Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gundecha Brothers--“Nobody invites a poor musician to perform”

Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha spoke to Deepak Raja on September 2, 1998

In 1981, when we decided to join the Dhrupad Kendra in Bhopal as students, we both had Masters degrees in music, had received several years of training, and had reasonably secure jobs. But, both of us had this longing for music with much greater depth and substance.

Joining the Dhrupad Kendra meant relearning everything from a different perspective, and committing ourselves to Dhrupad as a career. Professionally, this was a high-risk decision to take in those days because the Dhrupad revival was yet to begin. We took the decision because it meant greater personal satisfaction to us as musicians.

In retrospect, there is no reason to regret that decision. We have never asked ourselves whether we might have done better as Khayal singers. Everything seems to have fallen into place. We have received the best possible taleem available in present times. Today, after receiving excellent training in Dhrupad, we are convinced that this is the only music that satisfies us. Over these years, the Dhrupad movement has also gained momentum.

We do not subscribe to the theory that the shortage of competent performers in Dhrupad, or its novelty for a majority of the audiences can explain what we have been able to achieve. Nobody invites a poor musician to perform, no matter how rare his style of singing is. Audiences do not come specifically to hear Khayal or Dhrupad. They come to hear classical music. You either qualify as a classical musician, or you don't. Nothing else matters. This is as true for us, as it was for the pioneers of the Dhrupad revival in modern times -- Ustad Nasir Ameenuddin and Nasir Moinuddin Dagar, better known as the Senior Dagar Brothers.

If we have been able to find a place in the major events of Hindustani music, it is because we are musicians of acceptable quality. The fact that we perform a genre that is not very widely practiced or heard, is an additional, but marginal, consideration.

In a broader context, and for the same reason, we are not in total sympathy with the concept of holding "Dhrupad Sammelans" as a means of promoting Dhrupad. Dhrupad already suffers from having been marginalized by a long absence of competent musicians. You cannot restore Dhrupad to a place of honor in classical music by perpetuating its isolation. You can do so only by producing outstanding musicians, who can compete effectively with performers of other genres in the mainstream of the music world.

And, this is where the distinctive quality of the Dagar gharana's music and its training appears. From the days of the Senior Dagar Brothers, it has become evident, that the style of this gharana has far greater appeal for contemporary audiences than the Dhrupad performed by other gharanas. A very important aspect of this training is the voice-culture practiced in the Dagar family. This training has made a great contribution to the public acceptance of the Dagar style of Dhrupad. And, it is now proven that the training of this gharana has the ability to produce outstanding musicians.

Our Ustads, Zia Moiuddin and Zia Fareeduddin Dagar have been virtual crusaders for the art of Dhrupad. In the Dagar tradition, they have been the first, the most committed, and the most successful as teachers of Dhrupad to students outside their own family. As teachers, they have produced more successful concert performers over the last 20 years than any other teacher of Dhrupad.

Their commitment and excellence as teachers of the basics of Hindustani music -- the science of intonation, voice culture, the achievement of tonal precision, handling of the raga form, the achievement of its emotional impact, and disciplined creativity -- has been outstanding.

Today, these are claimed as special features of Dhrupad perhaps because thorough taleem in these aspects is no longer available to Khayal singers. But, they are fundamental to Hindustani vocal music, and it is important that these disciplines are being preserved at least in the Dhrupad gharanas.

When we call something "Shastriya Sangeet" -- whether Dhrupad, or Khayal, -- it has to be, by its very definition, music which has a "Shastra", a sound theoretical foundation. And the performing art has to retain an intimate relationship with a tradition of scholarship.

We might surmise that Dhrupad, which is today considered to have a superior grounding in "Shastra", probably declined when it drifted away from its moorings in the "Shastra". By the same logic, we might say that those Dhrupad traditions which have survived, and are growing in acceptance, are those that have retained their fundamental soundness.

In addition to the soundness of the basics, the Dagar style has remained popular because it concentrated on the melodic facets of Dhrupad's esthetic appeal. In doing so, it subordinated the role of percussion to the melodic facet of music.The overly masculine or aggressive musical expression does not find place in the Dagar style. They have preserved a strong bias in favour of the elaborate alap of the Dhrupad tradition, and meticulously observed the relationship between the poetic and melodic forms.

The same esthetic perspective dominates the choice of compositions in the Dagar tradition. Although we sing compositions in a variety of Talas -- Chautal, Dhamar, Sul, Tivra, Matta Tal, and Jhaptal -- we do not sing any compositions without a poetic element. Compositions with meaningless consonants -- prevalent in other Dhrupad traditions -- are not performed in the Dagar style. The Dagars have taken the view that there is enough melodic development with meaningless consonants in the Nom-Tom alap, and extending it into rendition of compositions of the Tarana variety is unnecessary.

