The first consideration is whether you should go. This involves a number considerations such as the details of the trip, ones expectations, and even one's state of health.
When I was living in India, I was sick for much of the first year. It was only in subsequent years that I had built up enough immunities to function properly. If you spend time in India you will get sick! This "down time" will certainly adversely effect your ability to study. If you are a healthy individual and have figured a certain amount of time lost due to ill health, than by all means have at it. However, if you feel that it is a risk you cannot take, then you had better not go.
Can you handle the details? These details are ordinary things as: do you have the money? Do you have the time? Are you willing to run around taking care of all of the little details for the trip? Although these may seem like obvious points, they are the ones which keep most people from making the journey!
The next step is to consider is what you want out of the trip; are your goals attainable in the period that you are planning. Obviously if you have never touched a sitar, you are not going to go over and come back in a month playing like Ravi Shankar. This is a totally unrealistic expectation.
There are numerous advantages to study in India; the biggest advantage is the total immersion in the culture. Indian music is a complex interplay of fixed composition and improvisation. This requires a certain cultural sensitivity which is difficult to get outside of India. An analogy would be a comparison between studying the "Blues" in the Southern U.S. vs. studying them in Europe. Although the technical side of the training may be ever so good in Europe, there are numerous musical aspects that simply do not make sense outside of the cultural framework of the rural American South. In the same way, it is really impossible to separate Indian music from the culture of India, and the only way to really "get it" is to stay in India for some period of time.
The financial considerations for study in India are mixed. If one has outside funds, an extended period of time in India can be very economical. This is especially true if one is able to devote years of time to the study. This is due to the low cost of living in India. However, if one is only going over for a few weeks, the high cost of airfares negates the advantage of a lower cost of living.
One would think that the technical quality of training in India is superior. This is not necessarily true. Most of India's top artists have a permanent presence abroad. For example Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar all live in California. Other Indian artists may officially live in India but may be available for classes abroad. It is certainly easier to take classes from them abroad than to try and track them down in India. Furthermore, there has been a presence of Indian music in the West for around 40 years now. In this period there has developed a small cadre of well qualified non-Indian teachers.
Still not everyone lives in places that have qualified instructors. If your only access to a teacher is through a local expatriate Indian who does it as a hobby, then the quality of your training may not be up to your wishes.
A major consideration is where to go in India. The best place to go is anywhere that you have some connections. These may be old classmates, relatives, relatives of friends, in short almost anybody that is known to you. Such connections will make your stay easier.
You should also decide if the instruction that you are looking for is available in the place that you are considering. Many instruments and styles have strong geographical associations. For instance if you wish to learn Manipuri dance, then you would not wish to go to a small town in Maharashtra. In general, you should go to places in the north for kathak, sitar, tabla, pakhawaj and Hindustani vocal. Conversely the South is the best place to learn bharath nathyam, veena, mridangam, or Carnatic vocal.
You should also consider the local political situation. Periodically certain areas are designated as "disturbed areas". Visas normally will not even allow you into such areas. Do not go there, you certainly will not get any musical study done.
Finding a teacher is not as easy as one may think. It is certainly not as easy as one may wish. Still, with perseverance, and a little luck, this is not a major obstacle.
The lack of an accessible infrastructure is the major obstacle in finding a good teacher. The role of infrastructure is easily seen with the following example:
Let us say that you arrive in New York City and decide that you wish to take a few lessons in guitar. You go to the local music store, ask around, check the shop's registry, read the bulletin boards and find a dozen guitar teachers. You then go, home make a few calls, enquire about prices, get a basic idea as to the personality of the teacher, make an appointment and start training. The whole process can be accomplished in one morning.
It is fast in the West because there is an infrastructure in place to facilitate such activities; unfortunately there is no such infrastructure behind the study of Indian music. You do not just walk up to musician in India and say "I want to study from you". If you are a non-Indian, such an approach may get things started, but certainly not on the right footing. Such an approach will invariably cost you either money, time, or peace of mind.
Finding a teacher in India must be accomplished by way of an intermediary. (Virtually everything in India must be accomplished by way of an intermediary.) You need to have a person who is known to both you, and the teacher. You and the intermediary both go and meet with the teacher and discuss the matter. It is very important to have the intermediary make the financial arrangements; do not even attempt to do this yourself.
