A Day in the Life of an ISTD Teacher
23 March 2014
Ananya Chatterjee, Mansi Dabral, Deepa Ganesh, Sushma Mehta, Shubha Sachin, Nikita
Thakrar describe their teaching days
Ananya Chatterjee, Bharatanatyam teacher in Reading
Art crosses boundaries and overcomes all forms of divisions in society. Great poetry, painting, sculpture, music or dance is timeless. Man needs much more than the basics in order to exist; man must do more than merely survive and art is a testament to that. One of our most fundamental needs is to celebrate, and dance, like all art forms, has always played an important role in the act of celebration. In order to celebrate the spirit of life I have been practising the Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, for the past 25 years and it has helped me to stay in touch with our roots, to imbibe discipline, to harmonise, to heal and to reaffirm the existence of beauty and truth.
I feel blessed to have learnt the theory and practice of Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Guru Shrimati Thankamani Kutty, founder of Kalamandalam, a reputed centre for performing arts in the city of Kolkata, India, through the “guru-shishya parampara”. By setting up KALAKUNJ in 2008, a performing arts group in Reading, Berkshire, I have been training keen learners in the basic nuances of the dance form.
A typical Sunday begins with early morning classes starting at 10am when the senior students arrive, mostly 12–18 year olds, with a spring in their step and twinkle in the eyes, eager to experience the flavours or rasa of the art. After an hour’s vigorous practice session, the intermediate group (11–14 year olds) joins in and we go through the routine of practising the adavus or the basic dance steps followed by the other pieces in the Bharatanatyam repertoire – Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Kavituvam, Padam, Thillana and the rest.
Currently, my students are preparing for their respective levels of ISTD Grade examinations and half of the session is dedicated to the requirements of the curriculum to enable successful performance at the upcoming examinations. Finally, it is the turn of the younger ones, the 6–10 year olds who rush in full of excitement and enthusiastic fervour, learning to appreciate the basic structure of the rhythm or talam and the various movements or body postures.
The whole morning goes past in a flash of an eye and then I take a break for lunch with my family, before proceeding to the next sessions that involve the beginners who are making their foray into the beautiful and intriguing world of dance. I feel such a great sense of satisfaction being able to communicate and transfer the values that are associated with teaching an Indian classical art form and hope to continue to do so in the future, with the unswerving support of family and a dedicated bunch of students and their parents. As the day comes to an end, exhausted physically, I make my way back home to a warm cup of coffee, however, in my mind, I am planning for the next meeting with my students and humming the beats…taka dhimi…taka jhonu….
Mansi Dabral, Kathak teacher in London
“Each day of teaching is a fulfilled day of learning, sharing and passionate dancing.”
As a young dance student at Kathak Kendra, New Delhi, where I started to learn Kathak, I never thought that one day, I would be blessed to be part of a massively creative world of Kathak dance training as an ISTD teacher. Both my gurus, the late Reba Vidyarthi and Shri Krishan Mohan Mishra have been my role models as teachers, extending to me their esteemed guidance, values and care. For me, a teacher is someone who is a keen learner, who understands each and every disciple as unique and who makes every student aware of his/her qualities whilst working on their weaknesses. A great teacher makes sure that a student’s curiosity is always maintained through continuous and challenging assignments.
So, when I was given the opportunity to be a teacher under the ISTD umbrella, I knew that I would have to match their high standards and adopt their professional values in imparting dance education.
My typical day as a teacher starts with new enthusiasm, high spirit and lots of new ideas to be discovered while training students within the set framework of the ISTD syllabus. The duration of each dance lesson is 60 minutes, divided into five sections to include a warm-up, a sequence of taught dance pieces, theory, an introduction to new composition and cooling down exercises.
We do a typical warm-up, which is quintessential for stretching the body to avoid any injuries and pains. This is followed by Tatkaar, which is a stylised warm-up in dance. Maintaining a stable rhythm or laya through footwork of “ta thei thei tat, aa thei thei tat”, students are introduced to series of movements as well as their names as per the dance book Ang Kaavya written by Pt Birju Maharaj. These exercises help in understanding laya and theka while building awareness of music, body balance and at the same time, synchronising various hand movements with footwork.
