Dhrupada is possibly the oldest surviving musical form of North India. The word Dhrupada is a combination of the two words Dhruva & Pada. Dhruva which means structured fixed or rigid, that does not alter its course, and pada, means word or syllable, a metrical foot, denoting the composition. The word Dhrupada therefore means a composition in which the padas or words are set in a definite structure or pattern.
If one searches for the roots of this form, one would definitely go back as far as the Sama Veda chants. The chhandas and the prabandha modes of composition are believed to have originated in the rhythmic Vedic chants. Of the two, chhandas have rise to verse and prabandha to meter. The historical evidence suggests that there must have been a gradual evolutionary process which resulted in the emergence of Drupada from its progenitors “Prabandha”.
In Indian tradition, music was equated with truth and truth with God. From this rich lore originated Dhrupad, whose roots can be traced to the Vedic scriptures in Sama Veda. It is also said that the chant of the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana by the rishis, ascetics of yore, gave the intonation and color to Dhrupad. Consequently, Dhrupad was devotional in nature, an invocation to the gods, sung exclusively in places of worship.
It soon assumed the status of a yoga – nad Brahma (sound). A yogic meditation was pursued by the rishis to attain purity of sound. Dhrupada seems to be related to the tradition of religious hymns which were sung in the temples since when Prabandha gave way to Dhrupada. Dhrupad probably evolved from the earlier chanting of Om the sacred syllable, which is believed to be in the Hindu canon, to be the source of all creation. Om is said to have a spiritually purifying effect on the person chanting it and the phrases like Om, Ananta Narayana Hari or Hey Anant Hari were a kind of invocation to God. However later on, these phrases disappeared but were left with nom tom as a vestige.
Bharata`s Natyashastra makes reference of Dhruva as the song sung before the commencement of a play, whereas 11th century music texts, such as ‘Sangeet Makarand’, and 14th century texts like ‘Raagatarangini’, discuss both the dhruva and the dhruva-prabandha forms. About Prabandha we get references in ‘Mansolesa’ written by Somesvara ,‘Sangit Ratnakar’ written by Sharangdeva and ‘Sangitaraja’ written by Maharana Kumbhakarna.Someshwara tells us that Prabandhas were mostly hymns in praise of Gods & Goddesses namely Brahma, Vishnu, Shankara, Saraswati, Gauri, Mahalaxmi and so on. There were also Prabandhas in laudation of human beings of great beauty, sublimity and power.
Various scholars like Bhavabhatta of the 17th Century have given descriptions of the Dhrupadas and the ragas sung at that time. The Dhrupada style of singing was gaining ground in the 14th century. The Dhrupadas had a strong classical base as they evolved from Salag Suda Prabandha, since it was this type of prabandha that the Dhatu(divisions) ‘antara’was sung. The salag suda Prabandha had five Dhatus namely Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva, Antara and Abhoga. Of these, the Abhoga, being very long was split into two sub parts the Sanchari and the Abhoga. The Dhruva was also dropped. The Dhatus of the Dhrupavaprabandha thus became Udgraha, Melapaka, Antara, Sancari and Abhoga. Later Udgraha and Melapaka were combined into one division called the Sthayi.
Thus the modern Dhrupada came into four divisions: Sthayi, Antara, Sancari Abhoga.
During (1486-1516) Raja Mansingh Tomar gave Dhrupada immense encouragement and introduced many refinements in it. He presented Dhrupada in a new form which began to flourish from the 16th century onwards thanks to Tansen (born Tanna Mishra or Ramtanu to Makarand Pande) and other eminent musicians. These musicians brought a rare beauty, elasticity and dignity to Dhrupada. Dhrupada became the most prominent feature of music culture of that time. Being unfamiliar with Sanskrit Persian musicians could not get the bhavna (feeling) right even though they mastered our music. Conversion of many Hindu musicians to Islam also had the unfortunate effect of their moving away from the Sanskrit and Sastrika traditions.
When the dhrupad form migrated to the royal courts, between the 14th and 16th centuries, its nature and content underwent several alterations. Simplicity yielded to sophistication, devotional feelings to the romantic and, at times, to amorous ones since music had to satisfy and amuse regal patrons. Group singing of the dhrupad also yielded to individual style of singing, where display of skill was necessitated.
