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"Build me a porch! Hang me a swing!"
A dancer's plight?
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

August 8, 2019

And this happened in the month of July in the year 2019...
The setting is the MS University in Gujarat, India.
- First, there is Dr. Parul Shah who serves both as the Head of the Department of Dance and Dean of Performing Arts at this University.
- Then, after a meritorious service, having earned respect and all that good stuff, she retires.
- Then, there is a Bachelor's Degree course in Kathak dance style offered by this same University.
- Then, Dr. Shah, the 66-year-old ex-Dean, applies to join this course - as a student!
- And then... she is REJECTED! That's right! She is denied course entry / refused /declined!

The reasons? According to a Times of India article, there are four articulated by the current HOD Mr. Jagdish Gangani:
- The other students will feel pressured by her presence in class
- Her age and physical fitness will not allow her to keep up
- The department is already over its student intake
- This is a dance-career oriented degree course

On the surface, the decision by the selection panel might come across as being practical, and resting on four solid legs. But, if we don our lens of reason, we can see that these legs are wobbly and their rationale falls so low on the moral quotient that one has to turn into a crawling centipede and hunt with one's antennae to find its justification.

Of course, every educational institution is entitled to set its own qualifiers for admittance, but these should relate to the curriculum and the subjects being taught. Here, the reasons (IF these are the real reasons), that the dance department has chosen to publicly project as talking-points are so ludicrously wishy-washy, that I wish to address each individually, to cite its demerits both from the ethical as well as pragmatic perspectives.

"... an acclaimed danseuse as a student would put pressure on the students."
The one instruction our scriptures and mystics have insisted upon is to guard against the 'I' factor also known as 'Ego'! While 'Ego' is generally thought of as being synonymous with vanity, the feeling of inferiority is also the result of this same 'Ego' - 'Ego' simply relates to the 'esteem factor' in a person, and has two sides to it - the feeling of superbia on one hand, and the impressions of limitation and inadequacy on the other. While the former is bad enough in that it separates us from one another, the latter is worse, for it separates us from the Source itself - like a Wave weeping that it is somehow not of the Ocean! In both instances, the brain has been rendered impotent to acquiring knowledge. Therefore, the first lesson of true education ought to be towards opening the 'Eye' by removing the 'I' which is a crippling barrier to learning.

In this process of unveiling the inner vision, the elitist hierarchy of superior versus inferior was to be first done away with. Hence, the following opening prayer was recited together by both student and teacher, and was regarded to be the foundation of learning.
sahanāvavatu, sahanaubhunaktu, sahavīryam karavāvahai
tejasvināvadhītamastu mā vidviṣāvahai
(Together may we be protected, together may we be nourished, together may we grow in strength, together may our intellect become effulgent; may we never indulge in animosity towards each other.)

This has been the wise precept of Vedic education.That is why it is both amusing and disheartening that the selection panel of a 70-year old educational institution (which boasts as being one of the "oldest center of learning in Western India"), would toss wisdom to the winds, and resort to using the belittling pretext of 'students being pressured / intimidated', as an excuse. Shouldn't they be challenging students out of such a mindset instead?

Even if we were to accept this "pressure" as a credible modern-day argument, practically speaking, we need to get one thing straight. This is supposed to be a performing arts course, and the performing-arts-world is FULL OF PRESSURE...
- people declaring that you are not good enough / rich enough / pretty enough,
- rejections and disappointments,
- uncertainties and dashed-hopes,
- stolen opportunities and pirated ideas.
So, what is the purpose of this course if its students are going to be rattled out of their wits by a silly "pressure" of having a senior academician as a classmate? Or, is the selection panel planning to expand its 'protective' sheath to every student, as if they were delicate orchids, and provide lifelong employments and performance opportunities to shield them from all those outside pressures?

Ramaa Bharadvaj (Photo: Sreekumar Krishnan)

From personal experience, I declare with certainty that the assumption that 'a senior-level dancer would overawe students', is a delusional speculation. Recently, I was part of a two-year academic degree course. There were 3 of us in that course that could be called 'elders' both in age as well as global experience and awards/recognitions in the field. But, none of us felt out of place amidst the younger students, and neither did they behave in a constrained manner in our presence. There was great camaraderie and cheer amongst all of us. I always prepared detailed meanings, transliterations and analysis of lyrics for the class, shared any extensive notes that I had, and offered doubt-clearing help during exam times. When I needed class audios or videos, I turned to them for help and they responded with love and friendship. In real life, this is the scenario that would ensue. So, MS University's Dance Department should shelve their imaginary excuse in a dungeon and never let it see the light of day ever again. It is nothing but a weak rationalization based on an erroneous and unflattering assessment of students.

