Indian classical music is largely a hereditary tradition, generally taught in a pedagogical fashion and handed down from father to son. Since Indian music is rarely written down, watching and listening to the teacher – or guru (Ustad if Muslim, Pandit if Hindu) – is a crucial part of the learning process. There is a general consensus that cultures which acquire knowledge through oral traditions show more reverence for purity and antiquity, resulting in a heartfelt – almost instinctual – and unconditional respect for traditional wisdom and knowledge in a way that is distinct from cultures in which knowledge is written and documented.
Hence the person imparting that knowledge – whether a guru or the pupil’s own father or uncle – assumes a larger-than-life position in the eyes of the disciple. South Asian cultures are generally known for their exceptional reverence for age and authority – parents and elders are always respected, teachers and gurus even more so. It is not done to address an elder – or even any other accomplished person – by their first name and where this is absolutely necessary, the honorific 'ji' is added, although often mistaken as part of the name by those who do not understand this tradition.
The pupil’s respect, commitment, devotion and obedience are defined by a code of conduct contained within the ancient tradition known as the Guru-Shishya Parampara (code of manners between teacher and pupil) which stipulates that advanced knowledge can only be imparted within the context of a spiritual relationship between guru and disciple and that the acquisition of such knowledge is only possible when the disciple abandons his/her ego and assumes a demeanour of abject surrender to the guru’s authority.
An Indian music guru is not the same as a Western music teacher. Whilst a music teacher in the West is expected to teach only music, the Indian maestro assumes a comprehensive responsibility for the pupil, providing guidance in every aspect of life and often taking precedence over the pupil’s natural parents.
The act of bending down to touch the guru’s feet is common. It is said to reduce the pupil’s ego as well as to make the heart (and soul) more receptive to the guru’s blessing. Although there are many quasi-scientific explanations for this act, it is mainly symbolic and acts as an outward manifestation of something that is deeply ingrained within the disciple from a very young age: an intense respect and complete subservience enacting the spirit of abject surrender to the one who imparts this precious knowledge of music. In return, the elder or the guru, places his or her hands on the disciple’s head, which is symbolic of a direct blessing to succeed in whatever the pupil has undertaken.
Going into discipleship with a leading maestro carries such a heavy responsibility for both master and disciple that boundaries must be clearly drawn with the pupil’s subservience being visible at all times.
Listen to more | Pandit Nityanand Haldipur is among the Maihar gharana’s leading bansuri exponents. He discusses the influence of his guru, the revered but reclusive surbahar player Annapurna Devi. Recorded by Darbar in 2014, on location in India.
Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.
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