Minutes before the fire consumed Pandit Jasraj’s mortal remains at the Vile Parle crematorium in Mumbai last month, his students, who had gathered to pay their last respects to the Mewati gharana exponent, sang a bhajan: Guru aagya mein nis din rahiye/ Jo guru chahe sohi sohi kariye (Abide every moment by the guru’s guidance/ Do whatever the guru wishes). Sung in raag Sindhu Bhairavi, the melodic framework that embodies sorrow and separation, the bhajan wasn’t just a tribute to a great musician’s life; it was also an act of gratitude and an acknowledgement of the knowledge that the guru represented.
Among them was 34-year-old Ankita Joshi, who had been the late musician’s student for 22 years. She had spent 17 of those years living in Jasraj’s home, imbibing her lessons in the ancient guru-shishya format. “I surrendered my ego to find an art form and myself. In return, I received priceless musical knowledge, and an understanding of how to be a better human being,” she says.
The world of classical music can seem impermeable to outsiders, owing to the intimidating intricacies of the system and the demanding guru-shishya parampara — a centuries-old tradition of teaching that demands complete surrender to the teacher and a lonely, introspective sadhana (meditation and practice) of the form. Its grammar, involving concepts of a thought process, microtones and complex, mathematical rhythm patterns, are learned orally over many repetitions from the guru, not from textbooks, . But, in a world as full of distractions as the present, faithful adherence to the rigours of classical art forms becomes especially difficult.
It’s this conflict between the demands of tradition and contemporary society that a recent film and a web-series have explored. In The Disciple, a new feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane, a classical vocalist is challenged by contemporary life as he follows the tradition and teachings of his guru. A similar theme of tradition versus modernity plays out in Bandish Bandits, a web-series currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. According to one of the show’s creators, Amritpal Singh Bindra, Bandish Bandits grew out of a discussion with actor-singer Namit Das, ghazal singer Chandan Dass’s son. “He told a friend that his father struggled to figure out one raga for 19 years, before he finally got it,” he says. The idea that an artiste would dedicate so much time to a single aspect of his art grabbed Bindra.
A major shift has taken place in the temperament of those who learn, perform and teach these art forms today. Kolkata-based Patiala gharana singer Kaushiki Chakraborty, who learnt from her father, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, says, once upon a time the focus used to be just on the sadhana because the basic needs of the musicians were taken care of by their patrons. “Now, we have EMIs. Now, the musician also wants what the king wants. We want good schools for our children, air-conditioned cars and houses. Music is also a source of livelihood now,” she says.
The guru once loomed large over the shishya’s life, unquestioned and omnipotent, teaching by imparting knowledge beyond the art form itself. All knowledge, including about music, was transmitted “when the time was right”. A shishya could work on sa, the central note of the sargam, for months sometimes, before a raga was even touched. This method strengthened concentration and discipline. “Information is all around. But that does not translate into knowledge all the time. That is why a guru has always been so important,” Chakraborty, 39, says.
Some of classical music’s most famous gurus were exacting in a way that probably wouldn’t be tolerated today. The late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was required to wash the clothes of his guru Pandit Sawai Gandharva, while Maihar gharana pioneer Ustad Alauddin Khan tied his son, sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, to a tree and beat him black and blue when he wouldn’t get a taan right. Ustad Alladiya Khan set difficult conditions, including a huge fee and a minimum training of 10 years, for Kesarbai Kerkar in order to dissuade her from becoming his student. All three disciples are today counted among the country’s greatest musicians. This is not to say that gentler gurus weren’t successful.
For Joshi, the choice was clear: to live with her guru and learn from him. “To the outsider, those hours of singing the same phrase, years of sadhana may seem monotonous, but it is all about embodying the craft which is impossible to do without a great, experienced guru and a willing student,” says Joshi, who now performs solo classical concerts and represents Jasraj’s Mewati gharana.
Delhi-based Pavithra Chari, who has been learning from Delhi-based Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal over regular visits, represents a tweak to the traditional gurukul system. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, her lessons are now being conducted over Skype and Zoom. The 26-year-old, who is also one half of the music duo Shadow and Light, says, “I regularly take advice from Shubha ji and Aneesh ji (Pradhan) on many things inside and outside the music industry and they have always offered me multiple perspectives without forcing their opinion. This is my reference for the guru-shishya parampara and it is a unique learning experience for me.”
