I regularly use recordings of my violin teacher to play over his alaaps, to put myself into the mood of a raga, to be able to improvise better afterwards. Tonight again I did that, and then I tried to play over a recording of N. Rajam, too. The variety of styles within north Indian classical music is amazing... Some sounds which N. Rajam produces are just impossible to get from just hearing them. Her way of jumping between notes, her jerking kind of approach to a note, some of her ornaments... N. Rajam is probably the most famous north Indian classical violinist of our times; she's amazingly talented, amazingly sweet; her notes seem to transcend her skin. She's 75 years old now. I saw her in concert last year in November and her sound was so pure that it's pierced me right through the heart. Her violin cries; her melodies are warm and soft and sweet like honey. But tonight I realised that there really was no point in me trying to play over her alaaps. I guess the only sensical thing to do, violin in hands, is to listen to her so that I'll know straight away which notes she plays and thus I recognise the raga more easily, and so I understand that raga better the next time I hear it bare-handed, and so I can also understand how her style differs from that of my guru.
This insight urged me to write about guru faith. It's something I have been thinking about regularly yet I was never ready to write about it before. I know many Indian classical music students in Banaras who have had a number of teachers. I guess the most serious students I know have changed teacher at least once since they started learning Indian classical music. I've had some frustrated moments that made me consider checking out new teachers, but I really never want to leave Sukhdev completely for he will always remain my guru. Last year I took some classes with Narendra Mishra for two weeks while Sukhdev was away because I had been wanting to take violin classes with a singer for a while. I wanted to follow voice with my instrument, to express vocal through my violin. It was really interesting indeed; I absolutely loved the novelty I experienced through those classes; I loved discovering a new teaching approach, and I loved getting to know Narendra and spending time with him, because he is an amazingly sweet and honest soul. At the time I was thinking I could continue taking classes on vocal or sitar medium with Narendra from time to time because it would perhaps complement my training with Sukhdev.
Life got in the way; a year passed and I hardly saw Narendra again... until he came to visit Sukhdev during my very first violin class this season. It felt a bit funny to sit and practise at Guruji's house while Narendra was sitting next to me, but I was really happy to see him. He had come to hand out some invitation cards for an event he was organising a few days later, so I asked him if he too had any concerts lined-up, because I so love him as a musician. And he did! On 1st September I went to his concert; it was a very intimate one in a school a bit far away from my area of town, and it was at 9am, but it was well worth he effort! I had the amazing surprise to see that his nephew Shubh Maharaj (grandson of renowned Pt. Kishan Maharaj) was accompanying him on tabla, really bombastic and amazing for his young age, and it was a fantastic concert. While I was listening to Narendra's sitar though I realised how different his style is from Sukhdev's, and I realised I no longer had any interest in taking any classes with him. Sure it would be lovely play with and learn from him if the occasion somehow arose, but I don't want to go to him as a student again. I wouldn't see the point now; it would just confuse me. I guess this experience led me to understand what I really wanted to learn: to accompany vocalists. And that's what I am actually doing with the children in Khajuraho!
I think I am also a very faithful and loyal person. I love being dedicated to just one person; dedicated solely to my guru in the same way that I am utterly and totally dedicated to the man I love. Perhaps "cheating" on Sukhdev with Narendra made me understand that cheating with another teacher was just the same as cheating on the man you love. I didn't really cheat - perhaps it was just like a polyamory experience because I told Sukhdev straight away that I was going to take classes with Narendra for a while and he was fine with it. Sukhdev always says I have to make my own experience, go and see for myself. Of course I love to play with other people, other musicians, but that's a different story because those musicians are not my "official" teachers. I guess it's quite simple: Your guru is like your husband. Another teacher is like having an affair. Other musicians with whom you play are like friends. I can have friends but I won't be having an affair again!
With a husband you learn to grow together; you build trust, life as one. Difficult times are but opportunities to make your relationship more loving and beautiful, and if you have the maturity to communicate with honesty and respect, with perseverance you'll go through them together to come out stronger and more devoted towards one another. And in India, your husband is your god and your wife is your goddess. With a guru it's the same. Guru is way more than a music teacher; you touch his/her feet in respect which, it is said, helps you progress faster because you "take" some of your guru's energy in the process. I don't know if this is literally true, and it took me a long time to do it because although I find this gesture extremely beautiful it used to make me feel very uncomfortable. Still, today I certainly feel that being close and devoted to my guru helps me progress on the violin and I even feel that devotion is as important as violin practice (as long as it is honest). So your relationship to your guru is a deep one which you build, develop and maintain. In India you get to know all of your guru's family; you even become part of his family. In addition to my guru's blood family, all of his students have become my brothers and sisters, and the students of my guru's brothers my cousins. I guess I feel that more with my Indian "siblings" because they follow and feel the guru parampara (guru tradition) a lot more than my European "siblings".
