Gurukulavasam is acknowledged in the Carnatic music world as a very efficient system of knowledge transfer. From Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to Dr S. Sowmya, it has produced some of the most brilliant Carnatic minds. But gurukulavasam is hardly in practice any more, what with gurus touring the world and shishyas doing a multitude of things besides music. Yet, the shishyas of today are turning out no less worthy, you will agree. In this article, I write about how, in spite of their busy lives, today’s gurus are producing shishyas of high calibre — with inputs from young vocalists Anahita Ravindran (disciple of Shri Chitravina Ravikiran) and Krithika Natarajan (disciple of Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman and Smts Ranjani-Gayathri).
Time no constraint
Their busy schedules notwithstanding, today’s gurus ensure they spend as many hours as possible in class. “There was no particular duration,” Krithika says, of Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman’s classes. “Classes would go on for many hours together. There were days when I had class in the morning and again in the evening!”
Anahita’s experience with guru Shri Chitravina Ravikiran is similar. “When Sir is in Chennai and available, we have class every day. The duration depends on the time available. Sometimes classes are only 30 minutes long, but there have also been days when I’ve spent over five hours in class.”
While classes may go on for hours together, Anahita and Krithika are quick to add that they never get boring. “In order to make lessons interesting, after teaching something complex, Lalgudi sir would deviate and tell us jokes or give us puzzles to work on,” Krithika says. Since August 2015, she has been under the tutelage of Smts Ranjani-Gayathri. “Again, there’s no particular duration as such. Classes go on for two hours or more depending on what I learn. Classes are always very interesting, challenging and fun-filled. My gurus give space for individual creativity and encourage me to think out of the box and come up with my own sangatis.”
Anahita, who started learning at the age of three from her grandmother Smt Shanthi Jayaraman, says her grandmother was fantastic at making music interesting to children. “Even though I was a child, she made sure I learnt, practised and was always doing music-related thinking. Her methodologies still work with so many young children that learn from her. Like any great guru, she insisted on laying a strong foundation while simultaneously building my repertoire. So by the time I was eight, I already knew close to 600 songs.”
Learning outside of class
With great gurus, there is so much to learn that learning is hardly limited to classes. In my own case, as a disciple of Shri K.N. Shashikiran for more than fourteen years now, I have learnt just as much outside class as I have in it. I have had the chance to work with my guru on nearly all of his innumerable projects, notating songs, writing articles and books on music, interviewing musicians, anchoring events, making presentations, compiling artist profiles, producing publicity material and so on. The variety of things I have been involved in is mind-boggling, and the things I have learnt invaluable.
Krithika believes that a disciple can learn even by merely being in the guru’s presence. “We all know that Lalgudi sir was a great composer, but I have personally been with him and watched him compose — and I will cherish the experience forever! I have always been awestruck by his creativity. Every single time he played a raga or composition, it would be so different from and more beautiful than the previous time. He would come up with different poruttams and kanakkus for the same edam in an instant,” she reminisces.
Anahita has spent hours together with her guru on long drives to concerts in Bangalore, Thiruvaiyaru, etc. and in concerts and lecture-demonstrations. “On long drives, he discusses music and we have fun interactive learning sessions. Also, after each concert or lec-dem, we have a detailed discussion, and that always gives us students plenty of food for thought. So, long after I reach home, I’d still be thinking about the things we discussed and will go back to him later to continue the discussion.”
Listening to their guru’s concerts is also a great way of learning for shishyas; every concert is a class in itself. In the words of the legend Shri K.V. Narayanaswamy , who underwent gurukulavasam with Shri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, “A shishya has to be very observant when his master performs. He should note minutely a number of things: how the guru selects the song for the recital, why he sings a particular song he sang only the day before, why it sounds so fresh and so different from the day before, how the voice is modulated and so on. He must note how the guru ends the concert as well as the different items. He must reflect on the format of the recital and ask himself why his guru limits the duration of a particular piece or the recital itself when everyone feels he should sing more and more.”
