Ustads, shagirds and the fragility of a relationship that could easily turn toxic

In the tradition of South Asian art, the bond between a teacher and their student is often precarious — as demonstrated recently by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.
Updated 06 Feb, 2024

In the rhythmic tapestry of my life, there’s a unique relationship that often takes centre stage when I hit pause between the beats. It’s not your usual family or friend connection; instead, it’s similar to a soulful dance set to the tunes of South Asian music, a dance between a student and a maestro, a shagird and ustad, a guru and a shishya.

In South Asian music, every note carries the weight of centuries of culture and this ustad-shagird connection is more than a mere sharing of musical notes. It’s passing on a torch that lights up the path for generations.

The music of the sub-continent is a treasure trove of rich traditions, intricate melodies, and wisdom passed down from generation to generation. At the core lies the relationship between the maestro and the protégé. In the tender hands of the ustad, wisdom transforms into a living entity, shaped to fit into the contours of the shagird’s soul. The ustad teaches not only proficiency in technique but also the significance of raga [a melodic framework for improvisation] and tala [rhythmic pattern] the very essence of their shared art. The intimate and personal nature of this relationship should result in a deep sense of respect, loyalty, and gratitude from the shagird towards their ustad.

However, this musical odyssey isn’t always a smooth ride. The intimacy that makes it special can create some challenges. The weight of expectations, both from the teacher and the student can turn the harmonious melody into a bit of a complex composition. The unspoken rules within this relationship can create tension between them.

Recently, an incident involving Rahat Fateh Ali Khan thrust the darker aspects of the ustad-shagrid dynamic into the spotlight. In a disturbing video, Khan was seen thrashing one of his students, which raised serious concerns about the dynamics of the relationship. This incident served as a stark reminder that even bonds built on trust can swiftly turn toxic if the ustad fails to uphold the responsibility that comes with the revered role. While the ustad is often invested in preserving traditions and may seek conformity, incidents like Khan’s can shed light on the heinous side of this relationship.

The idea that a student might endure abuse in the pursuit of pleasing the ustad highlights a skewed understanding of the boundaries within this relationship. It underscores the fragility of this unique connection and the potential for it to turn poisonous when the boundaries of trust and respect are breached.

In my own experience of the ustad-shagird tradition, I closely observed the layers within this sacred relationship. I’m still navigating this path and the depth of it is slowly being revealed to me. It’s like peeling back the layers of a musical onion — you discover something new with every note.

Talking about my relationship with my guru Yousuf Kerai, who is a 40-year-old tabla player and a math teacher based in Karachi, feels a bit like trying to put music into words — tricky, but worth it. I’ve known him for three years and I’ve reached a stage where he’s not just a guru to me anymore; he’s like a second parent, a constant source of guidance and light in my life. The way he talks to me is almost like a friend, adding an unexpected warmth to our relationship. Throughout our association, he has never toed the edge of disrespect, let alone crossed it. While he has been firm and demanding in the pursuit of excellence, his approach is rooted in constructive criticism and guidance rather than any form of derogation. It’s not just about mastering the ragas and talas, it’s about learning life’s rhythms, and he’s been there at every beat.

In stark contrast, the incident involving Khan exposed a disturbing absence of such boundaries. The very foundation of trust and respect that should characterise the ustad-shagird relationship seemed to be non-existent in that scenario.

Kerai studied with his guru, the late ustad Khursheed Hussain for 20 years. According to him, his ustad was like a second father and was incredibly lenient and adaptable throughout their musical journey.

“He was very patient with me. He definitely changed and altered the way he would have taught had I been living as his son in his house, which I really appreciate,” he said. As he spoke about his late ustad, there was a gentleness in his tone and a spark in his eyes. It was more than just a trip down memory lane.

Reflecting on his passion for music, Kerai admitted, “I think he knew I was already passionate about music and that I would find a way to make time for practice and live up to what he was expecting. Yet, I don’t think I ever really did live up to it.”

He holds the utmost respect and admiration for his ustad, who had never resorted to harsh discipline or scolding. However, this resulted in mixed feelings.

“I actually wished he was stricter with me. I wanted him to be angry with me,” Kerai expressed.

In a slow, reflective tone, he explained how he wanted to be schooled to improve and be shown how much discipline the art required. Kerai’s approach to teaching is undoubtedly shaped by his own experiences with his ustad. He takes a conscious approach to mentorship by avoiding dominance and refraining from shouting, abusing, or shaming his students.

As I thought back on my relationship with Kerai, I recognised the delicate balance in this dynamic. I acknowledged the potential for toxicity whilst navigating the fine line between guidance and strictness and creating an environment that fosters growth without sacrificing respect. Kerai emphasised that abuse is something that shouldn’t be part of any relationship.

“The ustad that abuses is NOT an ustad and the student that is willing to take on that abuse for acquiring knowledge and skills is very passionate, but is a victim,” he asserted when asked about his perspective on the unacceptability of abuse within the teacher-student dynamic.

However, not all journeys in the world of South Asian music follow paths as harmonious as Kerai’s. Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a trailblazing Kathak artist based in California offered a different perspective on the multifaceted nature of the ustad-shagird relationship. Her relationship with her guru ji, Pandit Chitresh Das, went through significant ups and downs.

“The way he would run a class was intense, it was vigorous. So there was no question. You just knew it was going to be a sweat fest class and we loved it,” Shaikh said, calling her guru ji “old school”.

Shaikh candidly shared how, in his teaching approach, accountability for tehzib [etiquette] held paramount importance and that she valued it to this day. However, she also acknowledged that certain aspects of this approach were laced with toxicity.

