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There is a gossamer bond between the guru and shishya on stage

Pt. Bhimsen Joshi in concert.

Pt. Bhimsen Joshi in concert.   | Photo Credit: Photo courtesy family album of Madhava Gudi

That invisible and intriguing interaction between guru and shishya on stage

In a Hindustani or Carnatic music baithak, the interplay between main performer and accompanists is always a compelling part of the presentation. The dynamics on stage that we watch and listen to provide much pleasure and food for thought.

The accompanist’s presence and contribution can range from the flamboyant to the low-key. As audience, we can at times watch an overawed accompanist sticking to the straight and narrow, while one who shares ease and camaraderie with the performer can lend great support and also showcase his or her virtuosity, and can shine (but not outshine) too. But that is the subject matter of quite another exploration.

There is another quieter, intense, discreet and supportive presence on the performing stage. That of the shishya or disciple, sitting behind the guru on the tanpura. Once this near-invisible aspect of the performance comes to your notice, you begin to pay attention to it and register its many facets. And then you are privileged to be witness to what is often an extremely touching and telling interplay, a gossamer bond.

Quiet concentration

Much learning and teaching — of music, performing, etiquette, nurturing — takes place during the performance, albeit not obvious to the audience.

The disciples sit very still, dress unobtrusively, keep their heads down or their eyes focused on their teacher, only their hands working the tanpura. They know how to draw almost no attention to themselves, unless specifically told or wordlessly prompted to sing — to either repeat what they just heard, or add to it from their own training.

Even their appreciation of their guru’s performance is muted, their faces mostly impassive — but sometimes one catches an adoring-admiring flash in the shishya’s eyes when the guru offers a particularly brilliant and breathtaking phrase. Mostly, there is a quiet concentration and supplication in the body language of the disciple. It reminds me, oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), of a team of doctors and assistants in a delivery room.

Heard through pictures

There is an iconic photograph, by Raghu Rai, of Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur sitting cross-legged, looking up to the sky, submitted utterly to the moment of creation; it feels uncannily as if the disciples are assisting a birthing, all focused on delivering music to the listener!

Another arresting photograph is that of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, well into his virtuoso days, sitting humbly in attendance, behind Mansur as he sings. The other tanpura player in the picture, providing vocal support, is son and singer Rajshekhar Mansur.

At a performance, when the guru gives the shishya scope to sing, many intentions are realised: the guru wants the shishya to gain performing confidence, he or she also wants the audience to get a sense of the new singer’s voice, training, music-thought.

Sometimes, the ‘connecting’ singing that a shishya is invited to offer is so that the guru can pause to take breath or sip water, or to conjure up the next taan or prepare to ascend to the next set of notes. Sometimes, the shishya even completes the musical intention of an ageing guru, whose voice may no more allow him or her to bring a phrase to full fruition.

Pride and joy

How much and in what discerning way a teacher gives scope to his disciples in the performance, is equally a measure of the disciple’s taiiyari or performance-preparedness, as it is a measure of the mentoring abilities of a mature and secure guru.

The shy disciple is given a foothold, a hoist; the overconfident or flamboyant disciple is gently reined in, or indulged and allowed a free hand at times.

Some of the attending disciples of an ageing guru are often singers in their own right, with a fan following on the concert circuit. The evolved elderly teacher is aware of this, and gives the student the space to shine, and enjoys the audience’s reaction to the disciple’s offerings, with pride and joy.

It is intriguing to see some gurus cutting in, right in the middle of a shishya’s phrase or intention to take the phrase somewhere, and resuming their own presentation. At one time, as a young listener, I would wonder if this was not a little like a snub to the student, who has to immediately go quiet, almost mid-note; but now I know that this is part of the gentle see-saw of the entire dynamic.

This is because, equally, a sensitive shishya will seamlessly cut in and pick up the slack, if the guru falters or his throat or instrument gives him some trouble during the performance.

This entire interplay has its humorous moments too. Joshi, mid-performance, once signalled over his shoulder to the disciple behind him to sing. The nervous disciple came up with a rather hesitant taan, barely audible, which then petered out completely in the last few notes. At this rather weak offering, the guru quickly resumed singing, but half-turned to the shishya, and with that quintessential Indian gesture of hand and mouth asked the silent question: “Have you not eaten today?”

The audience giggled and a small rumble of laughter went around the pandal — quite a bit of this laughter was sympathetic to the cringing disciple, who further hid his face in his chest and behind the tanpura, trying to disappear altogether in his deep embarrassment!

The novelist, counsellor, music lover will take readers on a ramble through the Alladin’s cave of Indian music.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 1:36:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/there-is-a-gossamer-bond-between-the-guru-and-shishya-on-stage/article25690562.ece

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