Bharata natyam schools and courses
Things to keep in mind
Types of Bharatanatyam gurus
Although many learners select a guru hoping to learn as much of Bharatanatyam as possible, still a large number of students select their guru by some other criteria.
Many Bharata natyam learners opt for a business type guru who, as they hope, can provide them with valuable connections, opportunities, influence, and teach them successful PR, fund-raising, administrative and business skills rather than the dance technique itself. Other Bharatnatyam dancers prefer a hereditary guru, believing that the tradition is best preserved by genes rather than by learning.
The word ”guru” was used originally to mean someone who helps you grow spiritually. Practically all of the contemporary Bharathanatyam gurus are merely dance instructors. For instance, they can teach you the basics of angika abhinaya but hardly anyone will be able to teach satvika abhinaya or how Sringara Rasa should be portrayed according to Natya Shastra. While some Bharatanatyam gurus are virtually illiterate, the other extreme are the scholar type gurus who cannot demonstrate or teach you anything practically.
Level of professionalism of Bharatanatyam instructor
You can very easily determine how professional your dance teacher is by finding out how many technical elements he uses. Ask him how many of adavus he incorporates in the items, how many bhedas, mudras, charis, entire karanas, how many talams and ragams he composes in. Extremely few Bharatanatyam dancers use more than 40 adavus and 10-15 karanas in their recitals, and more than a dozen or two of talams and ragams. The more complex talams are the domain of the top dancers, who also use a richer variety of musical instruments in their orchestra. The highly professional Bharata natyam dancers, such as Alarmel Valli, are quite masterful at portraying complex Sringara-based items.
Parampara in Bharatanatyam
Before a Bharatnatyam guru tries to teach you something, find out if it is what his guru taught him or it is something that he discovered or composed by himself. If Adyar Lakshman or Padma Subramaniam can reconstruct many of the 108 karanas merely by looking at the temple statues, studying books, and then create Bharatnrityam, why can’t you? While some dance instructors openly admit that they no longer adhere to the tradition, outside of India you will also find many gurus teaching some form of modern dance as Bharatanatyam. Such dancer as as Anita Ratnam, openly calls her style “neo-Bharatanatyam”, as they attempt to mimick the American modern dance..
Experience and age of Bharatanatyam dance instructors
It takes at least 10 years for a guru to learn to apply the teaching methods successfully, and many students start teaching their fellow students at a very early age. However, the gurus who are over 60 years old will most likely not have the energy to correct most of your mistakes. Unless one is practising yoga, the aging process is unstoppable and will degrade most of one’s nritta as well as abhinaya.
Male vs female gurus
One of the most important choice a student is facing is whether to learn with a male or female guru. While the male gurus can usually provide a student with a more rationalized and structured learning process, and better answer his questions of theory, still it should be mentioned that women have far richer arsenal of abhinaya and can explain many things in a simple language. A female guru will be more sensitive and adaptive to your individuality. A rule of thumb is, male students should select male gurus, and female students should be taught by women gurus.
Performing vs non-performing Bharatanatyam gurus
A performing guru will not be able to give you regular classes, and even then your schedule should be very flexible. The students of Alarmel Valli get to see her very rarely. The contemporary dance seen is full of competition, and the gurus have human limitations. It is vain to believe that a performing guru is going to focus on promoting you rather than himself. In case of non-performing gurus, if you have not seen his live performances, find out if you can watch these recorded on video. Although nattuvanars were all men, it is a fact that the training methods they used have been largely forgotten.
Even nowadays most gurus frown upon any formal attestations (certificates, diplomas, etc) for their students’. Unfortunately, due to the explosive proliferation of Bharatanatyam schools worldwide, there is no established register of the gurus’ lineage, which often leads to abuse. Ask a lot of questions regarding your guru’s parampara. You should find out if your guru’s guru had other students besides your guru. Do your guru’s fellow students remember him? Can you talk to them? Who was your guru’s guru’s best student? How many years and hours did your guru spend studying with his guru?
Bharatanatyam gurus and their assistants
How much of the learning would you have to do as self-study, and how many items would you have to learn with a video tape? Most of the gurus, especially the senior gurus, delegate 99% of the teaching to their assistants. It may be ok unless you are an advanced student.
Bharatanatyam guru’s specialization
Decades ago many gurus were aware of their personal limitations, were more emotionally secure and were not so keen on maintaining the full control over their students’ lives and activities. After they have given a student everything they could, the gurus would usually send him to another guru – normally within the same bani – for further training. One of the important questions that you should ask your guru is, “After a student has studied a certain number of years and has mastered the techniques on a certain level, do you recommend such a student to do an additional study with another guru?”
