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Dhrupad, An Invocation

It was a cold winter’s evening in Delhi. A dense cloud of mist enveloped the land. The human warmth of the large gathering dissipated the mist ensuring better visibility. The tanpura, (a four stringed instrument) droned in the background. The musician’s voice cut across the cold, mist filled air, giving it a surrealistic tone. This was Dhrupad, the mother of all Indian music. The music which reverberated in the courts of the Mughal empror, Akbar, lost for over four centuries and recovered less than two decades ago. And the main architects who gave it another lease of life, the Dagar brothers, were on stage.

In Indian tradition, music was equated with truth and truth with god. From this rich lore originated Drupad, whose roots can be traced to the vedic scriptures in Sama Veda. It is also said that the chant of the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana by the rishis, ascetics of yore, gave the intonation and colour to Dhrupad. Consequently, Dhrupad was devotional in nature, an invocation to the gods, sung exclusively in places of worship.

Over 15 centuries ago, Jainism and Buddhism held sway over India. Hindusim began to lose ground. But, Dhrupad sung to the Hindu gods, Shiva and Parvathi and sometimes even venerating the art of music itself, still held sway. It soon assumed the position of a yoga – nad (sound) yoga. A yogic meditation was pursued by the rishis to attain purity of sound.

Sound in Indian tradition is equated with Brahma (supreme cosmic spirit). Music therefore is interwoven with religion and Dhrupad still retains this relationship.

All sound is not music. Only sound pleasing to the ear is music (madhur nad). Nad has been further classified into seven swaras (notes) and twenty two srutis (micro notes). Notes are arranged into ragas are which melodious in structure. Raga actually means to evoke a mood. Sruti musically points to the interval between notes. At the time of its origin Dhrupad had only three notes. Earlier music was referred to as chanda and prabandha – metre and arrangement respectively. The metric arrangement of musical notes prepared the ground for Dhrupad.

Like the previous stormy periods of political instability, the days when Muslim rulers overran the country also could not extinguish the flame of Indian music. In fact, Dhrupad blossomed in all its glory and splendour in the courts of Akbar, as it had never before or ever after. The Bhakti (devotion) period was the phase when amalgamation of religions occurred and dhrupad found great patronage in the courts of kings. The music of the dhrupadiya (dhrupad singer) Tansen, reverberated in the court of Akbar, appeasing the gods and providing tranquility to human minds. Many musicians including the ancestors of the Dagar brothers were converted from Hindusim to Islam. Yet, they never lost sight of their music.

But, Dhrupad which had withstood many stormy periods in history withered away during the period when the British conquered the subcontinent. In the ensuing period when patrongs were not forthcoming, dhrupad whittled away. So much so that, by beginning of the 19th century this form of music had all but died in the sub-continent. Other forms of music, a lot more lyrical than dhrupad obliterated the very vestiges of the mother of Indian music. Dhamar, a parallel form of music shorter in composition yet with the same style, sung to Lord Krishna, held sway over the land. Khayal, which was more lyrical and emotional won over many of the musicians of the country. Soon thumri and ghazal held audiences spell-bound, as Dhrupad had at one time. In turn, dhrupad, which is a very difficult form of singing, became more iconoclastic and orthodox. Dhrupad means a steadfast song. True to this the singer remained steadfast to the style. And not a whimper of this music was heard during the time. Its patrons, those who were still affluent, switched to other lyrical forms of music.

Yet Dhrupad survived. It survived in the minds of musicians, in their homes. It survived as it had survived for over 20 centuries, pining for the day of its revival. In the 1970’s Dhrupad recouped its lost glory and splendour. The renaissance of dhrupad regenerated four vanis (the family tradition in music – an equivalent of gharanas in Hindustani classical music), the Dagar vani, Khandhar vani, Navahar vani and Gobarar vani. It has kindled such immense enthusiasm in India and abroad that people flock not only to listen to the dhrupadiyas but to learn from them.

Dhrupad is performed in three parts alap, vedang and dhrupad proper. Most westerners refer to alap as prelude. In fact alap is yoga, pure and free. It is a delineation of raga exhibiting each not so as to shed light on the different angles. Great emphasis is laid on arousing a feeling appropriate to the raga by the singers. Hence alap helps to create the right atmosphere. It presents the essential features of the raga.

During the time of Mohammed Shah Rangila, an avid patron of Dhrupad, the music moved from the temple to the court. In his court, the ancestor of the Dagar brothers, Baba Gopal Das Dagar was converted to Islam and took up the name of Imam Khan Dagar. The untimely death of their father in 1936, deprived the Dagar brothers of not only one of the greatest exponents of Dhrupad, but also of financial help. Yet, they strived on under the guidance of their elder brothers, Moinuddin and Aminuddin dagar. Shelter and succour came from their uncle, Rizauddin Dagar. The Dagar family ahs set up dhrupad societies in Jaipur, Delhi and Paris. A Dhrupad centre was opened in Bhopal which trained students from 1981 to 1985. The revival of the international interest in Dhrupad is evident from the number of long playing records of Zia Fariddudin Dagar produced form Sweden, France and the USA.

In 1972, the centenary year of the dhrupadiya Behram Khan who adorned the courts of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Ranjit Singh, his great grand children, the Dagar brothers organized the first Dhrupad Samaroh, (festival) in Jaipur. Ten years later, the samaroh took root in Delhi and became the homecoming of dhrupadiyas of exceptional ability. Dhrupad had come to stay.

It was February 14, 1988. the fourth Dhrupad Samaroh was in progress. Abhay Narayan Mallick had ehntraptured the crowds with his singing. Mallick was a song of the Senia gharana, (tradition) who claim their ancestry to Tansen, who sang in the court of Akbar. His family has kept up the tradition in music for well over two centuries. Fascinatingly Dhrupad still retains the unadulterated verses first written by Tansen, Swami Haridass and Baiju Bawara over five centuries ago. It is a music with roots and music with a future. The long alap rhythmically unstructured on a tala beat sung by the Dagar brothers rendered the air.

Dhrupad is now going places. It is finding sponsors like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and private companies. It is figuring as a major item in music festivals in Great Britain, Switzerland and Sweden. Like a true form of art, this music knows no political boundaries and overflows geographical barriers.