Popular culture would like us to believe that musical virtuosity ineluctably comes with personal sacrifice, hardship and suffering. In the Marathi film The Disciple, for instance, the fictitious mythical singer Maai sends us a scary warning: if you wish to embark on the journey of Indian classical music, she says in a cavernous voice, you will have to learn loneliness and hunger – “ekata ani upashi rahayla shika”.
Yograj Naik was the very antithesis of this claim. Celebrated in Goa as one of the most talented musicians of his generation, his existence was all but ascetic. Alone? He lived in a house constantly brimming with the pandemonium of innumerable pets and human beings. Hungry? He sported the embonpoint of those who know how to bite into life and enjoy its worldly pleasures.
Yograj Naik is no more. At only 52, he passed away in April, carried away by the second wave of Covid-19. Flagbearer of the Etawah gharana, trained under the Padma Shri recipient Ustad Shahi Parvez, top-grade musician for All India Radio, recognised by Hindustani sangeet lovers and Indo-jazz connoisseurs alike – Naik’s demise was a painful loss for Goa’s music galaxy.
The artist also left behind a community of devoted disciples, now left alone, craving his guidance. Lonely and hungry, one may say. But their guru had entrusted them a treasure. Not just hours and hours of recordings of precious raags, not just hundreds and hundreds of tips and tricks. The transmission went beyond music.
Naik transmitted a culture, an emotion, a certain grammar of passion. He kept alive, in his own way, the guru-shishya parampara, the tradition as per which disciples are initiated, groomed and trained to Hindustani music.
I was fortunate to join Yograj Naik’s community shortly before his demise and to receive training from him for over a year. I was certainly too flippant and too much of a dilettante to deserve the title of a disciple – not to mention my sorry lack of musical flair. But I was undoubtedly a witness. The witness to a unique element of Indian cultural heritage.
Meeting my guru
I had recently moved to Goa for work. I was looking for a music teacher. My ambition was very unpretentious. I had almost never held an instrument in my hands, and I simply wanted to do something fun. An acquaintance told me he knew the best sitar player in the whole of Goa. This sounded fancy, I thought. I made a call. It was Yograj Naik on the line. He invited me to his home the very next day.
Yograj Naik lived in Porvorim, at the outskirts of Panjim. It was in early October 2019. That year, the monsoon was still lingering in Goa, upsetting the first tourists of the season with black clouds and criminal humidity. On the day of our first meeting, at his home, it was pouring spectacularly.
When I arrived at the provided address, I knew it was the right place. A melody was escaping from the windows. A sharp, loud, triumphant tune, immediately followed by the same notes, but this time slightly weaker, slightly shakier. Yograj Naik and his students.
The entry door, whose handle was shaped like a sitar, was ajar. Unwilling to disturb the class, I entered without ringing the bell. As I shyly proceeded to join the group, a mastodon came in my way.
A majestic chocolate-coloured Labrador, with a surprisingly massive head, barking at me frantically, loud and towering. After long seconds of intense sniffing, the dog abruptly turned into a lamb and stepped aside. It felt like I had passed a test. But after the (pretty) monster, the master: Yograj Naik was about to take my second examination.
Yograj Naik was sitting nonchalantly on a carpet, atop of a slightly elevated platform, which looked like a throne. He was in his early fifties. Mullet cut with a ponytail, stocky figure, golden earring, tattoo on the arm. He looked snazzy, far from the image of the old monastic sage associated with gurus. Next to the throne, also on a carpet, sat five students, arranged around him like a darbar. I sat among them.
Nobody had seemed disturbed by the canine ruckus. Two senior students were playing, and we listened to them religiously. I marvelled at the effortless grace of their music. When they were done, Naik sighed with theatrical exaggeration, and said to me with a smile: “See, they have been learning from me for 15 years and they barely know anything.”
It was now my turn. I had a battery of questions to ask but, to my surprise, I was the one being interrogated. What did music mean to me? Was I sure I could commit to many years of training? Was I aware of the rich heritage of Hindustani sangeet?
On that very first day, Naik was not particularly warm. He had no time to waste. He talked to me mostly in Hindi, with a delicious Goan accent – “riyaaz, riyaaz, fakhat riyaaz karne ka hai”, you will have to practice all the time, he kept hammering on. He stressed all the important points in English. With other students, though, he would sometimes shift to Konkani or Marathi to throw in comments he did not want me to grasp, triggering raucous hilarity on their side. I was on the grill.
