How musician-teachers are offering diverse modules to reach learners across the globe
As far as Indian classical arts are concerned, guru-sishya parampara is regarded the most ideal and effective way of teaching and learning. Veterans in the field describe it as “sinne barr sinna sikhlai” (from one to the other directly). About two decades ago, when lessons began to be taught on Skype, largely to overseas or outstation students, it was seen only as a temporary supplement to the direct learning experience. But the pandemic has made online learning the main medium of instruction. Several senior artistes-cum-teachers have come up with diverse learning modules to cater to different categories of students. Let’s see how technological intervention has changed the guru-sishya equation, learning experience and teaching pattern.
While some are teaching to simply reach out to passionate aspirants, there are others who are offering a “sampler” for an in-depth study later, and then there are those who are designing courses according to the demands of the students.
Bengaluru-based veena exponent Jayanthi Kumaresh started online coaching a year ago. Her immediate aim behind launching it was to widen classical music’s reach and be able to guide young enthusiasts living across the globe. “I don’t expect all of my 900 students to become professional musicians; though many continue to learn from their gurus apart from attending my master classes,” says Jayanthi.
Her teaching model is structured in such a manner that each class is complete in itself, and includes technique, repertoire and practise methods. “Some students have been regularly attending my classes since its inception a year ago, while some attend raga-specific classes. During the class, every student gets the opportunity to ask me questions directly. If there is a difficult phrase, I make each student play it back to me. After each class, there are assignments to be done, which are reviewed and mistakes, if any, pointed out.” Jayanthi has three levels of classes — beginners, intermediate and advanced, with detailed guidelines to ascertain which level you are at. Material is sent to each student before the class, including tuning and pitch instructions.
Jayanthi has also initiated generic master classes such as ‘Understanding how to listen to music’, which teaches a student what to listen to and what to look out for when listening. “For instance, if you are learning to play the sitar, you will invariably focus only on the instrument at a concert, but it is important that you also notice what the tabla artiste is playing. I play several clips of music and point out what they should have noticed; then ask them to listen again and imbibe the nuances. I ensure they take away more from each listening experience.”
However, Jayanthi admitted that for her senior students, she conducts classes on a one-to-one basis, as a digital platform is not conducive for detailed instruction.
“Before the pandemic, I was planning to launch a veena academy. Now it is taking shape online. Besides classes, I am also also building up an audio visual archive. I will definitely continue this model even when I begin to travel for concerts,” she says.
Kaushiki Chakraborty agrees. “The model of teaching my husband Partho and I have devised can be sustained even afterwards. A student who has completed our six-month course may not become a professional singer, but can distinguish between ‘sur’ and ‘besur’, will understand taal, will know how to sing, and the ideal way to present music,” says the Hindustani vocalist.
Kaushiki’s model involves no direct live interaction; it comprises 20 online lessons of 45 minutes each, in a six-month time frame, divided into two categories of learners — beginners and older students — based on their musical ability and not age. After a selection process, the student is sent his/her lesson, which includes aural and visual inputs, after which he submits his understanding of the lesson. This is then assessed and sent back for further improvements, but the pace of learning is not rigid, as each student responds differently. “In live learning sessions, you attend a group class, imbibe what you can, practise for a week, and next week demonstrate to your guru. If you got it all wrong, it’s a week wasted.”
During the lockdown, the couple began to archive their music learning experience for their son Rashith. “As we began to structure the lessons and record them, we thought why not share it with interested learners. That is how it all began.”
As for advanced learners, Kaushiki prefers personal interaction. “It is a phase when the disciples would have committed to pursue it lifelong.”
More recent entrants into online teaching, Ranjani-Gayathri’s model is somewhat different. The well-known Carnatic vocalists launched their Masterclass three months ago, and chose 64 from among 500 applicants. Keeping the training process similar to a live experience, the sisters created batches of eight to 10 students for the bi-weekly sessions. Each student attends 25 sessions, and besides being taught compositions, they are given extensive reference material to prepare themselves so that they can understand and learn better.
Says Ranjani, “As teachers, we have to try and maximise the classroom experience for greater absorption. Things a student automatically imbibes in a gurukul now have to be consciously taught. After sessions, we review homework and give constructive criticism, so that the lessons actually make a difference.”
Bringing a completely different perspective to online teaching is Pune-based senior Hindustani vocalist Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar. “I do not take new students; I teach only those students who have enrolled in the institutions I am associated with,” he says. For him, teaching online was a compromise, something he started recently, something he had to do for his students, as they needed his inputs. The physical constraints of the medium, most importantly the issue of lag in receptivity could be frustrating, especially as instructions on taal are sometimes lost in transmission.
This problem was resolved with live tabla being played at the disciple’s end so he or she could clearly hear the new taan patterns. “Also, without a tanpura, the experience feels incomplete,” he says. According to Pt. Kashalkar, he has not altered his method of teaching or content for the online medium.
Sharing this perspective, the orthodox (he represents the 20th generation in a lineage of dhrupad musicians) yet technologically savvy veena artiste Ustad Bahauddin Dagar says, “Teaching online is definitely a compromise — while it has opened the windows for some to learn, as a teacher it’s not satisfying. I doubt I will continue as many classes in the future. The microphone we use picks up only the louder sound, so my use of the ‘chikaari taar’ is not picked up; the subtle nuances of a meend on the veena or surbahar are frequently lost; one needs a USB interface, one needs to repeat two or three times, so the class takes much longer. On the plus side, aspirants have been able to connect with gurus they could not have had access to earlier; I am even teaching students living in Israel.” He prefers one-on-one teaching and believes in giving immediate feedback to the disciple.
The Delhi-based author writes on Hindustani music and musicians.