What is a Shishya?

Posted August 22nd, 2010 by Shruti in Chhandam School of Kathak, Chitresh Das Dance Company, Traditions Engaged

By Ravija Desai, Shruti Iyer, Vrushali Mundhe-Jawle & Poonam Narkar

Shishyas and Senior Disciples of Pandit Chitresh Das – Gretchen Hayden, Charlotte Moraga, Seibi Lee, & Seema Mehta, delve into the meaning of the word “shishya.”  They discuss the guru-shishya parampara, the responsibility it carries, their relationship with their Guruji, Pt. Chitresh Das, and being a shishya in contemporary contexts.

Gretchen Hayden is the founder and Artistic Director of the Boston, MA branch of the Chhandam School of Kathak -  Chhandika.  Charlotte Moraga is the principal dancer of the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC) and Director of the Chhandam Youth Company.   Pratibha Patel is the Director of the Sacramento, CA branch of Chhandam and Vice President of the CDDC & Chhandam School of Kathak Board of Directors.  Seibi Lee is a member of the Chitresh Das Dance Company, Co-Manager of the Chhandam School of Kathak, and Director of the Berkeley, CA branch.  Seema Mehta is the Director of Chhandam Nritya Bharati in Mumbai, India.

In your words, what is the meaning of the word “shishya,” and who is a shishya?  At what point does a student become a shishya and when did you consider yourself to be a shishya of Pandit Chitresh Das?

Gretchen Hayden (as interviewed by Shruti Iyer):  When I first encountered this question, I thought, “Isn’t this something defined by the guru, not the shishya?”  A shishya is a disciple in the simplest of terms, but over the years it has come to mean much more to me.  I was first introduced to the concept of a shishya when I was 15, through a book called At the Feet of the Master by Jiddu Krishnamurti. At the time, I resonated with the sense of devotion and dedication that I gleaned from that book.  I had a similar experience with the teachings of Meher Baba, whose teachings I was introduced to in the 1960′s.

When I first came to Guruji in 1972, I viewed him as a teacher, and at the time, we called him by his name, “Chitresh!”  I was immediately enthralled with the art form of Kathak, even though I knew absolutely nothing about it (and very little about India).  Kathak resonated with something deep inside me, because I was able to learn from such a great master and inspiring guru, as well as study in the vibrant and exotic environment of the Ali Akbar College of Music.  That we could study these art forms from them right there in the town where we lived, was such a gift!

During the next twelve years of my study, I was never referred to as a shishya, because Guruji hadn’t taken on the role of being a guru at the time and because we were “students.”  In the beginning, all I wanted to do was dance, learn, practice, and be in the moment.  I was certainly not thinking of aspiring to become anything, let alone a “shishya.”  Kathak, as we were taught, revealed itself to be a vast and wonderful art from that was dance, music, rhythm, theater, yoga, math, history, and philosophy.  Over time we learned the teachings that were to eventually crystallize into the Nine Principles of Chhandam.

Understanding what it means to be a shishya is an ever-evolving process.  The concept evolved as Guruji developed himself, as I developed as a disciple, and continues to evolve even today.  Once I went out into the world with Guruji’s teachings, I really began to take on more of the responsibility of being and feeling like a shishya.  There is a weight and responsibility that comes with this role.

Although I had felt in my heart to be a shishya by then, I did not have an official Ganda-Bandhan ceremony until Feb. 8 1998.  Ganda-Bhandhan, is a traditional ceremony of acceptance between a guru and his shishya.  The ceremony was twenty-six years after I initially came to Guruji.  Guruji was silent as we drove to the Dakshineswar Temple.  He did not explain or talk to us about the ceremony in the days preceding this moment, nor did he provide explanations on that day or afterward.  I now understand the silence better than I did at that time.  There are profound moments in life like that.  What is there to say?

