Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC & DANCE : December 05, 1999
Nurturing the musical flame
A well thought-out programme for teaching Indian classical music could breathe fresh life into the field.
Music in India encompasses a vast panoply of forms, instruments, principles, performers and histories in the religious, folk, "hybrid" film-dance-theatre, and classical traditions. How do these music traditions persist, how do they evolve in the face of radically fluctuating social, political and economic climates, what modes and what courses do they chart out for themselves in order to survive? The transmissions of the various traditions and sub-traditions in this vast panoply - the handings-along, the passing of the "musical flame" from one generation to the next - are truly fields that need to be studied and understood carefully. Today, nowhere else is the issue of music transmission so involved, so complex, so torn between traditional models and modern methods than in the field of classical music.
In the case of Indian classical music, the notion of teaching is at the centre of the transmission process; and at its epicentre is situated the Guru - the teacher, the preceptor, the seer and guide. The word Guru is made up of two syllables "gu" and "ru". Etymologically, "gu" stands for darkness and "ru" stands for one who dispels the darkness. So the Guru in addition to being a music teacher and expert in the discipline of music is also considered as one who shows the way for the sisya, the disciple. In the Indian musical tradition, the transmission is primarily "oral" in the sense that the teaching takes place in a scenario of the Guru singing (or playing an instrument) and the sisya learning by listening, as compared to say, the Western classical tradition where the written score/ notation is an equally critical element of the transmission process.
Typically, even in the recent past, the sisya would leave his parents' home and stay with, serve and learn from his chosen Guru, in the pursuit of musical knowledge. In such a gurukula tradition, as much, if not more, emphasis is laid upon the total assimilation of the art form, rather than musical learning through formal lessons. So the sisya is almost always in a continuous state of learning - while listening to his Guru practice or while he teaches other sisyas, while accompanying him on the tambura during a concert and while listening to the Guru talk about and discuss musical nuances (theoretical and performative) with various other people. This methodology of teaching, which is unique to this country, is what is called sampradaya and has been coming down the ages being handed over from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition.
In the traditional model, the teaching methods in Indian classical music, or for that matter in the other Indian arts too, is integrative and holistic. The emphasis is on imbibing the entire locus of content, form and structure in the overall perspective of the music. The method is predominantly one of assimilation by listening, conditioning, repetition, practice, intuition and contemplation. So for example, a sisya would hear various renditions of a particular raga by his Guru at different times, in different contexts, was probably initiated into and instructed with regard to the rules of the raga, and was encouraged to contemplate about it. The Guru would teach the sisya some compositions in the raga but the raga itself was never completely "taught" to the sisya; it was up to him to discover it.
Contrast this with the analytical, dissective, "choreographic" method in the teaching of Western classical music. Technique, repertoire, interpretative and stylistic elements are imparted and taught in a rigorously analytical way. Whether it be the voice or any musical instrument, the music student develops through step-by-step instruction and illustration of skills, sounds, and concepts. For example, if you are a student of the violin, you would be taught the four ways to grip the bow, the teacher would identify which grip suits your hand the best; six months to a year would be spent on perfecting your playing posture, teaching you how to relax certain muscle groups, how to breathe while playing and so on. Only thereafter would you actually start playing the beginning music lessons and start work on playing technique. Problem areas are constantly identified and worked upon methodically, and there is a constant evaluation of progress separately on technical and musical levels. Music theory and music history are taught separately and are brought to bear on the musical performance of the student.
Though these two approaches are quite in contrast, they are not so compartmentalised as to negate the other. Music learning in general involves the development of a great variety of learning skills, memory (aural and visual), analytical, numerical and visualisation skills, and cognitive abilities such as auditory, structural and compositional, to name a few. Achieving proficiency in music implies a teaching methodology which is able to holistically develop all these mental faculties. Both methods are equally valid; surely, the teaching methods outlined above have evolved along time to serve the particular music that is sought to be sung or played.
Given the importance of manodharma (individuality/improvisation) in Indian classical music, the Indian traditional model is probably an ideal one as it develops the imaginative, intuitive and elaborative faculties of the musician. Given the very extensive and structured nature of Western classical music and its requirement to perform in ensembles (ranging from quartets to symphony orchestras consisting of about 60 to 100 musicians), the Western teaching model develops the musical discipline, performative rigor and technical mastery in the music student.
At the level of the advanced student though, teaching, learning and musical development is a personalised and "customised" affair. I, for instance, having had the opportunity to partake of both these pedagogical systems quite substantially, my musical development has been shaped and continues to be shaped through both the Indian and Western teaching methodologies. And we have examples of great teachers in both the systems, who have studied and worked out teaching models incorporating aspects of both approaches. Yehudi Menuhin, a child prodigy and an illustrious performer of the Western classical violin, also devoted a major portion of his later years to teaching. Having spent considerable time in India and with Indian classical musicians, his exceptional teaching methods included meditation, yoga, rasa aesthetics, musical improvisation and so on. Dr. T. Viswanathan, a grandson of Vina Dhanammal, has been teaching Carnatic classical music in the United States for more than 30 years. Without compromising on the traditional content and stylistic sophistication of his bani (school/style), he has been successful in integrating notational and analytical methods into his teaching. The late Jon Higgins "Bhagavathar", one of Dr. Viswanathan's prime sisyas, is a good example of how such a synthesis of the two teaching traditions could overcome seemingly unscaleable musico-cultural differences.
