Guru Purnima, which falls on July 9 this year, is observed by students of Hindustani music as a day to reflect on the pivotal role that their gurus have played in their journey to acquiring theoretical and practical knowledge and putting it into practice. This day, therefore, symbolises the strong relationship that exists between the guru and shishya (disciple) in the guru-shishya parampara or tradition.

Undoubtedly, this relation was not free from problems in the past, particularly when music was learnt and performed by members of hereditary musician and courtesan families. Indeed, the relationship often turned exploitative due to the inherent inequalities at play.

Changing tradition

The guru occupied an exalted position as a knowledge-giver and interpreter in an essentially oral tradition and was regarded as an omnipotent figure. The system made it obligatory for the shishyas to prove their worthiness to the guru before the training could begin. Once accepted, the shishya seldom made cash offerings to the guru in return for the training, but performed various menial tasks for the guru.

Those who did not belong to the guru’s family but wished to train as professionals were expected to serve the guru and win his confidence so that he agreed to impart knowledge that was otherwise a closely guarded secret.

Teaching sessions would take place as per the whims of the guru. Disciples from the guru’s family were given more importance over outsiders. Usually, traditional training did not encourage inquiry and discussion during teaching sessions. Disciples were expected to obediently learn what the guru chose to teach. Noting song-texts was forbidden, compositions were seldom notated and solfège was used only to learn basic exercises.

The guru decided whether or not the shishya was ready to perform in public. But even before the shishya performed as a soloist, there were several occasions when the guru would ask the shishya to be a part of the musical ensemble. In the case of vocalists, the shishya would provide vocal accompaniment. For the shishya, these were the first steps to getting used to a performance setting.

However, in the 20th century, the guru-shishya association changed into a commercial transaction in which the guru was paid a tuition fee. In the past decade or so, technology has empowered the shishya in terms of making knowledge from various sources easily accessible. While this has democratised the learning process further, it has also resulted in a sense of entitlement in the shishya. This in turn has challenged the position that the guru enjoyed in the past. Clearly, the guru-shishya association will need to be reviewed in the present circumstances.

We end this article with a video clip of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s presentation of the raag Yaman Kalyan in 1974. He is accompanied on the tabla by the illustrious tabla exponent Alla Rakha. But relevant to our episode is the fact that Shankar is accompanied on the sitar by his disciple Kartik Kumar, one of the seniormost sitar and surbahar players today, and by Harihar Rao, another prominent disciple. In a carefully orchestrated performance, Shankar has allotted melodic lines to his disciples that colour his elaboration.