Immersions and Reflections – Natya Gurukulam 2018

By Suchitra Sairam

Though I try not to spend too much time wondering “what if” or “if only” in my life, one thing that I do always wish (and have for many years) is that I had more opportunities to immerse myself in the arts and culture I love, and to learn and share more holistically. Dance, music, yoga, language, literature, architecture, history – the list goes on. I had a couple of short term opportunities for this in my late teens, but realities and practicalities of life found a way to take priority as years have gone on. No regrets, as the other experiences I had in their place have been enriching in an entirely different way.

But this idea of an immersive experience has stayed with me, and as I became a Bharatanatyam teacher, it is an opportunity I wanted to create for my students. After a long time thinking and dreaming about it, it finally came to fruition in 2018 – and Natya Gurukulam for Bharatanatyam students was born. For this first go round, I was happy to open it to Bharatanatyam students from around Minnesota, not just my students, and also happy to get support from the Minnesota State Arts Board through a Folk and Traditional Arts grant award to make a it a reality.

It is only with the wholehearted support and expertise of Sheejith Krishna (Bharatanatyam and theory), Jyothishmathi Sheejith (Carnatic music), and Vaishalee Ballolla (yoga) teaching along with me that the holistic curriculum I envisioned could actually come to life. They each will always have my deep gratitude for this experience. We had 18 young dancers from the Twin Cities area, who train under 3 different teachers, attend the camp – each at a different stage of their learning, and each in a different place regarding mental and physical readiness for the rigor of holistic, immersive learning.

With an immersive experience, in nature at the beautiful Koinonia Retreat Center in South Haven (the most WONDERFUL setting for this experience, with such an amazing staff), the master instructors and the students had the opportunity to explore and learn together, with the inspiration of beautiful lakes and trails around. We were together for 6 days.

The goal was to have each of the camp attendees leave with an evolved view of the art and how they should continue to pursue it as students, and also leave with a more mature set of values regarding the art and their studies.

With the curriculum of yoga practice, adavu class, theory class, music class, repertory class, discussion and viewing class, and personal reflection, the attendees found the days full. Perhaps at times too full. Tiring. Perhaps at first too tiring. But as the week went on, it was a “good tired” and the minds being “pleasantly full.” Being away from home and having to adhere to the “no calling or texting” camp rules was difficult for some. But it was in place to help create focus and discipline around pursuing the art – to experience the immersion. Even simple disciplines around neatly arranging footwear outside the classroom and leaving things more neat than the way you found them were important – these were some of the values we wanted camp attendees to leave with so they can enrich their onward journey.

We closed the week with an informal showcase featuring presentations by all the camp attendees with vocal music and dance, and presentations by the master instructors. Nervousness was replaced by excitement was replaced by relief was replaced by pride when the camp attendees demonstrated to their families what they had learned in their 6 day immersion. Most importantly, they generally showed great enthusiasm about their experiences, and what they wanted to do with their art next.

It’s a relief when a big first time initiative like this is overwhelmingly positive, and you are left afterward needing to make tweaks rather than have to overhaul. But when the vast majority of students were excited to come back again, it gives you the energy and motivation needed to make it happen again.

Now, to check dates for 2019….