A Lived Experience of Tradition: Odissi in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

Photo Courtesy: Susil Pani

Photo Courtesy: Susil Pani


by Aaadya Kaktikar

Note: This article is an excerpt from another article -Dancing in-between spaces: an auto-ethnographic exploration of an abhinaya class available at http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/sBZ8mFv348BRy5G8AABA/full

Three years ago, Odissi was introduced in the undergraduate curriculum in one of India’s first Liberal Arts universities. While dance had been a part of higher education curricula (to some extent) in India for a while, this phenomenon was unique in many ways. It marked a new direction for the meaning of Dance and Dance Education as an academic discipline in higher education in India. This article summarises the possible learning outcomes and the meanings generated by the transition and translation of a traditional dance form from one educational system to another.

This transition was marked by a few factors that have rarely been encountered in Indian education; less so in the traditional dance class. Firstly it represented the confluence of two different pedagogical approaches; that of the critical thinking in the Liberals arts and submission and immersion in the traditional arts, created the possibility for the students of transcending boundaries and creating a space for a vibrant engagement with the idea of tradition. Secondly, it necessitated the development of a curriculum that allowed Odissi to participate in a Liberal Arts programme alongside other academic disciplines. As the Dance negotiated its relocation from a studio based practice to an academic discipline in higher education I stepped out of the position of the autonomous Guru and contended with an interdisciplinary approach to teaching. Thirdly, the dance class needed to teach to a diverse range of students and diverse learning aims; trained dancers, non-dancers, engineering students and humanities students all converged to one class.

This paper critically examines the data collected through a predominantly qualitative, mixed methods approach, to recognize and reflect upon the qualities and characteristics and personal, social and aesthetic values embodied in the class which mark the critical aspects of this transition. As a traditional dance form relocates from the ‘place’ of the guru’s studio to a ‘place’ in a School of Humanities, the altered context affects the experiences, perceptions and involvement of those who undertake the class as it alters what gets produced in the class. This shift was driven by the curriculum in that it highlighted the individual experiences, opinions and voices of the participants. This meaning of the class was sustained by the fact that the class was not designed to produce Odissi dancers.

The Multiple Dimensions of Learning in the Dance Class
The experience of the learning is not made up of steps up a scaffolded progression over a curriculum. Neither is it composed of tests used to measure its progress. The materiality of learning can only be derived from the lived experience of it. This learning experience is a dynamic unity which is ‘non-decomposable’ (Ellsworth 35). Four key thematic experiential areas defined the contours of the learning processes in the university class. These learnings wove into each other and any shift in one area translated into a shift in the others which altered the overall interpretation of the whole phenomena.

A place is where what Heidegger calls “being -in-the-world” is embodied. As centres of experience, places mould our connections between identity and cultural experience (Gruenewald). Dancing in the guru’s studio, one takes the socially constructed space for granted and accepts its cultural scripts as noncontroversial, inevitable and unproblematic. The place of Liberal arts learning opened up the possibility of a range of perceptual experiences for the student in the dance class. Dance learning instead of being isolated from the living world outside the studio, became more relevant to the lived experience of students in the world.

The transition also altered the relationship between the ‘self’ of the student and the dance form; both within the participants and with the world outside. Students seem to have developed a greater sense of ownership and connection with the traditional dance forms even while they challenged and questioned dominant practices. Students were surprised at the questioning, open and conversational atmosphere in class. They did not believe dance could be about reading, thinking and discussing . Driven by past experiences, students believed that a traditional dance class meant that they had to perfect the technique and replicate the thought process taught by the teacher. In so many ways a traditional dancer carries the weight of parampara (or tradition) which is simultaneously both comforting and limiting. The meaning of the dance class shifted from being a place for enculturation as specific cultural symbol to a place for debate, expression and creative pursuit.. The curriculum in the class forced students to think collectively about who they were and who they wanted to be. There was an obvious tension between their changing perceptions of traditional dance and how the community around them received the form, between what dance could mean to them and what it did meant to the world around them. With the classical dancer repertoire being frozen and fixed to reflect ‘Indian culture’ during the nationalization movement, students often expressed an unease at being able to connect what they danced with the world that they lived in.

Given the complexity of dance in India, it is imperative that dance training take into account these tensions. This cultural aspect of learning dance engaged students in all of their different narratives shaped by ethnicity and social class and textured by individual cultural contexts. This class did not expect students’ experiences of dance to be that same as that of the teacher, neither did it expect them to imitate blindly and therefore create a homogeneous dance movement vocabulary. Rather, it forced students to think through dance and acknowledge multiplicity of layers, meanings and aesthetics that permeate its practice. It enabled them to think of their own relationship with tradition and how traditional dance while still retaining its particularities could communicate to a global universal.

It is evident that the class was geared for teaching for diversity and this diversity also became evident in the multiplicity of meanings and narratives that emerged in class. These performative narratives became a critical reflective lens for to make visible resistances, stereotypic assumptions, habituated reactions and practices . Placing the ‘knowing body’ of the student at the centre of the process of production of knowledge, located the body as a lived medium for embodying the curriculum (Shapiro 1999). Through their work students began to make visible their praxis of dance and gave an evidence of what Heidegger calls ‘being- in- the world’ through dance. Dance was no longer seen as an art form to be accessed visually through performance, but rather as an embodied experience of living.


Photo Courtesy: Sharan Devkar Shankar

Photo Courtesy: Sharan Devkar Shankar

The social, cultural and artistic dimensions of learning discussed above all culminated into the most central learning of all; the learning in the personal dimension. Working with the new curriculum required students to move, engage and think through their own movement vocabularies in ways which they had never done before. This led to both an understanding of and a tension with the belief systems that their movement practices created for themselves and the world. In other words, the way that they danced influenced what they thought of themselves and defined their relationship with dance. Driven by the curriculum, students were required to use their previously learnt techniques in ways which were often alien to them. Carrie Noland, while discussing Mauss’ work elaborates; “the consciousness of the body and its own motor intentions might enter into conflict with the socially mandated meanings of gestural routines” (39). In class students reworked traditional gestures to create pieces they felt personally connected with. Traditional dance forms are framed by ritual and convention, but the very same gestures in this class took on different meanings generated by the kinaesthetic feedback of the students’ bodies. This was often in contradiction to the meanings previously assigned to these gestures and highlighted the fact that “insofar as cultural subjects are moving bodies, they also produce a tension in the very cultures whose inscriptions they bear” (Noland 40). This ‘intermediate mode’ (Noland) between habit formation and kinaesthetic knowing was a space that all the participants of the class, teacher and student, inhabited throughout the term.

It is the what, why and how of teaching that establishes the links between self and society, between culture and identity, between perpetuating status quo and empowering a radical transformation of knowing that can have material consequences. This study created a possibility of teaching traditional dance in ways which open up the forms to the processes of ideation, commentary, questioning and critique. Within the Liberal arts environment, this study began to lay the foundation for a teaching methodology which re-defines tradition as fluid language reactive to the present which is in an interactive relationship with the past. This creates a pedagogy which, while foregrounding and accepting the tensions and disjunctions of the meaning of tradition in the Indian context, locates tradition in the here and now.


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  1. Hurraay!!!! Now that Odissi has moved on to actively inhabit its new setting—- can we leave the creativity/authenticity bugaboo behind? Are we ready for that?

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