For as long as music and dance have flourished in India, so has the tradition of transferring the knowledge of Indian music and dance heritage. Perhaps in no other country has knowledge been transferred through a compact socio-academic tradition - the guru-shishya parampara. As modern systems of knowledge have taken hold, however, this tradition is no longer as robust as it once was.

Gurus (teacher or master) traditionally transmitted knowledge to their shishyas (disciple or student) by word of mouth and example. One of the most striking features of this tradition was that nearly everything was taught orally. This tradition is firmly rooted in culture and conduct, and was passed down with the body of literature in Sanskrit as well as other ancient languages, Hindu rituals, legal codes, philosophic tenets, and various manifestations of the arts themselves.

The guru-shishya parampara remained the popular model of teaching in the North of the subcontinent for centuries. Muslim, Hindu, professional Hindustani and Northern Indian - almost all musicians learnt this way. Traditionally, the students lived at the guru’s house for years together, serving them and their family and obtained their music education in return. Certain elements of Indian music made this essentially interactive means of learning a necessity, but also a limitation. “While this "one on one" situation of residential training is an ideal way to study music, this mode of study can also hinder one from acquiring all the skills necessary, since one learns only as much as the guru is willing and open to share”, sums up Pundit Bharat Bhushan Goswami, a noted Sarangi player.

This way, the student usually got initiated in the guru’s gharana (a word rooted in ‘ghar’ meaning ‘house’). Gharanas are systems creating oases of stylistic difference – with the student’s rendering and interpretation of ragas having the distinct stamp of one of the gharanas like Agra, Gwalior, Jaipur, Kirana etc. Often, however, it was observed that the absolute insights of music were shared only with immediate family members or with exceptionally talented students – a reason why there are only a limited number of really accomplished artists representing each gharana.

Key insights of music were shared only with immediate family members or with exceptionally talented students – a reason why there are only a limited number of really accomplished artists representing each gharana.
The disciple’s primary gift to the guru was respect, dedication and love for, not only the guru, but also for his/her music. Gurus typically sought to make their music outlive them through their disciples – for whom not just the music but the guru himself has great significance throughout their life. “This is why almost every concert of Indian classical music includes a moment of homage and respect for the guru,” offers Goswami.

However, Pundit Goswami also points to the changing face of the traditional guru-shishya parampara. No one disputes the crucial role of an accomplished guru. But students no longer live with their gurus for years together to learn music - or any other skill or profession. Instead they enroll in regular schools during the day and take either additional home-tuitions in music or attend various music schools. “It is true that the fluid nature of north Indian classical music enhances the need for a guru. However, the face of the guru-shishya interaction is changing fast. It is no longer natural for students to live for years with their gurus. Not only are the students unwilling to do so because of other pressures like academics, the gurus, unlike earlier (i.e. lacking the public patronage of old times) cannot afford to house, feed and educate their students for years together,” points Goswami.

Alternatives have come up. Pundit Rajan and Saajan Mishra, for instance, have opened a gurukul in Dehradun, while Ajay Chakravarty has initiated one in Kolkata. These institutions are very practical insofar as it is not obligatory for students to stay there for years together. People with other obligations can attend, stay and practice there even for one month at a time. This arrangement makes it easier for the gurus as well to attend to their diverse duties. "Much as some of them would like to, gurus cannot devote themselves exclusively to transferring their knowledge to the next generation. They have to perform at concerts, make sure they have a secure source of income, attend to family obligations and look after the schools and institutes some of them have founded. While these modern gurukuls are certainly expensive and not everyone can afford to attend these, often these are the only modern alternatives we have. So, while the tradition is more or less intact, its face has changed drastically," summarises Goswami.

Noted singer Hariharan seems to nod in agreement. “Southern classical music is more often written down as compared to music in the north, which makes the latter more experimental, thereby underlining the need for direction typically given by a guru. However, staying together with the guru in the old-style guru-shishya parampara is not the only way to be guided. Modern day lifestyle has rendered such living arrangements totally impractical,” he offers.

While formal institutions of music can certainly be costly, they definitely make music education professional, accessible and democratic. They make music education available to anyone who fulfils the basic stipulations, thereby not confining the knowledge of music only to traditionally musical families and extending the base to include talented students from non-musical families. These institutions also negate the monopolistic tendencies of some gurus to selectively transferring knowledge depending on the student, his background etc. At professionally run music schools, the gurus can no longer take advantage of the fact that Indian music is relatively less documented than music in the West, which makes access to the former relatively difficult.

What about the role of caste and family traditions in transmission of music knowledge? After all, knowledge was often the preserve of the high-born; could this have limited the evolution of music? Pundit Goswami agrees, but believes that more than caste, the traditional system of keeping music confined to the family has been a greater obstacle. This too is changing. Music is increasingly leaving the confines of traditionally musical families. More and more students from families with no music background are establishing themselves as musicians. Earlier, immediate reverence was paid to children of great musicians. Today, says Goswami, the audience is more critical and promptly dismisses anyone – irrespective of family background – who does not promise quality.

It is unfortunate that many of the most talented Gurus who cannot afford to set up modern institutions are living in absolute poverty. According to Pundit Goswami, government funding for such people from the concerned ministries and bodies like the Council for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT), All India Radio (AIR) etc. has shrunk drastically over the years. The university systems have also not done a good job of offering scholarly instruction in traditional Indian arts of every kind; these are simply relegated to the margins of learning. In the West, by constrast, many universities have schools of music that bring the discipline to many interested young people.

The many private TV channels and big industrial houses are in a position to contribute through scholarships for students and gurus taken together. Maybe these big industrial houses could think of spending money on these aspects instead of just sponsoring various TV programmes and cricket matches, says Goswami. He regrets that many students and artists, fearing limited opportunities due to a dearth of perspectives in society about their work, stop learning music within a few months and go in for jobs like playing at jagrans and marriages.

The face of India's rich tradition of learning music has changed dramatically - although quite expectedly, given the changes in the entire society. While the nation has been finely tuned to economics, the arts have languished - there is no national policy commitment towards preserving even modern avatars of our ancient systems of transfer of knowledge. If the forgotten talent in lanes and by-lanes is to be tapped, patronage and regard for learning must be stronger - both in the government and among the people. Else, the notes will grow steadily fainter.