Such changes, brought about by a fusing of historical, social and cultural factors which contributed to the emergence of the dhrupad as a classical form. During the 12th to 16th centuries the language of composition changed from Sanskrit to Brijbhasha/Avadhi. Most of the compositions sung to this day are drawn from Brij compositions, composed during the 15th and 16th centuries and thereafter.
The teaching of dhrupad is very closely tied to the ancient system of Guru-shishya parampara (the teacher-disciple tradition). This is an oral tradition that dates back thousands of years. The students lived in the home of their guru and devoted themselves to riyaz (practice) of music. Musical treatises refer to different Vanis. These were different styles or schools of dhrupad presentation that existed during the 16th century. They themselves were supposed to have evolved out of five Geetis, or styles of singing, referred to by the scholar Matanga during the 17th century. From these styles, came four dhrupad vanis - Gauhar, Nauhar, Khandar and Dagar. Many of the existing dhrupad gharanas trace their origins back to one or the other of these vanis.
With the passage of time, the musical aspect of Dhrupad became so sober and complete in itself that instrumentalists started solo performances of Dhrupada on instruments like Been & Rabab, Surbahar and sitar with no less grandeur as the vocalists. The Dhrupad music played on the instruments has adopted portions of vocal music which can be accommodated by instruments and is called as ‘gayaki’. Misri Singh, son in law of ‘Tansen’ accompanied him on Been when Tansen Performed Dhrupada. Tansen’s son Bilas Khan accompaniment of vocal music with the instrument called Rabab
In ancient times Veena used to accompany Dhrupad singers. But later on Veena adopted itself to the style of Dhupad and Alaap which preceded a Dhrupad recital that was prevalent in those days. There were many dhrupadiyas who were fairly good Veena Players. Amongst them was Niyamat Khan (Sadarang) who popularized veena as a solo instrument. According to the famous veenkar Ustad Asad Ali khan, “his ancestors Rajab Ali Khan and Musharaff Khan followed the khandahar vani which was perfected to suitably apply to veena”.
The dhrupad style of singing evolved as result of an attempt to relax the rigidity of prabandhas. The dhrupad contains of two phases Nibaddha and Anibaddha. One of the chief strengths of the dhrupad is that, it gives importance both to the free exposition and development of the raaga through the initial alaap (anibaddha), as well as to the rhythmically framed composition (Nibaddha). A performance in dhrupad will start with a detailed Alaap in a preferred Raga wherein the singer tries to evoke the mood, tone and spirit of the chosen Raga. The nibaddha or the closed form comprises of a rhythm-bound composition in a raga, which embarks, develops and concludes within the outline of a fixed rhythm pulse. Thus, Dhrupad establishes co-equivalence of swara and tala, thereby meeting the listener’s demand for aesthetic attention to the subtleties of the Raga, as also its energetic illumination through rhythmic play.
A vocal dhrupad performance begins with a meditative Alaap in which the artist develops the raga, note-by-note, without any instrumental accompaniment except the drone of the tanpura. The emphasis is on developing each note with purity and clarity. To quote the famous Dhrupad stalwart Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar: "Alaap entails the search to get the most perfect pitch of every note. It takes you into a sort of meditation in which you are lost in the waves of sound and forget everything. There remains only sound." The alaap evokes a mood in the audience that coincides with the mood of the raga that is chosen. The singer, many a time, begins with an inventive chant of the Omkara in the chosen raga. The contemplative character of the alaap is amplified by the prayerful manner in which the singer articulates these syllables in the lower, middle and upper registers. As the alaap follows no fixed text, the singer is free to use words like re de ti ri li na nom ta, collectively called nom tom, to emphasize and expatiate the notes. It is supposed that these `nonsense` syllables possess a semantic and mystical effect. The philosophy behind not using words is that words may distract and thus lessen the chance of floating in a spiritual plane. Without the distraction caused by words, what one hears in the alaap is the sound of pure music, ideally leading to divine fusion.
There are a total of four sections in the dhrupad- sthayi, antara, sanchari and abhog. Following a series of improvisations, in the sthayi section, the singer moves on to the antara (intermediate) section, designated by his transition from the lower octave to the middle and high octaves - i.e., from ma or pa, to taar sa. Further improvisations take place in these two octaves, after which the singer returns to the sthayi, to attempt improvised variations in a rhythmically oriented manner. The first section which is sung is the sthayi (meaning steady). The weight of the raga and of the composition falls on this section. The first phrase of the bandish, which carries the characteristic melodic intonation and weight of the raga, is sung first. The three components of this section are song-text, melody and rhythm, all of which are evenly accentuated. The pakhavaj player joins the singer at count one of the tala cycle, providing accompaniment with beats from this point on, thus setting into motion the rhythmic cycle. Generally the dhrupad compositions are sung in chautal (a 12 beat rhythm cycle). Other Tala cycles that are used are sula tala (10) and tivra tala (7 beats), and dhamar (14 beats). While delivering the sthayi, the singer is free to pick the speed he wishes to.
