“Education is commodified. Art forms are commodified. Even spirituality is commodified and marketed. How then do we transcend from a transactional relationship to a deeper connection that the ‘guru-disciple’ relationship emulates?”

In this edition, we look into the relationship between a teacher and a student in classical Indian dance tradition through a deeply personal and reflective story written by a Bharatanatyam dancer Bavani Pillai.

At least 30% of the inhabitants of the U.A.E. are Indian, making it to the largest part of the population. The classical Indian arts and traditions are deeply rooted in the Indian community, and  classical  dance plays a significant role: there is the whole ecosystem of dance schools for children and adults, performances and cultural community events. However, most of it happens under the “closed doors” and does not reach the rest of the city. And while theatres all over the world fly in the classical Indian dance artists to perform on their stages, we have the treasures of this classical art form right here, at our doorstep. Just, most non-Indian residents are not aware of it. HIBA Art Project wants to open those “closed doors” of ethnical communities to the general cultural audience. We hope that sharing this article will be a small step towards it.


Teacher. Mentor. Guide. Spiritual Master.

About the author: 

Bavani Pillai started her formal Bharatanatyam training in the year 2000 in Singapore. She completed her Arangetram (solo dance debut) under her Guru Gayathri Bakthan in 2011. Since then, she has kept her passion for the art form alive, whilst juggling her post graduate studies and career in Social Work. She has performed extensively in productions in Singapore, Malaysia, India, New York and now Dubai. With 20 years of practice, she still feels like a novice and is constantly learning and exploring new depths. She co-founded a collective Moving Mudras in Dubai, with the vision of bringing classical Indian dance forms to a more mainstream audience and to create a collective where dancers across different styles can come together to ideate and create new work.

The sanskrit word, Guru, is one that encapsulates all that and more. In Indian culture, the ‘guru — disciple’ relationship is considered to be sacred and seen as the cornerstone for any transformation or mastery. I have grown up inundated in this culture, and try to approach my relationships with the various mentors I have been blessed with, in this regard. I say try, as it has been hard to fully commit to this philosophy without doubting and questioning. Especially in this day and age, where relationships are branded and marketed as commodities.

Education is commodified. Art forms are commodified. Even spirituality is commodified and marketed. How then do we transcend from a transactional relationship to a deeper connection that the ‘guru-disciple’ relationship emulates? Maybe it helps if we start by breaking down what the ‘guru-disciple’ relationship looks like. It is one where the student fully surrenders to the master without question, and with utmost loyalty and devotion. Once you have accepted someone as your Guru, you see them as a conduit between you and the divine and treat them with as much reverence as you would with God.

And in return, it is believed that the Guru bestows upon his disciples endless love and blessings — unconditionally. There are epic stories of this bond told through time — Krishna and Arjuna, Shams Tabrizi and Rumi, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna and the list goes on. It seems that every enlightened being — in whichever fields they are in, attribute their growth to a particular Guru or lineage from which knowledge was passed down from.

There are many questions that come with this romanticised version of surrender. How do you surrender without question when your teacher is also human like you? In dance, we recite the sloka — “Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu Guru Devo Maheshwarahar”, which basically means first salutations to your Guru who is the manifestation of God. We start classes by first touching our teacher’s feet to receive blessings. When the role of a teacher is alleviated to that of God — it kind of sets the tone for the learning that follows.

In my dance journey, I have had a total of 8 “Gurus” under which I have learnt from — right from my childhood, through my foundational years in 2 different dance schools, when I moved to New York and now in Dubai. When change is the only constant in your life, you begin to accept that teachers move in and out of your life accordingly. You learn to let go and then you’re left wondering where loyalty, surrender and belief fits into all this.

Amongst all my teachers, I felt the closest bond to Gayathri teacher. Till today, I call her ‘teacher’. We first met when I was 15 years old. It was the regular Sunday classes with her. It was the usual mix of adavus and items. I was still rather non-committal about my weekend relationship with dance. And then she left. After teaching us for 2 years, she returned back to India. I don’t even remember why, we didn’t have a farewell with her and it was all quite a blur. I don’t even remember feeling sad. Another teacher took her place for the Sunday 9–10am time slot and my weekend relationship with dance continued as per normal.

I would have been about 18 years old when I started to feel restless and disgruntled with the dance journey I was on. The weekend class and sporadic dance productions were no longer enough to satiate the growing hunger in me to learn. As my dance buddies — friends that I grew up dancing with slowly dropped out of class when other commitments took precedence, I was forced to search within for a reason to continue. I did not have a teacher that I felt connected to, and now the friends that I bonded through with dance were dropping like flies too.

And that’s when I heard that Gayathri teacher was back in Singapore! I had fond memories of her and was curious as to what brought her back. It felt like a sign. A friend bumped into her in Little India and discovered that she was back and teaching in another dance school. A group of us — her former students essentially tracked her down and decided to enrol in the school she was teaching in. This was despite her trying to dissuade us from joining. She did not want to be seen as poaching her former students. To us it was simpler — it was not a question of loyalty, we simply felt more comfortable learning from her.

