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Escalating to rare paradigms of art education

That a quest to seeking knowledge lends credibility to any pursuit cannot be better emphasized but the course of such a journey, largely depends on and derives its worth in the seeker’s risk taking and challenge facing abilities. Especially amongst biases like the sciences tagged main stream and arts lurking in the background even at higher levels of education, an art affair is definitely upstream task. Gathering on this background is an ingenious discussion session on changing the structures of institutionalized art education towards better sustainability.
Creditably facilitating this is Dr. Vasanth Kiran, Head of Department of Performing Arts, who though sitting on a precarious position, is striving at will to make the best resources in dance available to, at least every seeker at his University. “I have been a Business faculty before coming into this Department. I was completely aware of UGC’s requirement of credit hours. So one of the foremost incorporation here was to give ‘performance’ and ‘field trip’ their due credit hours. Performing is an experience that adds on to one’s academic faring. On the flip side, every time a student is on the stage, something from the class has changed the way he/she performs, which becomes a reality check. Thus 25% of attendance is acceptable if a student has gone for a performance. With this, the overall annual structure for credit hours under the UGC is well maintained whilst catering to specific requirement of an art where performing is focal!”.

Alliance travels to Chennai
Between getting the right access to resources and managing and distributing them, it is the latter that needs greater precedence. “I ensured that our regular full time faculty comprise of young, dynamic, throwing-challenges-on-them, ready to travel members and all stalwarts and senior gurus are visiting faculty. That way the students have somebody they can easily approach, share inhibitions and clarify doubts on a daily basis, while also receiving forthright critical feedback.” Given such discerning thinking, the core syllabus of the two year Masters in performing arts has been carefully designed to stretch boundaries in art approach, create thinking dancers and most peculiarly allow for other professional employments. Says Abhinaya Rohan, a working Chartered Accountant turned dance student “I have always liked numbers. But my inclination to connect the numbers in accounts and numbers in the tala system of dance, came about after my acquaintance to Dr. Vasanth! I had a sound training in dance at a young age, studied CA and worked in Goldman Sachs and now it was time to make my choice, take the plunge. I am a manager at a startup working from 8 AM to 1 PM and then come to classes at the University. I now draw parallels – bring the commerce professional discipline here and take hard work that dance has taught me to my CA work. Guess there is a greater feeling of contributing to the economy!” To which Vasanth adds “This precisely was one of our targeted course plan while instituting the program. The first semester students take classes in the morning and second semester students in the afternoon. Most of them are employed accordingly in shifts and for those who are not, we tie them up with a school as dance teacher and so at the end of the MA program they accrue a two-year work experience too! Radically the idea for such design comes from my corporate culture where case studies and real life experiences of firms are infused into the study course. Thus be it madam Usha Dattar partaking her experience in Kala Mandalam or Shama Bhate ji giving nuances of tala system in Kathak, or even Dharshana Jhaveri ji illustrating how extremely important it is to study text before applying, theories from such sessions find application in any stream; Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi. Similarly, all choreographies here are done in the class, so the students are a part of the process. In fact, the students most often contribute the content or at other times, the same jathi is being done by each of them in their own version right here in the class.”

Students at Alliance University

In this effort of creating a broader schema for assimilation of knowledge, Dr. Vasanth and his team of faculty and students are clear to stay away from restricting boundaries. “Talking of ‘bani’ in this Department is almost banned. I was at a conference recently when a speaker called for attention by claiming Natyasastra to be a perspective alone. True. The treatise talks about ‘vrittis’ which boils down to meaning school and this later became ‘bani’ calling for very narrow segregations in a vast form like dance. What is important is to only attempt to imbibe what the treatise offers, which itself is an impossible task, and hence when different bodies and minds attempt this, they are making and giving rise to different perceptions and so be it. Compartmentalizing is doing no gain. Finally, all of this is being translated onto stage performance and hence it also transforms into a perception of what is beautiful and aesthetic.
On the same lines, it is impertinent to understand and work with a whole amount of underpinnings that dance comes with – of time, space, balance, physical anatomy. To put it in a nutshell, education here aims to be holistic. We are not here to churn performers who can dance the hell out of every sabha, rather we groom their niche areas and channelize them professionally.”
Clearly the University is not hell bent on crying aloud of bringing about the much talked about ‘Change’, rather they are dedicated to visualize change in the broad sense of the term, accept and apprehend as much of it as possible. “The meaning of one generation until a few years back was about 20 years, clearly now, one generation is only 5 years! Because every five years, we are looking at an absolute change in each of the chaturvida abhinaya for example. Aharya has changed tremendously, vaachika is evolving, sometimes in a good way, aangika is approached differently and saatvika poor thing has metamorphed in to many meanings! This journey has always oscillated between probably giving significance to the insignificant or vice versa or sometimes even being ignorant. Where science and technology define growth in as far terms you move ahead and economics places it in growing GDPs, art sees it in the reverse. In art, the more you go back in time and connect to your roots, the more knowledgeable you become. And amidst all this tradition, transition and transformation, let me be honest, as a marketing guy, we need to know that we have to make a product that a customer wants. So if you are a dancer, happy practicing behind closed doors, then you can do your will, but if you are a performer on the proscenium or like in the University we want to make professionals out of each student, you need to accept change, be versatile, place your audience in priority and have clarity in moving ahead.”

