Dhrupad is an enigma. It is a highly complex and sophisticated classical art form, expressing the subtle nuances of the myriad human emotions. At the same time, it is also chaste and a form of spiritual worship and meditation through sound. It does not seek to entertain, but evokes feelings of peace, tranquillity and contemplation in the listener. The word ‘dhrupad’ is an amalgamation of ‘dhruva’, the unmoving pole star, and ‘pada’, or poetry. This is probably why it is regarded as the soul of Indian music, with all other forms centred on it.
A typical dhrupad performance begins with the alap, which is long, elaborate and the highlight of the entire act. By note-permutation, the artist brings out the characteristic notes and phrases of each raga in all three registers and uses abstract sequences of syllables from religious chants, which have no literal meaning. It slowly unfolds the nature of the raga by fluid improvisations, which progressively lead to a phase of rhythmic patterns. This is followed by a composition set to a cycle of beats or taal. Compositions are written in praise of emperors, others are devotional and some are about music itself.
In the present times, dhrupad is sung by a solo singer, or a duet known as jugalbandi. The artist is accompanied by percussion instruments like the pakhawaj and mridang, rather than a tabla, and stringed instruments like rudraveena, rabab and tanpura. The artist produces the same intricate modalities as the instruments, with a sensitive modulation of their vocal cords. The sounds produced by the instrument and the vocalist complement each other and create an unmatched synergy which gracefully elucidates the notes, tones and microtones of the raga, creating an atmosphere of expansiveness.
The practise of yoga is integral to dhrupad singing, as is the inner resonance of mind and body. Singers are required to contemplate in depth about their voice and its nature and have a high degree of awareness about the notes being sung. This is necessary to create the required effect for any raga, and is achieved through years of training and practice. Great emphasis is laid on the stability of voice, application of the right pitch and creation of natural harmonics through one’s voice.
Dhrupad is something which qualifies to be called truly Indian, with origins in the Vedas, elements from the Islamic rule and its esoteric relationship with Gurbani. This art form is mentioned in the Samaveda and originated as a form of worship through sound and as a way of chanting of hymns in temples. For the past five centuries, dhrupad found patronage in the courts of Mughal and Rajput royalty. By the 11th century, it had attained its present form. The 18th century saw a decline in its popularity, due to the evolution of khayal, which offered freedom from the rigid restrictions of dhrupad. Post 1947, due to loss in patronage of the royal courts, dhrupad was kept alive by the efforts of the modern-day maestros, Ustad Zakiruddin Khan and Ustad Allabande Khan. Their style of singing led to the evolution of Dagarvani of dhrupad, as it is popular today. Pioneers of this ancient and majestic art form in the present times include the Gundecha brothers, Dr. Ritwik Sanyal and Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, all from the Dagar tradition of dhrupad. Ram Kumar Mallick and Prem Kumar Mallick are the masters of this art from the Darbhanga gharana, or school of music. Several foreign artists, too, are taking this tradition forward. Its rising popularity in other countries is heartening and indicates a bright future.
So, take time and delve into some mystic music. It is an experience which will transport you into a whole new world which supports and surpasses us all, simultaneously. Savor something old yet new, something which is musical yet meditative, something calming yet thought-provoking, something vintage and divine. Irrespective of your views about religion and God, dhrupad has something to offer you. Embrace it to satiate your curiosity about Indian heritage, to have a tryst with spirituality and your inner self. Give yourself a dose of, in the words of Octavio Paz, “…soliloquies and meditations, passionate melodies that draw circles and triangles in the mental space, a geometry of sounds that can turn a room into a fountain, a spring, a pool.” Ladies and gentlemen, give yourselves a dose of dhrupad.