In India, you also have to serve your guru. For instance my Indian "siblings" massage Guruji regularly. The first time I saw this (4 students, two massaging each of his arms and and two massaging his legs) I thought this was really too much, but this is common practice! I still have a (big) issue with massaging my guru; I guess it's the touching and I'm hopeless at massage anyway, but I serve him in different ways, more western or educated ways I guess, like giving him reiki, designing his website, doing translation work for some of his projects, helping him on the computer... I think we Westerners have a big issue with "selfless service", because our society is very individualistic, and we often associate devotion with blind religion. But I love serving my guru and I do it heartily. One of my "cousins" still follows the authentic tradition; which is a rarity nowadays: he lives (part-time) in his guru's home for free in return of which he performs many daily tasks for the family, like when the family wives send him out for shopping, looking after instruments, being a concert assistant etc. Living in the guru's home, again, from immersing yourself with his presence, with his energy and the energy of the ancestral tradition, allows you to progress faster. At the moment my "cousin" also looks after his guru's (dying) father, our "grand-guru"... Sometimes I wish I would do it too, like feed this aged man who used to be an amazing sarangi player and for whom I have great respect...
A guru's students also offer him/her his selfless service (that's called seva) during concerts. They carry their guru's instrument and the tanpura to and off the stage, and the guru's concert is part of his/her students training so they have a special place to sit near him/her. I absolutely love this, because you sometimes get the chance to come close to wonderful musicians. This is the groupie side of learning Indian music! And I have ALWAYS been a groupie! When I lived in Europe I used to only listen to alternative music and small musicians, so somehow whenever I would go to concerts I could come close to my favourite musicians if I wanted, and I always loved being able to express my love and gratitude towards those people who played the music that moved me. I loved going towards them after concerts, even if I felt too shy to speak, just to look at them closely and feel their presence, and I have even hugged a number of my favourites! Many of my friends used to say "Hey, you're such a groupie!" and I used to be shy and ashamed to admit liking to approach my favourite musicians (silly mind!) but the truth was always that I LOVED LOVED LOVED it so much. Today I live in India and being a groupie doesn't get me called an "arse-licker", it is common practice when you learn classical music!!! And it's amazing because you even get to play with your favourite musicians, and I'm the luckiest of all because my favourite Indian music musician is my teacher! In India your favourite band or singer can become your teacher! Just imagine going to meet Devendra Banhart after a concert and asking him to teach you the guitar, hey!? How great would that be!? So I have come to terms with my groupyness thanks to Indian classical music and thanks to my dear guru - well, I have come to terms with many things thanks to Indian classical music and my guru! ♥
I don't know if I have "the" ideal relationship with my musical guru, but I certainly know that I have a very beautiful relationship to him. I am very lucky indeed because not only is he a fantastic musician (and apart from N. Rajam I have yet never heard an Indian classical violinist whom I liked equally or more than him), but he is also a great and encouraging teacher, and a very fun and cool guy! I know he's not perfect and he's certainly not my "life" guru; he's my "musical" guru only. I wouldn't throw myself outside of a window if he told me to do so, but I never refuse to do some work for him if he needs it, I hardly ever miss his concerts if he plays near me (I wonder how many times I have seen him in concerts actually; more than 100!?), and I feel enormous respect, enormous gratitude, and deep unconditional love towards him... With him I have not only grown to be a musician and even a violin teacher myself, I have also grown to be a healthier human being, I have challenged my deepest fears and made my wildest dream come true, I have become part of an(other!) Indian family and dived into the most ancient of Indian (musical) traditions...
With your devoted husband you grow as a human being, you build a relationship and a life together which it would be immature to shatter just for the excitement of novelty or entertainment or for the fear of going through hardship. Likewise, with my guru I have grown (and am still growing) as a human being; all the difficulties I went through with him were opportunities for me to grow and the frustrated moments have passed thanks to honesty, communication and perseverance. With my guru I have been building a profound, beautiful relationship which I am devoted to nurture, because I feel the relationship I have with him is as important as the music I learn - the relationship I have with him gives more depth and meaning to the music I learn with him. The additional techniques I could learn by going for another teacher would never make up for the loss of a beautiful, deep and growing relationship. With one you dig in and deeper you grow; with too many nowhere you go.