The 2014 Oscar-winning drama Whiplash, about a jazz teacher’s turbulent relationship with one of his students, seems to argue that great art is a product of great fear, sacrifice and total surrender. In one scene, the teacher, Terence Fletcher, furiously hurls a chair at an ambitious first-year jazz student, Andrew Neiman, learning under him at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. He then whacks the boy in the face and abuses him in front of the entire class. The pupil is shown being pushed to perfection through constant humiliation.
The brutality of Whiplash, which makes it such a captivating film, would perhaps tame in comparison with some of the famous stories about the guru-shishya parampara, the centuries-old tradition of teaching classical music and dance in India. For instance, Alladiya Khan, the great doyen of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, was known to have forbidden Kesarbai Kerkar from having children if she wanted to learn under him. Baba Alauddin Khan, the renowned sarod player of the Maihar gharana, was so strict and unrelenting with his demands for riyaz—practice—that his son Ali Akbar ran away to Mumbai to work for a radio station while still in his teens. And in the home of his guru Sawai Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi would have to wash the clothes of his teacher’s entire household before he could sit for his sessions.
The guru-shishya tradition was not just a pedagogical method, but a way of life. The disciple lived with, or in close proximity to, the guru, often suspending family ties and extending her duties beyond just the musical realm. In return, the guru was “responsible for guiding the disciple from ignorance or darkness to enlightenment,” as the scholar Michael Hale Oppenheim wrote in his essay “Cross-cultural Pedagogy in North Indian Classical Music.” The guru not only transmitted knowledge and technique through an aural practice, but also served as a spiritual and cultural mentor, prodding the disciple to truly internalise the craft. Today, this gurukul system, which has been in a continual state of flux since the turn of the twentieth century, gasps for breath, faced with a volley of existential strains—from economic challenges and generational shifts in attitudes to an onslaught of formidable technologies. The change in pedagogy is clearly altering both the art form of Hindustani music and its practitioners.
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