A workshop by Geeta Chandran

So then, I discretely noticed the infusion of management principles to suit the dance framework, in a way that could not only complement a study, research and performance structure but also aid in its growth. “In today’s world we need to be aware what and to whom we are catering to, going back on the point of keeping an audience in priority that I mentioned. We recently performed Kuchipudi dance drama in Kerala and decided to do the vaachika in Malayalam. Kerala audience, given their proximity to lengthy dance dramas would sit through anyway, but this effort revoked a keener interest. Now, this may be branded as breaking away from tradition, but according to me one has to know tradition to even break away from it. So I am good this way. All of these students and faculty who rendered in Malayalam knew the entire script in Telugu as originally. Well as a matter of fact this overview has been there since Vempati master. He did away with dialogues in all his choreographies and it was only up to the music ensemble to do the vaachika. It is important to create your own space, if you are confident you can deliver it with beauty and aesthetic, you should move on rather than be dogged by branding. Despite Infosys, Wipro etc doing so well, there is still space in the market for a so called ‘Infotech software’ and they all exist and make money. So it is about creating space as an artist. If you feel you don’t have space as a performer, create one for yourself as an organizer or a researcher or a writer, the options are endless.”
On this note, I turn to the students of their approximation of areas of interest, their niche. For Prateeksha Kashi, fusing the conceptual fabric of her Management degree to the idea of dance becomes her strength. “I come from a computer science background and am a people’s person. So what I was looking for before switching to dancing professionally, was to cash in on the idea of management in dance. So at Alliance with Vasanth sir, having PhD’s in both these areas, I felt it was an exploring ground for me. I find the balance of theory and practice coming off beautifully here, something which I yearned to achieve. I never related to the fact that performance was by itself and research was in a different space. The flexibility given to me as a student is only helping me push the bar higher, as he rightly said, I am now more informed as a performer, I know the context of my performance.”

With Uma Rele and Vaidehi Rele
Karpagam Venkat Raman comes from traditional one-on-one tutelage under Smt. Lakshmi Rajamani for about 30 years. What she brings to the table is such experience and takes away eclectic training methods that she gets exposed to here at the University. “Coming from a very closed personalized training set up to being suddenly exposed to so much of activity created some disturbance but I was motivated to hold on to my training and my roots, while also learning from so many stalwarts here. That helped regain confidence and I transferred most of what I learnt to teaching my students. It has made a big difference. Overall dance and knowledge of it has reigned”.
Shishira Praveen hails from Kerala, and it is default understood of grounded training in at least four dance forms. “After having the opportunity to learn from Kalamandalam Leelamani teacher and Kshemavathy teacher, I drifted to Engineering and did not dance for 10 years. All of a sudden I found myself here and within the first few days, decided to quit again. My body gave up and I lost courage. If I have come back, it is because of the demanding curriculum that keeps one going along with a lot of mentoring from Vasanth sir.”
For Abhinaya, it is a lurking big question to actually identify what she is good at. Add to this is the plethora of options and vast canvas that art as a subject has opened up to her at the University. “At least in CA I knew what I did not want – whether I wanted audit or not etc, whereas here picking a subset out of the universe is seeming a huge task, I am working on that. But one thing I am sure about is that after this kind of backing, I can be rest assured I will do great in whatever I choose to. Well, sometimes it can work the other way too as one gets confused with so many options, but training in the immediacy of tradition gives the realization of knowing our limits.”