Clone dancers in Bharatanatyam
A typical error that many gurus make is producing carbon copies of themselves. Few gurus, such as Kiran Subramaniam , Sheela Unnikrishnan or N.Srikanth, focus on developing their students’ individual interpretations and performing styles. You should watch at least 3-4 performances by the guru’s senior (post-arangetram) students at a close range and see how different they are. There are children-only schools such as Bharathanjali, where the students are specifically tutored to become clones of their gurus even in mukha abhinaya, which often results in various personality disorders.
How much can you learn?
Check how your guru has planned your lessons at least a year ahead, so that you can compare it with other guru’s. A good guru should have a more-or-less clear idea of how much a particular student is capable of learning within a year. If you are an advanced student, a good guru should be able to teach you at least one full margam in a year if you have at least 3 classes a week and practise at home too. Warning: some gurus will only teach you items for a confirmed solo slot or a competition (i.e. otherwise they will tell you that they are too “busy” all the time, so you have to dance in their ballets to earn them money and reviews)
Check how many students of your guru have been brought to the mastery level.
Learning solo vs group dance
Unless you are planning your dancing career as part of corps de ballet in a fusion dance company, it should be said that without mastering many advanced solo items and without regular solo performances you will never be able to establish yourself as an independent Bharatanatyam dancer. Bharatanatyam proper is a solo dance. In a good school, at least 80% of the regular classes should be dedicated to learning solo items.
Bharatanatyam gurus and students’ progress
The problem that many highly talented students face is that their guru artificially hampers their progress by teaching them too slowly (otherwise, the other students in the school would feel bad, as they cannot learn as quickly), restricting their public solo performances to a minimum that is sufficient to draw new students into the school. The best students are often discouraged by their guru’s praising the incapable students in front of them. Some students still manage to make considerable progress despite their gurus’ efforts. Find out how many students have exceeded their guru’s mastery. Some gurus, such as Chitra Visveswaran, privately admit that they do not pass all of their knowledge even to their most advanced students simply because the guru can best maintain control over them by limiting their growth. Due to the competition, some gurus do not want their senior assistants to start totally independent dance schools.
Learning Bharatanatyam at one-to-one classes vs group lessons
While one-to-one classes are better for those who have reached a mastery level and have a lot of self-discipline, the group lessons are preferable in most cases, as students learn a lot from each other. If you are one of those students who are studying Bharatanatyam not merely as a hobby, you will not learn much unless there are at least 2-3 other students in your batch that are as good as or better than you are. Optimally, the group should have 5-10 students.
Learning Bharatanatyam for Arangetrams
For anybody who considers dancing as a professional career, it should be known that arangetram is the guru’s formal endorsement of the student’s reaching a certain mastery level. Check how many students of your guru have done their arangetrams. If possible, watch 2-3 arangetrams of the guru’s students and see if they are all up to a certain standard.
Warning: check if by joining the school you automatically become a “bonded” student with a mandatory (and pricey) arangetram (any long-term contracts should be avoided). Some gurus, such as Madurai Muralidharan, do not let their students leave the ir school without a scandal unless they finish their arangetram.
Learning auxiliary practices
Learning Carnatic music, especially vocal music, was mandatory in times of devadasis. A good guru will make sure that his students practise many auxiliary exercises that would improve their stamina, flexibility, balance, strength, expressiveness, concentration, etc. Usually, many of these exercises are from yoga or martial arts such as kalari payattu. See if and how your guru teaches pranayamas and meditation too. Many large schools, such as Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s, Padma Subrahmaniam’s, Hema Rajan’s, provide the integrated yoga and vocal training to their students.
Entering the stage
Check if your guru lets any of his students, regardless of their mastery, give live performances as long as they pay the expenses. Some serious gurus like Padma Subramaniam or Chitra Visveswaran usually maintain certain minimum quality standards for those students who give live performances.
Children vs adult students
It is common to see both children and adults in the same group of learners. Some gurus, like Anita Guha, only teach young children and teenages, and do not offer any professional level training. Some gurus like Chitra Visveswaran do not teach young children at all, as it is much less profitable financially. Children, though, have far larger arsenal of abhinaya, and a liberal guru, such as Sheela Unnikrishnan, develops his creativity out of the children’s interpretations. The restrictive gurus who do not teach children are in greater danger of producing clone dancers.