Charlotte Moraga (as interviewed by Shruti Iyer): Anyone can find a textbook definition of the word shishya, but it has very personal meaning for each person.  As Guruji calls himself the ‘modern guru in training,’ I call myself the ‘modern shishya in training.’  There is no one definition of a shishya; it is an ever-evolving concept that you figure out through a process of intense study.

Being a shishya is really something that’s in the heart- something that you take beyond the dance itself and allows you to grow to a certain kind of realization.  Being a shishya represents a very special commitment that you take on when the time is right.  It is tough to say when exactly I considered myself to be a shishya to Guruji.  I had my Ganda-Bandhan ceremony and full-length evening solo concert in 2002, and it wasn’t merely a ritual in my mind.  It represented a very special, lifelong commitment.  Being a shishya represents a relationship with the guru that goes deep into the dance, but also beyond the dance itself. It’s a roller coaster ride of life.

The guru-shishya parampara opens up a path of intensity that allows you to actualize the artform – especially an artform like Kathak, which is so deep and rich and can be traced back thousands of years.  Guruji himself is continuously evolving, so being a shishya tests your stamina and perseverance.  You have to go beyond your comfort zone.  His shishya must be constantly open to challenges and willing to learn.  You acquire a responsibility and obligation to always treat the artform with a certain amount of respect and be true to the teachings.  That doesn’t mean your can’t experiment, or express your own individuality through the art.  It just means that you have to know what you’re doing.  Guruji tells of his guru saying to him, “Son, I have taught you from here to here.  Go forward and create, but don’t have the audacity to show me your creativity.”

Pratibha Patel: (as interviewed by Ravija Desai):  A shishya is one who has lifelong dedication, devotion and respect in the guru despite struggles and obstacles that may arise in the journey of life.  The shishya is one that is open to the guru’s teachings, and is willing to have complete transparency in the relationship such that he/she is truly open and able to be led by the guru.  Importantly, the fruits of the shishya’s labor are not to increase his/her own fame, but instead, to bring respect to the guru’s name and to carry forth the guru’s legacy for future generations.

Some people may think that a “shishya” is supposed to be a replica of the guru. I don’t.  While it is important that both the shishya’s and guru’s passion and vision are in harmony, a shishya – like her guru- must forge her own path.  The shishya’s path should follow along the same line or direction of the guru’s, but it must be her own.  The guru aids in development and discovery, but the shishya must “go through the fire” as my Guruji says.  A shishya may not agree on everything with the guru, and contrary to some people’s belief, I’ve discovered that you cannot be a good shishya if you are passive or submissive. Those qualities are not to be confused with the important qualities a shishya should have – seva, faith, respect, conviction and assertiveness.  And, I think tenacity should be included because I’ve needed a bit of that to “stick to my guns” and rise above the challenges I’ve faced down this road.  Furthermore, a shishya should emulate her guru’s standards and teaching for that art or trade.  Teaching and seva are an important part of the shishya’s role and duties.  Guruji has made Chhandam so much more than a dance school, and consequently, his shishya must be so much more than a dancer.

I think a student’s goal is to improve herself, but a shishya’s goal is to teach others in order for the next generation to carry on the art form and its traditions.  Otherwise, how would the shishya carry on the work of her guru in establishing a lasting legacy?  The first step toward becoming a shishya is in developing a direct, sincere relationship with the guru.  A shishya makes the commitment to share and promote the guru’s vision and work – through all the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. It is not to be taken lightly.  A student becomes a shishya when the guru deems her to be ready to uphold the role and responsibility.  You never stop trying to be a shishya – sometimes I feel like I meet the mark and sometimes I know I have to work harder.  I know I’ve had to think/rethink, do/re-do and recalibrate constantly to understand what it means to be a shishya, and to understand Guruji.  Your guru’s presence is always with you, his words may be in your head all the time, and even get under your skin, but the point is to make you think critically of what you are doing, what you value, and what you are willing to work towards.  A shishya is willing to question herself and accept questioning from the guru as her mentor, not only for dance but also for all other aspects of life.