The students then practice a series of compositions learnt in previous classes, giving me the chance to alter and polish where necessary. This is followed by theory, which is an integral part of a dance session, covering topics from the syllabus, and discussing these with students to tackle any doubts or confusion. Then we start with a new composition, emphasising the Bols (syllables), their correct recitation and where to place the accentuations. If the composition is absolutely new, students make a written note and practice its recitation with me. The dance session ends with cooling down exercises. The essence of a dance class is to promote creative instincts in students and to keep them energized and stress free.
Deepa Ganesh, Bharatanatyam Teacher in Manchester
With more than 35 years of training under my gurus, Adyar Lakshman and Kalanidhi Narayanan, dance is an integral part of my life. My transformation from a student to performer, to choreographer to becoming a teacher has positively impacted my outlook. My experiences have influenced and nourished my thinking and vice versa. In terms of day-to-day activities, dance for me means classes, community workshops, exhibitions, fundraising, delivery of projects, the running of my dance school and performances.
A recent addition to this is the ISTD Bharatanatyam examinations and their influence on my weekly dance classes over the past two years. The ISTD syllabus has given a certain structure and focus to the planning and execution of the classes, as we are working towards a set goal.
As the artistic director of Upasana, my time and energy was previously distributed amongst my various duties, with a focus on spreading awareness of the art form. My dance class was simply a space where I could continue teaching Bharatanatyam in the same fashion that I was taught – with passion and commitment.
However, with the ISTD’s syllabus, focused structure came for the first time and my dance classes became my first priority. All of Upasana’s activities were rearranged; now all our projects and performances are lead by these classes and the ISTD syllabus material they cover. Our goal has now shifted and my main interest is in investing in the future generation of young dancers in the North West.
The ISTD has influenced Upasana’s vision and enabled our students to approach their interaction with dance from a fresh angle that has helped them further their commitment. What used to be just another fun after-school hobby, where they could meet like-minded people has transformed into an activity that further's their sense of personal achievement. It also strengthens their camaraderie as they share their fears, strengths and challenges with their peers. Very importantly this encourages regular practice and tracking of progress, and the students now feel confident enough to share their new learning with their friends and family.
Sushma Mehta, Kathak dance tutor at Morley College, London
It is now 22 years since I started teaching Kathak for the dance department at Morley College in London. The classes run on Saturdays during term time, at Beginner and Intermediate levels. My preparation starts in the morning at home when I put on paper my lesson plans for the day, which correspond with my scheme of work for the term. It is a requirement of the college and although I know in my head what I’m going to teach, I find that putting it on paper helps me to focus on the content, methodology and resources.
Both classes begin with a warm-up. Often I use vibrant, Indian fusion music for this. It helps to energize the class, leading the students into the more precise footwork and style-specific co-ordination exercises with the lehera music (melodic phrase set in a rhythmic time cycle). We are fortunate to have some sessions with live accompaniment on the tabla (a percussion instrument).
Although both of the classes are nonaccredited courses for adult learners, I use the Kathak Grade 1 syllabus as a guide to take the students through the technique and repertoire covered in the syllabus outline.
In the Intermediate class I teach a range of abilities and levels of experience so a more challenging technique and repertoire is practised. Four of the students in the class have recently undertaken ISTD Kathak Grade 4 exams and all of them were awarded a Distinction. Intensive preparation for the ISTD exams needs more time and practice so we meet up once a week outside the college.
Differentiation is quite a key factor in the class. Although everyone learns the same content, alternative movements are offered for less experienced students allowing them to move to the next stage when ready and able to do so. When working with groups I ensure that the groups are comprised of mixed ability students so that the less experienced have a supportive and secure structure in which they can progress. There is usually some practice and reflection time built into the lesson plan when the students work at a pace that suits them and allows them to internalise the content. This is also time allowed to interact with peers and a tutor.
The students at Morley come from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, some of the cultural context inherent in Classical Indian Dance needs to be explained clearly. For the Nritya (expressional dance) items in Kathak, literature is in Sanskrit/Hindi/Urdu languages. I make sure that the hand-outs are given to all in romanised script with the meaning of the text made clear to ensure understanding by all.
