Long before a child sees that the world is made up of books and classrooms he is aware that he can do the most amazing things with his hands and feet. A baby's actions cannot be imitated by an adult for long. Over three hundred odd marmas or nerve points are vibrant and being used at a rapid pace. Every muscle and bone is tender and pliable. Leaving a baby on the floor is probably the best thing to do. She discovers the various functions of the body through this and begin new actions every day, something that a parent delights in. The twitch of the mouth, the opening and closing of the eyes and every nuance and bhava is noticed and appreciated lovingly. This potential in the child ought to have been tapped for designing early teaching methodology. Unfortunately, somewhere in the journey of regularizing educational methods, the world of adults chose to ignore this. They introduced 'the word' as a tool instead and chose to blunt and sometimes even deaden this sea of creative potential in the child.
The artisan's child is truly blessed. He discovers the texture of clay by putting his little hands into it even before he can crawl. When he can, he moves to the wheel and is fascinated by its regular perambulations. Even as a little child he can create with his hands a small mug that has its use in the house. By comparison, what book can teach you the feel of this craft? How much longer does it take for a less privileged child to read the story of that potter? And this is only possible if such a book exists that captures the colour and joy of the potter's life! It is the same with a child who grows up on a farm or one whose parents are singers or performers or in any other trade where the hands and bodies are used inventively and sensitively.
I had the good fortune to go to a 'different' school that encouraged the study of Indian art and served as a focus for the regeneration of all that was vital and eternal in our country's culture. Rukmini Devi, the founder of Kalakshetra, of the Madam Montessori Teachers' Training School and of the Besant Theosophical High School in Adyar, believed in the essential unity of all art and life. She also believed that to work for the arts was essential to individual, national, international and even religious growth. When she called her arts school 'Kalakshetra', it did not in any way trivialize the importance of world art or world culture. It merely emphasized a belief that creativity is born of a certain personal acumen, in local conditions, woven into a very particular and often very traditional culture.
In my own experience as a student and a teacher, what matters most to a student is the motivation of a teacher, his or her parameters of tolerance and understanding, an apparent or visible love of the subject and of course, 'how' the knowledge is transferred. What is gained is knowledge of the subject of course; but much more is to be had from the manner in which it came to the learner; who delivered the goods and how. Teaching is a blessed career. It teaches while it is experienced. Everyday one learns to weigh the expressions and instructions one uses for the transfer of a skill. Imperceptibly almost one can see the progress a child is making, not solely in the subject being taught but in the character of his very being.
When teaching deals directly with the human body, this greatest of instruments given to us, this most beautiful gift of expression, then sensitivity in teaching is of the utmost importance. how much to emphasize and when not to, how much intensity of feeling or how much energy to invest. One teaches the nuance of sahitya or verse, the appreciation of colour and form, the dignity of the body and the precious nature of other instruments of expression such as the voice or the eyes. But more than these, one has to first have and then transfer to the pupil a belief in a philosophy, without which his every future choice will be a difficult one.
In the traditional arts of India, especially in the early stages of learning, a high premium is placed on 'repetition' and on 'copying' or 'parroting' a teacher's instruction. A non-questioning, 'simply absorbing' attitude helps. Doing something again and again is what half of the world does-with greater and sharper skill every time that action is performed. Honing one's talent, sharpening one's skill, doing regular riyaaz or practice, becoming more and more attentive to detail each time - these are not to be brushed aside merely because they tend to become mindless exercises. All repetition, all exercise must become meaningful.
Although unqualified repetition is contrary to all modern, 'healthy' thought on education, it is not the same as learning by rote. It matters whether the student is also being taught the 'how' of it and if not immediately, then at some point of time this must be transferred as well. Also important, is the nurturing of individual thought, of the expression of the individuality and keeping the creative processes open through the long journey of repetition and mastering of form and composition. When one does that, is important to the process. Some children will take that freedom early and ruin their skill, as in life itself. Others will take it gradually, never really de-linking from the master and allowing a natural 'becoming-a-master' to take place. Some others will never have that nerve, or perhaps the skill required to make an individual statement. It takes all kinds to make a world.
It is not always possible to find joy in repetition. It is a valid process though, and an important one. You miss and hit. You fall, only to find your feet again. It is after all, the most natural way of learning. Expecting 'newness' in every step must come from within the learner. A discovery of the personal effort required to 'taste' a thing, to partake of it, is the responsibility of the learner. This is a difficult lesson to learn and in today's clime a child wants to be entertained all the time. Reflection upon the subject, personal introspection and taking responsibility, becoming accountable for one's progress or lack of it, is also something that the teacher must inculcate in the child. In fact, this must be underscored by the parent or the teacher. For the teacher to assume complete responsibility is not necessary. Every individual has to be given the space to discover the intrinsic beauty of a thing. In many a child lies the seed of great opportunity. After an appropriate time, it is not for a parent or a teacher to assume they have the final say on the subject. The most beautiful moment is when the teacher and the taught become equals, sharing in their love for the subject and discovering together, new parameters and vistas in it.
I quote my guru when she said, 'Without art, no education can be a true education. Art should not only be a subject in the school curriculum. Its spirit should pervade every other subject.' It is perhaps true to say that there is far greater influence on the development of the character of a child from sources other than the usual academic subjects taught in school. A child responds naturally to rhythm, music, movement, color, animals and insects, trees and flowers, rivers and the vast open sea, the sunrise and the setting sun - to everything that is beautiful in nature. At first the reaction is unconscious, but gradually a 'conscious understanding' takes over. The problem with all teaching and with adult attitude is the insistence on form. Form is in fact not important at all! What is important is the spirit of that form. Learning or experiencing art can be so much a thing of joy that we are not quite conscious of the amount or depth of the learning that is taking place.
The value of art in education cannot be underestimated. Art reflects an interest in the varied expressions of life and nature. The power of observation has to be encouraged in every child. A child will express himself freely, without norms, in ever-new ways if given the opportunity. Digression from the norm has to be enjoyed, not merely tolerated, however strange it may seem. For a child is an inspiration and nearest to all that is natural, unconscious, joyful and free. In fact, children are nearest to what we know to be divinity. It does not always seem so, but it is true, if only for the shortest period of their lives!
Perhaps one definition of learning art is to make a child conscious of the physical form of things and then, of the spirit in it. The line of an object, its shape, its texture, colour, density, the attractiveness of it, its use in our lives and its message to the observer have to be understood and appreciated. But art also has a past, a present and a future. It has significance in the collective memory of the past of people, a clan, a family or an individual. The future need not feel burdened by the past yet has to be informed by it.
Perhaps it is a grace of 'being' that has gone out of our lives. How do we inculcate this in children, especially if it is non-existent in our own lives? Most often, teachers and parents are bad examples. Nature screams out its sense of harmony, its centering and balance, its tolerance, its grace of being. We want exceptional children, in spite of ourselves. We have a tradition of the highest culture. It is not enough to pass exams, to excel in various skills, to be able to keep up with a world culture. It is also important to be a cultured person, to be tolerant and to be able to see a unity in all human aspiration. To possess a sense of dedication is the backbone of the religious impulse and vital for a creative life.
Currently the Director of the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, Leela Samson, trained in dance at the same institution. She was deeply influenced by its founder Rukmini Devi. She left the institution in 1975, as one of its lead dancers. Thereafter Leela started a Bharata Natyam department in the Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi where she taught for fifteen years. She is known as a teacher who integrates traditional practice and theory of the dance with broader perspectives on fitness, attitude, awareness and technique. For thirty years she has held the stage both as a dancer and a teacher, as a writer and a choreographer.