Dancing to Teach

A group of 11th & 12th graders press softly on wet clay till it takes the shape of a dome...Another student devises a clay ribbon with intermittent stripes…After a while all the pieces of moulded clay are assembled and take the form of Sanchi Stupa. The installation they are making is part of the presentation on Madhya Pradesh being put up by the students for the folk-art exhibition. Another student is making excited queries about Malwa cuisine as part of the presentation.

The students of these grades & all other grades have learnt Indian folk dances like Karam, Margam Kali, Ghoomar, etc. from dancer and theatre person Mahesh Pande who is visiting the school to teach folk dances. The students are also working on presentations on various facets of their chosen state. Pande has been visiting The Peepal Grove School for several years now and has held workshops in Western and Indian folk dances. Mahesh Pande holds folk dance and theatre workshops in different schools across the country.

“Dance and teaching dance are spiritual journeys for me. I feel that dance complements education and without it, any learning is incomplete. I believe in learning with all the senses. When I teach dance, I’m in a way planting a seed for a new approach to learning. Teachers in the school, whether they teach language, history or science, are expected to see the impact and replicate the model. If that happens then I have succeeded,’’ says Pande who holds a repertoire of 300 dance forms from across the world!

Mahesh Pande had a sense of his calling when he was in school. “I happened to take part in a SWOT analysis in Grade 8 and the three vocations presented before me were that of a dancer, a teacher and a chef. ‘Why not both?’ I thought,’ shares Mahesh”. After graduating from his alma mater Rishi Valley School, he joined Kalakshetra Foundation to pursue his passion for dance. A few European embassy representatives who attended the convocation found his work impressive and at the age of 22 he was in the Netherlands teaching classical dance. However, he knew that his primary love was folk dance that he had learnt while in school. He used his fellowship to travel around Europe and learn folk dance forms. "If Bharatanatyam has meaning, then folk dance forms also must mean something, I thought to myself,’’ says Pande.

Later he got an opportunity to visit OGrow, a Krishnamurthy school in Ohio and he performed dance dramas on mythological themes. The school wanted it every year. So, he continued to travel in the US and his contacts grew at a time when there was zero digital access.

After a few years of working as teacher and cultural coordinator at schools, he took a break to freelance. He began to go wherever he was called. He also continued his learning in theatre and Yoga alongside. He was fortunate to have learnt from the best in the land–classical music from ML Vasanthakumari for seven years; mridangam from Palakkad Mani Iyer (both happened to be teaching in Rishi Valley School). His teacher in Kalakshetra was Sharada Hoffman, a direct disciple of Rukmini Devi Arundale, the founder of the institution. He learnt Yoga from the legendary BKS Iyengar himself at Pune.

Asked why he did not become a professional choreographer, he says dance for him is not just dance. “It is therapy and a tool to educate. My goal is to bring about a marriage of art and academics. Students should not see facts in isolation. They should perceive with all their faculties. The more you make learning visible, the more the students learn,’’ he says.

He converts a lot of educational content into musicals and dance dramas for schools. This has included stories, poems, Shakespearean plays and even concepts from science as required by schools. “I write scripts and add dances. This way, a child who is disinterested also pays attention and learns,’’ he says.

“Teaching is a profession which has ample space to be creative. A teacher can just take the stage and perform what she is teaching. And the child immediately understands,’’ he says. He is heartened to see boys and girls who have never danced transformed by the experience. Another thing he finds rewarding is the fact that he is becoming an emissary for dying Indian folk dance and music forms to the new generation. Students love the experience. “I loved learning Bhangra this year. Dance hour with students across grades is a magical experience. It doesn't matter whether it is western or Indian,” says a boy in Grade 10. “I love dance for the sake of dance and not something that has to end in a performance”, adds a 12th grader.

Mahesh is ready to leave for his next destination: another residential school for a dance workshop. His itinerary is endless and he doesn't seem to mind it one bit as long as he can share the joy of learning through dancing with the young students in various schools.

— Sreelatha Menon, Faculty @The Peepal Grove School

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