Winds of change

Winds of change

Widespread illiteracy amongst North Indian artist clans, trapped in the socially and politically disturbed medieval period, did away with the vital Indian tradition of questioning in order to attain knowledge. Asking questions was banned and blind faith became an unchallenged requisite. That this trend is still existent became apparent during the seminar on ‘Music Performance and Musicology’ and ‘Dhrupad – Its Future’, organised at the Experimental Theatre of National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai (Jan 18-20). The Indian Musicological Society (IMS) and ITC Sangeet Research Academy (West), in collaboration with Music Forum, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and NCPA, very cleverly merged these two important seminars that hammered each other in more than one way.

It turned out to be a classy clash of deep-rooted faith versus logical thinking; of mythical love for music versus scientific research; of passion versus analysis; of music as a performing art versus musicology. And under its shadow, three days’ brainstorming sessions strove to spell out ways and means to pull dhrupad out of its present ‘less popular than khayal’ status, albeit without acknowledging or pinpointing the reasons behind its decline. In fact, the word ‘popular’ was avoided at all costs because film music, more than khayal, tops the chart of popularity! Participating dhrupad exponents like the Gundecha Brothers (Bhopal), Uday Bhawalkar (Pune), Ritwik Sanyal (Benares), Prashant Mallick (Delhi) and Kolkata’s very own Falguni Mitra apparently resigned themselves to the prevailing state of affairs and yet remained pledged to the cause of propagating this majestic idiom at all costs.

Role of musicology

Even in this era of science and technology musicology is a subject scoffed at by most ‘gharanedar’ practitioners of music who inherited music by birth or emulated their gurus without question. Music according to them is ‘karant (practical) vidya’. But despite such a fanatical approach, music has kept changing its stylistic approach; probably because these devotees of music blindly emulated the ‘daring innovations for the sake of beauty’ by their mentors; and also because some practitioners, who hailed from different backgrounds, carved out their own path, and while doing so inadvertently introduced changes.

This was apparent in ‘Pure song, pure raga or pure sound? Ideologies of listening and performance in contemporary dhrupad’ – the first and the most ‘provocative’ paper presented by Sumitra Ranganathan (University of California, Berkerley). Hers was the only paper that candidly discussed and analysed the present scenario, with lots of valid points. She refused to accept the new avatar of dhrupad that is more focused on anibaddha (free flowing) alap with least respect for the ‘pada’ (literary and composed segment known as dhruva and nibaddha) as opposed to the olden form of dhrupad. She also flouted the myth that one can identify a raga by listening to its tonic – a single note; and established that a swara is revealed with the help of several notes in the form of a phrase. The single note, without the movements, colours and shades of other notes, cannot reveal a raga. The same logic works behind the stylised movements of the banis which demand longer phrases showcasing meend (glide), gamaka (oscillation) and ullamphan (jumps) to establish themselves.

Shivkumar Sharma, who fashioned his own style and brought the santoor to the concert level, inaugurated this three-day international seminar with a short, crisp speech. He did not mince his words when he said, “Performing musicians were never told to read scriptures; they didn’t know the correct bandish; even the name of the ragas were mispronounced; they were told ‘Hamare gharane mein aisa hi hota hai’ (this is how our gharana dictates).” Erudite vocalist Dr. Vidyadhar Vyas, while acting as a moderator, explained, “Art came first; thinking minds analysed its ‘sukh’ (bliss) aspect and defined the aesthetics to attain it in ‘sastras’ (musicological scriptures). Performance always precedes musicology but after emulating the guru the disciple needs to innovate. That is when sastra becomes indispensable. Even the so-called illiterates ‘understood’ its value.” This viewpoint, with the pointed past tense kept echoing all through the seminar.

“India once gifted sastras on every subject: art, literature, economics, war, even sex. Why can’t pundits pen sastra anymore? Foreigners are doing research on Indian music though they are not familiar with the dialects – the language of our music. Why can’t music colleges produce performers or musicologists?” asked an exasperated Ashok Vajpeyi, a ‘passionate music lover’ and a path-breaking visionary who, in the capacity of a senior civil servant, founded Dhrupad Kendra, Bhopal, with just five students and two gurus (Moinuddin and Fariduddin Dagar). He pointed out, “A future does not mean that ‘it is the same’. We live in parampara which keeps changing; and that’s how it survives. Dhrupad’s most important achievement is the abstraction of human voice,” and he had solid reasons behind this statement: Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, along with Uday Bhawalkar, three students of the first batch of Dhrupad Kendra, who became the top ranking dhrupad exponents of their generation, have actually imbibed the techniques of the veena to a great extent and are working towards this ‘abstraction’ in alap, without the verbal or visual images, to make it more contemplative and accessible to listeners from all over the globe.

Paper presentation

The trio, along with Prof. Ritwik Sanyal, very eloquently discussed the journey of dhrupad from temples to royal courts that also signified its journey from ritualistic singing to secular rendition with change in its contents. Prof. Shruti Sadolikar Katkar (Lucknow), a renowned khayal singer with a deep insight into Haveli sangeet, highlighted the impact of the latter’s spirit of total surrender on Indian classical music in general and dhrupad in particular. Founded on the ‘pushti marga’ (the path seeking nourishment of the soul) of Vallabhacharya, Haveli sangeet revolves around the daily chores of young Krishna. Ragas belonging to different times of the day were encapsulated within its literature and gradually took the form of dhrupad.

