Today, priceless and timely knowledge is a few key strokes away, thanks to the internet and social media. Collaboration is imperative for good learning as teaching becomes efficiently “crowd-sourced” via various internet fora and on-line communities, says eminent vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan

A musician guru and his shishya (student) were once traveling in a train. The student, standing by the teacher throughout the travel asked him a question related to a lesson. The guru denied him an answer by ignoring the question. Further, the he had the student alight at the next station leaving him to repent what he thought was a reasonable act.

The story is hearsay; the guru was probably admonishing the question as a mark of insolence or disrespect. However, the story does capture the notion-of-the-past that knowledge should be over-treasured to the extent of secrecy and exposed only when the “time is right”.  

The e-Guru!

Today, priceless and timely knowledge is a few key strokes away, thanks to the internet and social media. Collaboration is imperative for good learning as teaching becomes efficiently “crowd-sourced” via various internet fora and on-line communities. It is up to a deserving student to harness and utilise this knowledge. Today, the shishya in the story above could browse the internet and find his own guru’s answers to the same question, but posed by someone else at an open forum or workshop. Clearly, with the modern day gurus mostly traveling by air, the shishya’s standing beside or being dropped off midway is not an option!

True, much as any bountiful source needs a guideline for use in moderation, learning from the internet is a formidable task that needs guidance. But, if Ekalavya mastered the dhanurveda (the upaveda of archery) with Dronacharya as his maanaseeka guru (virtual guru), why can’t a motivated and deserving student master gandharva veda (upaveda of music)? The “e-Guru” (the internet) today can provide ample guidance in this regard! Especially in learning about the composers, the compositional aesthetics they exhibited, and the various theoretical details they have contributed to or contemplated upon — critical aspects that are unfortunately deprioritised in the traditional teaching styles.

Contrary to the past, students don’t need to lobby for the guru’s approval or referrals to perform today. Many enthusiastic students fully device their own paths for recognition. For example, a single movie song can reverse referral roles — the student ends up referring the guru for concert opportunities. Can a motivated and ambitious student not adopt the e-Guru to success?

The Guru!

Many performing professionals today constantly battle the balance between upholding tradition and accommodating modern trends. We also see audiences responding to uniqueness facets — be it the choice of songs rendered or the artist’s personal appearance. We see the celebrity status adorning these artists in kurtas of ever-increasing lengths, bangles & jhimkis all dancing against the beat during rendition. Artists trying to stand their ground on tradition are well received too — but in this retro-centric era, could tradition be misconstrued as the new fashion statement? Regardless, one is not always able to set the right example or send the right message to a student!

A healthy trend is prevalent today wherein aspiring students are really aspiring performers. Although rare to find a student who wants to learn music for spiritual fulfillment, most teachers will quickly concur on the fact that there is no standard metric for progress there. To that goal of an aspiring performer, most performing artists are sought after to be gurus.

The Transition from e-Guru to Guru

Today, practically, the face-to-face availability of the guru for any student is limited by the former’s busy schedules especially with long-term and international travel. Most established are already adopting technology (one-on-one chat, instructor-led virtual meetings and recorded lessons) to cover long-distance teaching. However, with an increased interest and more aspiring performers, traditional lessons or teaching modules may not be scalable.

One possible solution is in-line with Ramana Maharishi’s philosophy of self-guidance through the “Guru within” (You-Guru). From my experiences as a teacher, I can propose a few ideas that can adequately equip a motivated student. This proposal is not to eliminate the guru. The grammatical and structural aspects of music can indeed be mastered through appropriately structured recorded (audiovisual) lessons. Improvisation, presentation techniques and the guidelines for taking up music as a profession are still best imbibed through a guru who is also a performing artist. The goal of the teacher is to rather tap the You-Guru in the aspiring performer.

In order to implement this rather tall order by leveraging the e-Guru, the learning methodology has to be individualised and enhanced continuously. Rudimentary lessons have to be in place. In addition, disciplined efforts in discerning, repeating and reproducing subtle facets like oscillations have to be undertaken.

In today’s complex world, all of us play multiple roles — being a student or a teacher is just one such role. Most young budding musicians are attuned to an institutionalised establishment. The concept of the gurukulavasam, however, is individualised and demands compliance from both the teacher and the student. For the shishya, this compliance can be balanced better with maturity that evolves with time and appreciable skill level of the structural aspects provided by the e-Guru.

Download Your Guru!

Learning by listening to recorded audios of the stalwarts’ concerts, interviews, workshops, lectures and lessons is the ultimate exercise.  The e-Guru abounds in this music (agnostic to its copyright status). However, with the additional lessons specified above, a student is more informed of what to look for in those audios. It helps isolate, sort and refine aspects of technique and presentation for his or her own current need. I have had personal experience along these lines and I can say the experience here was more than enriching.

The Transcendence from Guru to You-Guru

Although there is much concern around loss of bani (style) with lack of a long-term guru, I feel improvisational music transcends the need for it. In T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai’s words, “Bani is the rasika’s own wealth” while musicians should still strive for absolute music. While this statement does not devalue understanding various artists’ styles and their interpretative excellence, it definitely gives the student a creative license beyond.

Learning any traditional art form requires motivation, material, mentorship, and meditation. An individual’s motivation to master the art today can be well-supplemented by the material provided by the e-Guru, mentorship by the chosen guru and the meditation or musical contemplation by the You-Guru.

Way of the future!

Many social, technological and economic developments in today’s world are here to stay — it is up to us to channel these changes towards a better future while preserving the rich heritage of the past.

The success of an art-form, culture or tradition lies in its ability to integrate with changing times. I see the e-Guru to Guru to You-Guru transitions as a means to integrate our music with today’s world. I thrive in the world of my guru and my shishyas and the music I hold so dear to me while I share our collective burden of enabling our great art form to gloriously flourish with time.


Thukkada - Focus, not flashJanuary 2, 2011