Online classes: The arts' temporary solution during lockdown surprises many teachers

Who had ever heard of online classes for the classical arts like music and dance? These disciplines are defined by the close interaction and relationship between the guru and the shishya. In our times, we started with distance learning in academics, where the study material was sent to the student. A few classes were held locally once in a while and then you had only the exams to appear for. Then the online courses were started for this kind of distance learning. In other words, disciples who stayed far away and could not come regularly applied for online classes. It is the first time in my life that we have seen a pandemic of this proportion in the whole world, with the affected numbering in crores. India, like other countries, saw a total lockdown to combat the COVID threat.

For the arts, it was a total blackout: no classes, no exhibitions, no events, no concerts, no performances. And then there was this ray of hope thanks to technology, which came to the rescue. Through Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, events began to be organized by organizations and gradually, classes too were resumed online. You could be physically distant, even in a different country, and yet learn from your guru, face to face. Physically distant, yet close enough. Students from all over the world started joining in for classes with their distant gurus. The arts will not die a COVID19 death as long as they are kept thriving like this, I feel.

I spoke to a few of the dancers in/from Delhi I know and posed the same questions to each:

- Have you started taking online classes in the lockdown or were you taking them earlier as well?

- Are you finding it an effective class method? What are the inadequacies of this method, if any?

- Are your students responding in a satisfactory manner?

- After the lockdown ends, do you think parents will send their children to class?

- Do you think you will continue online classes even after the lockdown ends?

Geeta Chandran

Padma Shri awardee and Bharatanatyam exponent Geeta Chandran has been taking online classes for much of the lockdown period, but had never done so before. ‘I never believed in online – I was very much a live class person because I come from a tradition of a one-to-one relationship with my teachers. The lockdown made me think, and I started these classes for many reasons. One was the need for classes, or my students would forget what they had learnt – so to carry on the teaching process. The second was that it was therapeutic. Everyone was going down a spiral, so it was important to talk to my students, who are also part of my family – and the entire household would look forward to the evening classes and were missing them. Third, we realized the potential of this medium and changed the teaching-learning pattern because certain things work much better online than even in a regular class, like discussions on architecture, sculpture, painting, history… We got in-house specialists on all these; we hadn’t realized we already had them within our family. We invited parents of senior students to speak, like (Hindi poet and writer) Ashok Chakradhar talked on rasa. In this way, we explored many things that would expand the students’ intellectual horizons. Another thing I observed was that abhinaya could be taught very well through this medium. Pure dance we revised, but I thought I would concentrate on abhinaya for the next few months. Abhinaya was being communicated beautifully – in fact, the children were saying that they were being able to watch me as closely as possible, every movement was visible in the screen. And lastly, when they learnt that I was taking online classes, all my international students, 11 of them, decided to bombard me and say how dare you do this to us, we are also in lockdown. So students who hadn’t learnt in almost 20 years are back on it now. I’m taking one international class where there are students from across continents – from Canada, various parts of the US, Bangkok – they have all come back into the fold of dance and realized what they have missed. It’s a great time to connect, unite and to see what is possible and enjoy dance. Plus, I have also been doing live sessions on Instagram, Facebook and on Zoom – discussions, talks, programmes – it’s a whole new way of reaching people through your dance and performances. It’s a new world and I don’t know after the lockdown how it’s going to be taken forward, but some elements I would like to keep on digital because it works much better than the other teaching method. The whole process of giving projects etc. was never there in dance – they would come, dance and go back. But now, once they do a session on say, admiring one iconography, one Shiva sculpture, going into the details of symbolism, I ask them to write about it. Some write prose, some write poetry, it’s a coming together of many things and is very interesting. I have been enjoying myself because it opened up a completely new area for me.

‘The inadequacies (of online classes) are in teaching rhythm, because each has a diff WiFi connection, so there is a lag sometimes. We record the rhythms and send them on WhatsApp, the students practice and then they do it in class. It’s a little laborious but we have been attempting that too.

‘Initially, the younger students very distracted and were not able to do it, but now the youngest class is also on Zoom and they actually are doing much better because they were all becoming couch potatoes, working on their computers for hours because their school work is all on the computer. So for them we are doing more physical exercise, stretching, breathing, so that they feel better. We have told parents that even though they do dance warm-ups only twice a week, they are supposed to follow up and give the children at least 15-20 minutes every day for bodily activity.

