My family hails from Ujjain. In 1981, when I was 15, I read an advertisement in the newspapers inviting applications for Dhrupad training, under the guidance of Ustad Zia Fareeduddin Dagar. I sought the permission of my parents to apply. Since I was the youngest in the family, with no responsibilities, they readily agreed. I also asked my music teacher for permission; he also agreed because I would receive training in the Dagar tradition, which was highly respected.
Right from childhood, I had very little interest in conventional education. I was crazy about music. My elder sister, who is a good singer, had already started training me in the Khayal style. I had finished my first part of B.Mus. (Bachelor of Music) with five years of training. I did not know much about Dhrupad at that time. All I was looking for was a great Guru; and this advertisement seemed to open the right kind of doors for me.
The selection panel accepted my application. Initially, I could only follow the ragas. I could not figure out what was going on in the hour-long Dhrupad alaps that my Ustad used to sing. It is only when the compositions started, along with percussion accompaniment, that I could make sense out of the music. Gradually, things fell into place.
When I finished my four-year tenure at the Dhrupad Kendra in 1985, I decided that Dhrupad is the only music I want to sing – whatever the consequences. I wanted to continue my training under my Ustad’s elder brother, Ustad Zia Moiuddin Dagar. Therefore, I came to Bombay.
I do not have any regrets about having chosen the Dhrupad route. It is, of course, true that there is much greater competition in Khayal, and Dhrupad is emerging as an attractive novelty for a large number of music lovers. However, making any kind of career in classical music is not a bed of roses, and Dhrupad is not a guarantee of a comfortable life.
The improving demand for Dhrupad today only means that I happen to be doing the right thing at the right time. Nevertheless, the right thing is the right thing for me because of what I want to do with my life.I do not believe any genre of music – whether it is Khayal, Dhrupad, or Thumree -- is complete in itself. Each of them has its individual inclination and character. Dhrupad suited my temperament.
It is difficult to judge whether it is Dhrupad that interests my audiences, or Uday Bhawalkar. I believe that Dhrupad is attracting the audiences, rather than my own competence. However, it is also true that if I did not qualify as a singer, I would not get as many opportunities to present my music as I do. If Dhrupad now interests many more communities, it is because our Ustads have trained disciples well enough to command the respect of audiences.
After my performances, people often tell me that my music sounds different from that of my Ustads. This is important because our training has given us the basic equipment, and allowed our individuality and creativity to express itself. In the Dhrupad tradition, this may be happening for the first time; and it is necessary. The Dagars are allowing us the freedom to shape Dhrupad.
I would have no interest in a form of music that is stagnant. If I have to enjoy my own music, I need to feel that I am adding something new to it all the time. If my musical vision is acceptable to audiences, fine. If not, I still have to enjoy my music, and keep working upon what I have learnt.
There are, indeed, signs of a Dhrupad revival in India. The music is reaching out to audiences in a very different way. This is happening because, for the first time, the great Dhrupad gharanas have opened their doors to musicians from different backgrounds.
In the Dagar family, my Ustads are the first to take up training as a serious activity. In the other Dhrupad gharanas (ex: Maliks of Darbhanga gharana) too, the teaching of students outside the immediate family, is a recent development.
When I perform, people often tell me that they like the music, and it has changed their pre-conceived ideas about Dhrupad. They confess that they thought of Dhrupad as an aggressive style of singing, more like a wrestling bout with percussion. This impression gained circulation because too many musicians, lacking in balanced training, forgot that the range of improvisation should include poetic, melodic, as well as rhythmic elements.
Several factors are helping Dhrupad’s growing popularity. One is the absence of the Harmonium accompaniment, which more and more audiences find disturbing. In our gharana, we do not use harmonium accompaniment. The Elder Dagars (Nasir Moinuddin and Nasir Ameenuddin) did use Sarangi accompaniment often. In our stream of the Dagar style, however, the music is much closer to the Rudra Veena; so even Sarangi accompaniment would not be appropriate.
Second is the novelty, and acoustic richness of Pakhawaj accompaniment. To begin with, it is a change from the ubiquitous Tabla. Pakhawaj becomes more interesting because of the way in which we handle the interaction between the melodic development and rhythmic improvisation. Unlike Khayal, we do not suppress it altogether. But, unlike some Dhrupad gharanas, we also do not allow it to take off into a rival concert. Our gharana has developed a way of interacting with the rhythmic element, more akin to modern instrumental music. This method has great appeal -- not just musical, but also visual -- for audiences today.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important, audiences seem to like the gradual build-up of the structure in Dhrupad, in contrast to the immediate and simultaneous entry of all the elements in the Khayal form. Moreover, of course, the peace and tranquil quality of the vilambit alap in Dhrupad, without an explicit rhythm, seems to be satisfying a very important need amongst contemporary audiences.
