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. 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). 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.