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  • Postcolonial Pedagogies:Recasting the Guru–Shishya Parampara
  • Anurima Banerji (bio), Anusha Kedhar (bio), Royona Mitra (bio), Janet O'Shea (bio), and Shanti Pillai (bio)

The presentations below took place at a roundtable organized for the Congress on Research in Dance and Society of Dance History Scholars Joint Conference on November 5, 2016. Five faculty from four institutions in the United States and United Kingdom—Brunel University London, Colorado College, California State University at Long Beach, and UCLA—discussed the pedagogical strategies used to teach South Asian performance concepts and techniques in the classroom, in relation to the conference's structuring theme, "Beyond Authenticity and Appropriation." The principal question guiding the conversation was: How do we engage the common inheritance of the guru–shishya parampara, or the teacher–disciple mentorship model?—the context for collective training in various South Asian movement forms. Given the specific histories and premises of the guru–shishya parampara, how are elements of this educational system adapted, preserved, or repurposed in the Western classroom? This note from the field covers the participants' training experiences, reflects on the values and limits of guru–shishya instruction, and presents approaches to creating new teaching methods. In the process the participants share strategies for developing performance pedagogies in a transnational frame.1

Anurima Banerji

Ideas of authenticity and appropriation often structure the discourses and debates around representation in South Asian performance forms, especially the established styles (in classical, folk, and contemporary idioms) that bear the symbolic value of metonymically standing in for a given cultural constituency, its imagined attachments, its dominant values, and its heritage. While questions of authenticity/appropriation are generally foregrounded in discussions about the production and reception of performance content and form, in this forum we instead turn our attention to the negotiation of these terms in spaces of performance training. We focus on the pedagogical paradigm of "guru–shishya parampara," or "teacher–disciple tradition"—a distinctively Asian model of knowledge transmission and the primary method through which the values and techniques of the styles that we collectively cite are imparted (fig. 1). The eminent dance scholar Kapila Vatsyayan has noted that the guru–shishya parampara was once the basic instructional model for a range of artistic practices, but that today it retains special force and resilience only in the world of classical performance (Vatsyayan et al.). I will add that despite the diversity and particularity of the traditions that we talk about, this training method appears to be remarkably stable across classical dance, theatre, and music genres. Here, I also want to acknowledge the work of Ananya Chatterjea, Aastha Gandhi, and Stacey Prickett, who have each closely examined the politics of the guru–shishya encounter.

Traditionally, the preceptor in this arrangement exerted extraordinary power over the student by taking on the responsibility of serving as the disciple's aesthetic and moral mentor. While in ancient India the guru–shishya relationship was fostered in an immersive environment—often, but not always, in a residental system known as the gurukul, or teacher's abode—where the student served the teacher and in return received specialized knowledge in the arts, the situation has changed [End Page 221] in the contemporary world, where the relationship is more professionalized and transactional, with students paying fees to their gurus for access to dance training, performance platforms, and the social respect conferred when one belongs to a noted artistic lineage or community. Yet, while the economic terms of the relationship have shifted, certain values of the prior system residually remain: namely, the assumptions that the student must ideally perform unquestioning obedience while the guru exercises total authority.

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Fig. 1.

The Hindu deity Shiva with two ascetic disciples in his abode, Mount Kailash. Shiva is mentioned as the first dance guru in the Natyashastra, an ancient Sanskrit treatise on performance. Stone sculpture from Nepal, Licchavi dynasty, circa ninth or tenth century ce.

(Source: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.)

Thus as disciples of performance we may need to contend with the elements of the paradigm that remain problematic in these training circumstances, given that the guru–shishya parampara functions as an implicit social contract...


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pp. 221-230
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