.  In my own experiences of training in Indian Classical dance, Indian martial arts (kalarypayattu) and a lineage-based himalayan yoga, my most profound revelations and moments of self empowerment have come from surrendering to that grueling repetitive practice and allowing my perceptions to shift. Somewhere inside of those years spent doing specific Yoga vinyasas, Odissi stepping practices or high leg kicks of Kalrypayattu, I was forged and molded into another person entirely.  Not only the body was transformed, but my mindset and perceptions as well.

This shifting self perception is an inward journey, rather than an outward expression.  When we take the time to deepen our inner awareness and self realize, our outward creative expression as artists draw from a deeper well and possibility offer a more transformative and authentic experience for our audiences.  It is my role as a teacher to inspire patience to match passion and to point out that the rewards of this path of study unfolds subtly and over an extended period of time.  

As a teacher navigating the ocean of material in Odissi which I must convey to my students I appreciate insights into the stages of a learning process as presented by Blooms Taxonomy: 

1.) Remembering 2.) Understanding. 3.) Application of Knowledge 4.) Analyzing 5.) Evaluation. 6.) Creation

A specific result arrises from the traditional method of Gurukul teaching that relies primarily on repetition and imitation (beautifully illustrated in the traditional analogy of churning butter).   This first layer of remembering through repetition lays the foundation for the proceeding phases of mastery.  Unlike contemporary dance where creativity, reimagining and originality is emphasized early on in dance education, Indian classical dance follows an ‘apprentice model’ learning system which, like in Blooms Taxonomy of the stages of learning, believes that only after encountering the material through preliminary relationships do we have the capacity for ‘creativity’ in the sense of re imagining, improvising or choreographing in our dance style.  

Creativity implies originality and imagination.  Classical Indian dance as I have learned it from my Gurus aims to preserve a cultural and spiritual ethos through the formulated dance practice.  I would have to agree with my Gurus that some aspects of our dance education can not be creatively or imaginatively interpreted or we would loose the cultural and spiritual aspects that give our art form such a distinct depth.  That is why I believe this first layer of the learning process in Blooms taxonomy is one that deserves the most time in a classical Indian dance education setting so that both the movements and the implied value system have time to settle into the blossoming dancer.

In the context of learning abhinaya and application of classical Indian dance theories such as bhava and rasa, the later phases of Blooms taxonomy are most relevant.   The ability to convey a character’s deeply nuanced emotional state requires extensive application, analysis,  evaluation and creativity and less of repetition or reproduction.  Initially we learn expression by imitation, but if students stay at the preliminary stage too long, it means they are not taking enough risks, not taking enough time for self reflection and analysis.  Since abhinaya is first created in the actor/dancer’s imagination before it is portrayed, this aspect of classical Indian dance education should focus more on creative exercises, for example: interpreting a character through several gestures, stances and nuances and being able to name the vocabulary employed (mudra, shira, bhangi, etc), followed by peer and teacher feedback.  

Creativity in the sense of re imagining the dance to the degree of restructuring, choreography or re interpretation might encourage premature ownership of the material in students and result in problematic situations which I have experienced in my early years of teaching students such as: teaching the material too soon or misrepresentation the dance (specifically religious elements) with out knowing the full cultural context and insinuated meanings of the dance gestures.   This area deserves further reflection and discussion.  As a custodian of Odissi’s unique culture, I realize more and more the importance of articulating the boundaries of when a student is ready to present and represent this dance tradition.

I believe as teachers we must find a creative way to transmit the inherent value system and spiritual nature of our dance lineage, as our Gurus have transmitted this beautiful vision to us.  One activity I have implemented in my school is students learning and memorizing our school Values, followed by a creative writing assignment to write and decorate a personal ‘Values Shield’ and present it in front of the class.  This has been a very meaningful way for students to discuss what matters most to them.  We discover that these values are their deeper motivation for studying the dance and when the work gets challenging and the inevitable self doubt arises in the face of challenge, students often turn to these values for inner strength.  By discussing our school values, students understand where I am coming from as a teacher and where I base my decisions from.  Most often we find that students share the same values as our school’s values and that most likely they were attracted to our school because they could feel the resonance with those values.