It was she who planted the seed of possibility that dance could be more than just a weekly affair, within me. She had a way of cutting through my inhibitions and self doubts with her wry sense of humour and candidness. She never made me feel less worthy, but yet was able to make me go beyond the mental limitations of what I felt was ‘enough’. Somewhere along the weekly classes and ‘what -if I could do my arangetram one day’ dreams, I decided to take the plunge with her. I committed to doing my arangetram. I do not think that I understood the enormity of what I was signing up for, but I knew I could trust her to lead me through it. And together we would be just fine.

And so my weekly dance affair took on a more serious turn. I spent hours on end with her. Watching her, emulating her expressions, observing how she responded to the crazy things life threw at her (on and off stage) and I think somewhere along the way, I fell. Fell in love and grew in respect for this teacher whom my heart accepted as my “Guru”. I allowed myself to trust in her more than I trusted myself and felt the beauty of surrender in the smallest of things. It wasn’t just about dance, I guess it was never about that. Every muscle ache, heartache and road block was an opportunity to dissolve ourselves in the pursuit of the divine. It was never about me, though I started out thinking it was. It was about using dance to experience surrender and the magic that came with. And on 28 August 2011, we both ascended stage — our first debut as Guru-disciple. It was magical, nerve wrecking and by far probably the craziest most challenging thing I’ve willingly put myself through.

“28 August 2011, getting my dance Guru’s blessings before the Arangetram” Courtesy of B. Pillai.

Life had other plans for us post the arangetram. Within a week, her visa was cancelled and she had to return to India. I was crushed because I had allowed myself to naively believe that she was MY “happily ever after” guru and she would stay. I dealt with the goodbye as best as I could and immediately buried myself in the task of finding a new school and teacher. I had to keep up to the pace of changes that life was throwing at me and there was no time to grieve her loss. I continued with dance — holding onto my mantra that it is not about your teacher or your dance friends, but your relationship with the art form in itself that matters. I promised myself that I would keep in touch with Gayathiri teacher. But alas, besides the sporadic emails and Facebook messages, we drifted. At times I felt guilty for not trying harder whenever I saw other dancers profess their love for their Gurus onstage, at other times I brushed off any feelings with practicality. There is simply no room for a deeper connection when people move on and leave, I told myself.

My move to Dubai and my search (again) for a dance teacher brought back memories of Gayathiri teacher more intensely. Sugu suggested that I reach out to her and plan a trip to India and somehow pushed me to do it despite my reservations. I was afraid to thaw the memories of us that I had placed in the freezer of my mind. What if that was all it was — memories? What if all these crazy guru — shishya thoughts I had was just me attributing more to just a transactional relationship at that point in our lives? I had to find out and opened myself to the possibility of hurt, while telling myself to not have any expectations for this reunion.

I spent one week in Pondicherry, a trip that I planned without any expectations or itinerary. I figured I would just go with the flow after meeting with Gayathiri teacher and her husband. By the end of our first dinner together, I was thanking my lucky stars. It was as if we picked up right from where we left off (as cheesy as it sounds). Shivarathiri (a Hindu festival that is usually celebrated by dance and music offerings to Lord Shiva through the night) was 2 days after we met and in true Gayathiri teacher fashion, she convinced me to dance in the time slots that she had been given in 4 different temples. She always had a way of making me agree to the craziest of things and again, despite a gazillion legit doubts (my weak knees, not having rehearsed any item at hand, no costume), I agreed. All I had to do was trust — again. It turned out to be possibly one of the things I would look back in life and cherish — moments in time that I can still feel so intensely when I close my eyes.

We danced. We laughed. We ate together. We talked. We jumped around banyan trees and explored padi fields. We took pictures. We attended dance concerts. We did all this knowing that my time there had an expiry date. That a week later, we would go back to our parallel lives in different parts of the world. She still amazes me with her humility and her passion for the art form. The kind of passion that comes through when she’s on stage and you can’t take your eyes off her. I saw her treat compliments and criticisms in the same way— she let both slide. When I asked her about it, she simply said, what people tell you (both good and bad) is a reflection of them, not you. She had the same cheeky personality and zest for life, and mind you — this is a couple who have had their fair share of hardships. I recognised more shades of her now — we are both seekers in our quest for the divine through dance, and could better appreciate why she made certain decisions in her life.

“9 March 2019. Our mini reunion and day out to the padi fields in Puducherry.” Courtesy of B. Pillai.

She is not God, she is Human. That much I am clear about. But, she’ll always have a special place in my heart as the person who has the ability to make me surrender and trust wholeheartedly. I view the relationship we share as something that has transcended our need for physical proximity or constant contact. I feel incredibly blessed to have had the grace of not just Gayathiri teacher but many other super talented and dedicated giants who have selflessly given of themselves at different points of my life. This is my written homage to Gurus who continue to inspire and devote themselves selflessly without knowing if the seeds they sow grow into something more.

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