According to 20-year-old Ishaan Ghosh, who has been training in tabla since he was a toddler, it’s different when one is born into a family of musicians. Ghosh is the son of tabla and sitar player Pandit Nayan Ghosh. He began learning from his father at an early age. “This is not to say that those who aren’t from families of musicians don’t do well. But those who live within it all, frequently, tend to understand the form and its ideology slightly better,” he says.
An uglier side of the parampara has emerged recently. While a slew of classical gurus in the Carnatic classical world were accused of sexual harassment in 2018, this week, two of the three Gundecha Brothers were accused of sexual misconduct at the prestigious Dhrupad Sansthan — a residential gurukul in Bhopal. The allegations were first made in a Facebook post, with a couple of students speaking anonymously to The Indian Express later.
According to Carnatic classical vocalist TM Krishna, there are some beautiful aspects of the guru-shishya parampara, although he cautions against “eulogising” it. “The way the guru-shishya system is designed, it has an unequal power structure. Placing the guru on a pedestal culturally, I think, needs to be demolished. This guru is not such a special human being. He is skilled in one thing — music. We need not romanticise the parampara. Because if there is abuse — sexual or verbal — in this system, it can go unabated,” says Krishna.
There is much to learn from a guru who is stern without being abusive. In an interview to this reporter once, the noted classical vocalist Kishori Amonkar had described learning from her mother, the legendary Mogubai Kurdikar, thus: “Aai would sing the sthayi and antara only twice. I had to get every contour of the piece in those two instances. That taught me concentration. The guru needs to be this good. You cannot have a guru who constantly wonders, ‘When will my student perform? Will she go abroad?’ That person can be a teacher, not a guru.”
Delhi-based Sabita Upadhyay, who teaches classical music of the Kunwar Shyam gharana to young students, says that even if the guru is willing to take you through the arduous journey, the expectations of parents are changing. “I get parents who ask me when their child can become a playback singer, or why she has been doing sargams for two months and how I can train them for reality shows. This is not fast music and it cannot be learnt that way. But people are changing and so are temperaments,” she says.
The accessibility of classical music and dance through YouTube and other social media platforms is now a significant part of the student’s life. Ghosh says that being able to listen to so many musicians at the click of a button has been inspiring. “But if I need to learn an authentic composition, there is no better way than learning at the feet of the guru,” he says.
Bharatanatyam exponent Alarmel Valli says that technology’s role becomes problematic when it affects how well students are able to learn. “When I was learning, we were not allowed to take any kind of notes because we were meant to observe, reflect and internalise. When I teach, I feel there is less observation because everything is available. They now record the dance. There is no urgency. Earlier, there was nothing to fall back upon. You could not afford to miss anything, whereas now you can play it 20 times,” she says.
According to Chari, social media and severely shortened attention spans ensure that an already complex and demanding knowledge system becomes even harder to learn. “There seems to be a pressure to be ‘successful’ and to seek validation through ‘likes’ and views. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I remind myself of the joy of discovering this music at my own pace. But I feel that once you start finding yourself in the music, it becomes easier to go back to it, and spend time with it. Making it a career, though, requires some work on understanding how current practices related to performance and patronage function,” says Chari.
“Music needs to be learnt without the pressure of a career. That’s when it’ll have depth. That’s when the magic will slowly unfold,” says Rudra veena exponent, Bahauddin Dagar. This is why, a few years ago, the 48-year-old left his home in Mumbai and moved to Palaspa, a tiny village on the Mumbai-Goa highway, near Panvel. This was where his late father, the noted Rudra veena exponent Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, had founded a dhrupad gurukul, where a handful of students who lived with their guru, learned from him. “The idea is to first learn, then think about how to remake the mould from scratch, without altering the swaroop (form). And for this, you need time to come back to yourself, relive and rethink your work. This way, you learn something new everyday, leading you to what you can correct, change, and improve. It’s a constant, ongoing process,” says Dagar.
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