Seibi Lee (as interviewed by Poonam Narkar): When I think of the word shishya I think of the first principle of Chhandam: the word Sadvyavahar – attitude.  Being a shishya begins with having the right attitude.  It is a state of mind and a life long journey.  It is upon the shishya to open their heart and their mind to the fullest extent possible.  This makes it possible for the shishya to absorb the teachings of the guru.  The guru’s teachings can happen at anytime, in fact, it happens at all the times. If the shishya is not open and aware, then they miss the guru’s lessons.  Teaching happens not only in the classroom, as in the western sense.  For the guru, life is the classroom.  There is no beginning or end to teaching the shishya and, in turn, no beginning or end to the learning of the shishya.

Truly the shishya learns not only in the physical presence of the guru, but also in the absence of the guru.  Because the guru’s teachings cannot always be grasped instantly; they resonate within the shishya.  When the shishya’s practice and riyaz become a sadhana and way of life, the words of the guru resonate and keep the teaching constant.  Thus, the learning and the relationship never ends – even when the guru passes from this world.  If the shishya stops learning, the relationship between guru and shishya is broken.

Seema Mehta: (as interviewed by Vrushali Mundhe-Jawle): The word shishya is complete when attached with the word guru. There is no guru without a shishya and no shishya without a guru.

If we believe that Mother is the first guru, then we are a shishya the day we take birth – the rest is a journey of learning, growing, doing seva and giving back to the world.

A student becomes a shishya when one starts seeing the depth in the guru who is guiding and showing the light in various aspects of life.  I don’t believe it is something that happens overnight or even through a ceremony.  The ganda-bandhan ceremony is a ritual, which formalizes the relationship.

A student becomes a shishya also, when he or she starts following the path and the footsteps of the guru.  Truly believing in your guru means to bring his vision to life through actions, ultimately, through Sadhana.

How does the teacher-student relationship compare with the guru-shishya relationship?

Charlotte Moraga: I think the Western view of the teacher-student relationship is a very different one from a guru-shishya relationship.  A teacher is someone you go to to learn a specific thing.  A teacher can be a very influential figure in your life, but doesn’t necessarily have to be.  On the other hand, a guru should not be considered a guru if they are not influential.  The guru-shishya relationship is not linear; it’s a very reciprocal experience.  As the shishya learns from the guru, the guru learns from the shishya too – it goes both ways.  Being a shishya is also learning to understand what being a guru is. it involves searching for the guru in yourself.

Seibi Lee: In the western context, the teacher student relationship tends to be compartmentalized; there is a time and a place for teaching and learning.  In the eastern sense, one takes on a teacher and the subject becomes a way of life.  That is a very eastern philosophy.

The western idea is much more individualized.  You learn something from some one and then go on to do your own thing. Often westerners think of the idea of guru-shishya as very acquiescent and passive but it’s absolutely not that.  It is an exceedingly active process for both the guru and the shishya.  It is the most active relationship there can be, because in the relationship the guru takes on with the shishya encompasses that of a teacher, a parent, a guide, and embodies so much more. It is not impossible in the western context, they may actually manifest it, but they don’t embrace it as a philosophy.

How do you think being a shishya in the U.S. compares to being one in India?  The traditional notion of the guru-shishya relationship involves direct contact over an extended period of time.  How has distance from your guru, Pandit Das, affected your role as a shishya?

Gretchen Hayden: In India, the guru-shishya relationship has had its own system that was incorporated into the social weave, where the shishya often times lived in the guru’s house.  Because it was already part of the cultural fabric, I believe being a shishya in India is more straightforward.  In the U.S., it was more of an exploration and evolution of that bond.

I was in class four (or more) days a week for twelve years straight and then (with breaks living abroad) still taking classes when I was back in California for another eight years.  Yet, it always seemed to me that part of “growing up” would naturally mean leaving the nest, so to speak, and no longer living in the physical presence of one’s guru.

