If Art has the power to heal, our Gurus are healers. They start to get respect by offering something they have. And with that, they reveal a new landscape of our own ability to us.
Teaching then, is quite discernibly an art form. Handed down from Guru to Shishya – one generation to the next. When Amma took my hand, I never realized I was being initiated into it. As it turns out, teaching goes hand in hand with dance. The purpose of both, after all, coincides at giving.
The best way to learn is to teach. Amma would test and tell, “You want to perfect a movement once I’ve taught it to you? Try teaching it to someone else. You’ll have it down pat!”
When I was older, I understood that the Art of Teaching involves being able to fuel creativity, to excite people about the material, to peak their imaginations, to engage them, to drive their passion for a subject, to get them to want to learn this and to find points of entry. And yes, while you’ve got to be available to your students, you’re also accountable to them.
On days that weren’t too warm, Amma often held classes in the blossoming backyard. We’d practice on soft grass. Often, when our bodies got a break, the mind got a lesson from her. It was a voice that soothed and stirred.
“Everyone must leave something behind when they die. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to use it at bettering only yourself. Aristotle once said, “Where your talents meet the needs of the world, there lies your purpose.”
So, I’d ask myself, “If art can make me be someone who makes someone else look forward to tomorrow, then why not use mine to the same end?”
I carried the same question to Amma. And she allowed me access to her philanthropic work – a rarity, for she believes that charity made with the left hand must never be disclosed to the right.
She taught at a shelter for women in distress. They came from broken homes, disastrous marriages, dark circumstances; disturbed, maltreated, abused, victims of violence and tragedy.
I watched her teach these women. Dance had this astonishingly therapeutic effect on them all. As they performed movements from Indian Classical, Lyrical and Contemporary Dance, I saw their stories unfolding live before me. Every movement was an exhibition of their misfortunes, every hard knock that left them dented, every blow they had endured, every curse that still lingers – a catharsis.
The music was turned on. Most often, it was soulful. Sufi or Mildly Classical. Amma demonstrated routines. She’d work their postures and shoulders and arms and fingers and legs and hips and abdomens and necks and knees. Then, she’d sway and spin and stretch and twirl. Her feet would point and flex. She’d jump and leap and every now and then, for a moment, she’d fly. As they followed along, they all reacted differently. Some cried uncontrollably, others laughed uncontrollably. Some looked deep within and found strength, others smiled when they discovered positivity inside and around.
Theirs were the prettiest smiles and the prettiest eyes. Bright and moist. It was one of the most painfully beautiful things to exist. May be Amma was the first to make them smile and laugh after they’d just finished crying.
Very simply, she always left them better than she found them.
“What if there came a day when she had no more to give? Would she give this up for greener pastures, for greater things?” I inquired after one such class.
“It’s unthinkable,”, she avowed, “my worst nightmare: letting them down. Giving to other people makes me feel alive. Not my car or my house. Not what I look like in the mirror. When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they were feeling sad. Art has no boundaries, Kaali. There are no impossibilities. It can refresh and heal and put one at peace. It can change lives. Would I give this up to use my time chasing a higher place in the hierarchy of artistes? I don’t see why. Status gets you nowhere, only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone. There aren’t many greater things in the world, Kaali, than leaving a smile where another has left scars. We can’t surrender that power if we possess it.”
Amma’s a therapist with two tools: teaching and dance. Her cures: magic potions. Her successes: smiles.
That day, I found clarity. I knew where I wanted my journey to lead. I want my Art to leave people better than it found them. And for that, it has to be accessible to all – broken, mended, hurt, healed, rich, poor, clever, dreamy, contemplative, hasty, disabled, healthy, obedient, naughty, talented, clumsy, amateur or expert – anyone who yearns to learn; anyone passionately curious; anyone I’d wish to teach; anyone in need of this “moving” therapy.
Truth is, we all need an Art as much as we need an Amma.
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