Yesterday was Guru Purnima. Traditionally, it is a day for devotees to honor their guru. Today, for anyone studying an art form, it translates into a day for honoring one’s teachers. I am grateful for my own kathak dance teacher, Gretchen Hayden, who would balk at the term “guru” applied to her (and who has a humility which might well be at odds with the very notion of guru-ness), but who nonetheless plays an irreplaceable teaching/guiding/parental role to many of her students. And I am grateful for her guru, Pandit Chitresh Das.
To the students and disciples of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, however, yesterday must have been a sad day, for last month he passed away, and the world lost a maestro of music. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was a composer and player of the sarod (an Indian classical, stringed instrument) of rare genius and intensity. As is typical to the arts in India, he was a guru to several disciples upon whom it now falls to carry on his legacy. “Guru” is such a misunderstood word in the West, where it implies someone who has followers, or someone with authority because of knowledge or skills that are real or perceived. But a guru is so much more than that. A guru combines the roles of teacher and parent, who passes on his (or her? I won’t go there right now) knowledge as fully as possible, a jug pouring its contents into another jug, or at least a cup. The death of a guru is a devastating blow, similar, I imagine, to the death of a parent, for his disciples are left with the shocking realization that the responsibility for passing on what they know now falls to them, that they are the only keepers of, in this case, the art.
How many true gurus does the world still have? Those in their seventies, eighties and nineties now represent the last of the generation that grew up studying, practicing for hours every day of their lives, striving for a perfection that sometimes only they could see. One of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s disciples, George Ruckert, did study at his feet for seventeen years straight (during which time he met and married my kathak dance teacher, herself a disciple of a dance maestro) but eventually life and responsibilities altered his course, and he moved across the country for a teaching position at a prestigious university. I am lucky enough to benefit from his music and his compositions, the pieces he creates for my dance group, the notes that come wafting out from his music room when I visit his house. When I hear them, when I dance to them, I feel I am peering into a window to a vanishing world, a window I wish I could open wider for all to see in.
I try not to think about what will happen when my generation’s teachers are no longer with us. Are there some among us who can ever play the same role? Who can create so much, which such talent, with such perseverance, with such focus? Or are we all just too scattered, pulled in too many directions to ever have the time and opportunity, even with the talent and resolve, to create staggeringly beautiful art? True disciples are very much NOT “the people.” They do not get to decide when or where or how much they will work. Anyone who has tied the strings of discipleship has tales of fourteen-hour days of practice beginning before dawn, their guru controlling every minute of the day, down to when and what they can eat, and what they must be able to achieve before being worthy of another lesson. Do we as a generation even know how to choose one thing and stick with it? Do we have the patience to practice for hour upon hour the same movement, the same melody? Do we have the humility to accept that our teacher tell us to go back and do it again, and again, until we do it right? I fear the answer. And yet I understand it.