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Carnatic music has a very ancient and traditional background. The very word “Carnatic” means traditional or ancient. However, the application of the term Carnatic to this form of music is more recent than the music itself! Here we discuss the elements of change and continuity in this traditional form of classical music in India. These include the preservation and propagation of the art-form from one generation to the other over a long period of time, along with the cultural, social, regional and religious practices of the country and its influence on the system. There has been a quite strict adherence to the traditional values of the art, but ample room has been found for innovations within the traditional framework.

Educational Set-up

The Gurukula System: The traditional method of teaching in India was the Gurukula system (Guru - Teacher, Kula - Family). The Gurukula system involved living with the teacher, as if the student were a part of the family. Education was a dynamic process, imbibed through living, travelling with and completely associating oneself with the Guru (teacher).

The Guru, according to Indian tradition is equated to God and was considered primary for the learning of any art. In other words, teachers were always held in high esteem. The relationship between the teacher and the student (sishya) is known as Guru-sishya Parampara.

The art was handed down from the teacher to the student through direct oral instruction. This form of imparting the education has been a special tradition in Carnatic music.

Certain scholars make a slight distinction between Gurukula system and Guru-sishya Parampara, though the mode of learning, on principle, was almost the same. The difference is that the Gurukula system can be compared to the present day residence or boarding school. Thus, a group of students lived with and studied under one single Guru,  till they completed their education. It may be noted here that from Vedic times, any art form, including music, was taught through this method.

The Guru-sishya Parampara is considered as learning on a one-to-one basis (the teacher and a single student), the student being a part of the teacher’s household and learning without any time bindings, as per the teacher’s convenience.

The Gurukula system was an effective medium to preserve this traditional art form without losing the values for this many generations. The family tradition of imparting education was also prevalent and this trait was also responsible in preserving this music system. The student had the advantage of being in the presence of the Guru all the time, along with the freedom on the part of the Guru to teach according to individual talents and capacities. More importantly, through constant observation, a good student could imbibe the central features of the Guru’s music and his personality. The reverence for the Guru and strict obedience were part of the Gurukula tradition. Until recently (~ 1930-40), the Gurukula system was hailed as the most useful system for music education, also because one pursued the art full-time and had the scope to do so. Several prominent musicians and composers have been a product of this system.


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