The song of survival

Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha learnt ‘dhrupad’ together and are now the most active champions of this ancient musical tradition, saving it from extinction
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 06 07 PM IST
Brothers Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha, backstage before a performance in Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.
Brothers Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha, backstage before a performance in Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.
Close to midnight, on an unusually chilly night in Kolkata, the by-lanes around Nazrul Mancha—the open-air auditorium in Ballygunge—are lined with cars. The Dover Lane Music Conference, no longer able to contain itself in its original location in Dover Lane, now packs into this 4,000-seat venue. This musical event is into its 61st year and audiences are preparing themselves for another history-making all-nighter. Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is wrapping up his tilak kamod, and up next are the Gundecha Brothers.
Inside the greenroom, wearing identical Tussar kurtas and Nehru jackets, Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha are engaged in last-minute preparations. Umakant nibbles on Marie biscuits, while Ramakant fiddles with an iPad for a tanpura-tuning app. A student comes into the room and mutters “maru bihag”. “We are just keeping a track of what artistes performing before us have sung, we don’t want to repeat. At such festivals, you can’t pre-decide what to sing,” says Umakant.
The “we” is critical to their craft; singing together came before they were old enough to make a decision to sing, or the decision to specialize in dhrupad. “We’ve been singing together as children when we would sing filmi songs and bhajans together. Friends and relatives often told our parents that they should have us trained in Hindustani classical music. We joined music college together, completed MA (master of arts) together. It flowed so naturally,” says Umakant.
Alongside their music education, the brothers were also completing their formal education. Umakant did an MSc, and Ramakant, an MCom—“Hum shuru se hi buddhu nahi they (We weren’t stupid to start with),” quips Ramakant. They both took up jobs in Nagda in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. Within five months, they won a scholarship, and both started their dhrupad training under ustads Zia Fariduddin and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. “Our day would start at 4am with kharaj sadhana, or the practice of the lower notes. (This) is the most critical to training as a classical musician as it increases the base in your voice, gives you better range and builds resonance. Before sunrise is when the yogic chakras related to your vocal chords are most active,” says Umakant.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Ramakant: It depends, but we discuss everything before taking a decision. "
From picking up the nuances of dhrupad together, the brothers moved to the next step: reviving it. “Dhrupad, the purest and most ancient surviving form of Hindustani classical music, can be traced back to the Vedas. The greatest court musicians like Tansen and Baiju Bawra were dhrupadias. But from the 18th century, dhrupad experienced a decline; suddenly all people could talk about was how difficult it was,” says Umakant. “This was because of politics within the families of dhrupad musicians. They wanted to keep the family’s knowledge within the family, and only pass it on to their children,” says Umakant. “Everything is difficult if you want to do it seriously, and dhrupad is no exception.”
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Umakant: Ramakant is the tech-savvy one who takes charge of communication, tour dates, while I handle the rest, from travel logistics to buying vegetables."
In the 1980s, when ustads Zia Fariduddin and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar started training youngsters outside their family, it was a first for the tradition. “That is also what led to the gradual rise of dhrupad in the country in the last three decades,” says Ramakant. In 1999, continuing the tradition of their ustads, Umakant, Ramakant and their third brother Akhilesh (who plays the pakhawaj), set up Gurukul near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Lush green and serene, Gurukul is a residential dhrupad institute that offers financial aid to those who cannot afford to learn the art form.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Ramakant: There are disagreements over everything, from what raga to sing to what dates to travel, but we usually get over those quickly."
Their typical workday begins at 9am, when they start their lessons, and continues till lunchtime. After lunch, they split for various errands and household chores. Since they live as a joint family, the duties are split among them. The tech-savvy Ramakant handles publicity and communications (“you get instantaneous replies to emails,” says student Sarbari), and Umakant looks after “everything else”, from travel to vegetable shopping.
"DO NOT OPEN: Ramakant: There’s nothing as such. We both are open to discussing everything."
Even in conversation, each one’s role is neatly defined. Umakant makes the long speeches, Ramakant is the witty interjector. Naturally, this ability to complement each other is what makes the brothers masters of the sawaal-jawaab format. “Our performances are a constant sawaal (question) and jawaab (answer) between the two of us; I sing a note, he responds to that. We develop the entire raga through a series of such small phrases,” says Umakant.
The one thing they share in equal measure is their love of literature and poetry. “Many of their compositions are pieces of poetry they have loved and set to dhrupad style,” says Sarbari. In fact, this use of poetry is now a hallmark of their style. The performance at Nazrul Mancha in January was no different. They opened with a new composition, a poem by Swami Vivekananda which they had set to the dhrupad format. Umakant’s base balancing out Ramakant’s lighter voice, the two brothers paid tribute to Vivekananda, the saint dhrupadia, in perfect unison.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 06 07 PM IST