"With age, there are limitations regarding one's physical fitness."
There are so many things amiss with this statement!
Firstly, it gives the impression that this course is all geared up to churn out unrivaled Kathak performers of this century, and somehow Dr. Shah's aged presence is going to ruin it for everyone. What a big bunch of hooey-phooey! Let's face it. If one wants superior performance proficiency in a classical dance form, one does not enroll in a 3-year Bachelor's degree course in a University. Mastery in the classical arts requires many years of intense discipline and austere rigor in physical training under the watchful eye of an expert teacher. That is why, even though India has been renowned throughout centuries for academic establishments such as Nalanda, Takshashila, Vikramashila, etc imparting education in Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, Agriculture, Sciences or even Fine Arts like sculpture and painting, when it came to performing arts, the Gurukula system of training under a master was regarded the most beneficial. Even as recent as 5 decades ago, flashing around a University degree did not carry much prestige in the performing field. People only cared about who your dance acharya was, and how long you were under his/her guidance.

These days too, every serious dance student is already undergoing private training under a teacher. The reason they enroll in a University dance program therefore, is not to acquire performance proficiency, but to gain a scholastic background and get an academic degree. In a cultural environment when dancers cannot financially survive by being just performers, teaching is the viable recourse to be able to persist in this field. But, public educational institutions demand an academic degree (and a Doordarshan grading!) if a dancer wants to secure a teaching position with them. No one cares a hoot about their experience alone! First, a Bachelor's degree is expected in the place of private training, then a Master's degree in the place of Bachelor's, and then a PhD in the place of Master's! The renowned educationalist Sir Ken Robinson calls it "academic inflation", and this is mainly what has begun to drive dancers towards Universities.

Secondly, it is highly patronizing for panelists to decide what someone else's body is capable of doing or not, based on their own abilities. (One panelist is supposed to have said with condescending cordiality, "I too used to perform for over two hours but have stopped performing now".) Take my friend Astad Deboo, the renowned contemporary dancer who just turned 72 this year. There are not many young dancers who can keep up with either his physical stamina, or his creative zeal or his performance schedule. Dr. Shah too is known to be a woman with a 'mind over body' approach in life. She is a cancer survivor, who has returned to a robust lifestyle. If she indeed is unable to keep up with the performance section of the course, then that should have been reflected while she is being graded in the practical exam. That would have been the fair thing to do instead of denying her the opportunity. In fact, Dr. Shah herself has said, "If I feel physically unfit to continue, I will leave".

Dr. Parul Shah

Thirdly, aging is not the death knell to dance potential. With age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom and mastery of a different kind. I shall suggest how having someone with these assets in class can benefit students. I had met Dr. Shah only once in person, when, on the recommendation of a colleague, I had invited her to be part of an academic committee at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu Arts Gurukula. Much of what transpired during those tedious procedures is cast out of my head now. But, as fresh as it happened yesterday are these memories...
- our dance-talks under the light of the midnight moon;
- sitting under the Plumeria trees and listening to her stories about the dance legends that she has met and interacted with;
- squatting in the verandah and gazing at the classical Indian dance scene through her lens.
Just imagine what having someone like this in class - not up on the dais lecturing to them, but as a class-comrade sitting with them - would have been like for students? The fate of lunchtime chatter might have changed forever! Instead of discussions on who got the most Instagram likes this week, students could have gotten a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the real-life dance world! And of course, those "how to prepare for exam" tips, that could have come straight from an ex-Dean would have been priceless!!

"The department has already overshot its intake strength of 10 students."
This is the safe administrative regulation that the department is citing to deflect questions. I wrote to Ms. Shah about this, and she replied: "I don't think by admitting (me), one seat will become less. A lot of times we have given add in the past to seniors at the age of 70 also, and about 4 to 5 more than the intake." This is not just another disgruntled student voicing her worthless viewpoint on this rule. This is the ex-Dean speaking! If anyone would know the inner workings of a department, she would!

In this regard of course, social media is brimming with advice that if Dr. Shah wants to really learn Kathak, she should not insist on taking up that valuable University seat, but should learn privately instead. Before spewing mouthfuls of such opinions, one must recognize that academic learning is NOT the same as private class learning. While the latter is geared mostly towards training to be a performer, the structured pedagogical approach in an academic setting offers a distinctly different scholastic experience. Dr. Shah, with her lifelong career as a dance-academician, has demonstrated that this is where her interest lies. Therefore, it is not up to social media's vagrant pundits, to question her pursuing this path of study.

"It's a career oriented degree program, and Dr. Shah has several achievements to her credit."
Firstly, the very premise of a system that educates for a "career" is flawed in its foundation and skewed in its goal. Such a system educates students for the job market. It is a system in which students are being prepared for a rat race, and in a race, there are either winners or losers - either one makes it or one does not! The underlying psychology that drives this kind of focus is that "no one remembers the name of the second man on the moon". It is a system that came into practice with the industrial revolution in the West, to create a trained 'people-force' to meet the demands of the 'work place'. Have we gotten so enmeshed in the colonial remnants of Western thinking that we have lost our wisdom feelers to see through this?

In the traditional Indian system of education however, emphasis is on 'Knowledge'. That is why we always begin with lighting a lamp first symbolizing the driving away of the darkness of ignorance. When we have such a system that educates for "learning", it prepares students for life explorations and discoveries.