Master class in progress
The University has come a long way from its initiation, humbly enough and in the most genuine manner to stand up to a threshold where practitioners, connoisseurs and veterans most willingly offer to take workshops and master classes and develop an association. The names include Vasundhara Doreswamy, Geeta Chandran, Kanak Rele,Nandini Ramani, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Vempati Ravi Shankar, Manju Bharggavee among many others.“Alliance does not have ‘anti-Alliance’ people. We are not against anybody in Bangalore. We attend every program in town. We are very happily having a strong network with every dancer / dance teacher in Bangalore and for that matter India. Most senior dancers and gurus have been invited and have expressed extreme happiness to be sharing a relationship. Dancers in Bangalore are welcome to attend these workshops or meet the gurus or interview them. The greatest benefit for the students is to talk to these great people with 40-50 years of experience, of dance that is also intact! So it is a conscious effort to bring them here, only so students can just sit and listen to untold stories and journey of dance, to decide if they even want to trend the path. These are the experiences I want them to carry out of an institutionalized set up. Every student here is free to discuss and interact, clarify doubts with any visiting guru and maintain contact with them. So as a University, it has graduated from being in the push market – introducing the University, requesting scholars to visit etc to being among the pull market – when gurus are visiting Bangalore, they give me a call saying they have seen our work and would love to visit us. I am humbled and happy because we have created that value.”
So what has that ‘value’ been for Alliance? “For Alliance it is a holistic view of art, artistic life and art education. Why would Kanak Rele accept to come here. Anybody who wanted her guidance had to go to Nalanda. It means that she has found value in coming here.I have been associated with Nalanda for some time now and she felt that in her 34 years as an academician, she found us to be talking the same language as her in art education, not bothered about accumulating ‘items’ and ‘degrees’. For us the goal is not the degree, we are not bothered about marks. I tell my students to write enough to pass. My classes are all impromptu and so are the question papers. Dance is a big world and to ask a question out of that, can compose of anything. The realistic approach of performing arts is very different from the textual approach of it.”

With Priyadarshini Govind
Another very important value add is our informal yet framed course structure and syllabus. “Every semester has six subjects and there are four semesters in all. At the end of first year, students would undertake internship and complete the second year with a thesis and a group production. The one-year internship comprises of identifying a dance group or a dance guru and spend some time with them, understanding their work, and finally make a presentation at the University. Classes are divided informally – certain days are fully practice, other days theory and when visiting faculty is around it is molded accordingly. Third semester would have book reviews. I have worked hard to create a rare collection of books in my library. Besides, classes give rise to a lot of cross discussions and run to an extended period and I don’t restrict that. Like for example we started to discuss Devadasi, we are stuck and unable to come out of it. We wanted to touch 1900-1920 but we are nowhere! Students get some material by themselves, they share, somebody shared about how they saw a movie and the discussion went off on a different tangent. Also one interesting course that runs through the semesters, not found in any other University is English and communication skills. Students have to write. A larger part of learning comes from workshops and so students assimilate these as written assignments. Music also runs through all semesters. At the end of four semesters, what I want them is to sing at least the respective songs in their respective ragas and in sruti! Besides students from both genres (Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi) are free to walk into each other’s classes. That does not mean that one adavu from one class is picked and put into the other !
Another visible value add that I can see is the faculty that Dr. Vasanth is supported with. Maalyada Anand specializes in Kuchipudi and Aswini Nambiar in Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam. These two full time faculty members, having been products of institutionalized training serve pillars for the continuity in classes amongst Vasanth’s busy schedule. Ramya Suraj, another faculty member is a dancer, musician and composer with academic qualifications in both the streams and hence the right asset too. She says “I strongly believe that there is no gap between theory and practice, again that is my perception. Without theoretical knowledge, no amount of practice or performance is perfect and without practical output theory finds no place. Specifically, in my case, owing to my training, I more so feel dancing to a music without its knowledge, without musical essence is devoid of rasa both of dance and music. And reading books does not mean mastering theoretical knowledge, rather it only comes a full circle when it is implied. In a regular private training of dance and music, a student would learn pieces, write state-conducted exams and make profiles as artistes. Ironically after joining Alliance, most of us feel hesitant to float ourselves as dancers and musicians. That is what seeking knowledge has made us. The more there is to explore, the more there is a sense of void and realization that we know nothing.” To which Vasanth adds “Ramya is a great composer too. She would watch you and write a composition on you. She sang four lines of Geeta madam comparing her to goddess Saraswati. We performed to her compositions in one of the programs and travel also means new compositions.”

Vasanth Kiran with Guru Darshana Jhaveri

Finally, I question on how the University is striving to make ends meet - where do the students go from here. Is there a system to place them professionally? “The Master’s is a very short termed experience when placed in relative context to the field of art as a whole. Having said that, we have partnered with two companies, who do skill development and work with special children. They are looking at hiring people with music and dance qualifications. We also have offers from abroad, from Indian Institutions wanting to hire our students after they complete. So yes, there is somebody trusting us and I would tell my students to tag themselves as ‘art-preneurs’ or ‘dance-preneurs’ doing anything related to dance – ideas, design, manage, organize et al.
Very calming to see the students, faculty and their much revered HOD share a very warm and professional mentor-preceptor relationship, with constant appetite towards reconstructing standards of learning and imparting art education. As Dr. Vasanth rightly sums it all up “Students here are only allowed with a zero attitude and all of gratitude, sans ego and all of humility, professionalism and zeal to achieve”.
Alliance University has its city branch located in Bangalore. For more details visit their website below.