The word tradition should never be misunderstood to imply stagnant repetition across time or static sameness across space. In fact, a tradition is rendered durable only by innovation, and is rendered vital only by a multiplicity of styles and sub-styles. In both the streams of Indian classical music, Carnatic as well as Hindustani, the Guru has been the focal point around whom a particular bani or gharana (school/style) has originated and sustained. The term gharana is derived from the Hindi word ghar traceable to the Sanskrit griha meaning family or house.
In the past and not so long ago, performing arts, as also many other crafts, were carried on as family traditions - a mode of cultural transmission quite analogous to genetic transmission. So in the south we have examples such as the Dikshitar school and more recently banis such as the Dhanammal Bani which were basically family traditions. In the North, gharanas suggested places of origin of the hereditary musicians such as the Agra, Patiala, Gwalior and Jaipur gharanas.
The secondary logic behind this hereditary system (the primary logic being, of course, the monopolisation and safeguarding of musical "wealth" so that only the family and its descendants derive social and economic benefits arising out of it) was to preserve the ideological content, stylistic features, and unique characteristics that had been crystallised into what was the music of their gharana. Today, or rather in the past 50 years or so, due to various socio-economic reasons, the hereditary aspect of the gharana or bani system has almost completely given way to a more democratic transmission system where familial allegiances have been sidelined and the opportunities for learning the music of any particular gharana or bani are not restrictive. Today, gharanas are mentioned, discussed and proclaimed as indicators of certain musical ideas, repertoire and performing styles and the affiliations are at the level of musical ideology.
For today's performers of Indian classical music (some of whom are or would be teachers tomorrow), the opportunities to assimilate musical ideas, techniques and repertoire from various sources are so overpowering that it is highly unlikely that strict affiliations at the gharana or bani level would be maintained in the future. Records, cassettes, CDs, radio and television give us an extended scope for music appreciation and learning. In such a scenario, strict integrity of a music student to a particular bani or gharana would be a utopian dream. Since the previous generation itself, "mixing of styles" has become the norm rather than the exception. By "mixing", I definitely do not imply dilution or a lessening of musical and traditional value; "mixing" here should be understood as a confluence of different musical ideas. My guru for Hindustani music, Pandit C.R.Vyas trained under gurus from three different gharanas, namely, Agra, Gwalior and Kirana. His singing style is a unique blend of these three gharanas and is individualistic despite being totally traditional. Besides my formal training under him, my musical preferences with regard to which other singers I listen to and whom I am influenced by, play an important role in shaping my musicality. To sum up, as far as classical music is concerned, assimilation has become as important as formal learning.
While on the subject of transmission, though the guru, or the music teacher, is at the epicentre of the teaching tradition, strong mention must be made of music institutions which have played and continue to play an important role in the transmission of music. In an institutional set-up the extent of exposure available to the music student is much wider than in the traditional one-to-one teacher student relationship. The student derives much benefit from being taught by a faculty comprising musicologists, music theoreticians, practising musicians, visiting guest lecturers and so on. The student also has the opportunity to enrich his repertoire of compositions and styles by tutelage under many teachers. Though the intensity and depth of musical learning are generally less when compared to the traditional Guru-sisya set-up, institutional music learning widens horizons for the student.
In the West, in Europe and the United States especially, music conservatories have been the most important centres of learning for the past six hundred years or so. Even today, music conservatories such as the Juilliard School in New York, or the Paris conservatory produce some of the best performers in Western Classical music. In the case of Indian music, though there is mention of universities such as Nalanda which flourished in medieval times and where fine arts and music were part of the curriculum, not much is documented about them.
In the modern era, music programmes in universities such as the Benaras Hindu University, Annamalai University, and Queen Mary's College, Chennai, were established in the early decades of this century. In the hundred years or so that they have been around, their contribution to the spread of music and music teaching has been tremendous. Today, almost all the major Indian Universities have a music department. A lot of private music schools attached to cultural institutions have also sprung up. Then, we have "networked" music institutions such as the Gandharva MahaVidyalay which has centres in various towns and cities all over India, where accredited teachers train students in music theory and practice based on a national syllabus. Modelled on the same lines as the Trinity College of London, music students give annual exams in theory and practice and progress from one level/ grade to the next.
In India, one area where institutional music teaching has not got a foothold is in primary and secondary schools. Given that music learning, especially classical music learning, involves a great amount of conceptual, perceptive, cognitive and creative skills, which are best and most efficiently developed at a young age, a well-thought out programme for Indian classical music at the school level would go a long way in breathing fresh life into the classical music field. We must take inspiration from Shinchi Suzuki, the Japanese violinist and teacher who had phenomenal success teaching young children to play the violin. The Suzuki teaching method has truly revolutionised music teaching in the West and is now emulated and practised all over the world. Basic to the Suzuki concept, is the belief that every normal child has talent, including musical talent. These talents must be allowed and assisted to develop. Suzuki believed that children should be able to learn music the same way that they learn to speak their native language. He stressed on both teacher-child and parent-child relationships in the nurturing of music talent. While we understand that not every child is expected to become a great musician, surely, the development of the ear, cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities, discipline, memory, and industry more than justify the time expended in learning music.
In both, the traditional setting or in the contemporary scenario, the teaching and learning of classical music is a serious yet joyous, conscientious yet liberating, process. Above all both teacher and student must have real love and enthusiasm for their work and art. Good teaching takes a measure of devotion that the teacher is unable to give unless his/ her heart and soul are dedicated to it. The teaching/ transmission process takes place successfully when the student reciprocates this love and devotion for the music and takes charge of the proverbial "flame" only to nurture it during his lifetime and pass it on to the next generation.
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