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The curious case of the Bharatanatyam mentor
- Jitendra Krishna

August 20, 2016
Over the last few years yet another trend in the art of Bharatanatyam has emerged, to add to the growing list of (disturbing) trends - THE MENTOR.
Quite a few youngish dancers announce at the outset of their performances, "With respects to my gurus AND my mentor." When this happened at a recent performance, the lady in the seat next to me (in thick Tamizh English accent) asked: “Who is mental?”
Me: “Not mental, madam! Mentor!”
Lady: “Now what is this mentor?"
Me: "Someone you go to after the guru."
Lady: "Appadiya? There is a level after the guru?"
Me: “Yes, the gurus are level 3, followed by level 4, famous dancers.”
A mentor? What does that entail, and how is it different from the Bharatanatyam guru?
Asking around, most dancers under a mentor cannot answer the difference between the two clearly. Some argue that they seek out a mentor because of desires to choreograph work on their own, which the guru does not accept. Also, the guru, an active performer, does not have the time to mould any of the innumerable disciples at the dance school from a mere dancer into a performing artiste ‘par excellence’. Or the guru does not want to mentor disciples into 'thinking dancers', who will start dreaming about all the performance spaces the guru is also looking at.
Understandably after a good number of years of basic and advanced training, dancers want to spread their wings and create their own work. During this creative process, seek the critical view and guidance of an expert, who sets 'finishing touches' to the choreographic works of the protégé. But this can only work if a dancer brings before the mentor clear vision and conviction in the choreographic work he or she wants to present. If this is not so, the mentor, with strong command over the art, will slowly but surely set the tone of the dance.
For some time now I have been carefully following a few dancers currently under a mentor. During their performances one cannot be but curious to know what goes on while working with the mentor, for it does not reflect in the dance presentations. What is visible though, quite clearly, are dancers rearranging adavu patterns of the earlier dance guru, infuse these with adavu patterns and particular use of mudras of the new found mentor, as well as mimicking mannerisms specific to the mentor. So what do the rasikas get? Yet another clone in the making. 
If dancers feel the need to be under the mentorship of a ‘star dancer’ what does this say about the present day dance guru? The gurus are limited, and only capable to guide students up till a certain point? What is it that dance gurus do for disciples to take off and learn interdisciplinary aspects of Bharatanatyam elsewhere? Separate nattuvangam gurus, abhinaya gurus; the list is long, and now we have to add 'the mentor' to it.
There are more than a few definitions possible to describe a mentor-mentee relationship, but the one that makes most sense, when it comes to Bharatanatyam, is 'guru-shishya parampara’. This system of “mentorship” is already part of Indian traditions for centuries. So shouldn't the dance gurus be the mentors? If a guru gives a disciple holistic training in the art of Bharatanatyam, do we need separate mentors?

Before it really takes off, it is perhaps already time to look within and rethink “the mentor.”
Dancer: “Romba nandri, guruji, for all that you have done, but I am taking my art to the next level at the lotus feet of a mentor.”
- “A mentor? Who?”   
Dancer: “Someone more famous than you are, guruji!”  
I for one cannot imagine at the start of a performance: "With respects to my dance guru, the legendary nattuvanar, Thanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai, a scion of the illustrious Thanjavur Quartet, but currently I am under the mentorship of someone else!”
Jitendra Krishna is director of Sathir Dance Art, a production house based in Amsterdam and Chennai.

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