Someone eventually placed a sitar in my hands. The instrument was much larger than I had assumed but also much lighter. I was instructed to strike my first swaras. The vibrations of the instrument propped on my face a large, silly grin: I was enchanted.
But did Yograj Naik actually want to teach me? He would let me know later, he said enigmatically. And a few days later, indeed, I received from him a lapidary message on WhatsApp. “Yes.” With this single word, my musical education was about to begin.
The second time we met, I asked about his fees. In response, I could hear the other students giggling as if I had uttered something very stupid. Teaching was not a job, Yograj Naik calmly explained. It was his duty to preserve the art. Accordingly, he would not charge a single rupee. Yet, the lessons would not be completely free, he added. “You will have to give me two things in return: dedication and respect for etiquette.” At least, he was not asking for loneliness and hunger. I was up for it.
Our relationship was devoid of direct material interest and this changed everything. On the students’ side, we knew it was a big privilege to receive training from an artist of such calibre: we did not want to disappoint him. And, on his side, he had no reason to cajole us. We were not some clients to please. As a result, he could be totally filterless in his demeanour.
Every week, on Saturday morning, we would gather in his house. At times, there were only three of us, sometimes up to a dozen – usually as many men as women. Disciples would come from all over Goa but also Maharashtra and Karnataka. Some were already seasoned virtuosos, while others were just bland beginners. Yograj Naik would command us to play, one after the other, to check our progress. This was always an intimidating moment because we had just a few seconds to shine.
If we stumbled excessively, he would pronounce the verdict I dreaded the most – “riyaaz nahin kiya”, you have not practised. For someone who had, in the past week, maniacally sanded down his fingers on sitar strings, these three words sounded as disheartening as a romantic rejection. He was tough and demanding. He did not bother to humour us.
Music was not supposed to be a hobby – if we had started the process of learning under Naik, we had to become not less than outstanding performers. The high standards he established and his imposing character fuelled the motivation of the most devoted disciples, but it also made the process emotionally trying. If you did not have the intellectual vivacity, the mental strength or, simply, the knack for the instrument, it was hard not to disappoint him. As a result, many students would naturally give up, in great anguish.
Sessions for beginners would consist in unending repetitions of monotonous patterns. Only the guru could tell when you were ripe enough to learn more – it took me eight months before being introduced to my first raag, and that too the simplest one, Bilawal. Naik would not pass on his knowledge easily: you had to earn it. This was not a leisure activity but a proper craft.
With more advanced students, our guru did not even need to formulate instructions with words: together, they would simply engage in extraordinary instrumental conversations, answering one another with swaras, with all the talking conducted through string vibrations and facial expressions. This was a beautiful spectacle to witness.
At the end of each session, perhaps to ease out the roughness of the weekly examination, the guru would pick up his sitar and play for us. Sometimes a melancholic aalaap, sometimes some electrifying gat, sometimes a mind-blowing jazz-inspired improvisation. We would all go mum, dazzled by his virtuosity, vah-vah-ing with our hands, looking at each other with a knowing smile, aware of our luck.
Lessons were not restricted to formal classes. Our guru would sometimes call one of us to accompany him backstage during his concerts. On these occasions, we were expected to do some kind of seva, service, like carrying his instrument – although, in reality, the point was more about spending time together. It was during these intimate, precious moments that he would share most tips, anecdotes and encouraging words. In that respect, the guru-shishya platform of education style is very confidential, but also seamless, pervading, encompassing.
If the first meeting with Naik was tantamount to an interview process, it is because he wanted to make sure he was not squandering his time with incapable students. I once asked him if he had ever rejected anyone coming to his door. “Never,” he confessed. “But after just one minute, I know if this person is worth investing energy on. I do not say anything, I let them come. Eventually, they understand on their own.”
At this point, a massive doubt engulfed my mind. I had been following his classes for almost a year, and I was still standing out by my regrettable deafness for rhythm and melody. “So, what did you feel about me when we first met?” I asked, worried. He simply answered with a wink.
My privileged status of a foreigner definitely played in my favour. My burlesque motivation and my clumsy attempts amused Naik, along with my entertaining take on local languages, and he showed a certain leniency and patience towards me. Yet I still had to comply with some kind of decorum.
