Organized Indian music owes its origin to Samagana – the chanting of the Samaveda scriptures set to musical patterns. The oldest form of Indian classical music that exists today is Dhrupad. It is said to have originated from an even more ancient religious music form, Prabandha (2nd to 7th AD). The language of Prabandha was preeminently Sanskrit, whereas Dhrupad used mainly medieval Hindi or Brijbhasha (known as Madhyadesiya between the 14th and 16th centuries). Today, modern Hindi is also used. The word Dhrupad is the Hindi form of the original Sanskrit, Dhruvapada, a combination of Dhruva = structured or rigid and Pada = word.
The birth of Dhrupad coincided with the Bhakti movement of Vallabh Sampradaya and resultantly was devotional in nature. Dhrupad was sung in temples, the singer facing the divinity or it was sung by Vaishnav mendicants in their wanderings. This was the genesis of the Haveli Dhrupad. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated, classical form of music. About six centuries ago, Dhrupad came to be patronized by the royal courts. However, its complex rendering became too highly sophisticated for royal audiences and the nature of the compositions became more secular. Some were written eulogizing the emperors; others were elaborations on the music itself, while still others were about heroic deeds or even elegant poetry in admiration of female beauty, especially Radha. In particular Raja Man Singh, king of Gwalior and a musician and a great lover of music gave Dhrupad immense encouragement and introduced many refinements. This came to be known as the Darbari Dhrupad. On account of his contribution, he is known as the originator of the Dhrupad style that is followed even today. However, the pristine nature of Dhrupad survived and even today we hear this majestic form of music performed like it was more than 500 years ago in the royal courts of the emperors and kings of India.
The distinctive quality of Dhrupad is the emphasis on maintaining the purity of the ragas and the elegance with which the swaras are used. It is also known for its austere quality and its extended presentation style is marked by precise and orderly elaboration of a raga and strict adherence to the tala. This exposition preceding the composed verses is called alaap, and is usually the longest portion of the performance. This aspect of dhrupad has been the most influential, and is reflected in other North Indian musical formats, especially in instrumental music and even khayal singing. Dhrupad has a very masculine style and was traditionally performed to the accompaniment of the pakhawaj (mridang) and the veena. In modern times however, the veena is no longer an accompaniment to this genre.
Dhrupad is also the first form of Indian music where due to its literary excellence and poetic quality, the text or lyrics rose above being merely a vehicle of expression of the notes and rhythm. It is in fact the fine blend between the melody and the poetic qualities of dhrupad that gave its uniqueness.
A little known fact is that dance was till recently the usual accompaniment to Dhrupad. Alongside vocal music, the ancient instrument rudra veena is associated quite strongly with this genre. The performance exhibits the same wealth of melodic nuance and sophisticated development. The dhrupad usually adheres to a four-part structure of sthai, antara, sanchari and abhog.
Dhrupads are sung in four styles called Banis – Gaurhar, Dagur, Khandhar and Nauhar – initially named after the language or dialect in which the verse was written and mentioned in Raja Man Singh Tomar’s treatise on the subject, Raga Darpan. The four banis, in later years, came to signify stylistic differences.
Today there are only three major schools of Dhrupad: Betia, Darbhanga and Dagar. The Dagar family is the oldest, having kept this tradition alive for generations.
The Dagar Gharana took firm roots under the adept supervision of Ustad Behram Khan (1753-1878), who was associated with the royal court of Jaipur. Ustad Behram’s father was Baba Gopal Das Pandey who was ostracized by his fellow brahmins for having chewed a pan offered to him by the then Mughal ruler in Delhi, Muhammad Shah Rangile, for his excellent rendition of Dhrupad. Haider and Behram were his two sons.
Haider Khan died early while Behram Khan spent the best part of his long life in establishing the purity of the gayaki not known before. The entire credit for keeping alive and passing down to posterity the pure form of dagarvani goes to him. A superb teacher, his disciples included his sons, Haider Khan’s sons and their sons. Particularly famous were his nephew’s sons, Zakiruddin Khan (1840-1926) and Allabande Khan (1845-1927), well known for their jugalbandhi (duet) performances.
The main representatives of the present-day Dagar gharana are the descendants of Ustad Zakiruddin Khan as well as of Ustad Allabande Khan’s four sons, Nasiruddin, Rahimuddin, Imamuddin and Husseinuddin: all of them extremely gifted and highly respected Dhrupad musicians. Nasir Moinuddin Dagar (1919-1966) and Nasir Aminuddin Dagar (1923-2000), now referred to as the Senior Dagar Brothers, were the elder sons of Nasiruddin and grandsons of Allabande Khan. Their jugalbandhi captivated audiences all over India and even in Europe bringing about a major revival of the dying genre. After the death of Moinuddin, their younger brothers, Nasir Zaheeruddin (1932-1994) and Nasir Fayyazuddin (1934-1989) also gained fame as a duo. Major contributions to the upkeep of this tradition also came from the sons of Rahimuddin and Husseinuddin, Rahim Fahimuddin (b. 1927) and Hussein Sayeeduddin respectively, as well as the grandsons of Zakiruddin Khan, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin (1929-1990 – who revived the majestic Rudra Veena as a concert instrument) and Zia Fariduddin (b. 1932).
The rich heritage of the Dagar tradition lives on in the remaining Dagar brothers and their sons and well-groomed disciples from outside the family.
The Dagarbani dhrupad rendition is characterized by meditative and leisurely development of alap. The purity of a raga is usually maintained all through and in spite of intricate rhythmic patterns, there is a profound sense of devotion.
Dhrupad is performed in two specific parts:
In this first part, instead of percussion accompaniment the singer uses syllables taken from Sanskrit mantras. The Raga is slowly and methodically set forth developed in a meditative mood, the syllables are used in a specific way to clarify the rendering of the raga. The speed of the Alap increases with the use of gradually accelerating rhythmic pulse that builds to a point where the melodic patterns literally dance in space.
(Accompanied by Pakhawaj, a horizontal double headed drum)
The ‘Bandish’ is a short poem set to a rhythmic composition of a specific fixed cycle of 12, 14, 10 or 7 beats. The poems are usually devotional or amorous in nature but they can also specify the ways of using Raga, Tala, Swar and Laya. During the Bandish the singer develops the improvisations in the melody and rhythm, dividing the cycle systematically. The intricate patterns and improvisations woven by the Pakhawaj player and the singer, create a dialogue often playing against or complementing one another. See the following clip for an example.