Role of the Guru

By Preethi Sriram

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo Maheshwarah
Gurur Sakshat Parambrahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah

In Indian Dance, specifically within the classical dance tradition, there is the concept of the “Guru Shishya Parampara" or with translation, the Teacher/Student tradition of passing on knowledge.

The word “Guru" has been used in modern parlance such as “Tech Guru" or “IT Guru", but the word “Guru" itself has a deeper connotation for those within the classical Indian tradition. The Guru is a highly respected teacher who guides their student to the path of knowledge and spiritual growth. In Bhakti Yoga, the student is required to completely surrender to the Guru and the relationship between the student and the Guru is based on the student full heartedly surrendering to the Guru as the divine and the belief that the Guru can give wisdom that can lead to liberation.

But how does an ancient tradition translate to a today? How does it relate to me and my experiences as an adult student of dance? How does the tradition compare from that in India to what is practiced in the West (i.e. America)?

From a personal perspective, I have had many teachers of dance. Each teacher imparted some knowledge that I felt was valuable to me in my personal learning experience. There have also been experiences that I have learned what I do not want as well.

I have heard of stories comparing teachers of dance from India to those in America. The teachers in India are very strict from what I have heard and do not take excuses.

In the book by Douglas M Knight Jr. about the life of well-known dancer Balasaraswati, called “Balasaraswathi Her Art and Life" the biography gives details of her experiences with her Guru. Balasaraswati seemed to revere her Guru. In the book by Knight, the author quotes her relationship to her Guru with the following, “My guru was my god and my duty was to obey his instructions faithfully. I danced to his tala and the constant sight of the cane compelled me to execute my lessons with greater caution."

As a young child, it was noted in the book that she was drilled for hours in practice, and sometimes carrying a bag of sand on her head to force her neck into the proper position and was hit with a switch if she made a mistake. Another story details how when the teacher asked her to perform a particular gesture and she faltered, he went to the kitchen and branded her with hot coal on her hand.

Throughout her life, she seemed to have been highly impacted by her experiences with her Guru and always spoke highly of him and wanted his praise even with what we would call harsh treatment of her education, if not abuse in modern parlance. Her style of teaching varied from his of what was noted within the book. From her personal experiences, as an adult teacher, it seemed that while she revered her Guru, she did not replicate his style of teaching.

Classical dance can be considered a form of Yoga. When I first started to become more interested in Yoga, a part of me started to become disconcerted, thinking thoughts on the accessibility of Yoga. What if a person has disabilities, and cannot do the asanas or poses that many are able to do? It bothered me to think that Yoga was only for a certain sector of the population of society with physical capabilities. I became perturbed in thinking that will one only reach enlightenment by being super flexible and contorting to different postures? If I buy the right pants, and stretch perfectly in the gym, will that be the way to salvation?

To truly understand what yoga is, I started to read and listen to talks from the Art of Living on Patanjali Yoga Sutras. From the readings and talks, it was enlightening to learn that the concept of asanas is only a very small part of Yoga. To my understanding, yoga is not only about asansas and postures, but about a discipline of life. It is a tradition that enables understanding that people are more than the physical form. Asanas are a physical aspect to that concept, but there are many ways to come to that understanding.

The example of yoga and asansas can be parallel to dance and adavus.

Dance and art should be fun. Teachers should instill a sense of joy of the art form. Yes, discipline is needed and the art form is strict: Yes, it is important to require the students to practice their adavus and to expect structure, but abuse should not be tolerated in the name of guru-shishya tradition. Hypocrisy should not be tolerated.

Parents should play a role in advocating for their child (and other children) if they note that something is wrong. While the ideal that I am advocating for seems “American" in its thoughts with the balance of powers, this concept goes beyond the “American" or “Indian" dichotomy of thinking. And I do feel that children can be encouraged to practice and aspire for perfection and learning in the dance form, but in a way that builds the child up, and not tears them down.

We are all human. And it is okay to make mistakes, be it a teacher or student. But we all need to balance each other and help each other when there are ways we think we can help each other. The teaching and learning should ideally go both ways. The teacher should be humble enough to admit when they are wrong as this will model proper behavior for the student.

After watching a performance from artists who were visually impaired from Bangalore, India, from the Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy of the Blind (SRMAB) present at the Hindu Society of North Carolina (HSCN) in Morrisville NC, the concept of Classical Dance expanded for me. It was now not only for those who were strong and fit in body, but to almost anyone who wants to perform or learn of the art from various angles, be it through the music, watching dance performances, learning the theory and history, helping in costumes, etc.

The dance and art form are supposed to make us better people and to elevate our consciousness and the consciousness of those around us.

The ultimate goal of dance is not to just be technically good, but to actually be good and inspire the audience, ourselves, and society in general: and that should be modelled in the Guru to the student.

Further Readings: Knight, D. M. (2010). Balasaraswati her Art and Life. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

This series of articles is about the journey and unique insights of an adult dance student learning classical Indian dance. An introduction to the experiences and a perspective of taking classical Indian dance as both an American and an Indian, and how this shapes her personal journey, begins this series. Further articles will delve into specific topics and experiences from the perspective of the adult student.

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Preethi Sriram is a classical Indian dance enthusiast and lifelong learner of dance. Contact: SriramPreethi@hotmail.com