One Russian student, a multi-instrumentalist with monstrous talent, was once frowned upon for his misbehaviour – he would show up, learn his bit and leave without listening to the other students. “You need to learn about etiquette,” the guru reprimanded him.
One day, as I was packing up to leave Naik’s house at the end of a lesson, a student stared at me and shrieked in horror, as if I had committed a terrible misdeed. It just happened that, the room being a bit cramped, I had hopped over my own sitar to move ahead. This was anathema: one could just not walk over a sitar.
More generally, etiquette implied performing a certain amount of deference towards the master. Charan sparsh-ing the guru, which is to say touching his feet, was not explicitly requested, but welcomed and appreciated.
That way, Naik was very much traditional. At the same time, he was also pretty unconventional. He was equally comfortable performing in a mandir or in a trendy café full of neo-age hippies.
Likewise, although he was incredibly strict when teaching us Hindustani raags, he was liberal in his own musical taste and was always open to adopting new styles, like a Brazilian or Turkish tune. Sanskritik susegad, you could call it.
His house was a joyful mess. It was a home, it was a zoo, it was a gurukul. Three dogs, four cats, chanting birds and a couple of turtles would zigzag through us during the sessions. When manoeuvring our long instruments, we had to be careful not to smash the immense aquarium laying in the middle of the room.
In the adjoining kitchen, our guru’s relatives would always be concocting some royal meal – sounds of chopping, mixing and sizzling would merge with the melody of our sitars and the barking of the dogs. This house felt like family and we were never in a hurry to leave.
One day, Yograj Naik got furious. It was on the occasion of Guru Poornima, in July 2020. I was under the impression that, during the festivities organised at his place, we were supposed to play something special for him, as a tribute. At that time, however, I could barely play anything enticing. To surprise him, thus, I enthusiastically resolved to learn a completely new composition. Online, I found a free tutorial that was promising to teach raag Yaman.
On the big day, I performed with great pride the one-minute piece I had rehearsed for several days. Expecting some sort of appreciation, if not praise, I was filled with consternation when the guru blurted out with outrage, “Yeh kya hai?! Is mein dum nahi hai!” – he felt there was no life in the tune. He inquired who had taught me this ignominy. When he heard the answer – “YouTube”, he shook his head, and asked bitterly: “What am I here for then?”
In the guru-shishya system, pro-activeness and questioning are rarely valued. As a disciple, your job is to surrender, not so much to take initiative. I am not going to lie: growing up in France, where autonomy is one of the most important virtues instilled to children, this top-down philosophy did puzzle me. But it did not surprise me either.
This was not the first time I went through such an experience in India. As a university student, as an employee in a corporate firm, and even as an academic, I have witnessed how widespread is the internalisation of subordination, consisting in placing seniors and mentors on a pedestal and erasing oneself in the process. The heritage of the guru-shishya parampara runs deep in Indian society, for the best and for the worst.
That being said, most of my gurubandhus thrived in this environment. Following religiously the instructions of our guru allowed them to achieve mastery and become fully self-reliant musicians. Additionally, although Yograj Naik was strict, he never, ever, imposed a poisonous dominating atmosphere upon his students. Following the raag Yaman fiasco, I sheepishly apologised, he forgave me and we moved on.
In October 2020, for my last lesson with him before I left Goa, Yograj Naik consented to teach me the basics of my second raag – Yaman. The very same raag I had tried to learn on my own, and failed. But that was just an introduction, the guru warned me. I would have to return to Goa in person to learn the rest. I committed to paying him a visit next monsoon for this purpose. By the summer, however, it was too late: he was already gone.
As promised though, I did visit Goa that monsoon. I was not alone: admirers flew from various states to pay him a last homage. It was Guru Poornima, barely three months after his demise. We all gathered inside a temple located in the lovely village of Marcel.
His disciples, including his own sister, played vibrant compositions, one after the other. Few could control their emotions. Mirroring the movement of the tears, the rain was crashing on the roof of the temple with a violence I had never seen before, the sound of it almost covering up the melody of the sitars. A grandiose au revoir for our beloved guruji.
Hugo is a PhD scholar affiliated to EHESS-CNRS, Paris. He is currently based in New Delhi at the Centre des Sciences Humaines.