Beyond these general features of the Dagar style, our Ustads have sought to build a closer relationship between Dhrupad music as sung, and as performed on the Rudra Veena. Although vocal music and the Rudra Veena have always been companions in the Dhrupad tradition, the "Been Ang" (lit:the style of performing on plucked instruments, specifically of the fretted lute family) influences our own singing much more than has traditionally been the case. This appears to have a special appeal for contemporary audiences nurtured in an age dominated by the Sitar, Sarod, and the Santoor.

Against this background of the gharana and our taleem with our Ustads, we ourselves have tried to introduce elements which make for wider acceptability of our music.

The main effort we have made is in the field of the poetic element. We realized that in the Khayal-dominated era, the poetic element is faded into relative insignificance, both in terms of the musicians' presentation of it, and the audiences' receptivity to it. Dhrupad has to treat poetry with respect. Therefore, it must make an effort to adopt a more modern literary idiom.

We have selected some medieval and even modern poetry, and cast it into the melodic framework of traditional Dhrupad compositions. And, this has received a very encouraging response from audiences. We also felt the need to create compositions in currently popular ragas, such as Charukeshi (a Carnatic raga, introduced to Hindustani music less than 50 years ago). We selected poetry for such compositions, cast them into melodic-rhythmic frameworks, obtained the approval of our Ustads on the soundness of the compositions, and have started performing them. This, too, has been very well received by audiences.

In our presentation, we tend to avoid the “ladant-bhidant” relationship between the vocal music and the percussion accompaniment. Our melodic development receives a "theka" support just as in Khayal presentation, although we certainly have a much more lively interaction with percussion in the rhythmic play than Khayal. We also provide our percussion accompanists ample spaces for Pakhawaj solo passages, just as Sitar and Sarod players do.

This is not merely a concession to the expectations of audiences nurtured by post-Dhrupad musical genres. It is also critical to preserving the melody-dominant character of the Dagar gharana's music without denying the rhythmic element and percussion its due share of importance.

In India, we find that almost 70% of our audiences are hearing Dhrupad for the first time. Most of them are below the age of 40. Thanks to the media coverage of Dhrupad, and of our own careers, the younger audiences appear to have a strong curiosity about Dhrupad. They see it as being perhaps more authentically Indian than Khayal or Thumree music merely by virtue of being older. But, what is important is that they are liking what they hear. One of the reasons might well be that Dhrupad is more accessible to uninitiated audiences than Khayal because of the separation of the melodic from the rhythmic. This separation frees them from the simultaneous need to keep track of melodic and rhythmic manipulation.

But, the more important aspect of audience acceptance is that it is the alaps that are more widely appreciated. The taste for the elaborate alap might have been created by the great instrumentalists of our times, who have retained the three-tiered Dhrupad style alap in their music and popularized it. Because the Dhrupad alap has become familiar through instrumental music, and probably Khayal is losing its contemplative, soulful movements, audiences could be appreciating this facet of Dhrupad even more.

A broadly similar picture emerges amongst audiences in the US and Europe. Relative to the size of Khayal-oriented audiences, the Dhrupad-oriented audiences are larger in the West than in India. The mystique of an "ancient" art form, of course, has a greater appeal for Western audiences. But, they too value the Dhrupad alap more than the compositions, and for the same reasons as Indian audiences.

With a resurgent market in India and in the West, naturally the drift of promising talent towards Dhrupad is now snowballing. The Dhrupad Kendra at Bhopal is now attracting exceptional talent in good numbers. We, the Gundecha Brothers, are ourselves planning to set up a residential Gurukul-type Dhrupad institute shortly, and plan to select at least 10 students for prolonged intensive training. Looking at the overall trends, we feel confident that in the next couple of decades, there will be at least three times as many competent Dhrupad singers on the mainstream platform as there are today.

The situation regarding Pakhawaj is also improving fast. The growing popularity of Dhrupad has created a shortage of competent Pakhawaj players. The few competent Gurus we have today are experiencing an ample demand for their training. Hopefully, the next generation of Dhrupad vocalists will not have to face the same shortage of percussion accompanists as we have had to live with.

Unfortunately, unlike the Tabla, the market for Pakhawaj solos has not yet developed well enough to make Pakhawaj more attractive as career. To give a boost to this art form, we sometimes encourage our Pakhawaj accompanists to present short solo items at the end of our concerts. But, considering that even Tabla solos have a shrinking market, a Pakhawaj solo market may be a long way off.

Dhrupad is now being re-integrated into the mainstream. The issues of making a decent living that should have troubled us when we opted for Dhrupad, need not bother the most promising Dhrupadiyas of the next generation.

The current trends in Dhrupad presentation and audience acceptance will, we feel, persist and mature over the next few decades. The Dagar style will continue to grow in popularity.

As an interesting, but related, phenomenon, the Agra gharana of Khayal music, which retains the strongest link with its Dhrupad ancestry, could ride back to popularity on the strength of its Dhrupad flavor.

Yes, just as we have made a few minor innovations in Dhrupad presentation, there may be some more to come. But, Dhrupad cannot change very much without losing its identity. And, judging from the emotional and esthetic needs of audiences, it does not seem that they want it to change too much, either.

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

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