There always arises the question of whether to go for the big name artists or the lesser known ones.
There are advantages and disadvantages to studying under a well known artist. One advantage of a well known artist is that you can presume that they are good and know their subject. Another advantage of the well known artist is that it is always a plus to say that you have studied under so-and-so. The disadvantage is that they are often so busy that they are not able to give you the attention you need.
Learning under a lesser known artist also, has advantages and disadvantages. First of all, being less well-known does not necessarily mean not skilled or knowledgeable. Being a famous artist is more a question of business acumen and luck rather than skill or knowledge. Therefore, it is common to find less well known artists who are more skilled at their music, more knowledgeable and better teachers than some "big name" artists. Finding such an artist who will teach you may be your best bet. However, many less well-known artists are unsuccessful because they are not very good. You do not wish to waste your time with an artist who does not come up to the mark.
There are numerous obligations as a student of Indian music. Some of which are social and others are financial.
As a student you will naturally be expected to pay for the classes. The financial arrangements with the teacher involve two things. There is an initial offering, known as guru dakshana and then there are the usual fees. The costs are generally higher in the big cites and lower in the smaller towns. Costs are also higher for well known artists and lower for lesser known ones. Often times, the teacher is reluctant to come right out and tell you how much it will cost for fear of appearing mercenary. In such circumstances your intermediary should be able to help
There is a basic musico-political and social structure in which you will be placed. In the North, this structure is known as gharana. The word gharana literally means "The house of the teacher". When you are studying you are expected to look upon members of your gharana, especially the other co-students, as though they were family members.
There are obvious advantages and disadvantages of this relationship. The obvious advantage is that you will have people who can help you in day-to-day activities. They will also help you in your studies and share their musical experiences with you. However, this relationship has certain obligations that you must be prepared for. For instance do not be surprised if they show up on your doorstep some day. Remember, if you accept help, you must be prepared at some point to give help. This relationship also implies certain restrictions, for instance, after some time if you feel that you wish to study under someone else, you will not be allowed to. This would be the ultimate insult to your teacher. The only acceptable conditions for changing teachers are the death of ones teacher or a shift in ones residency.
It is obvious that as a student you should always be respectful of both your teacher as well as your co-students (guru bhai / bahin).
There is an unfortunate tendency in India to deride other musicians and students of other teachers. Do not fall into this trap. It will do you no good and will most likely come back to haunt you later!
All in all, if one knows the etiquette involved and one has a good teacher it can be a very good experience.
There are a number of problems that you will encounter. There are the obvious ones of time-management, health, and finances; however the most major ones are cultural.
One cultural difference concerns the teacher / student relationship. In the West this relationship is very simple. One pays the fees, one then gets instruction and that is the extent of the relationship. But in India, the relationship is extremely complex and you have to know how to "play by the rules". The non-Indian is rarely conversant with the customs involved. (see "What are my obligations ..." for more information)
One other cultural difference which may create problems is in the different approach to time. This will be a major problem if you are only going to be in India for a few weeks. If you do not have strong contacts in India, it is likely that it may take 1-3 weeks simply to make connections with the teacher. At his point you are probably getting uncomfortable because you are very aware that you must leave India shortly. You must not forget that although you feel a tremendous pressure for time, your teacher does not. As the time continues your discomfort turns to panic as you know you must leave and you do not feel that you have received enough material. It is very common to see students who have left India under such circumstances feeling very discouraged.
If you find yourself in this situation do not blame the teacher; it is not his/her fault. There are basic cultural differences here that you were not able to bridge. Your teacher may feel that he was giving you material very fast while you may be totally convinced that he was going too slow.
Another cultural difference is in the concept of the nature of your study of music. You may feel that you need as much material as possible. Your teacher, on the other hand, may feel that it is the relationship that is important. He may feel that the period of study is so long that it really does not make any difference whether you learn one bandish or five. For that matter, he may feel that it really makes no difference if in your entire stay you learn nothing more than a few exercises. (Actually I think that you will find that your teacher is right!)
© 1998 - 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney
For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at firstname.lastname@example.org