In the west, I know mainly European audiences. Speaking of Europe in general, audiences represent a variety. One kind of audience is coming just for Indian classical music. This audience does not know Dhrupad from Khayal from Thumree. Another segment is coming just for something Indian. And, then, there are audiences, specially in the Netherlands, who know Hindustani classical music well, who have been exposed to many musicians, and are deepening their understanding with every exposure.
My impression is that Dhrupad is more popular in Europe than Khayal. The audiences show a special appreciation for the Dhrupad alap. They can share its meditative and peaceful quality. However, this is also a very important reason for the growing popularity of Dhrupad in India.
Actually, the alap component in the Bada Khayal is supposed to provide the same leisurely exploration of the meditative quality of music. Therefore, it is odd that Dhrupad should have such a great advantage. The only explanation would be that, perhaps Khayal singers have started neglecting some of the beautiful things the Khayal form took from Dhrupad. Therefore, audiences are now turning to Dhrupad. The wheel may have come full circle. In the past, the Khayal developed when Dhrupad started becoming soulless. And, now, the dryness of the Khayal is probably helping Dhrupad to return.
As far as I know, the significant gharanas of Dhrupad are still the Dagars and the Maliks of Darbhanga. The third is the Bishnupur gharana of Bengal, which is stylistically quite close to the Bettiah School of Bihar. The Dhrupad revival is helping each of these three traditions, though in different ways, and in varying degrees. This is especially the case in relation to the Western market for Dhrupad performances, teaching, research material, and recordings.
In India, we tend to have strong gharana loyalties. In contrast, the foreign market, especially Europe, requires a greater variety to satisfy its special needs. In search of this variety, students, impresarios, researchers and recording companies seek out good musicians from several traditions, and patronize them. It should not surprise you to discover that European followers of Dhrupad have a broader exposure to the stylistic variety of Dhrupad than most Indian audiences.
In its totality, I think the Dagar style still leads the genre in terms of its following. I am referring especially to the Zia Moiuddin and Zia Fareeduddin stream of the Dagar family, which has brought vocal music closer to the Rudra Veena idiom. You will notice that we sing as much of Jod and Jhala in our alaps as we do the free-flowing alap itself.
It is true that Dhrupad is now drawing a larger number of students, perhaps even of superior talent, than has happened in a long time. But, I get the impression that a lot of them expect that Dhrupad will not impose upon them the hard work and struggle associated with shaping a career in classical music. This worries me. I am also concerned that my juniors are not trying to think originally about their music. They are not aware that the source of a musician’s success lies in his own personality, in his own introspective ability, in his assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses.
The shortage of great Ustads will become more acute. We have to think about what we, as the next generation of teachers, can do for training musicians for the future. I am keen to impart the same quality of training to my students that I have received from my Ustads. However, I have so far not come across very inspiring students.
At present, my hopes rest on the three blind students who are learning from me under a scholarship instituted by Mr. Kishore Merchant of Bombay. They are talented, they work hard, and have started singing well. But, as they go along, they will have to face the basic issue of earning a livelihood. Unless I am able to accept total responsibility for their future, I cannot predict how music will fit into their wider concerns.
The scene is more encouraging in Pakhawaj. Actually, there is no shortage of Pakhawaj players. There are plenty of excellent soloists. But, great soloists do not have the temperament for accompaniment. The present shortage of good Pakhawaj accompanists will not last long. The leading Pakhawaj maestros are serious about teaching, and have several promising students.
The best way for us to promote Dhrupad is to work hard at our music, attract good students, and devote time and energy in producing better musicians. It helps to produce reference material in the form of books, videotapes or recordings. But, all this works if you are preserving quality material, there is a significant number of serious students wanting it, and a mechanism is available for dissemination.
I do not think Dhrupad Sammelans or Dhrupad Melas of the variety held in Varanasi and Vrindavan are doing anything substantial to preserve or promote Dhrupad. I am not sure if they enlarge the audiences for Dhrupad. Many foreigners attend these events. And, if some musician catches their fancy, they invite him/her to their home countries for concerts and teaching. We should think seriously about whether the randomness of such occurrences justify the effort and the expense.
On the other hand, events like Sir Shankarlal Music Festival in Delhi and the Harballabh Sangeet Mahasabha in Jallundhar or Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune – I have performed at all these – do much more for Dhrupad. It is in these events that our caliber as musicians is tested. When these organizers and audiences accept us, Dhrupad is able to enlarge its audience. So, we keep coming back to the same issue. We have to establish our musicianship before we are invited to such events.
Reproduced, with the publisher’s consent, from “Perspectives on Dhrupad”, edited by Deepak Raja, and Suvarnalata Rao, published by the Indian Musicological Society, Baroda/ Bombay. 1999