The guru-shishya relation today is no longer what it once was. In the past, the search for a guru for Hindustani music was arduous. The shishya (disciple) had to locate a good guru and convince the master of his or her capabilities and dedication. The shishya was often expected to perform menial tasks in the guru’s household in the hope that the guru would turn benevolent at some point and impart the knowledge that the shishya was so desperate to imbibe. This practice was as true for shishyas from hereditary musician families as for others – but preference was often shown to blood relatives. Female shishyas did not enjoy the same status as the males.

That was an era when the guru-shishya relationship was not a commercial transaction. It began changing towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, as gurus began accepting a fee for the training they imparted. The holdouts, who didn’t take a fee, were swept away with changing times.

Today, it is quite common to find commercial exchange being the foundation of this relationship. Of course, this may be inevitable because there is little or no patronage for musicians which could otherwise allow them to guide shishyas on a non-commercial basis. But the gurus of today often want to enjoy the luxuries of the 21st century while expecting the shishyas to live in the 18th century.

Remembering all gurus

Equally, things have changed with regard to disciples. With information being accessible at the touch of a button, disciples often do not comprehend the significance of the guru. The guru is regarded as a provider of information, rather than a mentor and an interpreter of traditional knowledge and wisdom. That this knowledge and wisdom should encompass not just musical material but also extra-musical aspects, representing perspectives about culture, history and the present, is often lost on gurus and shishyas today. Instead, one encounters a lack of humility and the presence of an air of supreme confidence celebrating mediocrity.

In such a state, it is important to remember a musician like Vilayat Hussein Khan (1895-1962), who was an exponent of the Agra gharana.

A renowned scholar-musician and composer, Khan was one of the few musicians who is regarded equally as an ideal shishya and guru. He was the author of Sangeetagyon ke Sansmaran, a book published by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1959 that is a valuable primary source for biographical information on hereditary musicians. Unfortunately, it has been out of print for years, and one can only hope that the Academy will reprint it and have it translated into English for a wider audience.

Khan’s honesty and humility as a disciple is evident in his acknowledgement of not just his primary gurus, but also of those from whom he acquired  few raags or compositions. He lists 42 gurus from whom he had imbibed technique, repertoire and aspects of presentation.

At a time when we see a large number of “self-taught” musicians proclaiming to the world that they have discovered the beauties of music and unravelled its mysteries without any guiding force, and when the culture of malls is reflected in the way shishyas change gurus at the drop of a hat, Khan’s example may seem incongruous. Nevertheless, his example is crucial. Remembering his journey as a disciple and guru may perhaps spark some realisation in those who do not acknowledge their gurus, and those who claim they are gurus when in fact they neglect shishyas or exploit them.

More importantly, his life should be remembered because it was a celebration of knowledge passed down through generations.

Extensive scholarship

It was not uncommon for a musician to learn from more than one guru in the past. With better transport and communication facilities emerging after the mid-19th century, this pattern grew. Still, the essence of the traditional relationship was maintained as a shishya was expected to seek the guru's permission before requesting another musician to teach. There were occasions when gurus withheld repertoire or forbade disciples from moving to other gurus, but to be eclectic about one’s training was no longer considered blasphemous. Indeed, such restrictions rarely stopped the creative urge even in earlier times.

Khan cut many 78 rpm and 45 rpm records and recorded extensively for the All India Radio. His scholarship is evident in the variety of raags that he recorded. Here are a few of his commercial recordings. Additional information has been sourced from the discography provided in The Journal of The Society of Indian Record Collectors, Volume 19, July 1995 by researcher Michael Kinnear, whose research on the history of record labels in India has been path-breaking.

These recordings display important elements of Khan’s vocal style such as his direct statement of the composition, his penchant for bol baant or the play with rhythm using the words of the song-text, and his bol taans or quick melodic runs using the lyrics. His ease with the laya or rhythm aspect is evident in all recordings that are currently available.

The first two tracks were issued on the Odeon label in December 1931. The composition in the morning raag Deshkar is set to Teentaal, a cycle of sixteen matras or time-units.

Pran Piya
Raag Deshkar

Vrindabani Sarang
The composition in the afternoon raag Vrindavani Sarang is also set to a drut or fast-paced Teentaal.

Raag Malkauns
This third track is a tarana in the night raag Malkauns and was issued on the Odeon label in February 1935. 

Pyara Mainda Nazar Nahi Aaunda
Also issued on the same label and in the same year, this next piece is a Punjabi composition in raag Sohini. 

Raag Khambavati
While most people would associate Vilayat Hussein Khan and his style with dhrupad-dhamar and khayal, this track features a hori that describes the celebrations during Holi, the festival of colours. This recording was issued on the Odeon label in September 1935.

Though the earlier tracks were issued as 78 rpms, here are two pieces issued in 1961 by His Master’s Voice on two sides of a 45 rpm. The first is Paraj, a raag prescribed for Basant or the spring season. The composition set to Teentaal has been composed by Vilayat Hussein Khan and his pseudonym "Pran piya" appears in the song-text.

Raag Sohni Pancham
The last track is again a composition in Teentaal composed by Vilayat Hussein Khan "Pran piya" in Sohini Pancham, a rarely heard raag.

Next week, this column will feature a more detailed discussion about Vilayat Hussein Khan’s music based on his archival recordings from the All India Radio.