Prof. Richard Widdess (Head, Department of Music, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK) and Dr. Puru Dadheech (Indore) discussed the origin of dhrupad at length. Dr. Dadheech also established that dhrupads are older than the times of Raja Mansingh Tomar. The term dhruva is actually nothing but the refrain or sthayi of a pada; the first vaggeyakara (lyricist-composer) was Jayadeva, who marked his padas with raga and tala. This theory may change the total perspective of dhruva-pada or dhrupad – as every song reverts to its refrain.

Ganesh Kumar (Mumbai) drew similarities between dhrupad and Carnatic composition singing. Since he is very much into Marathi abhangs as well, Kumar also traced dhrupad elements in this idiom of Maharashtra. Frankly, Bengali keertan can be termed as the softer, female version of dhrupad with all its stylistic features; but this topic was not taken up.

F. Nalini Delvoye (France) discussed ‘the emergence of dhrupad in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh’, Dr. Dadheech threw light on ‘Dhrupad in the reign of Mansingh Tomar’ and Katherine Butler Schofield (UK) talked about Delhi’s Kalawant Biradari.

Instrumentalists like Manik Munde (pakhawaj), Pushparaj Koshthi (surbahar) and Nancy Lesh Kulkarni (cello) discussed how they adapted this genre in their respective instruments. The USA-born cellist also spoke about her transformation from a Western musician to a dhrupad music player and supported it with a wonderful demonstration.


Since the classical music of northern India, unlike its Carnatic counterpart, does not go hand in hand with musicology, the discussions, as usual, invited arguments. And the question of banis topped the list. Young Prashant Mallick (Delhi) belonging to the Darbhanga gharana, focused on the Khandar bani that lays great stress on powerful gamakas, including the ‘toneless’ ones. On the other hand all the four main banis were discussed and eloquently demonstrated by Falguni Mitra (the Bettiah gharana with alapchari of the Dagar gharana). A proficient and probably only exponent of all the four banis, he forcefully propagated their aesthetic use in dhrupad renditions. According to him the compositions of each bani display a particular gait, a unique arrangement of lyrics, notes patterns, tempo, and a distinctive style of enunciation. These compositions or dhruvapadas, known as dhrupad now, encapsulate the fundamental aspects of aesthetics and grammar and work as the reference point for a raga and its lakshanas (features). These influence the alap segment as well. Their literary and melodic sanctity, therefore, needs to be protected without gimmicks like toneless gamakas, mutilation of lyrics for the sake of meaningless bol-baant (division of lyrics for rhythm play) and exhibitionism.

Fariduddin Dagar had a totally different viewpoint – so commonly seen in the gharanedar clan of yore who see music as their religion and, therefore, protect it beyond the reach of ‘chawanni-athanni ke (worthless)’ musicologists who only know how to play with mere terms. Flanked by the Gundecha Brothers and Uday Bhawalkar, his renowned, less rigid but devoted disciples, he challenged the authenticity of such ideas as the ‘importance of sahitya in singing a raga’ and refused to accept the role of bani-reflecting compositions (padas). He also undermined the importance of lyrics-based Haveli sangeet and passionately asserted that dhrupad came into existence even before the temples did! One was tempted to ask these respected dhrupad exponents that since they have mastered the art of producing soul-stirring melody and emulated the techniques of the veena to a great extent, would they like to rewrite the history of dhrupad, clearly a pada-based idiom, with just syllables like te, ta, ra, na only and do away with its rich, tangible literary treasure, further highlighted by the distinct character of banis?

Young voices

Mitra and Ranganathan (guru and disciple) received inadvertent support from Kaustuv Kanti Ganguli, a young IIT-ian and disciple of Ajoy Chakrabarty combining science and music, who worked extensively on glides, one of the special features of a ‘single’ (?) note (Ontology Interface) and, based on that, explored the Kafi Thaat (on the opening day, 18 January). While ‘Tiruppugazh Analysis - A Mathematical Perspective of the Meter’ by Rajesh Iyer and ‘Role of Indian Classical Music in Drug De-addiction’ by R. Aruna Shri focused on less explored science-based avenues, Bisakha Goswami’s paper threw light on ‘Anandasanjeevana’ – a compilation of textual musicology belonging to the medieval period. Among others were Vibhuti Sharma (Understanding music-making in a community with Sidi drumming as a case study) and Joanna Heath (Spontaneity in Mizo Christian Worship).

Optimistic plans 

According to Dr. Suresh Goyal, Special Secretary of External Affairs, and Director General, ICCR, who gave an inaugural speech (on 19 January), “Dhrupad is rarely promoted. Yet there is this optimistic symptom that more and more students, including women, are showing interest.” The concluding session, moderated by Arvind Parikh discussed some concrete plans in this direction and urged different institutions to join hands to promote and propagate dhrupad as “Dhrupad is one of the crowning glories of Indian civilization. Great music, despite being located in time, addresses eternity. The timelessness has to be worked upon with great skill. Dhrupad is changing. This must be taken into account along with the memory of the past and imagination for the future”, said Ashok Vajpei.