Secondly, this statement comes across to me as thus, that this course is for young ambitious chicks (or bucks) with a long career life ahead, and not for people in the twilight of their life, who have already been there, and done that. First and foremost, it is foolishness to think that we can ascertain who will live long enough to have a career and who will not. Life is not a battery stamped with an expiry date. Here, I am reminded of the 'Yaksha Prashna' in the Mahabharata, where the Yaksha asks Yudhishthira, "What is the greatest wonder in this world?" and the latter replies, "The greatest wonder is that, in spite of seeing people die every day, humans live as if their existence is forever!"

Even if we do not assign any such spiritualistic stance to this point, and look at it purely from a statutory angle, it reeks of discrimination based on ageism, and it is especially troubling because this is not an employment agency where Dr. Shah is seeking to be hired, but an educational institution where she is seeking knowledge.

MS University, Gujarat

At this point, I direct the University's attention to NASA's internet site on their Cosmic Questions Exhibit. When you glance through this page, the following verse in their Exhibit description is sure to catch your eye.
What we have learned is like a handful of earth;
What we have yet to learn is like the whole world...
- Auvaiyar, 4th C poet, India

This Auvaiyar, whose words have been quoted by NASA, was a Tamil mystic-poetess, and these lines are only the beginning of her verse on Learning. She continues...
"... So saying, even Goddess Sarasvati,
Is still continuing to study and learn".

(கற்றது கைம்மண்ணளவு கல்லாதுலகளவென்று உற்ற கலை மடந்தை ஓதுகிறாள்)
kaṭradhu kaimaṇ aLavu kallādhulagaLavendru uṭra kalai maḍanthai odhugirāL)
Thus, our mystics gave such prominence to 'learning', that they envisioned even the Goddess of Learning as an eternal student.

Just for the heck of it, I place this scenario before you! Let us say, one day Goddess Sarasvati decides to heed Auvaiyar's words, and develops an interest in learning Kathak dance! She comes down from her heavenly abode and goes to MS University. What would she be told? Would it be, "Sorry, we can't let you in because you will intimidate our students"; Or, "You are too old for this course - kind of antique actually!"; Or, "What dance career can you have in heaven? You are well known to all as a veena player. So, just go pluck those strings and be happy."

How does it sound when the name of the human lady is substituted with the name of the Goddess lady? Not too nice! That's exactly my point. Education is not meant for rolling out cookie-cutter robots down the assembly line as supply for the employment force, but for drawing out inner talents and nourishing the imaginative aptitudes of students. This journey of discovery cannot have an age limit! As the revered mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said: "As long as I live, so long do I learn."

Since it is a dance course that we have been discussing, I will conclude by citing the invocatory verse with which sage Bharata begins his Natyasastra, the root text for all dancers.
"praṇamya śirasā devau pitāmahamaheśvarau,
nāṭyaśāstram pravakṣyāmi brahmaṇā yadudāhrtam"
(I bow to Brahma and Shiva
and propound this science of Theater-art as narrated by Brahma Himself.)
Here, I draw your attention to the name with which Bharatamuni has addressed Brahma.

Our Hindu deities have even a thousand names with which they are extolled, and Brahma is no exception. Amarakosa is said to list 29 names for Him - such descriptively picturesque names as, Parameshti (Giver of supreme desire), Surajyeshta (elder of the Devas), Lokesah (Lord of the world), Chaturanana (Four faced), Prajapatih (Lord of all creatures), Kamalodbhava (Lotus born), Hamsavahanah (One who has swan as vehicle), Virinchi (Creator), Purvah (First One), Nabijanma (born from Vishnu's navel) and so on. Among these we find the epithet of Pitamaha or grandfather. This is the least colorful of them all, and yet Bharatamuni chose this 'thanks grandpa' phrase for his very first prayer! I thought about this seriously, and one day, in meditation, an idea revealed itself to me, and I will share it here.

In the Indian system of property inheritance, a son does not get to automatically receive father's self-acquired assets. The father can will it to anyone he likes. But, grandfather's wealth is regarded as ancestral property and the grandson has assured rights to it. In our culture, we revere Theater-Arts as treasures created by Brahma for benefitting humankind. Bharatamuni seems to remind us that Brahma is our Pitamaha, our grandfather. Therefore, each one of us are blessed with the 'Right' to access the arts if we so desire. No human has the authority to deny us this inheritance.

We dancers are intuitive - We know when our body has lost its capacity and our spirit has lost its oomph! Until then, this is our appeal to educational establishments...
Your job is to educate. So, educate! Do not start moonlighting as stone masons! We don't need you to build us a porch and we certainly don't need you to hang us a swing!

And That's That - for now!

Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller and loves to tell stories both with movements and with words. After 31 years in USA as an award-winning dancer, movement designer, educator, writer, arts advisor & advocist, she returned to India in 2009. She writes, travels, and speaks on the arts for diverse groups and also teaches and co-curates a national performing arts festival at Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukula, Pune. She lives in Bangalore (but works in Kolwan, unwinds in Chennai and refreshes in California)

Very insightful. Indeed there is no age barrier when it comes to performing artists who have spent all their lives in it. They know when to stop and no one on this earth has authority to hinder the pursuance. In fact, the very presence might help the university authorities to correct the errors in the course - theory or practical, she will be studying by taking her lessons of life and experience.
- Swarnabala (Aug 25, 2019)

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