“He was entitled to his emotions, and if he was angry with you — and I was often in that hot seat — there was a lot of shaming that would take place,” she recalled, deliberating on a complex interplay of gratitude for the absence of physical abuse yet accepting the emotional challenges within their bond.

Shaikh admitted that the presence of psychological abuse was a realisation that came to her in recent years. She remained grateful for the opportunities she received but now questioned whether she could have achieved the positive aspects without enduring the toxic elements that continue to emotionally impact her, describing the experience as akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.

She highlighted how that toxicity had detrimental effects on her relationships, creating a distance between her and her family. She shared that her defences would instinctively rise whenever her parents or anyone else would speak or criticise anything about her guru.

“I wanted to make myself so available to guru ji to be in his good graces again, but then again it would just reinvigorate that cycle of shaming and abuse,” recalled the Kathak artist.

It’s interesting that while Kerai yearned for more opportunities to please his ustad, Shaikh’s bold departure emphasised the need for artists to navigate their own paths, even if it meant challenging established traditions. Both instances underscored the intricate dance between tradition and individual artistic growth within the South Asian music and dance landscape.

Kerai shared how respecting his ustad was never a burden on him and that it was the least he could do. “I think I was not able to do enough for him,” he confessed, with a furrowed brow, speaking of a deep sense of humility. On the other hand, Shaikh said it took her 20 years to find the courage to walk away.

Things became more layered when I spoke to Shehroze Hussain, the eldest son of sitar maestro the late ustad Sajid Hussain, about his relationship with his ustad, who was also his father.

He spoke of the discipline, dedication, and deep sense of respect that he had to maintain in this relationship with his father, who served as a guiding light throughout his musical journey.

“Respect plays a huge role in this relationship, without respect, this music is nothing,” Hussain said when asked about the most significant element of an ustad-shagird relationship.

Hussain shared that his father was very strict when it came to doing riyaz (practice).

“Every day I used to practice for more than five hours,” he said. In reflecting on the dynamics of his musical journey, Hussain acknowledged that an element of strictness was ever present; it never lessened. Instead, when he started performing, that strictness amplified.

He narrated how during a performance with his ustad on stage, a wrong note was accidentally played causing his ustad to look at him differently.

“He gave me an angry look,” recounted Hussain with an undercurrent of discomfort. He confessed that he would often sit on the hot seat often and face scoldings. However, Hussain maintained that he would enjoy those taunts and the chastising because it helped him learn and improve.

Contrasting sharply with Hussain’s experiences where his ustad would often scold him, Kerai happily reminisced about an instance featuring his ustad, when during a visit with a musician from Lahore at Kerai’s ustad’s house, he found himself unintentionally answering a rhetorical question meant for the guest. His ustad, in response, sternly told him to be quiet. Yet, within the same conversation, the ustad expressed his respect, and went as far as to apologise in front of the guest, patting his shagird’s back. Kerai didn’t feel as if his ustad owed him an apology.

“He loved me. I could see that. There was love there.” he said, his eyes shining with the warmth of that cherished memory.

While talking about the dynamics of appreciation within this relationship, Hussain revealed that instances of acknowledgement from his father were rare. “It only happened once,” he recalled. He shared that he had performed somewhere and his father, not one to express admiration openly, simply said: “shabash” [well done]. Hussain said that this minimal acknowledgement, though indirect and perhaps lacking the warmth of in-depth appreciation, marked one of the best days of his life.

In the realm of the ustad-shagird relationship, I found myself incredibly fortunate to have Kerai as my ustad. The ability to confide in him contributed to the unique bond we share. Reflecting on the diverse tales of this student-teacher tradition, I realise that the path could have taken a different turn. Yet, I got exceptionally lucky.

During a recent conversation, he told me: “Remember that I will always hold you to a high standard,” and that stayed with me. The hope and belief that there is a long way to go fuels my aspirations to reciprocate the commitment my ustad has selflessly shown. A wish lingers, hoping to match and perhaps surpass the dedication he invested in his ustad.


NYS Feb 06, 2024 01:21pm
It's not just ustad and protégé relation, but each and every relationship that matters in order to make things soluble handle with care!
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Feb 06, 2024 05:07pm
Old and bad habits die hard.
Humza Feb 06, 2024 05:24pm
Do not include the picture of Rahat Fateh Ali with the article. This so called Ustad - Shagird relationship has nothing to do with Rahat Fateh Ali's behaviour. He was just deplorable and he is an abuser. Trying to fool people with a nonsensical student teacher relationship to cover his drunken abuse of a domestic helper only makes people dislike him more.
Syed Hasni Feb 06, 2024 06:36pm
I prefer to be Atif Aslam and use Auto-tuner, rather than to learn from Rahat Fateh Ali
Aeman Feb 07, 2024 05:25am
Totally shocked. I have no words to say about Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's behavior towards his student. This Ustad has the audacity to cover-up the beating by saying that it happens between Ustad-Shagrid relationship. Shame on such Ustad.
B. Sridhar Feb 07, 2024 10:10am
"Times are achanging". A few recognize and make the needed changes and others follow the outdated, worn script of their gurus and ustads. The way Ravi Shankar was physically abused by his guru and Ustad Vilayat Khan treated his own son are clearly inappropriate and ineffective in the current world. So we have Mahesh Kales, Rahul Deshpandes and Kaushukis embracing more respectful and civil ways of teaching.
TAYAB ANDRABI Feb 07, 2024 08:27pm
RFAK's behavior was deplorable and unforgivable. this mediocre talent should be completely boycotted