Since moving to Boston there has been a conscious effort to bring Guruji here and keep a connection.    If a guru and a shishya have an honest connection and a strong underlying foundation, distance or ups and downs of life may shake it up perhaps, but do not break that bond.  It takes an effort by all us disciples living at a distance to keep the connection active.  But if you think about it, after being in the actual physical presence for so long, distance itself is not the issue.

Pratibha Patel: The distance created during my two excursions to New Jersey actually proved my commitment to Guruji and the dance.  It served to strengthen the relationship between Guruji and myself.  Even after I left California, I never left Chhandam.  I did not study under another teacher and kept my commitment to study dance under his long distance tutelage.  Distance was the true test of commitment, of being able to take a weekend in San Rafael and turn it into months of self-study.  Back then, he would give me a goal, and tell me to call him only after I had achieved it.  You can talk over the phone weekly, but it is really important to dance in front of him to stay connected.  He has amazing insight and uses dance as a window to gauge what is happening in our lives and within ourselves.  With his guidance, I started teaching in New Jersey and laid the foundation for sharing with the next generation what I had learned from him.  Guruji’s faith in me gave me the courage to delve in feet first despite the times when I thought I couldn’t.  Who was I to doubt myself?

Being away from the “source” also helps build self-reliance.  It was difficult to approach new communities and promote the art form and traditions without having the strong presence of Guruji beside you.  By reaching into a new community and trying to educate them about the value of the traditional arts really helped me understand firsthand how he struggled to reach out and educate those who did not share the traditions or spirituality of Kathak.  I feel the frustration and anger that he must have felt.  Now, he says that his “work is done” because those feelings are the result of our work towards promoting this art form.  Finally, being at a distance has taught me how to temper independence by being part of a sangha with my guru-sisters.  While we follow the guru-shishya parampara, we are also building an institution across the world, and we must learn to maintain the goals and standards across the miles.

Seema Mehta: Both places have their respective challenges.  In the US, you have to continuously be aware that you are representing India, and representing a guru who has a huge part of his history in the Mother country.  The Arts world in the US often refers to Classical Indian Dance as “ethnic dance”, so a disciple in the US has a major job in changing people’s mind about which platform we fit into and how rich our tradition is.

Being a disciple in India and promoting the art form in India will require you to know the local languages, especially Hindi to start with.  Also, in India there are often situations where you have to deal with being in situations with other artists and even great Masters in the field of Music and Dance, so you have to be constantly Tayaar in knowing our Guruji’s history as that will give them a reference point as to where we come from, who we represent and what we stand for.

Going further away from Guruji has brought me closer to him and our work of educating, promoting and preserving.  The first tour in India which I witnessed, where Guruji had seven concerts around the country, I was overwhelmed with the audience’s response and excitement to his performance.  His way of connecting, with the youth, the elite, the secular was simply mind-blowing.  I felt like the country needed and continues to need a figure like him who questions their everyday mentality and actions.  My journey as a disciple began soon after.

Pandit Das considers himself to be a “modern guru.”  He prefers that students not touch his feet or keep photos of him in their homes, traditions which people may expect of the shishya.  How does this modern approach affect your guru-shishya relationship?

