My parents tell me that in ancient and medieval India, students of the arts, sciences and scriptures lived with and worked in the homes of their teachers (gurukulavasa).
Such apprenticeship enabled them to absorb their chosen subject at a holistic level and master it at their own pace. A large part of Indian culture has been handed down thus from generation to generation faithfully, without the loss of their core values.
However, the system of gurukulavasa gradually disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, because of institutionalized schooling and the development of higher centres of learning, which were legacies of the British Raj. With the spread of Carnatic music world-over, new methods have had to evolve in order to reach out to aspiring students in distant lands.
In North America, where I live, many students learn this fine art from teachers in the same or nearby cities/towns. However, it is not always that simple.
Oftentimes, students are not quite so fortunate and have to travel great distances to learn music. Being a resident of Buffalo, NY, where learning Carnatic music from a good teacher has been quite a challenge, my parents have had to do their homework.
In August 2002, we were introduced to Kiranavali Vidyasankar, who was then a resident of San Diego. The two cities being in different corners of the US meant that Kiranavali aunty had to travel frequently and for extended periods of time to teach a bunch of us kids.
In the initial few months, classes were held for 10 continuous days at a frequency of 3 months. Before she left every time, Kiranavali would record new lessons for us to learn and practice so that there would be continuity in our learning. So she did periodic sishyakulavasa and taught us music!
This method, even though very intense for all us, worked excellently even though there was no other interaction during the time she was away.
In April 2006, when Kiranavali and her husband moved to the Philadelphia area, we must have been among the first ones to celebrate. We could actually drive to her place in about seven hours!
My first such trip was in August 2006, soon after she moved to her new home. Over the last two years, I have made many trips to her house, making use of every possible break I have from school and other activities.
I enjoy these "mini-gurukula" experiences with Kiranavali aunty, as she is affectionately called by children like me. Apart from learning many new compositions, I get to correct myself at all levels.
She makes sure that we develop a healthy attitude towards our basic exercises by making us revise things like Varisais, challenging us with new Ragas each day. I'm sure that most children would normally neglect these things but for the teacher's insistence!
Apart from that, we regularly revisit everything that we have learnt, including Geetams, Swarajatis, Varnams and Kritis. Some of us who have been learning for a few years under her have also started to learn kalpanaswaras and neraval.
Without our realizing it, we ended up spending an average of 7-8 hours on music during our stay there, and get to watch other students at various levels as well. After I return to my hometown, aunty reinforces my learning over the internet, by teaching via Skype – mostly revising the stuff that I learn while in Philadelphia and also making sure that I learn all the newly recorded lessons.
Going to Philadelphia is also a lot of fun, as I not only get to meet aunty's local students but also students from other cities like Sacramento. I learn many new skills as well.
I remember this one day, when aunty decided to make pizza at home and the few students who were staying with her got to put all the toppings of our choice. We of course interpreted it to mean extra cheese!
After a long day's work, we sometimes play games together such as Clue, Scrabble or Boggle, during which we have a lot of fun. Kiranavali aunty and her husband, Vidyasankar, are both extremely good at word games, and I pick up new playing strategies from them. Even though I get beaten at them, it is always an enjoyable experience.
To the delight of her young students, both Aunty and her husband are also Harry Potter fans, and aunty often uses examples from these books to make her point! I remember that when the fifth Harry Potter movie came out, aunty and uncle took me to watch it, along with a few other students.
We also go to other places. On my last visit, we went to a lake and had a picnic. However, even outside music, life there is not all fun and games. In order to prepare me for my upcoming year of Advanced Placement Chemistry, Uncle taught me some chemistry every free minute we had.
If the concept of gurukula-s catches on again, I am sure students will have tremendous fun learning these lovely Indian art forms like Carnatic music!