‘I think people are waiting to send kids to dance class after lockdown. I think they realize this is no substitute. Also, the class environment, the discipline; you make effort to come to a dance class and then engage in peer learning – after class they discuss, practice – all that is missing. I have even heard from parents that after class, they all connect separately on Zoom the next day; clearly, they’re missing that peer learning. Also, how long will you sit in the house? Everybody realizes that coming here and learning in Natya Vriksha is very a different experience from Zoom learning, but for my international students this is a boon, so maybe they will continue because they want to stay connected. So I will continue for those who cannot come because they are not in Delhi or in India. They are already my students so they know the rigour I demand. Many people ask, why don’t you accept new students or students of other teachers? But I am engaging in this only with my own students, who know what the Natya Vriksha philosophy and process are. To teach all that online is impossible. I’m not an ‘item teacher’ anyway. That’s my fear with Zoom and virtual learning. Many people think this is a quick way of picking up a piece from anybody for a price. This is not a marketplace where you can shop.’

Mohit Gangani

Tablavadak Mohit Gangani, from the famous Gangani family of the Jaipur gharana, has also started taking online classes only during the lockdown. ‘I had never taken online classes before this, but the duration of the lockdown has been very long. Also, as artists, we travel very frequently and without performances, we have a lot of time which we must utilize. I started taking classes online because it’s better than sitting bored at home.

‘I am of the opinion that online classes are not bad, even if you don’t consider the lockdown. But they are better for people who are already familiar with your process and are far away – abroad or in another city. We meet them when we travel so we know them well. But since the pandemic and lockdown, there have been no concerts or programmes. We have families as well, and we all need to do something to support them, so online hi sahi.

‘Staying with the guru and learning cannot be compared with online learning. You follow certain rules and practices of the guru when you are physically with them. Some pupils imbibe even the gait and mannerisms of their guru! Online, you view the guru through technology. It cannot impact you or connect you as strongly as a live interaction. But online has the limited advantage that you are learning from the guru where you otherwise might not be able to learn at all, that’s it.

‘I believe that those children who are connected with and learning the arts are also facing the same problem (of being deprived of their activities). There is no cure for COVID19 yet I am glad the government took this decision, at least we safe inside our homes. Yes, there are difficulties – Indian people don’t like to keep themselves at home because there are certain activities we do only outside the house. Children are bored, they can’t go out to play, can’t meet their friends. They can’t study all day either. Their other activities are barred, so they are also forced to utilize their time elsewhere. We also unfortunately cannot go to their homes to teach. Many artists do home tuitions, other have institutes or personal studios. Through online classes, they can keep themselves occupied – this (lockdown and restrictions) is going to go on for a long time.

‘Yes, I think I will continue online classes even after the lockdown, because the disease will not end with the lockdown. Even after restrictions are lifted, we might hesitate to go to other people’s homes and others might also not want to come to us to learn. Stay safe and stay online this year. We had never thought we’d have to do this, but we are doing it.’

Shreyasi Gopinath

Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher Shreyasi Gopinath, a disciple of the late Guru Jamuna Krishnan is not new to online classes. She says, ‘I had been taking online classes earlier for students abroad. Parents of those students who used to come to me are comfortable doing it only now. Earlier, I used to suggest it when I travelled, but they weren’t okay with it. In the lockdown, they see the merit of it.
‘To quite an extent, yes, I am finding it an effective class method. The kind of involvement students have with the computer, their interest levels are high. I faced a lack of punctuality in the physical class which I found here. I would prefer a physical class though because it’s easier to correct. Online class has shortcomings – network is a huge issue, there’s always a lag. Even when I do the steps, in the beginning, I found it difficult because the step I would do, they would see a few seconds late.
‘Personal interaction in a physical class does make a huge difference and I can see it in students who have been with me and those who have just joined online. Personally, I have a strong connect with kids who’ve been with me. To establish that connect in an online class is difficult. Parents are around, they want the child to dance one full hour without any distractions. Children also find it difficult because when they are in class, they meet each other and new people, that itself enhances the whole experience. It’s part of the dance learning process; online that’s difficult.

‘Students are responding satisfactorily in terms of dance because currently, since they know everything is online, they listen more attentively, they ask questions, they take a video also and send. They feel they need to know it better. I do see an improvement but one never knows for how long. It’s a time thing – there are children who lose interest because it’s not a physical class, they’re at home, they’re surrounded by family and they feel shy doing the steps in front of family as well. Some kids would be thriving in front of the family, but it can have the reverse effect also.

‘I have realized that it takes longer process to teach it online. In a physical class, if there are 10 children, I can correct what they need to improve in one minute.  But in an online class, I need to look at each person in turn, so it can be a little time-consuming.

