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Whither Dance Education?
Photos courtesy: Priyanka Bhide

July 10, 2015

Is anyone interested in dance education in India? Not learning dance alone, or items. But dance education. Its history and heritage. Its nuanced feel, its layered approach. Is anyone interested in learning anything academic? Most dancers or dance teachers today (under 30/35) have no sense of history or heritage, save their own guru/bani/gharana/style or region/city/caste! When they are not politicking (talking ill of their immediate competition), they are busy on next performance and trip to here, there and everywhere. They have no interest in art or books, only Facebook! One Bangalore teacher (having 500 students) came to buy attendance, the yearbook, and wanted student discount (half price) and left paying the same. Such is our lot.

Youngsters are asking how to earn not learn. Earlier dance learning was an ideal state of mind, not for earning or performing alone - that happened by chance and was at best, a by-product. Now, a student or parent is more concerned about returns. Earlier, a guru saw potential and taught accordingly. Now, gurus are factories teaching all. Should they be called gurus? Or teachers? Our basic definitions are not in place, no standardization in teaching and thus we are making half-baked dancers. These dancers have no real devotion to dance, just themselves. That's why one sees dancers having 400 students! They cut each other out in charging least fee to get maximum students. The laws of diminishing returns have set in.

Every year, I make time to go abroad to two universities and two at home teaching Indian dance to teach dance history and heritage; art and aesthetics. Few students or their teachers have seen vintage Ram Gopal or Uday Shankar, Gopinath or Menaka (on film). Fewer still know of Maya Rao or Damayanti Joshi. Greats of dance forgotten by Gen Next. Why blame foreign students or Indians settled abroad when at home, very few know equally less. They haven't heard of Travancore Sisters or Saxena Brothers. They think Balasaraswati and Swarnasaraswati were cousins! They hardly know of any form, including their own, in depth. Forget dance issues. Most don't know basic Indian cultural traits. Many don't even know why we touch the feet of elders or gurus! Some ask questions their teachers have drivelled and mostly teachers wish to impress these innocents with their knowledge of Natya Shastra. One student asked me if Natya Shastra had any links to modern dance because their teacher had said so.

Teaching dance history and heritage/aesthetics and talking to university students and youth of India is a process that leads to exchange, interaction and much learning for both. I have enjoyed Berlin or Mauritius, Madison or Stockholm. Baroda, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar are my favourite dance places anyway because away from metro India, these cities are dance-interested. Add Pune and Ahmedabad. Next Nasik, Trichy and Chandigarh. Jammu, Jallandhar and Japan after that. Does anyone know, tucked away in the mountains of Bergamo outside Milan in Italy, an India devoted band of theatre folks - called the TTB - have done 40 years of devoted service to Indian dance and music? Their knowledge and prowess of Kathakali and Orissi is far superior to many at home. Their productions and festivals are benchmarks.


Pt Rajendra Gangani taking Kathak class

Archana Sunjay, Leela Venkataraman, Rajendra Gangani, Manjari Sinha

I have always believed small is beautiful. Gatherings which discuss and discourse on dance. Not this fake FB popularity of imagined 10001 friends! Real friends of dance. Workshops: where dance is taught by way of upgrading skills. Gatherings where like-minded dance interested people can meet and interact and academic discourses where much can be learnt.

Bombay has always defied serious dance talk in past two decades (it was not so in 60s to 80s, when many dance dialogues took place there) as no one has space or subject specificity. I was shocked when one student in Pune, who had come all the way from Mumbai to attend my weekend course organised by Pune University and Shama Bhate (in Feb. 2015) asked me "Sir, where can we practice in Mumbai?" I was neither the CM of the state nor the PM of India, so I simply said, "Use any public space like the Chowpatty beach!" But jokes apart, metro India is lacking space for dance.

Space in literal or physical terms. Thus, for senior Kathak dancer-teacher Archana Sunjay to organise a 5-day focus on Kathak was most needed and welcome, seeing number of participants who had come from near and far - Jodhpur, Jaipur, Sholapur, Pune, Bangalore and Delhi. Talks on music (Ronu Majumdar), Dance Heritage and History (yours truly), tabla playing (Pt. Fateh Singh Gangani ), singing ( Ustad Samiullah Khan), sculptures ( Dr. Udayan Indurkar), state of Kathak by Dr. Chetana Jyotishi (Kathak scholar and former Kathak Kendra director) and dance critic Leela Venkatraman and music writer Manjari Sinha, were in attendance. Each day two specialists spoke and Guru Rajendra Gangani taught. Attending one such 5 day gathering on Kathak, in the wilderness of RSS land - Maharashtra - in rain-soaked outskirts of Mumbai, where cobras joined us in the foyer, about 100 of us assembled for 5 full days to discuss trends in Kathak, future directions and protocols.