Pratibha Patel: Your thoughts and actions speak louder than any gestures, or pictures in your home.  The mere act of touching someone’s feet doesn’t make either of the parties worthy of the act.  It should be done meaningfully and respectfully.  The point Guruji is making is not to rely on empty gestures to convey the weight and meaning of the relationship.  He doesn’t believe that being a guru means that you must wear white all the time, act benevolent and put on fascades to impress others.  He thinks of himself as modern in the sense that those old notions don’t apply if you are true in your thoughts, intent and riyaz. You have to “back it up” as he says.  As a modern guru-in-training, he constantly continues to evolve as an artist and guru.  His interactions with me and other students has changed over the decades, and I’ve seen considerable differences since the first time I started in 1988 vs. the late 90s and now in the new millennium.  His prowess at reaching and teaching any and every type of individual is the key to the world-wide growth of Chhandam.  I learned by witnessing the “modern” ways that he would accommodate to teach different crowds but never lose the tradition of the dance.  At San Francisco State, Guruji taught the most disparate and motley group of college students, and from there, the organization gained its current executive director, Celine Schein, some company members and shishyas such as Charlotte Moraga and myself.  Those were the only days where I watched him do a kathaka impersonation of Michael Jackson and Tina Turner.  Those were also the years in which he didn’t return to India, and instead focused internally on developing the dance and the organization here in the US.  He used to be so angry about this and that, and rant at us in class.  I’d think “you’re preaching to the choir.  Why not tell those people who aren’t propagating or supporting the arts?”  I would also get mad in turn.  He’d seem so extreme and off the wall, but after some time, I understood the purpose of his message that was hidden behind all that emotion.  To reach the Indian diaspora, he took steps such as finally learning how to drive and buying his own car to teach in Fremont.  Traditionally, students are expected to go where the guru is, but Guruji threw that notion away because he felt it was important to bring the art to the American-born and Indian-born desis.

Seibi Lee: There are myriad reasons for Guruji to take this approach.  Sometimes, people take gestures for granted. It is not that he does not allow people to touch his feet ever.  There are certain circumstances where that is permitted. Then the gesture is meaningful and thought about.  As in the way he teaches all the students to say namaskar.  This is a very special greeting “the divine in me greets the divine in you” but this gesture is often taken for granted and done haphazardly and thoughtlessly, as a matter of habit.

Guruji teaches us to take the time to pause, put thought into the greeting and not rush through it. I think it is the same with the touching of the feet.  It is a gesture of respect.  Often it is done very carelessly, as if something one has to do, and not necessarily done with the understanding that you are respecting wisdom so significant, that even to touch the ground upon which the feet of the guru have stepped, you might capture some of his knowledge and energy. Awareness of this keeps true the meaning of such gestures.  For Guruji, this gesture should be meaningful, and not allowing it at all times of the day and in any place, helps us be aware what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Seema Mehta: I admire his modern approach, and it took some time, but am beginning to understand his thought process. Touching one’s feet is a very spiritual act, and we are rarely in the right mindset to do so. Also, he teaches us to first touch our Mother and Father’s feet before anyone else’s.

Keeping Guruji’s photo is a short cut, connecting with him, remembering him, lies in our Riyaaz, which is what he is endlessly drilling in our minds and bodies.

Pandit Das stresses the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ as one of the essential principles of the study of Kathak.  How have you been able to live out this principle as one of his shishyas?

Gretchen Hayden: I strive to do this and have often faltered!  As shishyas, we have to take the teachings that are imparted to us and pass them along as best as we can.  When you take the teachings of a guru, one must be open vessel- the heart and mind should be open.  In the same way, to uphold that parampara as a shishya, you have to be an open, pure vehicle for passing along these teachings to students that come before you.  And this task is a very difficult task, as disciples will see things through their own eyes inevitably.   So it’s a challenge.

I also believe that those who are “shishyas” have to be very careful not to create problems or interference between the guru and the other disciples.  When a guru imparts the teaching, the shishyas listen and take it in.  They must take the time to fully understand their meaning and significance in order to incorporate them into ones own life, dance, and teaching.   There is the risk that disciples start to use the directions and teachings more as rules or dogma.  To me that is a problem.  A quote I just read in a book by Osho (Bhagwan Rajneesh) says it so well: “You are not to follow it dogmatically… allow it to grow and to flower within you.  The flowering is going to be different in each individual.  So they are not dead, dogmatic rules…”

Essentially, I have tried to live out this principle in my own way through dedication to Guruji’s teachings and maintaining his legacy through practice, teaching and performance.  The guru-shishya parampara is a life-long journey.

