A towering artist isn’t prepared overnight to be a legend. In Indian tradition, he is nurtured over years by a guru who himself is an edifice of art. Pune-based Hindustani vocalist Ramakant Gaikwad is at the prime of his musical career. But there are times when he remembers the demon from his past—the croaky voice adolescence brought years ago and its mind-crackling effect. “I was learning since three, and the sudden croakiness of the voice came as a big shock. The way my guru got me out of it was magical. For days I would only be asked to practice ‘sa’ (the note). At that time, I realised that my guru had a solid control on my mind heart and voice.” Ramakant is a beautiful paradox—like the “perfection” he chases and the times he is living in. He doesn’t like to be addressed as the “next phenomenon”. He is unassuming. It comes easily to an Indian artiste who has a guru watching his back. His guru is his father Suryakant Gaikwad. Ramakant’s rendering of the ragas and his voice texture make you wonder whether the singer was really born less than three decades ago—in 1988. He lives in the tradition-tight yesteryears—soaked in the goodness of the age-old guru-shishya parampara, where the disciple usually lives at a room’s distance from his guru—the spiritual teacher, the trainer and the mentor.
Tansen, the musical gem in Akbar’s court, was once asked why he could never sing like his guru Swami Haridas. Tansen told Akbar, “One, because he is my guru, I can’t be better than him. Then, he sings for the almighty and I sing for a mere emperor.” The audience has always determined the course and quality of an artist’s performance. In these times of easy fame and fast buck, e-gurukuls, web music lessons and releases and quick fusion jamming, there are people who take up the classical arts the hard way under the guidance of someone older, learned, fairly temperamental and generously expressive. The guru-shishya parampara, the age-old Indian tradition, a democratic, diligence-driven system where students learn and unlearn from a teacher in an emotional relationship is thriving today. It has helped save the classical arts. It has provoked change and experimentation. The guru is still the dreamy guy with belief in the training he imparts and the students he nurtures. The guru knows he is running against the times that demand result more than quality. This has made him slightly impatient and more determined to teach. He is ever willing to share over gumption, intuition and a strong dislike for abbreviating the essence of knowledge.
Mumbai-based Mohiniattam artiste Miti Desai isn’t biologically related to her guru Mandakini Trivedi—it’s only a minute incongruity. Miti, who has been learning from Mandakini since 2003, when she had first flown down from the US leaving the comfy designing career behind to seek “internalisation and spiritiuality” has two ways of looking at life—one through art and the another through her guru. She addresses her guru as “Maa”, the mother. Mandakini describes Miti as the one “who has understood the essence of the art, the virtues and values” as practised by the guru herself. Miti says, “Thanks to my training, I dropped everything less important than the art automatically.” Delhi-based brothers Lakshya and Ayush Mohan Verma play the sarod and the sitar. Their structured treatment of ragas in duets belies their years. An easy way of life is the last thing on their mind. “Guru Balwant Rai Verma has had the world’s best musician for his guru. It makes our journey tough. Today, there are many disturbing concert trends. Musicians perform only what the audiences like to hear. People in our generation are barely interested in classical music. We have to change that.” Manil Gupta graduated from the Delhi College of Art in 2003. He talks about his mentor with the same intensity Eklavya would talk about Dronacharya. The only thing that makes Gupta different from the image of ultimate sacrifice is that he won’t have to give the proverbial thumb to Deepak Bagga, his guru. Instead, he would take Bagga around in the “Holographic Love Machine”, a sports utility vehicle he painted with his brother Rohit—a public art initiative. Gupta is working on a series for the forth-coming India Art Fair where his works will be featured with several “A listers” under gallery Nature Morte. Bagga says, “I have loved Manil like my child. Manil says I have shaped him. But I have learned so much while training him. Guru and shishya are about an exchange of views and art. Contrary to the popular notion, it’s not one way.”
Bhubaneswar-based Mayurbhanj chhau guru Gaurav Mohanto expresses his motive very clearly. “As a guru, my responsibility towards a disciple is deep. I will never earn like the chhau gurus settled in Delhi and Mumbai. They are blending chhau with lesser fine body movements.” The guru is hard to seek. Not the best of teachers always emulate their mentor’s way of imparting knowledge. Guru Mandakini Trivedi, also a writer, was taught by Mohinattam crusader and academician Dr Kanak Rele. She says, “Indian dance is about intricate and subtle articulations that cannot be put into words but only be expressed through body movements. The learning has to be with the eyes and not through words.” Today, when she trains Miti and other disciples, Mandakini employs an approach different from Rele’s. How? “Dr Rele was just not a dancer. She was a magician. She taught us dance skills and we learned to internalise the training to some extent. Today, I like to impart a complete knowledge of dance including yoga, technique-building which focuses on the systematic or scientific training of the body in terms of basic steps, foot work, hand gestures, eye movements and dance pieces. I also give importance to understanding the historical, aesthetic, mythological and spiritual background of Indian dance.”
