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  • The Guru Recontextualized?Perspectives on Learning North Indian Classical Music in Shifting Environments for Professional Training
  • Huib Schippers (bio)


In the literature on Indian music and "world music education," the time-honoured system of guru-śisya-paramparā1 is often quoted as the perfect example of a close relationship between master and pupil to perpetuate a predominantly oral musical tradition. There is some justification for this: North Indian classical music has been successfully passed down as an oral tradition through guru-śisya-paramparā for many centuries and has remained a vibrant and living tradition to this day. However, with drastic changes in economic and social conditions in India (Jain 2005), the spread and uptake of Indian classical music in the West for over half a century (Farrell 1997), and emerging critical voices among contemporary Indian students, new conditions and contexts have arisen that challenge a system essentially rooted in a court patronage environment.

In terms of training professional musicians, the college, school, academy, or conservatorium environment is perhaps the most relevant new context to consider. In North India, a number of professional training institutions have been established, such as Sangit Research Academy in Kolkata, Sangit Natak Akademi in Delhi, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Meanwhile, in the West, full-degree courses have emerged in the United States, the United Kingdom, and mainland Europe during the past 30 years. The latter form a fascinating meeting ground between Indian classical tradition on the one hand and, essentially, nineteenth-century European ideas on education and training on the other (cf. Elliott 1995; Schippers 2004).

This paper considers some implications of that encounter by examining a typical setting in this new context: an intermediate bansuri lesson by the renowned flute master Hariprasad Chaurasia at the Rotterdam Conservatorium in the Netherlands. It does so from the perspective of a number of explicit and implicit choices that are highlighted when music is taught outside of its culture of origin: approaches to cultural diversity; issues of tradition, authenticity and context; and dimensions of teaching and learning, including oral, holistic, and intangible aspects. [End Page 123]


To this day, the guru is at the centre of Indian perceptions of learning music, as is evident from the prominence of the guru in the c.v. of virtually every musician, in concert announcements, and as a recurring theme in discussions among Indian musicians, students, and music lovers. Interviews with great musicians and books on Indian musicians also abound in references to revered masters (e.g. R. Shankar 1969; Bhattacharya 1979; Sorrell 1980; Chaudhuri 1993; and A. Shankar 2002). As Neuman states: "Whether a musician is considered great, good, or even mediocre, he will (in the absence of anyone else) establish—so to speak—his credentials as a musician on the basis of whom he has studied with and whom he is related to" (1990, 44). This stands to reason, because Indian music does not have a canon in the sense of an established body of works that can be accessed inde pen dent of the teacher. The guru embodies the tradition, which, ideally, is slowly and beautifully assimilated through a long, close relationship.

However, in most contemporary learning situations in India and abroad there are constraints on availability and time, there is a need to look more critically at the great institution of guru-śisya-paramparā. Societal changes challenge the relationship Neuman describes as "devotion of the disciple to his guru and the love of the guru for his disciple" in its "ideal form and essential nature" (1980, 45), and Slawek reports to be "of a spiritual nature. The guru is likened to a god, and the disciple must fully submit to him" (1987, 2). However, such a relationship does not easily flourish in the hectic, contemporary life.

Critical reflections on the guru are virtually non-existent from Indian sources, as they are socially unacceptable in music circles. Although it is common to think of the guru as a person who generates divine musicianship in his pupils as a matter of course, most gurus find it understandably difficult to live up to this profile. In public and writing, students generally exalt the source...


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