Continuity in learning Bharatanatyam
See if the school has a summer break or the December music season break. If the break is longer than 1 month, it will noticeably put your progress back. If you are planning a long break of 1 year or more, you should know even you will never be able to recover many of your skills and individual expressions even if you later spend many years of rigorous practise trying to gain even of your former shape back.
Bharatanatyam standards, awards and prizes
A typical question is, “How good is this school?”. One of the obvious criteria is the number and the kind of the awards, titles and prizes that a particular school’s students have won. Awards, titles and prizes largely indicate the dancer’s place in the hierarchy of the classical Indian dance community. These awards can be classified in 4 main categories: local (city) level, district (county) level, regional (state) level and national level. Some competitions, such as Kerala’s Higher Secondary Youth Festival, or the competition conducted by BSNL Cultural and Sports Wing, are multi-level, and, thus are considered as more serious. Needless to say, a professional dancer will never state in his resume any school-level prizes and awards.
Although many competitions are advertised as national-level, they may not attract any contestants outside the city where it is held. For obvious reasons (with three quarters of the world’s Bharatanatyam students concentrated in Chennai) it has to be noted that winning a city-level Bharathanatyam competition in Chennai is considered far more prestigeous than winning the all-European Bharatnatyam competition. If you win a prize, be ready to answer the question, “Who were the judges?”. Naturally, the status of the competition will be higher if it has on its panel of judges an experienced Bharatanatyam critic such as The Hindu’s Nandini Ramani, while the awards from a local bank or a Rotary club will most likely not make your Bharatanatyam resume sound impressive, just as the “Bharatanatyam” awards from a local temple or a religious organization such as ISKCON or TTD, where you can find teenage judges who judge their own students.
The titles conferred by the Central Government, such as Padmashree and Balashree, are considered as purely political, as the political awards are made behind the closed doors, without revealing either the candidate selection criteria, or the final title awarding criteria. Thus, Chennai’s Indian Fine Arts Society’s prizes or Music Academy’s titles, where only a few hand-picked candidates are allowed to compete, are considered as political. On the other hand, Chennai’s Music Connoiseurs Club’s open Bharatanatyam competitions attract over 150 contestants. With the recent explosive proliferation of various sabhas and dance-related institutions, the titles awarded by the older sabhas, such as Chennai’s Narada Gana or Krishna Gana sabhas, are certainly more “prestigeous”, even though purely political in nature.
Very few competitions, such as Kerala’s Higher Secondary Youth Festival, provide for an appeal procedure based on the video records. Such appeal procedures have often revealed cases of open bribery or blatant intimidation of the judges, and resulted in scandals. The appeal procedures are not supported by the majority of the sabhas, as such a procedure is likely to embarass the judges and damage their reputation.
Banis and Bharatnatyam styles
One of the main reasons that all titles, awards and prizes in Bharatanatyam have a very limited value is obvious: a Vazhuvoor-style dancer will not score high marks with a Kalakshetra-style judge. What is considered as wrong in one style is likely to be considered as correct in another. Kalakshetra dancers, for example, will avoid anything related to Sringara Rasa, despite the fact that it is Sringara that is the foundation of Natya.
All of the existing banis of Bharatanatyam are less than 200 years old, and originated either from the devadasi traditions (e.g. Balasawaswaty‘s style, Melattur, Kanchipuram, etc) or from the rajanarthaki’s art (e.g. Thanjavur, Pandanallur, Mysore, etc). See how faithfully your guru has been following a particular tradition. It is a fact that two traditional Indian dance gurus claiming to be from the same lineage can be vastly different in their styles. While some sub-styles are very complex, the others, like the Kalakshetra, are simplified and westernized derivatives.
A Bharatanatyam style is only as much classical as it adheres to the Natya Shastra’s guidelines and techniques. The transition between the orthodox classical to the pop is continuous. If you don’t mind her Kathakali-style grotesque abhinaya, Padma Subrahmaniam’s school will teach you all the 108 karanas, although Chitra Visveswaran’s school will not teach योu even 10% of these but instead you will learn many elements of the English ballet tradition. If you prefer to learn Martha Graham’s ballet technique, you should learn it from Sudharani Raghupathi. You will find many artsy Bollywood-style elements in Shobana‘s or western dance in Saroja Vaidyanathan‘s techniques.