‘From the conversations I’ve had with parents so far, I think they will stick with online even after lockdown for a while, since they are protective of the child and it protects others also. I think it will take some time before they are comfortable coming to class, unless a vaccine or a therapy is developed, because currently it’s a fear, which I understand. I don’t think it will become the new normal because a physical class is a more wholesome education, like school – it makes a huge difference. Online, they are deprived of peer learning. In virtual class, I’m also not sure how much the child would be okay with asking questions, with the family around.’


Dheerendra Tiwari

Kathak dancer and teacher Dheerendra Tiwari, a disciple of Pt. Rajendra Gangani, has also started taking online classes in the lockdown.  ‘Before that I never wanted to take online classes, so had no experience, but I have been taking online classes, sometimes multiple classes, daily for the past two months.

‘It’s okay as a medium – something is better than nothing. I can teach something informative or creative. It works to a degree, but you have to meet the student at some point. It cannot go on for a year; after a month you have to meet them for a few hours each day over some days to check what they are doing and to correct them. Otherwise it may not work. In this kind of situation, it is very good because at least they have some task to do.

‘There is no comparison between physical and online teaching. In lecture-based learning, we can have online lessons, where people can take notes and ask questions. But teaching dance is about nuances of body, laya, angles, sentiment, how to use your intellect in it, yeh sab jaise guru ke saath vaas karne se spontaneously samajh sakte hai, so there is no comparison. This is just for the time being. I can explain the intricacies of the form, especially bhava, only verbally online. Practically, they cannot see the depth of it right till my eyes.

‘Personally, I am having a good experience and getting good results too, but I am not entirely as comfortable as I want to be. Because I work very intensively with the students, I can’t tie them down to one-hour classes. It takes 45 minutes just to warm up, after that you can’t have a 15-minute class. You have to have at least 1.5-2 hours for classes. My students are also like that. Hence it’s not a very comfortable medium for me, but at least my students have seen me and they know me, they can understand my sentiments. For laya, I have to make and send videos separately.

‘Students are responding and even the new students are quite satisfied. I have just started a new batch of Mumbai students, they are beginners, and they are very satisfied. And when they send videos, I feel satisfied that they are getting it right. Or maybe I have a problem sticking to one thing and clearing that properly: first through digital class, then again through a video which I send them, and then I ask them to send their videos to me. Then I send written corrections as well. It’s a lot of work, but if you want results, and if you want to satisfy both the students and yourself – unka to baad mein, first I have to be satisfied about what I am giving them, delivering – for me it is quite satisfactory so far.

‘Yes, outreach has widened due to online classes – there is a Thai and a Taiwanese student, and now also students from Pune and Russia. But they have either seen me or learnt from me before, or they are very good at learning and completing, or very are sincere: whatever they do they send. What they send me, I imitate then, then show the correction through my body, then send it back for them to do. So they get it. In that way, both are satisfied.

‘After lockdown, I will take online classes but on one condition, which I have even now. I am taking online classes of students from only those places that I visit two-three times a year. Like Pune, Mumbai, I keep visiting these places. I was getting requests from Indore and Bhopal, where I don’t go frequently, so I cannot teach them. Whenever I go to Mumbai, for instance, I spend a day to watch the students there for 3-4 hours to see their progress. I am taking classes online for only those students I can visit or who can visit me once in at least three months. All five of the Pune batch come to me in Delhi. We visit each other regularly.’

Arunima Ghosh

Odissi dancer and teacher Arunima Ghosh, a disciple of Guru Monalisa Ghosh, has been taking online classes as well. She says, ‘It is working, but if someone asks me is this the best option, I would have to say no, it is the only option. But I am approaching it positively. My students are very young – you can imagine, the eldest is 16 – and I am very close to them. They used to be a lot of fun in class – they used to hug me and all, which I miss.

‘Of course, I am also facing problems making corrections. So now I have extended the timings a bit. They learn the dance, then sit with copy and pen and write down what I have corrected in that class. Every day they send me what they have practiced and for how long, and I give my suggestions accordingly. I take class through Google Classroom, which is very organized, where I can set appointments, make reference videos etc. I was very lazy about making videos even for leisure earlier, before the lockdown, but I am making and posting them now. This tough time has made me more organized. I am doing all the documentation, incorporating practice and theory both, so that I can inspire the kids, and am choreographing some new items which they can enjoy.

‘To my surprise, the children are responding. They are trying their best. Initially, it was a little challenging, but I gave them tasks. Of course, in one group, at least one or two students will be very sincere, so they started, and they inspired the others. They are all working and trying their best.’

