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  • From Meditative Learning to Impersonal PedagogyReflections on the Transformation of an Indian Gurukula
  • V. Kaladharan (bio)

For centuries, highly evolved Indian art forms like kathakali dance-theater and kutiyattam theater were fostered by the sophisticated tastes and means of feudal patricians.1 At the turn of the last century, the hoary heritage of Indian arts had to seek space in the public sphere consequent upon the apathy of the elites and the gradual but decisive breakdown of the feudal system. Lest the aesthetically nuanced dance and theater traditions of India become destitute, luminous poets and exponents of culture made a deliberate attempt to link them with Indian nationalism, inaugurating a period of cultural renaissance in the early twentieth century. They laid emphasis on Indians rediscovering themselves in terms of native identities implicitly represented by classical arts. Their efforts resulted in the public patronage of classical arts and ensured their continued existence.

All the same, within one hundred years, the institutions that reinforced the preeminence of several distinguished art traditions are now finding it hard to withstand the tough challenges posed by a global culture that derides profundity, vision, and finer aesthetic sensibilities. The academic inputs in these institutions tend to be predictable, cold, and intellectually frozen, while the practical training sessions increasingly become mechanical. The gurus [End Page 207] (teachers) and the shishyas (disciples) of the “high modern society” no longer trust the text, character, and contextual confederations of repertoires that are non-worldly in nature and scope.2 In order to appraise the crises of contemporary performing arts institutions, one has to return to the roots of the age-old system of tutelage in arts and its transformations, gross and subtle, within a century.

The Ancient System of Edification

The formative period of Indian performing arts, especially those categorized as classical, involved a flexible and informal program of training enunciated by the gurus to the children gathered around them for years since infancy. Lessons in languages, literature, and performing arts were then part and parcel of the lives of each guru with whom the disciple had an indefinable intimacy. Learning was a spontaneous process that went beyond timetables and predetermined schedules. Yet there was an intrinsic methodology in the training process, vulnerable in several ways to institutionalization and standardization. This, among other pressing sociocultural compulsions, eventually led to the establishment of public schools for performing arts in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Gurushishya parambara (teacher-taught tradition) and gurukula sambradaya (residential training with the guru) are the two most glorious nomenclatures associated with the traditional Indian knowledge practices. Inbuilt in the Indian psyche, these terms and their ramifications remained for centuries as part of the life-culture of the Indians. It was perhaps scholars and Orientalist historians of the post-industrialized West who, through their works, attributed a dramatic significance to these two concepts, contrasting them with the formal pedagogic structure framed in the West based on the tenets of modern education.

Even after the revolutionary changes brought about by the invention of printing and the infinite possibilities of publication, literary luminaries like Rabindranatha Tagore of Bengal insisted on preserving and fostering the time-tested values of the gurukula system of training. Tagore founded the Santiniketan ashram and school in order to safeguard the essentials of the Indian system of [End Page 208] education rooted in and supported by the natural environment. The Nobel laureate had reservations about the modern tools of education that could realistically pose a threat to the responsible growth and dissemination of knowledge and wisdom realized by means of the gurukula sambradaya. Yet the English educational culture envisaged by Lord Macaulay for his colonial subjects emerged to establish sway over all the educational institutions in India by the dawn of the twentieth century.3 Santiniketan thereafter remained more or less a vestige of the glorious schools of the past, the Nalanda and the Thakshasila.4

Uniqueness of the Gurushishya Parambara

While the ancient system of gurukula training died out in every branch of Indian education by the early twentieth century, the heritage of visual and aural performing arts retained its essence. There was no way modern educational means could dislodge the...


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