Prasanna Oommen — Jun 2, 2021

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Gurukulam

Prasanna Oommen, Danceschool »Maha Maya«, Bangalore, 1999, photo: Olaf Hirschberg. Courtesy of the photographer

When world-class British-Bengali dancer Akram Khan describes in a cinematic portrait how he didn’t feel at home until he had children, I prick up my ears. This isn’t just because of the by now all too familiar rootlessness of an immigrant child, attested to so often, but instead because this frequent phenomenon is the precise reason I suggested some months ago that we include the word Gurukulam in this lexicon.

For the wonderful thing about in situ training in the arts in India is that we, the homeless postmigrants in particular, can find this home in the Gurukulam, in the »house of our Guru,« between the worlds of our parents and the descendants of Western colonial society.1 In the ideal case, which I was fortunate enough to experience, the teachers there are more than mediators. They can be artistic mentors, life guides, role models, parents, siblings, or grandparents in a world characterized by an initially encoded didactic framework, but which, over time, develops an openness that is second to none. I only fully understood this in retrospect, when my gurus had long since passed.

A brief retrospective: After completing secondary education in Germany and studies in classical Indian dance, which I began when I was five years old, I had the privilege of embarking on an apprenticeship with two elderly master dancers, a married couple from Bangalore, in their school Maha Maya (an expression of divine worship that transcends human understanding).2 The next decade proved an unexpected revelation, not only for me, but for each of my visitors from Germany.

Gurukulam is much more than the mere enjoyment of a high-quality artistic training opportunity. Gurukulam means that the teachers are tasked with promoting the personal development of students through art. Indeed, it is »arts education« at its best, an experience that has had a lasting impact on my subsequent approach to life. My gurus treated us students with an esteem and respect that I had never before encountered from my ballet teacher, the theater director I worked under as a member of a collective theater troupe, or even from my German teachers. A respectful rigor was paired with consummate recognition and encouragement for my unconditional will to learn. However, the aching bones caused by day upon day of training sessions and the demanding theory lessons alone did not make them my gurus. It was far more than that. They welcomed me into their home, their kitchen, their family, their way of life, their values, and their artistic circles, as well as smoothing my path with the other students. In this way, they were the people who facilitated what became, for me, an authentic, holistic relationship with India, giving me access to a truly broad sphere of artistic practice.

The fact that I still find excessively neoliberal promotional practices too attached to funnel thinking and the promotion of elites unreasonable is a direct result of this experience. My convictions were also shaped by the former chemistry professor U. S. Krishna Rao, who was born in 1912 and held a scholarship at the University of Heidelberg in the nineteen-fifties. They are connected to the fact that, despite this great opportunity, he felt called to revive and carry into the world that piece of India’s cultural heritage, the 2,000 year-old classical Indian temple dance, which had been banned by the British for 300 years, thus abandoning his scientific career. Of course, they were also shaped by his wife, Chandrabhaga Devi and his granddaughter Anjali, my other teachers, who were and remain the most emancipated women in a traditional society I have ever met. My current beliefs were impacted by my great gurus, who shared their pain about the caste system with us because their own guru, the unforgotten Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, always refused to eat with them because of his origins in a lower caste, as it did not seem appropriate to him. This, despite the fact that they lived under his roof and trained with him until the point of exhaustion.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Gurukulam

Prasanna Oommen with her teacher Prof. U.S. Krishna Rao, Danceschool »Maha Maya« Bangalore, 1999, photo: Olaf Hirschberg. Courtesy of the photographer

To me, Gurukulam signifies the following: Learning about this cultural heritage as an equal, as well as the trust that was placed in us thanks to the unwavering power that dance, music, philosophy, and practice was accorded in this household. It stands for unconditional trust in and tolerance for the students, as well as for the knowledge that the core of this art form can only survive and thrive if the new generation is treated well. Because it is never static and reproducible. I remain convinced that my teachers’ love of dance has nourished their love for us and their many dozen students worldwide, regardless of religion, origin, class, or gender. It was never important to them that we achieve their particular brand of excellence. Instead, they wanted us to closely study our own incarnation in the artistic process, especially in terms of our gender roles, whose ever-changing demands they sensitively observed. Moreover, the form of Gurukulam in which I was privileged to participate and which can be found with all the great master teachers as well as in contemporary academies in India, was never bound to one exclusive discipline or one professional career.

Instead, my gurus never tired of encouraging me to complete my studies in Cologne, because they assessed the few opportunities offered to artists from a nonwestern context in a realistic manner. They were privileged Indians familiar with the workings of the colonial system; they knew the mechanisms well, and they countered them with a strong sense of particularly Indian self-confidence that I had not yet experienced in the West. What has Gurukulam taught me personally? A great deal of solidarity with women. To understand discipline and perseverance as a virtue and not as a means of usurping others. To take responsibility within a community, although I was trained solo. The central demand of my gurus was that I should contextualize the knowledge I acquired with my artistic knowledge from the western hemisphere. It follows that this was the precise opposite of an origin-specific cultivation of identity, namely a transcultural and interdisciplinary system, highly modern and absolutely democratic in its roots. Ultimately, a good Gurukulam has an impact on society as a whole, because it accords responsibility to the artists’ own personalities. I will conclude this rather different encyclopedia entry thus: You become a guru on the basis of the sum of the life you have lived. Disciples can grow in the house of such a guru.

  1. Gurukulam means »house of the guru« or »family of the guru.« The term originally comes from the Sanskrit, from »guru« (teacher or master) and »kula« (family or home) and refers to a traditional Indian teaching method in which the students live in the teacher’s house, receiving not only subject-related instruction (crafts, sciences, singing, dance, yoga, and so forth), but also help with chores and learn from the guru. The origins of this method go back to 5000 B.C., making it one of the earliest forms of public school. The students live in the Gurukulam, far away from their families of origin, for an extended period. The guru thus becomes a parent and another form of family is created.

  2. Important training centers for dance in the Gurukulam tradition include Nrityagram, India’s first modern Gurukul for classical Indian dances. Founded in 1990 by the Odissi dancer Protima Gauri (previously Protima Bedi, a glamorous, rebelious figure, former model, disco owner and go-go dancer), students study eight hours a day, six days a week for seven years following the ancient Guru-shishya tradition Kalakshetra. The Kalakshetra Foundation is a cultural academy for the preservation of traditional Indian arts, particularly music and dance. It combines the Gurukulam system with modern teaching methods and regular examinations as is the case during conventional training. Students learn not only dance, but also music and other related subjects; Kalamandalam, in Kerala, also adapted to the regular academic system, combining Gurukulam and modern pedagogy.

Prasanna Oommen has been working for 20 years as a public relations officer, moderator (German/English), and author in the fields of culture, education, digitization, urban development, development and cooperation, migration, diversity, and media. She was a press spokesperson for various institutions in North-Rhine Westphalia and Hessen, and is a former board member and active member for Neue Deutsche Medienmacher e.V., a media nonprofit. Furthermore, she is a trained classical dancer (Cologne, Bangalore) and has worked for many years in arts education for children and adults. In 2020 she was the juror and mentor for the Digital Cultural Journalism and New Media fellowship program at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.