Dances of India - 2019

Dancing Back in Time

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

I just attended the dance performance of Mallika Sarabhai. When I saw her on the stage, it took me back in time. As a young teenager, here I was standing at the doorsteps of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts located in Ahmedabad, owned by Sarabhai family. My dream guruji, Bharathacharya, Guru Sri. C. R. Acharyulu was there teaching Kuchipudi to both Mrinalini Sarabhai (Mother of Mallika) and Mallika Sarabhai. He was also helping Mrinalini Sarabhai write a book on Kuchipudi dance style and its history.

I was very nervous as I met Guruji. I told him I learned Kuchipudi from his disciple Smt. Sumathy Kaushal since I was 5 years old and that I aspire to learn directly from him. As a teenager, I was not mature enough to verbalize my feelings nor did I have the guts to scream about my enthusiasm to learn from him. I remember clearly those days of my learning, yearning, connecting, and striving to be a little like him. He had a treasure of knowledge. He had a special and rare repertoire of temple dances, and has written several books describing its history and evolution. However, these dances are no longer performed in today's modern world. He never held back in his teachings. He wanted to share as if he was doing a succession plan. As I did not have any connections in that city, I stayed at his house. Guru Acharyulu has inspired me to learn and share our history with others. He made me write my very first article in World of Dances. Without his influence, I will not be writing these Dances of India articles.

So why am I sharing this story? I always come back to this crucial query about what is our role as a guru or should I say teacher? What is the difference between the gurus and the teachers? This difference is very clear when learning or practicing Yoga. I have written a lot about how yoga and classical dances are stemming from the same source. However, we do not have the same clarity when it comes to dance gurus and dance teachers. In my opinion, Guru is not a teacher. While teachers teach the methodology of dance and its techniques, Gurus' are repositories of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. It is a heritage of a practical methodology and wisdom.

Ask any of the disciples of these great gurus, and they will say it starts with the Gurus being treasure troves of knowledge, not just book learned or theoretical. They had the ability to be intuitive in their teachings. They were deeply connected with the inner beings of their disciples. They taught more than dancing. They helped us to recognize our inner and outer selves. They taught their disciples, as much by what they said as by what they did not say. They allowed us to nurture and develop our own epistemologies. It is this harmonious blend of relationship between the guru and the disciple that renders the transcendent experience in dancing.

Even in the 21st century, I continue to yearn to find more Gurus in my life to rekindle that indispensable spirit of learning in me. By no means am I questioning the ability of current teachers. We are fortunate to have many dance teachers at different levels making an effort to propagate all dance forms. There are dance teachers in every corner of Indian cities and now even in the U.S.

Perhaps, we as teachers can strive to become gurus and replace the sameness of today with the individuality of past. As I teach individual students, I do not want to end up with a production of clones. I just do not want to see the individual identity being submerged in an urge to develop uniformity. We need to connect with our disciples at a deeper level to help them find their identities in this multi-cultural environment. We may not be able to replace those great gurus, but we can at least reincarnate the spirit of those great gurus.

That spirit of Guru-Shishya (Disciple) relationship adds to the spirit of dancing. Many of us have gurus in our lives who were our mentors, spiritual guides and those who unleashed that hidden spirit within us. Similarly, traditional dancing cannot be learned by watching a video or a movie. It could be copied or duplicated but cannot be nurtured to hopes of perfection by a Guru.

Technology and modernity is a great blessing to reach outside world. Gurus are a great blessing to reach our inside world. In humility, I dedicate this article to all my gurus, who inspire me regularly to continue this dedication to these beautiful dance styles and our culture and encouraging me to dance like there is no tomorrow!


For questions or comments contact Maha via e-mail at: