By Prof Swarnamalya Ganesh
In the course of curating opinion and experiences pieces for our edition, we sought a seasoned researcher who could shed light on what is pegged “the research mindset” , a first-person account of the journey through research, the preparation, trials and tribulations, and perseverance as one attempt to solve the unsolved. Who better than a veteran researcher, academic and practitioner to take us through this journey of inquisitiveness and enquiry, which is interesting but also tough and demanding. Prof Swarnamalya Ganesh takes us through a journey through her words, from the persistent questions as a young practitioner to the early years as an academic researcher that led her to her calling- the Early Modern South Indian Nayaka era. As Prof Ganesh poignantly narrates, the need to retain the child-like joy in the “spirit of enquiry” each time one steps into the field, understanding that “I know not fully, yet” all through the milestones, and how the true hallmark awaits not just in the great courage exhibited during research but in the patience that emerges when the courage subsides.
Often research is laid down as an obvious path forward in many academic disciplines. But having learnt an art form such as dance from the age of three under hereditary Gurus, my love and devotion was always to my traditions of practice. But slowly, my friends and even my Gurus noticed the stray but persistent questions I began asking; sometimes to them but often to myself. If we look around us, everyone is curious and is always asking questions. The “do you know-s” fill the days and hours of our lives and various media including social media, feed into such human curiosity and the need to consume social knowledge about people, our environment, society, science, and meta things as well. But when one recognizes the first signs of their questioning mindset as a characteristic that is there to stay beyond curiosity, that is when they do something more than to reach for the daily newspaper or google- research.
Academia will prepare an endless questioning mind with the apparatus needed for a permanent future it seeks with research. Firstly, reading every work ever published on one’s subject of interest, whether it be useful or turns out to be useless tinsel, may seem like an exercise in drudgery which ultimately winds up turning the feverish mind into a pitch ready to absorb. Then somewhere in the early years of research, one begins to ask less questions and starts looking at the complex intersections of circumstance, context, society and history that define each fact held by other predecessors or in dominant narratives thus far.
I personally realised that I had met my calling in the Early Modern South Indian Nayaka era when everything I read, every question I asked, every solution I sought led me back to Tanjavur, Madurai and Gingee Nayaka world. That is where I began my journey.
The most key factor in research is to find a great guide. In my case though, my guide turned out to be less instructional and more of an intrusion. This meant that I got to actively seek mentors from across disciplines, each one of them an expert in their area, be it history, archeology, epigraphy, language, musicology. What a blessing that turned out to be for me! One of the reasons I chose to join Krea was because my research strongly interweaves multiple disciplines and perspectives. This reflects strongly in my practice too. In these years, even as I write, speak and perform my research, the one dictum that I set out with, which is “I know not fully, yet” gets more and more confirmed.
Research is great, not researchers. So, one of the best lessons I learnt from some of my mentors is to allow my findings to be pliable to change brought on by perspectives and new facts that emerge from all quarters. To retain the child-like joy in the “spirit of enquiry” each time we step into the field. Research also requires tremendous patience and diligence. I recall as the year 2009 was coming to a close, I had reconstructed a dance repertoire called Mukhacali. I was pleased with the outcome and therefore moved on to other repertoires. But in 2011 when I revisited Mukhacali, in light of new facts and with a body that by then had experienced other forms such as Perani, Jakkini etc which I had reconstructed, I decided to dismantle the whole of the earlier version, only to restart. The result was not one but three more reconstructions of Mukhacali each from the 10th, 12th, 14th centuries before arriving at the 17th century version. Both as performers and researchers we unashamedly ply our trade, but the eternal scapegoats for such exercises for me, are my good-natured students who patiently watched me undo and redo my own findings over many years until I was satisfied.
The true litmus test comes though, in the form of dejected friends and family who give up any hopes of making plans for an outing with us. The total and absolute control that one gives the subject of our research to have over us, ensures that we become immersive participants of the era into which we wish to dive. So shopping, movies and outing become a thing of the past and luxuries afforded only by those who float on the surface.
Writing one’s research, speaking about it, in my case also performing my research are integral parts of the journey and I enjoy doing all of it, however I thirst to share my work with other researchers and always grab any slight opportunity, even to be in the midst of others who are in the pursuit of their feverish minds. Sharing, listening to each one’s experiences and perspectives keeps us spirited through what can otherwise be a lonely journey in research. To me the Fulbright Fellowship that I received soon after I finished my doctoral research provided this fraternity. Great courage is exhibited during academic research days by scholars, especially towards a doctoral degree. But the true hallmark waits to be seen, when the courage subsides, and when patience emerges. The patience to be with the subject, to ebb and flow with its course and to continue to love it for its yet unsolved mysteries.
Prof Swarnamalya Ganesh is an Assistant Professor of Practice, Literature and Arts, Global Arts at Krea University. A veteran performer with over 35 years of experience, Prof Ganesh is a scholar of dance history and a trained academician in art practice and sociology