E-Learning from E-Gurus: The Tradition-Technology Tension in Odissi Pedagogy

Dr. Shreelina Ghosh


This article attempts to explore the duality of technology-enhanced teaching and traditional teaching of dance in digital spaces. Classical dances are set on a grammar constructed by a series of myths regarding this ancient practice that were formulated and transmitted through the generations orally. Divinity associated with classical dance inspires the quest for pristine perfection and rooted-ness to age-old tradition. This is the concept of performance that I have grown up with. Coming to know about and experiencing performance in a virtual space made me re-think some of the vital elements in my definition and understanding of performance. Digital technology has had a profound influence on the foundational notions of this art. It is necessary to re-evaluate the ideas associated with traditional pedagogy in a continuously ‘virtualizing’ performance space.

Temple sculptures bear the memory of this ancient tradition. The memory transmits itself from the physical body (the original keeper of memory of this oral artistic tradition) to the sculptures that represent the body. These sculptures were instrumental in the survival of the art form for several centuries. When sculptors chiseled the movement of [temple] dancers on the temple walls, the memory of this artistic ritual got detached from the body of the temple dancers and mediated to other means that preserved/performed this memory. These bearers of memory also served as supplementary tools for teaching. For instance, Gurus use temple sculptures to understand and teach postures of the dance. Oral transmission of knowledge remains the primary pedagogical tool. The rhetoric of classical dance is laden with these sacred meanings. When one learns this art, she/he immediately becomes the bearer of an ancient cultural memory that she/he can pass down to the next generation of dancers, orally and practically. The learning technologies of Odissi have served as keepers of memory over the centuries, and not necessarily as a tool for students to experiment with in the production of the art. Historically, memory was transmitted from the body, to scriptures, to written texts, and then to videos. Over the past decade, teachers and performers of Odissi have used online pedagogic tools to transmit the memory of the dance. These different stages and forms of mediation help us understand the evolution and perseverance of this cultural memory.

With new digital technologies, it is possible to record, replay, edit, and remix performances; virtual worlds allow dancers to turn into avatars and transform their physical shapes and perform gravity defying feats; and networked technologies allow for the instant transmission and retransmission of movements. The influence of these on teaching, on practices of traditional dance, and on how we understand performative cultural memory creates interesting conversations within the community of artists, and also raises provocative questions about the remediation of tradition. The dancing body mediates a meaning through a set of hand gestures or significations through facial expressions. The transmission in videos, tapes, or avatars is remediation of the dance, where the message is mediated again with digital tools. Online spaces ‘virtualize’ the body, thus complicating the potential of the body to hold information and transmit it to the next generation. These new technologies have created a divide in the dance community. On the one hand, Gurus and some traditional practitioners of the art find that the new technologies have the potential to hurt both the transmission and performance of traditional dance. On the other hand, the new generation embraces the remediation of the dance with new technologies, and sees it as an important way to preserve, promote, and secure the survival of the art form.

In reviewing survey and interview responses from Odissi practitioners, several individuals expressed concern about technology potentially spoiling the traditional method of teaching and performance. Most dancers of the current generation use digital technological tools for teaching, learning and performing the traditional dance. Since these tools were not a part of the original temple dance repertoire, it destabilizes the concept of “authenticity” of the art that a group of practitioners carefully constructed in mid-nineteenth century for a nationalistic agenda of newly independent India.

While older generations of dancers/masters are moderately resistant to mediation of dance through technology, several younger generation dancers are engaged in mediation of practice and teaching using technological tools. They use technological tools to practice dance, teach dance and socialize with dancers around the world. Many dancers acknowledge the innate value system of the dance practice comprising of the importance of the teacher, the sacredness associated with the dance space, and immediacy of the bodies engaged in teaching and learning dance. Most dancers of the younger generation use videos, social networking websites, and synchronous chats to teach, practice and socialize. They acknowledge that using these tools can potentially alter the nature of the dance, but do not agree that it can spoil the art. To them, students and teachers should not ignore the underlying values of immediacy of the body and sacredness of space. My conversations with dancers reveal that resistances towards technology often coincide with the technology potentially contradicting the values system. The potential loss of the importance of the teacher and lack of physical presence (personal inter connectivity), and the non-exclusivity of space are problems that often challenge teachers in an online classroom.

In an interview with the Late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan, he said that ‘technologizing’ is unavoidable. He acknowledged the requirement and inevitability of digital practices. To Guru Pradhan, books on dance show postures or describe the postures. He said, “Working with the Guru is required to understand the nuances of the dance… for instance, the hand gestures alapadma symbolizes the lotus and hamsasya demonstrates the face as pretty as a lotus. The bees sitting on the lotus symbolizes the kiss planted on a beautiful face. Even in the video, the teacher needs to demonstrate these meanings clearly.” Guru Pradhan demonstrated this piece of dance during the interview. He showed how a teacher would demonstrate a piece in the process of instruction. The metaphor of the bee sitting on a flower for an attractive face was appropriate because of the complexity of the portrayal of this within a story. The metaphor alludes to both spiritual and sexual imagery and those images are relevant in developing the character of the heroine portrayed in this dance. The teacher communicating and illustrating these layers of meaning is important in the learning of this piece of dance. If a video replaces the Guru’s body, it must clearly show the dance, and explain the exact meaning of each and every nuance. Guru Pradhan “There is no choice sometimes. Pressure of education has increased. Students are busy; they need to learn fast in a short period. DVDs will be required.” He adds that whatever tools one uses, they will still need to go to the Guru (meaning having the Guru physically present in front of them) to learn. The Guru is essential in the learning of the art of Odissi. Guru Pradhan did not resist the idea of using a video to teach. In the globalized artistic arena, it is unavoidable and even important for the propagation of the art. Nevertheless, at the same time he expressed concern about the quality of video. “Videos need to be taken properly and clearly. The gestures need to be distinctly visible,” If the movements are unclear, the meaning will not be fully clear to the student. Students will use technologies and thereby replace the body. Teachers should ensure the quality of instruction even if they are using technology.

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