An intensive study-abroad program immerses Americans in South Indian culture
By Shailaja Neelakantan
(Chronicle of Higher Education cover-dated February 10, 2006)
Kalaimamani Subramaniya Thambirar, a master of a traditional South Indian form of street theater called therukoothu, wears a pensive look as he inspects his unusual group of performers. Normally Mr. Thambirar leads a troupe of artists who perform at theater festivals around India and the world, but this afternoon he is producing a performance of an episode from the Mahabharata — one of India's most famous epics — with a group of American college students.
A graceful man with a kind face and expressive eyes, Mr. Thambirar examines his students for flaws in the elaborate, masklike makeup that is essential to therukoothu. Here and there he adds a touch of black kohl eyeliner, adjusts the flowers in a student's hair, and realigns another student's turban. When he reaches Nzinga Job, a music major and scene stealer from Colgate University, he grins broadly. "She is marvelous on stage and now looks just like one of us," he boasts. Indeed, Ms. Job, whose role as sutradhar — a kind of narrator — provides the link between the performers and the audience, is a natural. Later in the evening, her comic timing has the Chennai crowd in stitches, as she regales them with only slightly accented Tamil.
The name of the play is "Keechaka Vadham," or "The Slaying of Keechaka" (a demon), and it is the grand finale of a two-evening presentation by the 21 American students in Colgate's India Study Group, a program begun in 1969 and still run by William Skelton, a professor emeritus of Asian studies and music there. Normally in therukoothu, men play the male and female roles. But tonight's cast includes students of both sexes — a daring break from tradition that Mr. Skelton says did not raise any hackles. "The therukoothu teachers didn't mind at all that female performers were used," he says. "How many people can say they've seen Keechaka killed by a white college girl, or seen a Michigan girl swear in Tamil?"
To master the stylized expressions and gestures of therukoothu, Mr. Skelton's students visited Purisai, the village where the art form was born, about 75 miles southwest of Chennai (formerly Madras). There they spent seven days memorizing lines and songs in Tamil, and practicing the dances and gestures. On the night of the students' "final exam," as Mr. Skelton sometimes calls their last performance, about 2,000 townspeople gathered in the pouring rain to watch the players march and whirl to the beat of raucous music, played by village musicians.
Mr. Skelton brings students from America — mostly from Colgate and other small colleges — to India to study music, dance, languages, yoga, and philosophy. In all he has brought some 200 students for a semester-long immersion in South Indian culture. The program is based in Chennai, where there are many opportunities to study classical and folk South Indian art forms, but includes travel to other cities and to remote villages elsewhere in South India.
Because each program is different and takes a year of planning, groups come only every other year.
Now 82 years old, Mr. Skelton is a conductor of Western music who first visited the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 1963 at the urging of the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. While in Chennai he learned to play the nadaswaram, a wind instrument that is used in South Indian classical music. Passionate about India and Indian music, Mr. Skelton uses the program to build students' appreciation of a culture little known in the West and improve their understanding of the issues affecting people in the developing world.
"I believe in experiential education," says Mr. Skelton, an elfish man whose apparent frailty and absent-minded demeanor belie the energy and meticulous planning he devotes to producing the program. "There are so many things we talk about in the abstract without feeling them. You can write a thesis on percussion without ever feeling a drum dig into your stomach, and that to me is an incomplete experience."
Mr. Skelton works hard to make sure that the group does not, like many study-abroad programs, become a little island of America or a semester-long vacation in the guise of cultural immersion. For that reason, the culture shock over the first few days can be tough.
"There were annoying and frustrating moments initially because everyone thought 'You are white, so you must be rich,''' says Erin Koen, an English major from Lafayette College. "I suppose compared to some of the locals we are, but it gets quite uncomfortable."
Yet by the end of the trip, Mr. Koen says, he has become much more understanding. "I've seen so much in India and have seen what people can achieve with not many facilities. There is so much room for companies and nonprofit agencies to improve peoples' lives, and I plan to apply for a job at these agencies."
If culture shock can be a challenge, so, too, can the workload. Each year the students take four courses, three of them of their own choosing — within the South Indian arts framework — and the fourth a project that is designed by Mr. Skelton's Indian associates. This year the students learned, among other things, bharatanatyam (classical South Indian dance), mridangam (South Indian drum), and the flute.