While Kuchipudi is very closely related to Bharatanatyam so that their study can be easily combined, combining with other styles such as Odissi may be problematic (unless you are an Alarmel Valli), as certain patterns of movement may interfere with each other. Your abhinaya will be Kathakali-like if you learn Bharathanatyam with the Dhananjayans. If you want to learn Bharatanatyam to become an actress in Tamil popular movies, you should learn abhinaya from Kalanidhi Narayan or from Shobana.
Bharatanatyam dance studio
Make sure that there is at least 3-4 sq m of space per every student in case of group lessons. Your feet will not be damaged if you practise on the wooden floor. Make sure the studio is well-ventilated. Air-conditioning is a plus.
Bharatnatyam school’s size
You will not be able to get enough personal attention if you study in a school of 200 students, unless you can afford to take one-to-one classes there. Many large Bharatanatyam schools, such as Krishnakumari Narendran’s Abinaya Natyalaya or Anita Guha’s Bharathanjali, are well-known for their children’s group ballets, but few of their top students ever give solo performances as it could discourage the majority, less capable, students, according to the gurus’ opinion. In large Bharatnatyam schools, there are clearly defined hierachical groups that are treated (and trained) very differently. Many of such schools’ best students quit after learning for 2-3 years.
From a large school’s guru’s point of view, a group performance is a good source of profit (even if a student’s part is 1 minute long, this student will be required to pay a significant amount towards “the expenses of the programme”), and is the only way to increase the number of mediocre or incapable but well-paying students in the school and make them feel good on the stage.
While large, commercialized institutions usually have the advantage of providing the students with better learner resources (library of books and videos), accommodation, transportation, etc, the smaller schools have quite a different, family-like atmosphere, where each student is treated as individual.
Bharatanatyam learners’ achievements
A Bharata natyam school can be also judged by how many solo performances its top students give. Check how many students of your guru have done their arangetrams. Can you watch these videos and see the standards? How many dropouts does the school have in a year’s time?
Short (intensive) courses in Bharata natyam
An increasing number of Bharathanatyam students learn under many gurus for a very short time, while on a short visit. Whether it is a week-long workshop or a few months of a special training, you should understand that most gurus treat such cases merely as a business opportunity, i.e. the rule that the more a student pays, the more attention he gets becomes very prominent. You may learn an entire margam in a month’s time. Well, really? Don’t have any illusions: money cannot buy you the mastery. It takes hundreds of hours of supervised rehearsals and countless corrections in order to polish the smallest nuances of the movements. If you are already on the advanced level, you can quickly learn the sketch, the outline of a dance sequence, but it takes years of observations of many Bharata natyam dancers doing this sequence, and many years of polishing the intricate details.
Learn Bharatanatyam online
Recently, some institutions started offering online programmes not only as a theory courses but as practical courses too. Unfortunately, practically all of these are of little or no value, as they do not offer any real online lessons as a live interaction with the guru through video conferencing or at least a good substitute for it.
University degrees in Bharatanatyam
These have only recently become available for anyone who might be interested in obtaining a university degree in Bharatanatyam if he is planning his career as a scholar or researcher rather than a performer. Unfortunately, practically all of such degrees as of 2006 are of dubious value and are not easily recognized/accredited by most institutions. Some universities offer part-time and correspondence courses.
Professional Bharatanatyam careers
99% of all Bharatanatyam students never become professional dancers or gurus because learning Bharatanatyam on a professional level is as time-consuming as learning ballet. This is the reason that the dancers who list in their resumes a Master’s degree in Computer Science, Business Administration or Medicine do not stand a chance of reaching the professional level in Bharatanatyam. Performing or even teaching Bharatanatyam alone as a career is an extremely difficult path and requires significant investments of time, energy and money.
Giving performances at various festivals and sabhas is a requisite for establishing a professional Bharatanatyam career. To be eligible for an award from a sabha, the Bharatnatyam dancer is supposed to give a few performances under its banner. For each performance in India the dancer is to pay a cash “donation” to the sabha if the performance is to be under its official umrella, which may easily come up to Rs.40000 (current tariff at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha) during the Margazhi season.
Otherwise the dancer can perform without the “umbrella” and simply pay the “rent” of the auditorium. The cash “donation”, however, is most often to denote a separate amount which is rarely disclosed not only to the public but also to the Indian Tax authorities. As you may have already guessed it, the Bharathanatyam dancer who pays the largest amount will most likely be conferred this sabha’s awards and titles. The current ”donation” amount may range from as little as Rs.2000 to many lakhs of rupees.