The class finishes with a cool down and my teaching day finishes at 5pm. Yet our passion for dance continues and the students and I often chat for a while after the class or go for a coffee before we all bid each other “see you next week” and go our own way.
Shubha Sachin, Bharatanatyam teacher in London
To quote Lau Tse, "a journey of thousand miles begins with one single step". That is what comes to mind when I think of my students preparing for various levels of the ISTD’s Bharatanatyam examinations from Primary through the Grades. I run my classes in terms of 12-weekly sessions, ending with a presentation for parents to witness their children’s progress. As a teacher, I believe that along with my students, it is important to educate their parents, so I have prepared an ISTD guidebook for Bharatanatyam Dancing to provide parents with an understanding of what the ISTD is and the benefits of following the ISTD route.
On a typical teaching day, following a quick breakfast, I head straight to the school where my Bharatanatyam sessions are conducted. Most of the students are preparing for the ISTD’s Grade 1 Bharatanatyam exam. After the class, I meet with my faculty teacher and parents where we discuss the progress of individual students. After clarifying parents’ queries, I deal with any new enrolments – a great part of the day.
Back home but not yet finished, I have a further three hours of teaching in the evening, where students are preparing for ISTD examinations from Primary to Grade 3. Today I am doing a mock ISTD exam for six students and I have arranged for one of my faculty teachers to be a proxy ‘examiner’. The mock exam room is all ready and the students are prepared, though a bit nervous. I find this useful as it helps eliminate the fear of performing in the actual examination.
Back home and nearly done for the day, having had dinner and with my children asleep, I find a quiet space to write my monthly newsletter and give the finishing touches to a book I am writing as a personal project. One of the purposes of my book is to help parents support their children’s learning at home. Of course, a book cannot replace a teacher, but it can greatly assist in reinforcing work done in the dance class. Body and mind exhausted, but feeling fulfilled, my day draws to an end.
Nikita Thakrar, Kathak teacher in Slough
The dance studio is buzzing with activity as my students prepare for their annual ISTD examination. “An exam in dance?” people wonder. “Why on earth and how can one be assessed for their dance skills?” I am frequently asked.
The ISTD’s Kathak dance syllabus is broken down into six Grades followed by a further four Vocational level exams. “If done yearly, is that 10 years to become a dancer? That is longer than it takes to become a doctor!” I started offering exams in 2011, following my own exposure to them. Not only do I think they are an excellent way of monitoring progress and giving students a systematic structure to their training, they also act as a very strong incentive to keep students involved and motivated to continue developing.
This is clearly demonstrated as I walk into the dance studio to hear the sound of the nagma playing on a machine, clashing with the lehera on someone’s mobile. I see a group of dancers practising their routine whilst a trio sit in the corner and recite. Folders are sporadically placed and handouts are passed around. Everyone is frantically cramming in whatever little practice they can get before their examiner arrives. The weeks leading up to the exam day are not much different. Every space seems to be filled with people and at one point I even see someone practising in the corridor. The sound of ghungroos (ankle bells) can be heard on the street outside; people must wonder what all the noise is about!
The Grade 2 students are helping the Grade 1's whilst the Grade 3's prepare the Grade 2's. They ask each other questions in anticipation of knowing more about the process to come. “What kind of questions will we be asked? Is the examiner nice?” I overhear as I squeeze to get past.
The examiner finally arrives and the students whisper and nudge each other. There is no going back now; all the preparation they have done is for this day. The examiner has asked to see their folders, and they nervously hand them to me as if unsure of whether or not it is ready to be seen. Some skim through the pages again, as if for reassurance.
The groups are called as they reluctantly enter the room with their eyes lowered. No matter how much they have practised they still feel apprehension. As one group comes down and the other goes up, they frantically whisper, giving each other tips before they can finally breathe a sigh of relief – at least until their exam results arrive! Once everyone goes home, I stay behind to lock up the studio, whilst recalling the excitement of the day. The energy of the students gets left behind, along with my own personal sense of pride.