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Guru-shishya tradition

Notes on musical integrity


GURU GYAAN: Dhondutai Kulkarni's devotion to music was other worldly

When I first went to Dhondutai Kulkarni, some 30 years ago, she was merely my 'singing teacher' - someone who patiently coaxed notes out of a ten-year-old girl and gradually transformed her from being a reluctant student into one smitten by the magic of Hindustani classical music. She used to teach just one raga for months, deliberately, pushing for great depth, despite my every attempt to thwart her efforts. Most other teachers move from one raga to another so that their students can expand their repertoire and delude themselves into believing they are mini-ustads. But that was not the way Dhondutai taught - and as a result of setting such a strong foundation, so many taans and aalaaps I learned as a child have stayed with me and I am able to reproduce them without thought, like swimming and cycling. The voice culture training that I received from her was impeccable. No one can take that away from me.

The learning and teaching took place as if it was the most natural thing on earth - like breastfeeding. I remember how, many years later, someone asked me whether I knew the Jaipur gharana's secret two-note taan. I was taken aback. I immediately, and presumptuously, challenged Dhondutai. Why hadn't she taught this to me? She just laughed and said, "But it's one of the first things you learned. Think about it. " She then left the music room to make tea, leaving me strumming the tanpura, baffled. I scrolled through the entire musical database in my head to try and retrieve the two-note taan. Finally, she came back and said, "Come on, sing it!" I couldn't. Then she revealed it and I realised that I had been singing it all my life, but without the hubris of knowing.

It was much more than music that kept drawing me back to her, even after my formal training had stopped. I think it was that unconditional love and devotion to art and to spirituality that made me want to be in her presence. She just didn't care about fame or fortune if it came in the way of her musical integrity - which was such a refreshing quality given the world we live in, driven by instant coffee fame. So, I drew from it, and allowed it to influence my thought process and my overall approach to life.

There is an other-worldly quality about her. She is deeply spiritual. She believes in, and sees, things that most others do not see. She thus introduced me to that dimension of life and living which is invisible to the naked eye but in fact plays such a big role in our lives - like those unseen notes, the ones in between two notes, the ones that can never be notated or written. They are the things that only a guru can teach his or her student, person to person. They are invisible, like blessings and moondust. That is why the guru-shishya tradition can never really be replaced, or modernised, or sentenced to the efficiency of technology. It is what brings us back to humanity.

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