Gurudakshina: A pricey bestowal?

Vidushi Sagar

Chennai, March 8: Her eyes skim over the ten pairs of feet. They dance in sacred synchronization. The Ghungroos chime in a fast paced rhythm, to the steady beat of the Taadam (wooden stick) that Radhika Shurajit hits on the ground. A Bharatanatyam guru, she talks about the unfair modern practices around Gurudakshina.

Gurudakshina is a practice that dates back to the Gurukula system, in which the Guru would be voluntary given a ‘Dakshina’ or fees cum offering for the teaching and guiding they did. Today, this ritual still exists in the classical performing arts, which have now been commercialized.

Increasing amounts of people are becoming interested in learning classical art forms. However, the demand of expensive presents from students becomes a hindrance to many learners from the lower and middle stratas of society.

In Bharatanatyam, Gurudakshina comes to light whenever an Arangetram is performed. An Arangetram is a ‘coming-out’ performance, which marks the start of a professional career for a dancer. It is often an extravagant affair, costing the student anywhere between 3 to 5 lakh in current times.

Radhika Shurajit, a Bharatanatyam guru with over 30 years of experience, says that Gurudakshina is a way of maintaining some of the rituals around the artform. It is voluntary and depends on what the shishya (student) wants to give to her Guru. “However, it definitely creates pressure,” she adds.

Radhika is the first and senior most disciple of the Dhananjayans, a revered dancing duo consisting of Vannadil Pudiyaveettil and Shanta Dhananjaya. She has also been taught by Padma BhushanKalanidhi Narayan. Her wide, kohl-lined eyes twinkle as she recalls her own experience with her Gurus.

“I was blessed to have met the Dhananjayans. I belonged to a middle income group family and my gurus exempted me from any fees or Gurudakshina,” she says.                                                                                                                                 

But, she has had many students who came to learn from her after facing problems with their previous Gurus.

“I have a student, Deeptika* whose Guru refused to attend her Arangetram minutes before it was to start, until a diamond bracelet was gifted to him,” she says.

“Another student of mine, Lakshmi*, has a Guru who demands gold from her every year under the guise of Gurudakshina. Even at own her wedding, he demanded jewellery from her. I remember it being very problematic for her at that time as she was already under financial stress,” she states.

Shukti Yadav is a student who came to Chennai from Delhi for six months to practice for her Arangetram. She has had a similar experience with Gurudakshina.

She refused to name her guru but says that those six months were financially very difficult for her family.

“My guru never missed an opportunity to demand things from me. He demanded jewellery, clothes and hefty amounts of cash, before the Arangetram. He did so not just for himself, but for his wife as well,” she recalls.

Apart from that, her guru had also been in charge of arranging her arangetram. According to her, every day he’d come up with new costs and never let her family look into the details despite the fact that they were paying the money, she adds.

 “He’d get offended whenever we touched the topic,” she says.

 Radhika confirms Shukti’s experience with many she has seen firsthand.

According to her, Gurus are set into arrangements with the musicians and organizers. They ask for a higher amount of money from the student than what is actually being paid for the program.

“Whenever one of my students perform an Arangetram, I arrange everything but I also make sure they know where their money is being spent, while also keeping them in touch with everyone involved,” she says.

Shanmuga Sundaram is a professional dancer, teacher and choreographer. He is a disciple of Smt. K. J. Sarasa, and whose school he now runs after her demise. He talks about having many colleagues who have faced similar problems.

“Some of these Gurus forget that Gurudakshina is essentially a voluntary practice. They never miss an opportunity to rope in money through a pure practice meant to form a bond between the shishya and guru,” he says.

He, however, feels lucky to have been on the other side of the spectrum for his teacher turned out to be too generous. “She would not take money from poorer students, and even arranged arangetrams for them,” he recollects.

According to Ms. Shutje, despite people who shame the practice by such measures, there are people who uphold it.
“True artists are a dying breed, but they are not dead yet,” she smiles.

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