Charlotte Moraga: It is not easy to uphold and live out the guru-shishya parampara.  In the classical dance world, we deal with fellow artists and dance enthusiasts who understand what that parampara is about, but this is not always the case in contemporary, Western contexts.  Western society is very contradictory to our notion of the guru-shishya parampara often times.  It promotes irreverence and often times questions why we have such faith in our guru and tradition.

What the western world doesn’t understand is that when you have a guru with integrity that is constantly evolving, you too are pushed to evolve and express yourself in the art form in a way that is strong and true.

I have tried to uphold the guru-shishya parampara in my own way through learning, dancing, creating, writing, teaching, and performing, and passing on the knowledge to the next generation.

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8 Responses to “What is a Shishya?”

  1. Rachna says:

    It’s really interesting to get insight from different generations of Guruji’s students (and with such varying ethnic backgrounds!). It never ceases to amaze me how he has managed to preserve the concept of guru-shishya parampara in modern day society – whether it be in India OR the West. It’s a dying concept worldwide.
    What’s even more interesting is how differently each shishya is navigating through their journey and actualizing it for themselves, yet still retaining a common foundation. It brings to light how Guruji encourages individualism and trains and teaches each student within his or her life’s context without compromising the core values of guru-shishya.

    I do have to wonder though, if it’s fair to label the West as not understanding Guru-shishya parampara at all. I agree that many aspects of this relationship are difficult to grasp for majority of westerners. I also agree with Seibi that many mis-think it to be passive or a loss of personal agency. However, I also think it would be difficult to find an extraordinary artist, athlete, and even entrepreneur who did not have a very influential mentor in their life who went beyond being a teacher and who became their life coach. Granted this is not exactly the same as Guru-shishya, but there are strong common values that can be a starting point for dialog.

  2. Gretchen Hayden says:


    This is good point you bring up (your second paragraph). I had mentioned something about this while being interviewed, although that part was not captured in the blog.
    Something for further discussion at Traditions Engaged!

    • CM says:

      Yes, I also mentioned something about this (that there are western parallels to guru shishya parampara) which was not put on the blog. I brought up the example of Frank Lloyd Wright, who, when confronted with someone who seriously wanted to study with him, he said: First you have to cook with me, garden with me, go to the opera with me…. What he meant was that to really understand how he does his art, you don’t need to study architecture with him. You can learn that at school. You need to understand his aesthetic — his culturally specific micro-nuances. This is what it means to learn any art that is complex, rich, and ever evolving.

  3. np says:

    The people that find a mentor in their lives are very fortunate, because it is very hard to find someone who is willing to give their time and energy to guide you selflessly, for your betterment and empowerment. And when you find one, there is the danger of taking it for granted.

    But what is unique about a guru-shishya relationship is the life-long commitment and dedication to this active exchange of energy and knowledge; and the faith in each other to grow and evolve over time.

    In these times where we are constantly distracted by a zillion things and have so little patience, one wonders how a guru-shishya relationship is possible. That is why it is very refreshing and touching at the same time to read the insights of these modern Shishyas of a modern Guru.

    As rare as a guru is today, so is the guru-shishya relationship. Therefore, I think, it is wonderful that this festival will be celebrating this tradition and its timelessness.

  4. A student says:

    I think that this blog was very interesting.I also loved the beautiful dresses and pictures.I think that Kathak is going to help me have a much more positive attitude.

  5. NJ says:

    This is a very interesting article and so are all the different incites are on what a shishya is.

  6. Vanita Mundhra says:

    Now I understand what a shishya is. I also think that it is true that there is no shihya with out a guru or no guru with out a shishya.

  7. Venita says:

    I think one of the things that makes the Guru-Shishya relationship so unique is that it is life-long. So much more is transcended beyond typical learning or education.