I was about 12 years old when I first heard an incident in the Kathak community, where a Guru had asked for a "favour" from a student. I wasn't even a teen. I was aspiring to be a well known Kathak dancer but had no idea about the exploitation that goes on.
Today, I want to write about exploitation. Exploitation that happens on a daily basis with disciples of Indian Classical Music and Dance and, exploitation that has happened with gurus who were once disciples and now carry on the exploitation.
I have heard artists saying " I would wash my guru's dishes and do his house chores. I realised how important that was in the process of becoming a dedicated disciple."
This kind of dialogue would always irk me. It would never sit well with me. Then I explained to myself that, if one respects their guru and sees them as their parents, what is the problem in helping them out with dishes or house chores? There is most definitely a problem. The power imbalance that exists in the relationship between the guru and the shishya has been normalised. There is a need to surrender, a need to submit to the feet of the guru in order to be recognised, liked and eventually be successful in the community.
Often, we may see that a disciple with less quality is getting more attention or opportunities because of the personal connection they have with their gurus, and because of the hours of service they have provided for their Guru. As TM Krishna wrote in an article for The Indian Express " Even today, students and teachers see the service of the guru as guru dakshina. Service is a dangerous idea and often traverses many domains of abuse"
As a 23 year old Indian Classical artist and disciple, it is rather odd to me that this power imbalance is said to be "worth it" in the eyes of many senior artists now, who believe that all those hardships and subservient behaviour is what got them where they are today. Why can a disciple not get to a position of success and respect with just their dedication to the art? Why is it imperative that we treat gurus and teachers as God? Why are we told that we as disciples have to go through this because it is a test from our Gurus? These questions are not allowed to be asked, and that is the core issue. We are trained to overlook the mistakes of gurus, teachers and seniors. I am not saying that all gurus and teachers are like this, but there are enough out there for us to speak about it.
The first step towards change is to recognise that this is harmful in many ways. Respect and blind adulation have a fine line between them, and until we start saying "this is wrong" many generations will be victims of exploitation and believe that it is the only way to receive wisdom, taalim and opportunity. Let's strive to create a community where we respect our gurus, teachers and seniors, but also humanise them.