The India Program is Music to Their Ears
By Mandira Banerjee
When nine U-M students began their journey to India with Professor Stephen Rush in July, they thought they were going to learn about Indian classical music. But when they returned to campus one month later, they also brought vast new knowledge about themselves and each other.
Practicing yoga, interacting with a different culture, and making time for reflection were just some of the things that changed their perspectives on life.
“Seeds planted sprout at different times,” said Rush, professor of performing arts technology at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “But many, if not most, come back and rethink the meaning and purpose of their lives.”
Rush, a jazz musician and composer, created the India summer program in 2005 to provide an opportunity for students “to do something unusual and immersive.” He wanted them to “really sink into Indian culture in an experiential way,” and it worked.
Each year the students spend a month in Mysore, a city in the southern state of Karnataka. They stay in hostels run by the nonprofit Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, eat vegetarian food and begin each day with an early morning yoga lesson.
Then they travel through the busy traffic to different neighborhoods where a teacher or guru gives each student a music, dance or voice lesson. These lessons usually take place in the guru’s house, which is the center of learning for many families.
The experience, said Rush, is a way for students to learn how in other cultures, education is integrated into daily life-unlike the methods of traditional Western educational systems.
Kevin Allswede is in his final year of the Media Arts program at SMTD. He first learned about the program from his friend who went to India last year. Allswede spent his time in India learning Bharatanatyam, a traditional Indian dance.
“I was in a state of shock the first week,” said Allswede, adding that it took time to adapt to the cultural and educational differences. “It forces you to slow down and that’s when self-reflection begins. I learned about dance, I learned about teaching and I learned about what is it to be a teacher.”
The India experience resonated with Chelsea Hamm, too, a junior in InterArts performance at SMTD. She bonded with her dance teacher, Kripa Phadke, even though the work was rigorous and intense.
“Dance is my favorite art form,” Hamm said. “Being in India and dancing reminded me why I am so passionate about it.”
Hamm, who hopes to be a choreographer, and said she gained newfound confidence during the month-long immersion. She hopes to return to India one day to study dance with her teacher.
In addition to individual lessons in dance, musical instruments or voice, students attended lectures in leadership, the history of India, and Indian cinema. They also learned about caste and gender to better understand contemporary Indian society.
In the evening, they visited temples, palaces and concert halls.
They even managed to escape the routine when they traveled to spend a week on the beach in Kerala, a neighboring state.
Peter Felsman went on this trip four years ago. Self-introspection led him to switch fields from music to pursue a Ph.D. degree in social work.
“After my time in India, I realized I wanted to go into social work with the same commitment with which my contemporaries and teachers pursued music and dance,” he said.
Felsman’s experience in the program demonstrates how the music and unique cultural immersion impacts students’ lives, their research, their friendships and their work.
“People have asked: ‘What’s the value of the trip?” Rush said. “I tell them, ‘I’ve seen profound personal changes in the students, and they simply come back better people.'”