Ronu Majumdar, the well-known flautist of Mumbai, who trained under Pt. Vijay Raghav Rao (who was part of my mother's orchestra in 1940s) started the assembly with a heartfelt (though disconnected) talk on importance of music to dance. He regaled with tales and dovetailed with his own tutelage in Benaras and work now in Bombay. He was a storehouse of information. Ronu was being praised and remembered a day before by mega-star Jackie Shroff, no less, for whose film HERO Ronu had composed the signature tune, which 30 years later, this star still remembered and recalled with affection when I met him at a shoot!


Pt Ronu Majumdar and Pt Rajendra Gangani

Jackie Shroff & Ashish Mohan Khokar

Coming from the airport, I was invited to drop in on a shoot Jackie Shroff was at, since he wanted an old 2002 attendance issue on Choreography for his son Tiger, today's dancing sensation. It is rare that cinema stars read anything anyway, unless it is on themselves! Dancers do that all the time so film stars, with their mass appeal should be worse? No. Months ago, Jackie Shroff had asked his local fans in Bangalore (who dropped home unannounced!) to fetch old issues of attendance and as this was 2002 issue, I had no copy left. 2002 is 13 years ago. I gave my own (last) copy away, since he was so keen to learn about choreography. I gave it away in the belief that a good deed will not go unpunished by the universe and I was right! After giving away, I found two copies tucked away in Karnatic Music Book Centre in Madras. Aishwarya Rai and Irfan Khan are part of this film - Jazba - so we got to see star actors at work. That serious classical dance interests them is amazing. Jackie spoke of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's dance-intensive film Bajirao Mastani shaping up... Pt. Birju Maharaj was at a nearby studio shooting and training Deepika Padukone.

Guru Rajendra Gangani, Kathak's most affable, amiable and admirable younger guru today was the reason all had assembled in Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini Center for Excellence. Inaugurated by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee no less, the plaques of the place read like the Who's Who of current dispensation: Amit Shah, Manohar Bhagwat, Devender Padnis and Suresh Soni. Two dead and departed leaders - Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde - had been instrumental in helping structure this fine piece of 15 acred property with a helipad and all. We came the hoi poloi way - slippery roads from Mumbai, a two hour drive away. Our driver Prajapati (from drivers.com, Pune) driving Sujata and Priyanka Bhide's spiffy car was most kind-hearted, as he winced when a puppy came under a fast oncoming truck. He kept lamenting all the way "Oh, if only the truck-fellow had braked!" And to think, elsewhere a film star-cum-MP's car was going at 150km an hour and a baby in an Alto died in that accident, near Jaipur...

Archana Sunjay is a dynamic ever-smiling disciple of Madhurita Sarang (remember the late Sarang Sisters of Mumbai?) now under mentorship of Pt. Rajendra Gangani. Having just finished writing a 500 paged-book on Kathak, I was infused with spirit of Kathak all over again. Having learnt Kathak for 5 years (1971-76) from Guru Rajendra Gangani's father Pt. Kundanlal Gangani in Delhi, I was taken down memory lane. Ram Gopal watching my class at home and feeding ladoos to Guruji every time he created a new tukra or tihai. Ram Gopal had learnt Kathak from Pt. Sohanlal in Bangalore. My training, clashed not only with BVB school timings but I was additionally learning Bharatanatyam, Ballet and Orissi. Mishran or Manthan is a style I'm likely to create in the future!


Rare photo of Guru Kundanlal Gangani dancing at Baroda. On tabla is one of the four famous S.K. Saxena brothers.
Photo by Mohan Khokar



The Sarang Sisters
(Femina July 9, 1971) Courtesy: Mohan Khokar Dance Collection


Guru Rajendra Gangani is well-versed in all critical aspects of Kathak. Master of music (his own brother Fateh Singh Gangani accompanies him well on the tabla), guru Gangani is good at composition, choreography and codification. Thus, his 5 day workshop was a feast for students and teachers because from stars like Ronu they learnt of music composition for dance, from historians-writers like me they got a sense of past and present and what not to do in future (senseless innovation!) and from authorities like Udayan Indurkar they got to know about poses and sculptures and critics contributed on how to view dance from audience perspectives.

Dance education is the need of the hour. That's what should be TRENDING!


Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed dance historian, biographer, critic and author of many published articles and over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He served govt. bodies in many capacities and also teaches Indian dance history and aesthetics for university faculties. He is the curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection and chairs the Dance History Society which hosts an annual convention and dance discourses that afford many talents a platform. He has mentored many and instituted five awards through attendance, the dance yearbook he edits and publishes.






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