Guru vs school

| Updated on August 22, 2014

SADHU_ROCKS   -  Partha PS/BLink


Why the guru-shishya tradition might not always trump institutionalised classes

I recently noticed a tweet by Shubha Mudgal, whom I stalk on Twitter, about something called True School of Music in Mumbai. Amused by the somewhat cocky name, I visited the school’s website. (And now that I have a column on Hindustani music, I can waste time on such investigations. It’s called Manjh Khamaj because I was listening to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s rendition of the raga while thinking of a name for it.) It seemed to be a school of Western music and music production; I browsed with little interest. Then, under the tab for ‘Foundation’ courses, I spotted ‘Indian’. I was suspicious. Smart website, sharp copy: the context was ripe for a shallow offering of Hindustani music to fusion philistines, the kind that want to learn how to recite bols after listening to Shakti. I would probably not have read on if Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan were not named as mentors of the Indian classical programme. Institutional teaching of Hindustani music — more particularly, its efficacy — remains a contentious subject.

Hindustani music is quite hung up on the notion of sanctity; it has a sizeable army of self-fashioned crusaders who labour under the belief that they are protecting it. (I confess I often sympathise with this group.) And of all things sacred, the one that would top any list is the guru-shishya parampara. Treading on it is as blasphemous as entering the garbhagriha with shoes on. The guru-shishya parampara is the antithesis of institutional teaching: there is no place in it for lecture-room teaching or mass learning; there are no exams to write. Most significantly, there is no formal end to the learning process in the guru-shishya system; no degree or medal awaits the diligent student. In its purest form, the guru-shishya system requires the student to live in the teacher’s house over a period of time. Though not obsolete, this setup is now rare. The modern-day manifestation is the student learning from his teacher at the latter’s house or private school.

As hoary as the guru-shishya system might be, institutional teaching of Hindustani music too has been in existence for over a century. Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar started the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Lahore in 1901. The institute (now with many branches in India) remains hugely popular. There are many other institutes in the country, and several music faculties in universities, which offer degrees and diplomas in Hindustani music. But a divide exists between students who have learnt in the guru-shishya parampara and those who have learnt in institutes. The snobbery of the former group has been historically vindicated by the fact that there has been no eminent performing artiste in Hindustani music who is entirely a product of institutional training.

Mudgal and Pradhan acknowledged this. Both of them have received exhaustive talim in the guru-shishya parampara. They recognise the system — with its rigour and its intimacy between the guru and the shishya — as irreplaceable when it comes to shaping quality performers. What, then, is the point of offering eight-grade or six-grade courses in Hindustani vocal, bansuri and tabla at the True School of Music? What can the students hope to achieve after taking a course? Surely, an eight-grade course cannot produce a professional (or really, any kind of) performer.

It took me a while — two very long conversations with Mudgal and Pradhan, followed by weeks of troubled thinking — to accept that my cynicism is perhaps misplaced. Coming from a guru-shishya system myself (I have little to show for it), I have seen most contemporaries go through the rigorous process of talim, riyaz and then the more exhausting task of establishing themselves professionally. A career in performance (or at least a decent shot at it) has always seemed to be the natural outcome of the training process. Since institutions have historically failed to produce professional performers, the whole endeavour seemed utterly futile. Why should one invest time in structured learning in pursuit of a hobby?

This is where I was tripping: viewing the practice of Hindustani music within the hobby-profession binary and denying any space between the two. It is possible to pursue Hindustani music with seriousness and without intentions of performing for an audience. A disciplined engagement with an art form can be an uplifting experience in itself. The gatekeepers of Hindustani music are perhaps guilty of keeping too many people out, precisely by overemphasising the imperative of excellence (and by implication, professional success) and the futility of ambitionless pursuit. Many who are interested in Hindustani music hesitate to take a step closer because the entire music system gives off an aura of the formidable. Practitioners and connoisseurs have perpetuated this perception by constantly evoking grand notions like tradition, gharana, sadhana and by using needlessly complex vocabulary. I’m not undermining either the notions or the vocabulary. It’s just that throwing Chaucer at someone who has expressed an interest in poetry is not the most welcoming gesture.

The True School idea, therefore, holds potential — an unintimidating space with a no-fuss approach to teaching Hindustani music. With a curriculum that is worded simply and by virtue of teaching other genres on the same campus, it promises to attract a demography that might not have taken a Hindustani music course in a traditional setup. What an exciting thought — a new group of music enthusiasts, with little prior knowledge of Bageshree and Bhupali being taken on a guided discovery of these majestic ragas.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and a music writer.


Published on January 25, 2014

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