What is a guru’s role? Mandakini adds, “Any intense, integrated and spiritual sadhana awakens and expands consciousness. The energy from such a practice suffuses the art. The guru gives the vision and the eye to performance and art.”
Sometimes art allows a mentor to give himself entirely to the disciples. This not only helps the medium and the style grow, but also makes students break from the herd. Delhi-based guru Deepak Bagga has managed to do both. How? “He isn’t a regular teacher. He gives the students the freedom to think and express. He is a great draftsmen, and wonderful at his lines. He knows the aspects and manoeuvres of drawing in and out and is the master of presenting his ideas in a composite manner.” Bagga was a guest lecturer at the Delhi College of Art. And he was the one lecturer Gupta and his batch mates would wait for.
Teaching the art of blending tradition and modernism is as tough as its practice. Artist and designer Kalee Prasana Patnaik masters the skills and has helped make Odisha the country’s growing hub of designers. He says, “I started with creative training; counselled parents and reassured them that fashion designing, applied arts and architecture are as good as engineering and medicine. I made the aspiring designers, mostly students from rural areas interact with professionals and Pattachittra artisans.”
The nascent and convincing musical journey of Lakshya and Ayush tells you that a guru’s vision can help talented young musicians stand the ruthless and rough trends in today’s fast paced world. Ayush says, “When I was younger, I had realised that I was more attracted to the sound of the sarod. The guru really showed me the way.”
Strong-minded mentors save an entire legacy. Ustad Akram Khan has kept tabla’s shrunk Ajrara Gharana floating in style under his father Ustad Hashmat Ali Khan. Akram Khan who has performed with the greatest musicians of our times is a man of faith who goes beyond his religiosity in teaching and practising music. He says, “When my father asked me to play phrases on the tabla, I would focus whole-heartedly on giving him the best pieces.
People who want to excel as musicians have only one mantra—perfection. Rest can follow. I would learn instrumentation from late Ustad Vilayat Khan while touring with him.”
Tough masters keep thorns handy. Well-known director and playwright Ebrahim Alkazi, the grand old man of the Indian theatre, was known as one of the most terrific theatre gurus at the National School of Drama during the late 1960s. He would do the unthinkable to inculcate emotional values among his students. His grandson Rahaab Allana had a tough time learning the art of archiving photographs and art documents. Rahaab shares a “very formal relationship” with “Mr Alkazi” (not grand dad) and gradually found himself dabbling with the legend’s “private collection” in a scholarly manner as a “trainee”. After graduating from a prestigious Delhi college and later from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, Rahaab soaked his hands in history, literally over his job under Alkazi. He says, “All I knew was that he was very passionate about his private collection. There was archival material he had collected from different parts of the world. The collection was a mix of photographs dating back to the mid—19th century, portraits and paintings from well-known artists, and a plethora of writings that formed a body of work in itself. One fine day, he offered the ‘job’ to me after throwing open a cupboard of 5,000 photographs. There was no looking back.” Alkazi didn’t let the personal relationship curb the professional one. He even fired Rahaab from the “job” a couple of years later.
Even gurus lose way. Like a world-renowned veteran who wouldn’t share anything about his experience as a guru unless we “pay” him for the quotes. “Fees lagta hai,” he splutters over the phone. Craven people like him make art crumble. But until there is music, there’s hope. You don’t sometimes want to worry about a veteran reaching his autumn. In another corner of the country, there is a nine-year-old, lunging ferociously over his tabla riyaz. Zargham, son of Delhi-based maestro Akram Khan, talks to his father only when he has something to share about tabla-playing. “Tabla is the only reason for him to have a conversation with me. It’s amazing how I can make him behave well only with tabla sessions for a temptation. The urge to learn is giving him musical clarity. It shows in his performance.”
In visual art, like in theatre, gurus and shishyas don’t always stick together. Bagga adds, “I learnt from a great mentor like Pulak Biswas. Today, I am giving back to the art. Guru-shishya paramapara will go on until students are eager to blend skill and imagination and looking for a healthy ideation outside the conventional school of thought. It will flourish till the day students have the hunger to learn. You need affectionate people to pass the teachings on to the younger lot amidst the touching of the feet out of reverence and respect to the guru. It’s intact.”