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The guru-shishya structure is inherently prone to abuse. It needs to be demolished

T M Krishna writes: The guru-shishya relationship in Indian music is grounded not just in a power imbalance, but in a celebration of inequality, which makes it vulnerable to abuse, which is then romanticised.

Written by T M Krishna |
Updated: September 19, 2020 9:00:29 am
A problematic area in Hindustani and Carnatic music is the informality in the learning. And this extends to the institutions that musicians build. (Illustration: C R Sasikuma)

The shocking allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against (late) Ramakant Gundecha and Akhilesh Gundecha have shaken the Hindustani music firmament. But truth be told, many have in private acknowledged that these stories are not exceptions. So many instances like this are spoken of only in whispered tones by people fearful that the well-oiled gossip network of Hindustani music will carry their words to the powerful within this close-knit community. In 2018, when similar allegations were made about Carnatic musicians, all was quiet on the northern front. The name of one Hindustani musician cropped up, only to disappear in a jiffy, and nothing more was said.

The world of Hindustani music — though to all appearances more modern compared to its southern cousin — is actually more deeply entrenched in the patriarchal and medieval mindset that besets both systems. At the heart of this rot is the worshipful regard in which the guru-shishya parampara is held. Some senior Hindustani musicians literally walk around like they are avatars of some deity or the other! The pedestal on which gurus are placed by Hindustani musicians is far higher than any seat given to their counterparts in Dakshin Bharat. Equally, despite all the differences and petty politics between musicians, the “tradition” of watching each other’s back is far more prevalent in the Hindustani world. In fact, Carnatic musicians always talk enviously about how Hindustani musicians come together to put up a unified front when needed.

In such a context, it has been heartening to see Hindustani musicians, old and young, come out and speak up against sexual harassment. Unsurprisingly, none of the superstars, such as Amjad Ali Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia or Zakir Hussain, have thought it necessary to even make an obligatory comment. But what intrigues me is that many who condemn the sexual harassment simultaneously demand that the guru-shishya parampara be protected.

The question in my mind is: What are we saving?

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An inquiry into this question must necessarily be dispassionate, our mind shorn of all that we shared with our guru or gurus and all we treasure about them. A system cannot be evaluated based on personal experiences. What must be determined is whether the system — its core structure — is safe, respectful, and non-abusive of, students. That is, irrespective of the nature of the guru, does the system provide security and strength and empower the student emotionally and psychologically to stand on her or his own? Once this question is asked, the answer is self-evident. Like most relationships, the guru-shishya relationship is grounded in a power imbalance, but here, crucially, the inequality is celebrated. The need to be subservient to, indeed submit to, the master is an implicit necessity. Let me say it as it is: The parampara is thus structurally flawed. No doubt there will be claims that I seek to destroy something ancient. But a storied past must never be a defence against criticism. I seek not to destroy but to question. It is not enough to punish abusers; an entire overhaul of how we teach these art forms is imperative.

As Kalidasa said about poetry: “Not all poems are good because they are old. All poems are not bad because they are new. Good and wise people examine both and decide whether a poem is good or bad. Only a fool will be blindly led by what others say.”

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The guru-shishya structure is inherently prone to abuse — of all sorts — yet, so often, the abuse is romanticised. When students are forced to commit to hours of household chores just to receive those few moments of wisdom, it is celebrated as sacrifice and commitment and endurance — “the guru testing the student”, we are told. The practice is then normalised when we say “it was all worth it”. All of us practising these art forms know of the psychological manipulation and emotional trauma that prevails, and all we have said is, “This is part of the learning process. You have to go through it”. I am not judging musicians of the past by today’s ethical norms, but there is no reason to accept the standards of the past. The least we can do today is to admit that “it was just wrong”. Such an acknowledgement is a step forward. Even today, students and teachers see the service of the guru as a guru dakshina. Service is a dangerous idea and often traverses many domains of abuse. It is also true that abuse increases exponentially when the student comes from an economically poor or socially marginalised community.

It is possible to have a deeply involved relationship that is not toxic. But for this to happen, we need to reimagine our structures of learning. The system must begin with respect for students, and recognition of their independence and rights as individuals. This is vital because the power structure is naturally tilted in favour of the guru. But for this to happen, we need to first “humanise” gurus. The parampara that demands obedience and unquestioning deference, only because someone is a guru, needs to be demolished. Simply put, gurus must be respected for being domain experts — nothing more. If the respect grows beyond this, it must come from a mutually evolving relationship.

A problematic area in Hindustani and Carnatic music is the informality in the learning. And this extends to the institutions that musicians build. This informality is justified on the basis that it creates a unique, unconditioned space for learning. Informality can take so many forms, sometimes resulting in episodes of incredible learning, while on other occasions, there are just demands made by the guru because he is in a position to make them. Therefore, we have to be very careful while treading this territory. Am I advocating for the institutionalisation of these art forms? No, I am not. There is a lot to learn beyond the school-university-class framework, but such an arrangement cannot be an arbitrary, uncaring, student on-call system. I won’t go into the possible redressal mechanisms because they will remain ineffective until we lift the veil on the guru-shishya parampara and see it for what it is.


Also read | Is the guru-shishya parampara still relevant in Indian classical music?

It must also be put on record that all we celebrate about the guru-shishya parampara — the intimate learning, sharing that goes beyond the syllabus — is far from unique to Indian culture. Or indeed even to music. In every sphere of activity, there have been and there are students and teachers who share a bond that goes beyond what the university demanded of them. And there are stories of great gurus and famous shishyas across disciplines and geographies. Learning is not time-bound or tied up in official seals. The little things that the teacher says during a walk or over a cup of tea could make a world of difference. The problem with our concretised version is that this promise of magic is used as an excuse to normalise inequality. In other fields, teachers and students have drifted apart, even vehemently disagreeing with one another, each finding their own areas of influence. But in the guru-shishya parampara of Indian “classical” music and dance, rarely can a shishya stand up against her or his guru and hope to survive another day. Therein lies the story.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 19, 2020 under the title ‘Lift the veil on the parampara’. The writer is a musician.

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First published on: 19-09-2020 at 04:00:25 am
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