This weekend has been taken up with Diwali festivities and Calcutta has been taken by a storm of light! Its been both beautiful, fun and unexpected in that the Bengalis celebrate Kali Puja at this time too. I stumbled upon some quite scary interpretations of the servants of Kali whilst roaming the streets the other day!

Servant of Kali Goddess – the one on the left that is!

Light in Indian culture is representative of knowledge and darkness of ignorance. Contemplating this I would like to share with you a thought on the traditional process of attaining knowledge, or Vidyā, in India; the mode of learning through which I am studying Dhrupad and Rāga music.

I come to India again and again not to complete a course curriculum and obtain a certificate or qualification but to go on gradually absorbing and imbibing the Vidyā of Dhrupad and Rāga to which there is no limit. This is what is known as the Guru-Shishya Paramparā or Master-disciple tradition – an ancient Indian pedagogical system not dissimilar to the more familiar system of apprenticeship. The Gurū or teacher is the one who lights the flame of knowledge and eradicates the darkness of ignorance.

Prior to the colonial period and the mass adoption of institutional education throughout India, the sciences and arts, or any Vidyā for that matter, were transmitted from generation to generation in this way. The prolonged training period and close relationship between teacher and student is the only way that such a vast body of wisdom and all of its subtleties can be effectively propagated.

What is demanded of the student is unwavering dedication, attentiveness, humility and a willingness to serve. For me this echoes what it is to be a Sikh, a term which itself derives from the Sanskrit Shishya and simply means disciple. 

The thoughts of Ustad Harbhajan Singh Namdhari, a true diamond in the rough and a treasure of knowledge on Sikh music (a UNESCO priceless living heritage if I may go so far as to say!), highlights the lack of learning that prevails today amongst Sikh musicians or so-called Rāgīs. He mentions the Rabābīs of a bygone era. These were Sikh bards hailing from the tradition of Bhai Mardana, a Muslim musician who accompanied Guru Nanak on the Rabāb wherever they went. The Rabābīs had preserved the traditional music and Vidyā from generation to generation in this manner for hundreds of years and today their tradition lies in ruins due to neglect of the wider Sikh community.

I’ll revisit the Rabābī tradition in another post as their story is a fascinating one! What I want to emphasise here is how the lack of importance afforded by the mainstream Sikh institutions toward proper education from authentic sources of Vidyā, such as the Rabābīs, and the lack of respect for the indigenous pedagogical systems has allowed a tradition to virtually disappear and a flame of priceless Vidyā to flicker on the edge of being extinguished altogether. I think its high time we wake up and see the light, after all it was just diwali!

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