The Year of the Shagird

By Sonya Rehman

I began to understand what it meant to be a true ‘shagird’ (student) when I would interview those associated with the arts and music in Lahore, over the years.

Before even mentioning their parents, they would attribute their success to their ‘ustaad’ (teacher). They would laugh and tell me how much flack their ustaads would give them, making them practice for hours upon hours upon hours. In their eyes, their ustaads knew best, always. The students knew their place. Respect was constant. Authority never questioned. Advice and guidance taken seriously, they knew their ustaads had their best interests at heart.

In 2011, I interviewed Ustaad Naseer-ud-Din Saami, the gifted classical musician/singer, who had something really interesting to share regarding his experience with his ustaad. As quoted from the piece:

“I remember quite clearly, for the first six months, we were only allowed to listen to our teacher’s music! We didn’t sing any Sa Re Ga Ma!”

Listen, Ustaad Saami’s teacher would tell him and his brother. If you don’t listen, how will you sing, their teacher would ask.

“Listen to the sound and the voice that you desire and seek, our teacher would say. So that’s what we did. We listened and listened and listened,” Ustaad Saami states, “After six months he taught us our first sur, but we only learnt one sur every few months. For four hours at a stretch we’d just go ‘Aaaaa.’”

In this day and age, I don’t think many of us are really willing to listen, learn and practice the basics. We dive head-first without strapping on the arm floaties. How foolhardy we are.

Having a mentor, an ustaad, no matter how old you are, no matter how senior you are in your career – an ustaad, a guide, is important.

Which is why I decided to hone in on one mentor, anyone – my age, older – someone who could guide me in my career, help me, teach me, because I know that if I tell myself I know all the tricks of the trade (in my case, journalism), I will honestly shrivel up and die.

So anyway, I looked and looked, I thought of close friends, I thought of acquaintances, I thought of one or two teachers, I thought of my family, I thought of famous writers, journalists and authors. But I couldn’t come up with any one go-to person – I yearned for it terribly.

I wanted an ustaad like Ustaad Saami’s ustaad – someone who would test my limits (make me go ‘aaa’ for hours on end!), break me down, build me back up, refine my work, refine my craft, and in the process, refine me as a human being. But I couldn’t find that one mentor. I’ve realized seeking an ustaad is futile, he/she doesn’t land up on your premises, knocking on your front door, hollering that they’ve arrived.

However, as of late, what has worked for me is this: maintaining a shagird approach to life and work. There’s no shame in asking for advice. Forget the ego, be the child, ask for help. And what happens then? Everyone on your path becomes the ustaad.

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