The project this year was on the folk art of South India, and students toured several villages, learning various forms. In Poikkal Kudirai Aattam, or the Dummy Horse Dance, for example, the dancer wears the dummy figure of a horse on his hips so that it looks as though he is riding it and dances in wooden shoes that reproduce the sound of hoofbeats. "Learning how to express an animal through dance broadened my idea of what art is and what we define as expressive," says Kia King, an African-studies major at Colgate.
The schedule was intense and sometimes punishing. "Bharatanatyam is a very difficult art form, even for people who have been learning since they were 5 years old," says Aruna Subbiah, the students' instructor. "We package really intensive training in four months." Classes began at 5:30 a.m. and went on until 7 p.m., with only a few breaks. For several students, who chose to take more than the required course, the 14-hour days were nonstop.
"Twenty-one kids who have a restrictive pattern laid out for them, in their lush country-club campuses, with classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and getting drunk every Friday night, come here and experience a very different world from the one defined for them on campus," says Mr. Skelton. "They don't turn into Indologists, but they certainly become India-lovers. They come away with feeling, 'OK, I won't become a pot dancer, but I actually learned it and did it!' and no experience can top that.''
Tsültrim Davis, a religious-studies and theater major at Wesleyan University, who plays the title role of Keechaka with infectious energy, believes the study group offers students a remarkable opportunity. "Learning these arts was difficult, sure, but it was amazing because I've never seen anything like them," he says. "Combining balance and agility while maintaining the right footwork for so many of the things we learned — pot dancing, horse dancing, peacock dancing, all of them — was tough."
Learning From Masters
One of the reasons the program is so successful is that students learn from the best teachers in the field. They attend recitals by top artists, a specially created lecture series, and, most importantly, take four field trips to study and learn to perform folk arts. For the most part, small groups of students — sometimes even a single student — work with a teacher, or guru. At first several students found this traditional guru-shishya style hard to adapt to. "It is a lot more personal that what we are used to," says Mr. Davis. "We are very close to the teachers and it can be a bit strange at first because of the age gap, but you realize you learn so much from this style of teaching."
"I am a music major and interested in non-Western music," says Ms. Job, a junior at Colgate. "After almost three years of university, Western music just wasn't resonating with me. I got introduced to West African music, which I loved, and then I heard Panjabi MC and thought, man, I would really like to sing like that. It was so different, the cadences, the tones," says Ms. Job, referring to vocals by Labh Janjua that the British-Asian producer Panjabi MC included in a track titled "Mundian To Bach Ke." (The song captured the imagination of music fans worldwide after it was released in 2003 as "Beware" with guest rapping by American hip-hop artist Jay-Z.)
After Ms. Job arrived in southern India she realized that Mr. Janjua and Panjabi MC were just the tip of the iceberg. "There are so many languages. So many different styles of music and dance, too," she says, adding that apart from the music, she especially loved bharatanatyam. "But I also loved yoga and therukoothu and all the other dances."
Choosing participants from all fields of academe is extremely important to Mr. Skelton, who rigorously screens all applicants. "The first to be thrown out are the trekkers," he says. "Everyone thinks they can go trekking and find things out for themselves. I think they can't." Mr. Skelton also eliminates students who say they want to come to India for a spiritual experience. "That is such a cliché, and we are not about walking down the street chanting," he says.
Paul Yannopoulos, a religious-studies major at Colgate who says studying Eastern religion here "demystified it," liked the rigor of the program. "I did not want to do a typical Europe trip — where more drinking is done than learning — that so many students do," he says. "I wanted to be tested, I wanted something more different and more challenging than I was used to and I got it."
The program also has an effect on the traditional performers who coach the students, acting as their gurus. Mr. Thambirar, the therukoothu master, thinks it is brilliant. "This is the second time I'm teaching the group, and I am thrilled that we teach Americans our ancient art form and they go back to America and tell people about it," he says after the night's performance, as his assistants struggle to get the students to sit still long enough to have their makeup removed.
He has made at least one convert. In one corner of the room, Ms. Job sits cross-legged on the floor, while one of the Indian artists cleans her face. "How do you sing this again?" she asks in a combination of Tamil and English. Two of Mr. Thambirar's delighted assistants sing the phrase for her, and she sings it back again, a piece of living culture that is now bound to cross the sea.