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What is Guru?

Students give roses to their teachers on the occasion of Guru Purnima  

Guru Purnima (Sunday, July 9, this year) is a special day for artistes. It is a unique concept in India, when a full moon day in the month of Ashadh is dedicated to one’s guru, mentor or acharya/teacher. In some parts of India, it is also called Ved Vyas puja (after Vyas muni) or Buddha Purnima, since on this day Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath. What is the role of a Guru in Indian classical arts, especially dance?

Indian classical arts are one of a kind in the world because of the methodology of transmission and teaching an art form. Learning, often through generations, from a guru. “It is still the only field where we the touch feet of our Guru by way of respect and to seek blessings,” says scholar-dancer Padma Subrahmanyam, who adds “in all other disciplines — be it science or commerce — this is missing.”

“The idea of Guru cannot be defined in a few words. A lifetime goes in finding a true Guru,” avers C.V. Chandrasekhar, who has scores of students. “Ours are abhyaas art forms. They cannot be learnt but from a guru,” hold the Dhananjayans.

What is a Guru, not who? Today, titles being generously given, the attributes of a guru may vary among regions but the core, kernel essence remains selflessness and service. “A Guru is about giving. Giving a meaningful direction in life, through art,” says veteran M.K. Saroja, all of 86. She refuses to be called a guru because “I’m not fit for the title as I’m only giving what my guru gave me. I’ve become more a mother-figure than guru to my students from the West because in addition to art, they are seeking a sense of emotional bonding.”

Traditional approach

“In my youth, when I washed my guru’s kurta or dhoti, it was not servitude but seva bhavna that this is my guru’s garment, which I can lovingly wash and iron and thus serve him. For even a minute, our guru was not out of our radar,” recalls Kathak king guru Birju Maharaj.

“Our traditional art teaching methodology continues and I have to be strict with my students but friendly too,” says Kalamandalam Suresh. “My guru could throw a tattukazhi in my direction and I’d take that as correction not punishment".

India is the only country many foreigners flock to learn in this gurukul system. Brazilian actor Ricardo Gomez has been coming many years learning Kathakali. “It teaches me real tapasya/discipline. I know gurus can be tough but at least they care enough to correct and train us. This in the West is missing totally; it’s impersonal,” he says.

Small town India still values gurudom. Baroda, Mysore, Shoranur, Tiruchi, Mangalore or Jaipur still worship the guru because what we get from them is meaning in life, which can’t be bought for any amount of money,” avers Shridhar of Mysore. “My father-guru Sundarlal-ji taught me by inference, never by rote. Today I’m head of the Kathak department of M.S. University, Baroda, even if I’m barely lettered,” says guru Harish Gangani, in all humility. Gurus teach humility , which is an impediment to personal, artistic or spiritual growth.

Living in a metropolis like Mumbai has not changed the attitude of stalwarts such as guru Kalyanasundaram, Kanak Rele, Daksha Mashruwala or Uma Dogra. “The foundation we got from our gurus is what is helping us continue in the field long after our they have passed away. We are dancing, earning, teaching because of them,” they say.

Art continues and in the context of our classical traditions, a Guru is a supreme gift from the god. With this feeling one propitiates teachers on Guru Purnima.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 6:13:30 PM |

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