In the sthayi section only the poorvanga (lower tetra-chord) of the raga is stressed. The words of the composition are broken and sub-divided rhythmically into their basic syllabic units and then re-organised, in order to create brilliant syllable-beat and word-beat synchronic patterns. This part is known as bol-baant (word-divisions). The meaning of text in composition is very important and the artists must pay careful attention to the enunciation of words. Even during improvisation, care is taken not to mispronounce the words. Using the sthayi, the singer attempts to sing the words in a different tempo, known as dugun (twice), trigun (thrice) and chaugun (quadruple). The tempo would be in multiples of the basic tempo, set by the singer. The singer and pakhawaj player engage in a lively dialogue, but do not attempt to compete with each other. After this synchronization with the percussionist for a while, the singer slows down the tempo severely, returns to the first line of the Sthayi and concludes the recital. Thus unlike the alaap, the dhrupad section is short and structured. It follows a strict sequential pattern. A full-fledged dhrupad recital is normally followed by a Hori-dhammar or a Sadra.
Dhrupad singers belonging to the Dagar Gharana style do not use melodic accompaniments, like the harmonium or sarangi, during their recitals. Only the drone of the tambura is perceptible in the background. However, those belonging to the Darbhanga tradition, resort to the sarangi. A dhrupad alaap normally occupies the longest duration in a recital and normally take not more than 45 minutes to one hour to go through all the phases systematically.
Pandit Bhatkhande`s collection of hundreds of Dhrupad-Dhamar bandishes is a very good reminders of our rich tradition. However, only the practice of the art can revitalize the style. To this day the temples of Vrindavan, Nathdwara, Puri and Dwarka use a simple Dhrupadi as a part of their devotionals with an elementary rhythmic accompaniment provided by cymbals and hand-bells. It is believed that the association between dhrupad and ritual worship was amplified when the Bhakti Movement gathered momentum during the medieval period. The relationship between dhrupad and worship thus, has a long history, dating back at least seven centuries. The survivor of this hymnic form is the haveli dhrupad, which recourses to a highly abbreviated alaap.
Prominent Dhrupad Gharana of today is the Dagar Gharana. It represents the Dagarbani Dhrupad rendition and is characterized by meditative and leisurely development of alap. The Dagar style of Dhrupad is defined by 52 musical concepts or Arkaans (12 basic alankaras and 40 more). These include concepts like Udātta, Anudātta, Svarita, Sapta Gupta, Sapta Prakata, and Sakāri etc. which have all but disappeared from Indian classical music and even from Dhrupad .The Dagar family claims lineage through Swami Haridas (fifteenth century), a renowned singer of that time and teacher of Tansen. Besides Swami Haridas, Behram Khan (1753-1878) was the most renowned dhrupad artist in the Dagar clan. He was associated with the royal court of Jaipur. Other famous artists were Ustad Zakiruddin Khan (1840-1926) and Allabande Khan (1845-1927) who were well known for their Jugalbandi (duet) performances. The famous Dagar brothers are the grandsons of Allabande Khan, whereas Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar are the grandsons of Zakiruddin Khan. Dagar family has contributed significantly to preservation and spreading of Dhrupad. They have helped keep this art alive even though this music was losing popularity in a time of changing tastes.
Dhrupad music has survived so far due to the persistence and dedication of the masters. They did not give up inspite of financial hardships and adversity. Their persistence seems to be bearing fruit as we now see a new generation of dhrupad artists such as Wasifuddin Dagar, Bahauddin Dagar, Gundecha Brothers, Nancy Lesh, Uday Bhawalkar, Prem Kumar Mallik, Ashish Sankrityayan and many other promising performers. The Dhrupad Kendra in Bhopal i.e. based on this ancient tradition has produced several outstanding vocalists. However lot more needs to be done to ensure the survival of this ancient tradition i.e. an intrinsic part of Indian culture.
The author is a trained Hindustani Classical Vocalist and is M.Phil in Indian Classical Music from Faculty of Music & Fine Arts, Delhi University.