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The fading tribe of performer-gurus


Once upon a time, star singers produced star students. Why has that link broken today?

How much does a star guru matter in Carnatic music? Empirically, the answer may be divided, going by the new careers that have blazed across the horizon in the past years. This statistic does not mean that there is a neutral correlation between a promising débutant and who he or she learnt from. Many great singers have proved otherwise. So the real question is, do we have a virtuous cycle of performing gurus spawning star disciples in every era?

The oral tradition in Indian classical music is invaluable. The stalwarts who ruled vocal music from the 1930s to the 1960s made it an important part of their professional mission and responsibility. Masters such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GNB, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer and Musiri Subramanya Iyer had an army of disciples, many of whom went on to achieve similar laurels as their gurus. One easy metric is to enumerate Sangita Kalanidhis whose disciples also reached that peak. All these musicians went beyond their self-interest, with money seldom a factor.

Then there were schools like the Dhanammal school, which collectively produced a huge club of performers and teachers. Even after the gurukula system vanished, top performers including D.K. Pattammal, D.K. Jayaraman, T.M. Thiagarajan, MLV and Dr. S. Ramanathan, among others, embraced a similar serious commitment to training. Then the chain started to weaken, although it was shored up by a set of brilliant teachers such as Calcutta Krishnamoorthy, P.S. Narayanaswamy, Suguna Purushottaman and Chingleput Ranganathan, who didn’t scale performance heights but were excellent at imparting skills.

The broken link

It was in 1980s and 1990s that the umbilical link between star performers and star disciples broke. In many private conversations with musicians and ardent followers, I haven’t quite cracked the reason why the tradition disappeared. There are some conjectures though. Foremost of these is that the singers started to become too busy with their own performance schedules to be able to track their students in a sustained way. Star students require 5-8 years of intense tutorship before their own careers can take flight. Continuity in their schooling is thus critical.

A second possible reason is the declining faith in the one-guru formula. Many youngsters today have gone through a ‘guru-malika’ system. Is that a virtue or simply a more practical path for these times?

Thirdly, barring a very small number, the children of the old masters didn’t take to professional music; many did not even go through formal learning. This too changed in the interim when the chain broke. Many scions took to formal learning from their star parents. Did that dissuade other serious and more capable students?

Teaching vs. performance

There is also the monetary trade-off between teaching versus performance, especially after the expansion of overseas opportunities. Some musicians tell me that they had to take a careful call between preserving their voices for a tough and long performance calendar and serious teaching. That’s a fair point, as we have seen dramatic and sad declines in the voices of some stalwarts.

Teaching is as much a passion as performing is. Is that the missing ingredient? There is also the question of whether the present-day star performers actually want to leave behind a teaching legacy. The answer will probably never be known. A whole generation of young students, meanwhile, will have very little live learning opportunities from the most accomplished performers of the day. Such tales will become part of music folklore.

The writer is a classical music critic and commentator.


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