Bharatanatyam choreography: copyrights, modifications and teaching
Find out how your would-be Bharata natyam guru is treating his items and copyrights. How does he react when other dance schools’ students copy this guru’s choreography. There are Bharatnatyam gurus who do not allow their students to modify the “original choreography”. Some Bharathanatyam gurus will not even allow their senior students to earn any money by teaching this “original choreography” independently, or other gurus may require their.senior students to pay a certain “franchise” fee (commission) from their indepentent teaching activities.
Audio, video and TV for Bharata natyam
Ideally, the Bharatanatyam music must be custom-made to suit a particular dancer, but not everybody can afford to pay for a live orchestra every time. A senior guru like Sudharani Raghupati will charge even an Indian student at least Rs.25000 for a solo recital with her son’s live orchestra. As of 2008, the average expenses for a high-class 5-member orchestra ranges from Rs.7000 to Rs.10000 in Chennai.
Different Bharata natyam schools have different policies regarding their audio and video.Check if the guru gives you an option to employ the orchestra of your selection. While some liberal schools provide the audio tapes (usually, recorded at live programmes, and, thus, of poor quality) free of cost to all their students, you may not get any audio for home practice if you join some other schools that have many restrictions. A professional-level Bharata natyam school provides its students – either free or at a very nominal fee – with high-quality audio CD’s recorded at a studio.
In some Bharathanatyam schools the students are not allowed to make a copy of their fellow students’ programmes’ video recordings. Many schools have a complex set of rules that cover every aspect of video shooting and TV appearances. Getting permissions from your guru may be very complicated.
While most Bharatnatyam gurus will readily give you blessings for you to take part in a dance festival, show, competition, TV, film or video production, there are some gurus, such as Padma Subramaniam, who hardly ever give such permissions to her students. This is often one of the methods of artificially hampering a student’s progress and dancing career. A selfish guru will not let his students do anything unless he too can personally profit from it.
Money matters, prices and fees
Find out how many students in your guru’s school are studying for free. While the commercialized Bharatanatyam gurus like Sudharani Raghupati say that, “Nothing comes cheap. Everything in the world has a price“, a true Bharata natyam guru will believe that not everything can be bought, and will be teaching at least a few exceptionally talented students without asking for a tuition fee. It is fairly common practice when the richer students pay more.
Fees per class can vary from as low as Rs.10 in rural India to USD $50 in California. If you decide to join Madurai Muralidharan’s school, be prepared to spend a minimum of Rs.3,50,000 for the mandatory arangetram.Your total arangetram expenses with Chitra Visveswaran may go up to Rs.4,00,000. The students of the commercialized Bharathanatyam gurus usually have group arangetrams, where the total amount is split between the students.
It is no wonder that some Bharatnatyam schools have turned into elite business clubs where you can hardly find any outstanding dancers. Even in Harvard University a certain number of students are admitted purely on the merit basis. Most Bharatanatyam gurus will be very cautious discussing the financial issues as they operate in the black market, i.e. the students are required to pay in cash because the gurus do not declare this money in their income tax declarations. Many expensive and greedy gurus will not quote the tuition amount or other costs, but will expect the student to suggest the amount that he or she is willing to pay. If the amount received is below the guru’s expectation, such a student will not receive much attention, and may eventually be politely forced to leave this Bharatanatyam school “voluntarily”.
See if you can speak to the guru’s current and especially former students directly and privately. Find out the reasons why some students leave the school. Is the guru aware of these reasons?
Find out everything that is going to be mandatory, e.g. arangetram. Make sure your Bharatanatyam guru is not going to force you to give donations to certain organizations, etc. A few gurus, such as Urmila Sathyanarayanan, will threaten to terminate your study if you do not attend most of her other students’ performances.
Check if a guru forces his students to worship a certain dubious saint or idol. Some Bharatnatyam gurus, for instance, force their students to celebrate the Puttaparti’s Sai Baba’s birthdays and offer him prayers. The established practice is, you may refuse to do anything if you are a paying student. If you are studying for free you will be expected to always obey your guru’s commands.
Try before you buy
Ask if it would be possible to observe a lesson before making a commitment to join a particular Bharatanatyam dance school. See how and how often the guru corrects the students’ mistakes. You may not like learning along with autistic students, as in Ambika Kameshwar’s school. If the your guru considers Bharata natyam as a sacred sadhana rather than a folk dance, he will not accept any mentally or physically challenged students.