Dharini Mathur

The Disciple

i am seldom star-struck, but i was today, with this lady: dharini mathur, who gave us a lecture-cum-demo of the dance art Bharatanatyam. she was initiated into it at age six. she had her debut at age ten. she eventually went on to finish law from National Law School, Bangalore, and got her masters degrees in law from Oxford and Harvard. she’s a lawyer! but her first love being dance, she went back to india and is now teaching Bharatanatyam to young girls. 

dharini also studied under Guru S. Kanaka, who studied under the legendary Vazhuvoor B. Ramiah Pillai. what awed me was the mentor-disciple relationship between the two women, which was palpable even onstage. you could see the older woman (who played those tiny cymbals while her student was dancing) sizing up dharini’s every move. it was a look that was critical and scary and loving and anxious all at once. you could see dharini carefully watching and choosing her words during the lecture, presumably tense because her guru was listening, then coming alive and uninhibited during the dance. 

after, we had a little chat, and she introduced me to her Guruji. up close, and offstage, Guru S. Kanaka was soft and motherly and gentle. even with dharini’s real mother present, you could see a special bond between Guru Kanaka and dharini. “she is like a second mother to me,” dharini said. “she’s known me since i was six, she knows everything about me.”

she looks scary, i say, eyeing her guru, who was seated on the couch across the room.

“yes, she can be,” dharini said with a small laugh. “but she can be very loving.” she shifted her head, looked down, looked past the floor, through the floor, through time, through her memories. “yeah. quite.”

many people like to bandy about the word “guru” and “mentor” nowadays. but what does it really mean? what kind of devotion does it really take to follow the instruction of someone you willingly give your trust, sometimes your life, to? what? 

i don’t think many of us have that willingness to open ourselves enough anymore to receive that type of tutelage. most people today leave their mentors before the time is right. and so lackluster work happens. work devoid of inspiration and the power to move emotions and influence thought—this is the cost of impatience and arrogance, of claiming “i already know that,” “i know more than you do, you old, outdated fart.” the work is forced, contrived. lacking in sensitivity and wisdom.

i speak from experience. and it took me three years before i admitted, “shit. my work is crap. i need a teacher.”

the teacher, or guru, that’s given to you, may not be all you thought a guru should and could be, but the universe makes no mistakes. someday, you’ll understand why he or she came your way.

a guru-disciple relationship is one of the hardest and harshest, most humbling, yet most fulfilling, in the world. 

if only we were all so lucky to find our teachers, or realize who they are, and stick to them. what great blessings we could be to our future students—and they, to theirs. and so on.

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