Yamini Reddy

Kuchipudi dancer and teacher Yamini Reddy, disciple of her parents Gurus Raja-Radha and Kaushalya Reddy, has also been taking classes online. She was not doing so before the lockdown, but ‘due to the current situation, had to switch my classes to the online medium.

‘The online method definitely cannot replace a real class experience. In a class where the student and teacher are present physically, there is an exchange of energies and a bonding between the guru and shishya. Also, for a performing art like dance, where there is a lot of movement, it is easier and more effective to make corrections and adjustments in a physical class. Having said that, online has its own benefits. Through online classes, I am now able to reach out to a much wider student base. There are technical additions, such as recording facilities etc., which are helpful in teaching. But one cannot teach the way we used to, we will have to adapt the syllabus to the online method greatly.

‘I think my students and I are trying to make the best of the situation. We miss physical classes but until the situation improves, we know this a method we will have to follow to stay in touch with dancing.

‘I think parents are going to be wary (of sending kids to physical classes) for a while to come. Until things significantly improve and the COVID threat recedes, parents are not going to risk anything with their children. So they will probably assess the situation as time passes and decide accordingly.

‘I have always believed in giving my students my 100 per cent and the guru-shishya relationship is a long-term commitment. At the moment, I taking classes for students who have been with me since before the lockdown and I am accepting admissions of students who will be able to continue physical classes with me in the future. If, after all this, time permits, I will be happy to take a few classes online, but these will have to be augmented with physical classes when time permits. For instance, if the student is from out of town, they can take online classes, but they should visit during their holidays for physical classes, because doing only online classes is not an effective method.’

Ranjana Gauhar

Padma Shri awardee and Odissi guru Ranjana Gauhar has taken online classes for the first time only during the pandemic. ‘I was not taking online classes earlier because dance is not something that can be taught if you are not face to face. It is only now that in the COVID-19 restrictions that I started taking virtual classes. We had not even imagined doing it earlier.

I find that I am able to connect satisfactorily to students. The older students who have been learning with us for a long time have advanced to the level at which they don’t need checking every day. They call up in case of a confusion or a problem, which they resolve online. They don’t require regular correction. We can wait – we are hoping to meet sakshat soon. 

In some ways, online is a very nice experience. The children are very focused. They are comfortable in their own environments. They are sitting in front of a camera and following instructions, so their focus is quite sharp. Whatever you teach in that session, they grasp without distraction. In a normal class, there are about 12-15 students and they get distracted by each other. That element is not there now. But there are limitations also. You tell them to lift their right hand and they will lift their left. Some things can be corrected only in person. The older students will get it, but the smaller ones, below the ages of 10-12, they sometimes do not get it. There are limitations and advantages both.

Students are responding fairly well. The most important is repetition. They are made to repeat in a normal class also. That has become very easy, to explain over and over, that is in fact a pleasure. Children need revision. And they’re happy – we adults might feel it’s the same thing, but they are happy because they are getting a grasp over that particular unit of dance. It’s not difficult or boring for them up to a point, and at that point we change it – we are careful not to make it monotonous.

As for teaching abhinaya online, the age group we are talking about is not ready yet for abhinaya. Those who are, they cannot be taught abhinaya on camera. What we have already taught, we can revise, but to see something new is not easy online in abhinaya. You need an environment or atmosphere for that. Online, you can revise or fine-tune technical things. 

I would like to continue online instruction even after the lockdown ends. I don’t know how the parents or the children feel, but I would like to take 30-40% online classes online because the focus of the children is very good. We have been teaching most of them in person for so long – for most, the minimum with us is 3-4 years – that for them, going forward online or fine-tuning or polishing online is possible. A few beginners have come who have learnt before, so they can grasp, abhyaas they do on their own, and we keep demonstrating to teach and bring them at par. Many children have understood that they might not be able to come to class for a long time, so mentally also, they are accepting these realities and so they are more cooperative. On the whole quite, it has been an enjoyable experience.

For international dancers, our timings don’t match. I do have former students in Argentina, Europe, the USA, but a special class for them… I don’t have time for special classes. We are making many videos for classes, then doing a performance sometimes, an interview sometimes, so it’s hard to take time out for individuals. So we have told them to practice, send videos, talk to us, but we are not doing regular classes.’


As these teachers have explained, online classes for disciples in the arts is only a stopgap arrangement for the lockdown period. The gurus would certainly want to welcome their students back to physical classes, though with precautionary restrictions. And when it comes to overseas disciples, those living in other cities, it is a boon for them to catch up on their skills through online teaching. But, of course, the guru would like to see them physically once in a while when the lockdown is over. So stay safe, stay at home and join your classes online.

Pics: Anoop Arora


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