Pandits and Ustads

Honorifics in Indian Classical Music

by Andrew Buhr

The terms used to refer to master musicians in India depend on the religion of the musician.

Hindu musicians may be referred to as Pandit, which translates roughly as a 'learned person.' The english word 'pundit' is borrowed from this word in Hindi. A teacher of music will be referred to by his students as Guru, which simply means 'teacher,' although the term has a respectful connotation to it that 'teacher' seems to have lost in English.

Instead of Pandit or Guru, the term used when speaking of a musllim musician is Ustad, which is used roughly the same way we use the word 'Maestro.' Unlike the terms for hindu musicians, which can also be applied to non-musicians, the term Ustad is specifically applied only to musicians.

Thus, for example, Ravi Shankar (a Hindu) will usually be referred to as Pandit Ravi Shankar, while Ali Akbar Khan (a Muslim) is typically called Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

There are also traditional honorifics that get added to the ends of people's names. For Hindus, the usual suffix is "-ji", so Ravi Shankar might also be referred to as Shankar-ji, or even Pandit-ji. For muslims, the suffix is "-saheb", so Ali Akbar Khan is also called Khan-saheb. These suffixes are not particular to musicians. Thus, M. K. Gandhi (the Mahatma) was often called Gandhi-ji.

There is some debate as to which musicians may properly be addressed using these titles. Traditionally, they were reserved for the most senior artists, heads of gharanas (musical lineages maintaining specific styles). Lately, the terms have seen somewhat more widespread use.