Thirty-seven-year old Wasifuddin Dagar has inherited a musical tradition that is more than five centuries old. Last month, he spent a Saturday morning explaining the intricacies of dhrupad at a venue the Dagar forefathers would have never dreamt of—the workshop of Delhi fashion designer Satya Paul.
India’s most ancient and sacred music style is finally finding a new audience. This winter, dhrupad duo Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha had one concert marked as special on their calendar—the annual New Year Eve concert at the Music Academy in Chennai. This was the first time this ancient Hindustani music style was being rendered in an institution known to be a fusty stronghold of the Carnatic tradition.
For the rest of the music season stretching to March, the brothers have a packed diary. They are jetting across the country on concerts, stopping at their home in Bhopal only long enough to oversee the teaching at their gurukul (school) there. Their dhrupad school is preparing 15 students to take the stage in the next couple of years.
“I am amazed at the number of young listeners who are turning up at my concerts in cities like Bangalore and Pune. And they are eager to understand this music,” says Dagar. Dhrupad, which had lost its popularity to the fast-paced khayal (see box), is making a slow but sure comeback in India’s music halls.
On the verge of extinction in India in the early 1960s, dhrupad had found a new life in Europe. Indophile Alan Daniélou had arranged for a concert series by senior ustads Moinuddin and Aminuddin Dagar across the continent. Unesco had then stepped in to host more Europe concerts by the brothers. Over the next few decades, dhrupad found a huge audience in Germany, France, Belgium and Holland and later, the US. Dhrupad is taught on a regular basis in two conservatories, Rotterdam and Vicenza, Italy.
Germany, with its fascination for ancient India, particularly had a large number of dhrupad fans. The Dagar brothers spent one year in Berlin as guests of the DAAD (a German academic exchange programme) in1980. Dhrupad lover Peter Pannke has organized several events, including a major dhrupad festival in Berlin in1983. Not surprising then that dhrupad singers who are looking for a Western audience headed for Berlin or Paris. Singer Ashish Sankrityayan spends half a year in Berlin. Italian dhrupad singer Amelia Cuni has based herself in Berlin. And the Dhrupad Society run by the Dagars has a branch in Paris.
“To Western ears, dhrupad represents an archaic and at the same time timeless music, quite abstract and meditative, but not devoid of rhythmic excitement either,” says Cuni. “Apart from its emphasis on ‘classicism’, the West is also attracted to its systematic and slow progression in elaborating a raga.”
Sankrityayan says the popularity of the style has to do with its complex and sophisticated grammar. “Europeans are also fascinated by the similarities between dhrupad and the early spiritual music of Europe like the Gregorian chants and the music of Hildegard von Bingen (a mediaeval German mystic and composer),” he says.
Dhrupad had been almost written off as an export-only music form when it regained ground in India. For one, the number of events hosted by dhrupad lovers like the annual Dhrupad mela at Varanasi, the Vrindavan festival, the Barsi (anniversary) of Ustad Faiyyazuddin Dagar in Delhi and a host of smaller events organized across Maharashtra have increased its popularity.
The younger generation of singers like Wasifuddin Dagar, Uday Bhawalkar and the Gundechas make sure that they demystify dhrupad for their new listeners. Bhawalkar has introduced the use of the percussion instrument, pakhawaj, in the middle of the alaap to break the vocal monotony. The Gundecha brothers have polished the art of singing as a duo, using the Western concept of harmony in a manner more appealing than the senior Dagars without violating the tradition.
“I see greater possibilities for dhrupad in India than abroad, even though there is a huge audience for it across Europe and the US,” says Bhawalkar, who is on a six-month teaching stint at the University of Seattle. Later this year, in Amsterdam, he will be setting Kisagotami, an opera on the life of Buddha, to dhrupad music.
Bhawalkar, in fact, had enthused Sunaad, a music circle in Bangalore led by teacher and musician Tara Kini, to make a trip to the Gundecha gurukul to appreciate the finer nuances of dhrupad. The four-day experience was so lively that they became keen dhrupad fans. Sunaad, which consists of music lovers from varied fields like software, design, art and teaching, now holds regular dhrupad workshops.
“It takes a little effort and time to get hooked to dhrupad; it is not music you can hear on the move,” says 29-year-old N. Sridhar, an integrated chip designer with Philips in Bangalore and a member of Sunaad. “But the sense of sublimity and peace you feel while listening to dhrupad is incomparable. I tried to get others at home and office interested. It didn’t click with them simply because you need patience to acquire a love for dhrupad.”
Dhrupad is also finding an audience in South India now for the same reason that it found popularity in the West: The listener does not need to know Hindi and its dialects to appreciate the quality of music. It is also now valued for its connection with Nada Yoga, which uses music to open up and strengthen the breath.
The Gundechas have an interesting pointer to the dhrupad revival in India. Says Ramakant Gundecha, “There was a time when any dhrupad singer got a stage in the West. Today, impresarios from the West refuse to host any dhrupad singer who has not proved his or her worth in India.”
The three-day Dhrupad Mela will be held in Varanasi between February 14 and February 16, at the Tulsi Ghat; the concerts last from 5pm to 7am daily
Quick notes on Dhrupad
Dhrupad is an ancient musical style, which is believed to have spiritual and yogic influences.
It reached the peak of its popularity in mediaeval North India. Till the late 18th century, it continued to rule the musical scene when it was usurped by khayal, a fast-paced, more lyrical and romantic classical style. In early and mid-1900s, its popularity slid sharply.
When British ethnomusicologist Richard Widdess arrived in India in 1975 to research on dhrupad, he was told that the art form was “almost dead”.
He found that most dhrupad singers were either in “mid-career or retireme nt”.
Dhrupad has struggled with the perception of being esoteric and difficult because it is a slow and unhurried melodic style.
The first part of the performance is deeply meditative and it gathers tempo very gradually. Dhrupad is sung without lyrics or any percussion support. This is followed by a short composition bolstered by lyrics and a deeply resonant drum, called the pakhawaj.
Wasifuddin Dagar, Uday Bhawalkar and the Gundecha brothers are the leading dhrupad singers today. Bahauddin Dagar plays the dhrupad on the rudra veena.