My teaching philosophy centers around three main principles:
• Building technical knowledge
• Making knowledge present & accessible through collaboration & improvisation
• Inculcating critical thinking in my students
At the core of my teaching practice is the emphasis on technical expertise and knowledge. I believe that a deep understanding and assimilation of technique, be it in theory or practice, is essential to empower us to stay involved, improvise, and innovate. My own training regime, the skills that I have sought and acquired all my life to fortify my technique and my consistent commitment to evolve and add to my knowledge base demonstrates to my students to invest in technical rigor. My PhD research brought together my worlds of sustained practice and critical enquiry.
As I teach students both in a university setting or in a private studio, I implicitly draw from my knowledge of language, music, rhythm, theater, body practices like Yoga and Kalari and my passion for improvisation and the critical thinking that gives purpose to all these practices. The biggest challenge to my teaching practice is to toggle between between this deep seated knowledge that is embodied in me and the modular portability of that knowledge that is essential for its transmission in the western space.
However, I have navigated this challenge by structuring my courses to include compatible elements of the dance form and opening space for students to explore and investigate the distinct possibilities that it will engender. For instance, a rhythm based class, when paired with abstract physical technique can open possibilities for the student to experiment with different rhythmic frameworks for a movement score. Or pairing gestural vocabulary with poetries from different parts of the world will open up possibilities of exploring text with emotive gestures.
While fortifying technical knowledge is essential for any discipline I believe that a curriculum or pedagogical method survives only if it stays meaningful, relevant and accessible to its students and practitioners. I work towards this among my students by collaborating ‘with’ them rather than teaching ‘at’ them.
My training in India has largely been a top-down approach to knowledge transmission. That strong hold of tradition undermined critical inquiry, participation and generative discussions between teacher and student. When training moved from artistic guilds to a tertiary method of transmission in the early twentieth century in India due to a complicated political and social process, this angst for preserving tradition took over any semblance of collaboration between teacher and student.
My research in critical Bharatanatyam history has created a strong resolve in me to decolonize teaching methodology and move it towards flattening hierarchy and developing collaborative methods of knowledge transmission while not compromising on technique or traditional knowledge. Thus, in my classrooms I have students of different ages, socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. I collaborate with them to bring their stories, narratives, and orientations to the dance. We then work with the Bharatanatyam vocabulary to give shape to these voices. This, I hope, will create adaptability of the dance form to any setting rather than fixing it as a traditional entity that needs to be preserved.
On the same context of keeping the content accessible and living I also encourage my students at all levels to try improvisation. Improvisations are very central to my ongoing research and engagement with practice. I keep reminding them of the themes of Being Vs Performing. Time and again I create exercises where the student is asked to just ‘be’ rather than ‘perform.’
I have argued in detail about the loss of this skill in my dissertation in many dancers and teachers that practice Bharatanatyam today. This, singlehandedly is a strong decolonizing method where the power of the current moment and the technical knowledge that you have built till that moment blend to create something powerful, and intimate. Inculcating this aptitude to improvise in any dance practice enables a sense of creative belonging to the dance for the students who then do more than just preserving and carrying on content.
Lastly, as a researcher it is important for me to inspire thinking dancers. This is an important decolonizing practice where the student is invited to foreground their intersectional identities and understand the world through their position in it. I invest in creating context and encouraging the students to invest in the history and rationale of anything that they inhabit in their bodies. Thus my classes are heavy in technique on one end but also on reading scholarly articles, engaging with primary source interviews and then they do secondary research from there.