“I’ve learnt so much by listening and observing, it’s hard to list everything,” Anahita says, echoing Shri KVN’s view. “Listening plays a key role in shaping a student’s overall outlook, development and presentation skills. My guru always says that Carnatic music is more an ‘aural’ tradition than an ‘oral’ tradition!”
“The chitravina, like the veena, has a gayaki style and I try to bring its gamaka-laden style into my voice. This is the hallmark of the Brindamma bani. Just observing my guru play the chitravina can be a great learning experience, in terms of instrumental techniques, visualisation of sangatis on an instrument, and so on. I have also had the chance to observe the thought process involved in coming up with seemingly simple but complex mathematical patterns in korvais, pallavis, etc. In fact, the technique of making the complex sound simple is itself no easy task, it comes through a lot of hard work. I’ve also been awed by his quest for perfection, stage presence and ability to present concerts as a cohesive team without trying to dominate.”
“Since my guru dons many different hats — that of a musician, composer, director, etc. — I have had the blessing of experiencing his greatness through his many remarkable feats including creating world records like the recent Tirukkural tuning record; composing music for different forms of dance such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, etc.; composing Carnatic music compositions, and creating and arranging pieces for his award-winning concept of world music, Melharmony.”
Like in the days of gurukulavasam, shishyas often learn life lessons as well from their gurus. Anahita says that her guru’s discipline, work ethic, thirst for learning even after his innumerable achievements, humility, respect for senior artists, regard for peers and goodwill for youngsters are all qualities she admires and tries to emulate.
Krithika says that Shri Lalgudi Jayaraman has been her inspiration, and it was from him that she learnt to manage time efficiently, be systematic, not let success go to her head, and be humble and simple irrespective of status or seniority. “He not only helped me hone my skills as a musician, but also groomed me into being a good human being,” she says.
Almost without exception, musicians of today have embraced the latest advancements in technology — something that wasn’t available in the days of gurukulavasam. They let students record classes. While there are those that argue that recorders make students overly reliant on them, reduce their concentration level in class and do away with the compulsion to commit everything they learn to memory, most gurus find class recordings a very efficient tool in the knowledge transfer process as also a way of preserving knowledge for posterity.
When they are away on tour, they use software like Skype and FaceTime to teach students back home. When they are in Chennai, they teach students based around the world using such software.
Gurukulavasam was a rigorous system; the guru was strict, nothing short of perfection was acceptable and there was no room for the shishya to be lackadaisical. The thavil maestro Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam, who underwent gurukulavasam with Shri Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai, says, “My guru insisted on layam being part of life. Be it massaging his feet or fanning while he slept, I had to maintain a rhythm.”
Today, even though gurus do not monitor their shishyas’ activities round the clock, they are no less insistent on perfection. “Lalgudi sir wouldn’t be satisfied easily,” Krithika says. “I would sing every single sangati over and over again until it was perfect. It was very difficult to impress him. There were days when I would be longing for an appreciative nod or a ‘sabash’ from him. And if I got one, that would make my day!”
“Ravikiran sir is not the type who will express his appreciation in a straightforward manner,” Anahita says. “The slightest nod from him is my biggest blessing! Also, the very fact that he has included me in his projects, given me responsibilities and pinned expectations on me shows that is happy with my journey so far.”
The gurus of today are a huge influence in the lives of the shishyas. For both Krithika and Anahita and surely all young musicians, their gurus are the primary reason they have chosen a career in music. “Music started off as a hobby, then turned into a dream and now it’s a passion, something I can’t live without!” Krithika says. “This transition has come only through the constant motivation, encouragement and guidance of my gurus.”
“Although it was my parents’ and my first guru — my grandmother’s — dream to see my sister Apoorva and me perform, it was Ravikiran sir who cemented the idea. He has been helping us make the right decisions at every stage, in both music and academics. Being Ravikiran sir’s disciples has shown us that if you have the blessings of a good guru, and if you work hard under his guidance, you will achieve your dreams no matter how lofty they are.”
Their gurus are the biggest blessing in their lives, Krithika and Anahita agree. I’m reminded of Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi’s words: “innum enna vENum sollaDi, iNaiyillAda satguru padamalaraDi irundiDa adanilum siranda oru poruL”