Dances of India - 2016

Exploring Guru-Shishya Parampara

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

When you search for the meaning of Guru-Shishya Parampara, this is what we find: The guru–shishya tradition, or parampara (“lineage"), denotes a succession of teachers and disciples in traditional Indian culture and religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism (Tibetan and Zen tradition).

If it is a succession plan, then all the classical dance teachers are in trouble in the USA. Most of our students graduate and complete their arangetrams (dance graduations) before they graduate from high school. Then they leave for college eliminating any chances of succession. In my opinion, this is not the only reason this system of Guru-Shishya Parampara exists. Let us look a little more deeply into this system.

Thousands of years ago in India, the Gurukul system laid out norms for the complex and fascinating relationship between the teacher and student. Because the fine arts are a spiritually uplifting experience, the guru came second only to god. Thus the sloka, Guru Bramha, Guru Visnu, Guru deva Maheshwara, Guru sakshat Parabramha tasmayee shri gurave namaha. Here the sloka compares the guru to the greatest undivided power or energy that forms the base of creation itself and combines the forces of the Creator, the Destroyer and the Preserver according to the Vedic beliefs. Thus it was not for the disciple to question why he/she would have to accept unconditionally the statement handed down by the guru. The guru was omniscient and his/her word was never to be doubted.

There have been progressive changes in the system, as time has passed. I still remember I had to show my worthiness to learn Kuchipudi, from my guru's guru. After showing our dances to the level we have learned, he chose to teach me and said no to others. This transmission of privileged knowledge required the student's demonstration of uniqueness, ability to learn, and potential to carry on the teachings of the Guru. Students spent an extensive amount of time every day with the gurus aspiring to be like them. They even learned other art forms such as music to enhance their understanding and practice of dance. Guru not only taught dancing, but also taught life lessons.

As we all agree, the role of a teacher, mentor or guru is crucial in any field. The teacher-student relationship is a revered one all through the world. In recent times, due to the institutionalization of dance education, it took away the role of the traditional gurus and the Guru-Shishya Parampara in most parts of India. This also eliminated one-on-one coaching and the Guru has been replaced with teacher.

However, due to the inconsistent transition from tradition to modernity, there is still a lot of confusion in this field. In many parts of India and the US, disciples are still expected to follow the regulations of the guru and the guru's institution. Even though many students started to learn under different gurus as they move from place to place, the crucial question of “who is your guru" always comes up. Students are judged by the name and reputation of their guru to either be praised or ignored. On the other hand, some parents raised with traditions know the value and quality of a dance form. They go to any lengths to ensure their children learn the traditions of these classical dance forms in their purest form possible.

I still long to gain knowledge from gurus who are an authority on the subject matter. Even today, many students have dedicated their lives to dancing while balancing their school, work, and family. All of us at some point in our career or life looked for mentors or individuals who have accomplished a lot in life. Many aspire to be like them. As stated in ancient scriptures, guru is the beacon of light that dispels the gloom of ignorance. On one hand this system maintained a certain authenticity of the art form as far as stylistic ground rules were observed and followed down through generations. Considering the rigorous training over a large number of years and a meticulous technique of codified movements that are required to be a good Indian classical dancer, it seemed necessary for this kind of relationship to exist for traditional experience. Tradition has a timeless quality, which is thought to be due to the fact that it encompasses and fuses the past and the present.

We can see the Guru-Shishya Parampara, any way we wish to see. You can call it an ancient and old practice that is not relevant to modernity or you can say it is essential for the betterment of our community and culture. Dance and Veda place a high value on cognition, intellectual knowing and comprehension. A successful dancer has gone through a regimented learning process creating a trained body and allowing the dancer to grasp knowledge, retain the facts and develop the power of discipline using right and left brains. This concept is now being implemented in the modern world. Every organization seeks mentoring opportunities to better our community and the youth. May it be work, Yoga or dance, I hope we continue to be inspired by a guru's teachings or a mentor's advice. And as Gurus and mentors, I hope we will continue to impart our knowledge to develop the next generation of learners and leaders.