Asian Music and Dance

Dhrupad – Music for today, from another time and place 

Music, like the rest of Indian society, continues to morph and change with increasing rapidity. The ancient musical art of dhrupad, however, remains the exception. 

“Today the style is almost extinct,” says American David Courtney with finality on the Music of India site he runs with his wife Chandrakantha. And indeed you will find many others responding with a puzzled frown when you mention ‘dhrupad’. Even in India, there are people who view it as an archaic form that has had its day. 

But reports of its demise, as Mark Twain said when a newspaper mistakenly ran his obituary, are greatly exaggerated. It would be surprising, indeed, if dhrupad had given up the ghost, for it has a toughness and strength that would guarantee survival. 

Its present-day advocates have a similar tenacity and fighting sprit. A three-day seminar – Dhrupad Samaroh – in Delhi in September 2009 took up the cudgels for the musical form. Aided by a short film by Arvind Sinha, it set out dhrupad’s stall and displayed some of its musical treasures while a panel of experts speculated on dhrupad’s position. Was it too rarefied ever to be popular? Did new technology provide the kind of platform that mainstream venues were denying? And was there even, as several devotees hotly claimed, ‘a conspiracy against dhrupad’? 

But what is ‘dhrupad’? The name has been translated as  ‘the rendering of verse into music’, but even the exhaustive study by Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess* admits ‘although a dhrupad performance can instantly be recognised as such, there seems to be no one feature that consistently and unequivocally distinguishes dhrupad from other genres; what we recognise as typically dhrupad is a combination of traits, including aspects of musical structure, vocal style and technique, instrumentation, rhythmic style and structure and poetry’. 

Where everyone agrees however, is that it is India’s oldest form of music, with its roots in Vedic chants. Over time it mutated and its contemporary profile dates from the 15th century when Tansen’s own guru sang dhrupad. Akbar’s court evidenced four main schools or vanis. Of these the Dagar vani is now the pre-eminent one, but all share the same allegiance to a form of vocal music characterised by gravity, austerity and drama. 

‘Eventually he began testing out a few deep notes as if he was pulling them exploratively out of the air.’

CDs give you a taste of the style, but to get the full flavour you would need to attend an actual concert. The performance by Ustad R. Fahimuddin Dagar on the final day of the Samaroh was a revelation. We had already heard two young performers, Prashant and Nishant Kumar Mallick, who had given competent renderings of their chosen raags. Then Sahib Fahimuddin, one of the Dagar elders, a white-haired 82-year-old, made his laborious way up the steps. Compared to the Mallicks, he had no stage style. He sat down slowly and, instead of acknowledging the audience, gave his whole attention to tuning the tanpuras. “Where’s my son?” he asked suddenly, peering out through thick glasses. Voices said that his nephew Wasifuddin was backstage. “Call him,” he snapped. Eventually he decided he was ready to start and began testing out a few deep notes as if he was pulling them exploratively out of the air. He stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again. It took him a little time till he felt he was hitting his stride, but we knew when he did. He sniffed, took off his glasses in a businesslike way, and got down to it. And then it was as if he had taken flight, and time stood still. 

‘The man who has the strength of five buffaloes should sing dhrupad.’ 

When I first heard dhrupad years ago, I was enthralled and I have never stopped being so. It is a relatively unadorned style, turning its back on the rapid elaborations and taans of khayal. ‘The man who has the strength of five buffaloes’ the saying goes, ‘should sing dhrupad.’  Accompanied by tanpura and pakhawaj, and sometimes rudra veena, it is traditionally sung by male voices. 

The Dagar vani will frequently have two vocalists. Starting in the lower octaves, the voices wrap themselves round each other, one interweaving sensuously with the other. It is, to begin with, very slow. You cannot be impatient with dhrupad. The performers themselves are monumentally patient. They let the sounds emerge, flow, seek out their singular point of flowering. Slowly, after an extended alaap (again a distinguishing point of dhrupad), the pace quickens. A song is started and then, with the introduction of the pakhawaj, it is taken apart in separate syllables, the voices racing up and down the register, pushing the complex possibilities of the raag as far as it can go. 

As Fahimuddin sings, he is oblivious to the audience, singing, it seems, from his own private sense of urgency and inner rightness. No matter that his voice is no longer as supple as the young performers. He has authority and history, and it is electrifying. 

It also gainsays the anxieties of seminar panellists and contributors. Dhrupad, they had agreed, was an acquired taste. It may be difficult to acquire, and could be considered ‘elitist’ and inaccessible. But Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar, 20th-generation Dagar, musician and president of the campaigning Dagar Society, had another view. “Listen to it with your whole heart,” he urged. “Every individual has the classical art in them. Yet we still carry a mental block against the ‘classical.’

It is not unlike the instruction to performers: “You have to surrender,” described Wasif. “You have to surrender to the moment, to the drone of the tanpura that gives you your inspiration.” And the listener too, he believes, should simply surrender. “There are many things we do not fully understand and we still respond to them. Eighty per cent of the world is using the computer, but how many know what a chip is?” 

The core essence of dhrupad is devotion, and this can overleap boundaries of thought, faith and knowledge. The Dagar family who have carried the form were originally Hindus, before embracing Islam in the 17th century. Dhrupad resists being confined into one faith. “Musical tones are used to bring harmony in your soul and others,” explained Wasif who started learning when he was six. “Through it we can touch anyone, whether they are of the Koran or Sanskrit or the Bible. It touches the human being.” Its profound roots lie deep in naad yoga, in which the sound (naad) resonates within the body and vibrates with various chakras. Its eight stages of practice make that clear: starting with Yama (ethical discipline) moving on to Niyama (self-purification by discipline), Asana (posture), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (detachment), dharna (concentration or complete attention), and dhyana (meditation) to samadhi (transcendence and at one with the Supreme universal spirit). 

Spanning the ages, from the Vedas to the courts, it lost its base when princely patronage ended in 1947.  And now today some claim fashion is against it. For Dagar student and performer Ashish Sankrityayam, dhrupad’s decline “coincides with a paradigm shift in Indian classical music in which it came to be accepted that music must primarily entertain”. 

The passion in the Samaroh shows dhrupad has its committed local followers, but it is nevertheless true that dhrupad has come more and more to find champions and recognition in the West. Friends of dhrupad believed this could be the lever for gaining the Indian mainstream. In the meantime, its presence is a bonus for us in the West. 

*  ‘Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian Music’ by Sanyal and Widdess, SOAS.



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