The Role of the Shishya in Indian Classical Music

Indian classical music, or Hindustani music, is revered as one of the world’s more complex and theoretical musical systems. Despite the values placed on demonstrating this necessary knowledge base and observing the conventions of musical performance, Hindustani music remains to be transmitted primarily through oral/aural, instead of written, means. Central to this system is the guru-shishya parampara, a unique relationship between the student/disciple and teacher. A previous post in this blog discussed the role of the guru in this relationship; here is an account of the role of the shishya. There is a fascinating contrast between the traditional Indian method of pedagogy and social hierarchy and the social dynamics found in Western educational settings. The following is an edited excerpt from Chapter 2 of my MA Thesis, “Cross-Cultural Pedagogy in North Indian Classical Music.”

2.3 The Role of the Shishya

According to the Vedas the guru is “a source and inspirer of self-knowledge,” striving to elevate the shishya (disciple) to his own “degree of wisdom” (Raina 2002:173-4). The guru-shishya parampara, or guru-shishya tradition, is not a unilateral relationship. Both the guru and the shishya are empowered in choosing with whom to enter into this relationship. Much as there are expectations and obligations of the guru, there are equally culturally engrained responsibilities of the shishya.

The shishya must regard the guru with love, devotion, deference and humility. The fully initiated gurushishya relationship is so close that it forms a unity, with the shishya losing his old identity and instead identifying with his guru (Raina 2002:178). Through this bond, “the shishya represents the guru” and “is a part of [the guru] as, in the same sense, the guru is part of him” (Neumann 1980:47). For the shishya, the gurushishya parampara is the primary social relationship, providing continuity between generations of a musical tradition.

Much as it is important for the shishya to choose an appropriate guru, the guru has agency in deciding whom to accept as a disciple. Qualities sought in a shishya include reasoning ability, discipline, self-control, earnest regard for the study of music and for the guru, and taste, temperament, and capabilities that appeal to the guru. Before accepting a disciple, the guru subjects prospective shishyas to a trial period during which the disciple receives no formal talim (training), but instead demonstrates his sincerity, devotion, and dedication through his service to the potential guru.

Once a shishya begins his studies, complete obedience is given to the guru. This extends beyond the musical realm into matters of lifestyle. The shishya submits himself to deference and humility towards the guru by abstaining from smoking, drinking alcohol, sitting higher than, or speaking more than his guru. In lieu of payment, the shishya serve the guru through small acts such as bringing the guru’s tea, massaging his legs, treating him to meals in restaurants, arranging travel plans, and carrying the guru’s instrument. Such offerings serve to build love and understanding and develop an affectionate relationship between guru and shishya. In this context, love and understanding are essential: “nothing else can persuade the guru to teach” (Singh 2004:82).

The real basis of the gurushishya relationship is the promise of the continuation of the guru’s tradition by accomplished disciples. The disciple, in exchange for the guru’s teaching, reciprocates with lifelong devotion and gratitude to the guru. Shishyas become representative of the guru, and are accepted almost as members of the guru’s household. The shishya “guards his guru’s prestige as his own since he represents the guru and is a part of him” (Singh 2004:79). It is the responsibility of the shishya to follow the guru’s instruction without question and absorb his teachings through dedicated practice, or riyaz. Riyaz is significant in that it is more than mere dedication to rigorous practice: it is “a preparation for an unattainable perfection” that “symbolizes a certain accomplishment of one’s inner development” (Neumann 1980:34). Even upon becoming an accomplished artist in his own right the shishya continues to honor his guru and “acknowledge his debt in terms of what he has learnt and what he is as a musician” (Singh 2004:79-80).

Despite the availability of written sources on Hindustani music, to achieve legitimacy as a performer a student of Hindustani music must be trained by a reputable guru. It is the coexistence of “authoritative theoretical doctrine and a disciplined oral tradition of performance extending back over several generations” that serves to legitimize Indian art music and its theoretical constructs (Qureshi 2012:6). The qualifications of a good performer extend beyond musical competency to include a pedigree of study with a good teacher and devotion to riyaz.


Khan, Mobarak Hossain. 1988. Music and Its Study. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited.

Neuman, Daniel M. 1980. The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Qureshi, Regula et al. “India.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, Accessed April 10, 2012.

Raina, M.K. 2002. “GuruShishya Relationship in Indian Culture: The Possibility of a Creative Resilient Framework.” Psychology Developing Societies 14:167-98.

Shankar, Ravi. 1968. My Music, My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Singh, Nivedita. 2004. Tradition of Hindustani Music: A Sociological Approach. New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers.

Slawek, Stephen. 1999. “The Classical Master-Disciple Tradition.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 5: South Asia, edited by Alison Arnold, 457-67. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

This entry was posted in Ethnomusicology, India, Pedagogy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *