Dhrupad dying

December 1, 2019

We are losing the traditions and gurus of one of the most prolific musical traditions in the sub-continent

Ramakant Gundecha and Umakant Gundecha

About five years ago, Aliya Rashid expressed her wish to invite the Gundecha brothers; Umakant Gundecha, Ramakant Gundecha, the vocalists and Akhilesh Gundecha on the pakhawaj to Pakistan. She, a dhrupad vocalist had been their shishya (student) and they her gurus (teachers) for many years at their Dhrupad Sansthan in Bhopal, where she was enrolled courtesy of Raza Kazim.

Rashid often reminisced about her years spent with the gurus, the discipline and regime of learning the dhrupad. It is as close to the traditional method of transmitting musical knowledge in the contemporary times as can be. This residential set up follows the traditional guru-shishya or ustad-shagrid personalised transfer of knowledge.

Their visit was meant not just for the pleasure of their performances, but as we were struggling to establish the music teaching school and its related scholarship in a more formal setting at the National College of Arts (NCA). We thought sharing experiences with them would be rewarding for us.

As we were all also keen to be exposed to dhrupad as a living form, the challenging task was accomplished by the very active intervention and support of Sharif Awan and it became possible for the three Gundecha brothers to visit and perform at Lahore and Karachi. Usually they followed a punishing schedule. However, it was made possible when they took time after their tour in Bangladesh and came to Lahore then Karachi on their way back to India.

A dhrupad performance is a rarity in Pakistan and four concerts held in the cities of Lahore and Karachi by these Gundecha Brothers, Umakant and Ramakant and Akhlish was a very rewarding experience.

Dhrupad had actually very few takers in Pakistan and though experts and connoisseurs talked about its artistic merit it had almost died out as a living form of music. One had seen Hafiz Khan and Afzal Khan, the two dhrupad vocalists in Pakistan belonging to the Talwandi scion of musicians, always frustrated due to lack of opportunities to perform. As dhrupad had gone out of favour, the two brothers hardly ever got a chance and were very bitter about this state of neglect.

A little ironical, perhaps, because Punjab had four major centres of dhrupad -Talwandi, Kapurthala, Sham Chausari and Haryana, and though kheyal started gaining currency in Delhi by mid-eighteenth century, it could not gain a foothold in Punjab even a century later. Only in the last couple of decades of the 19th century was kheyal counted as a serious form alongside the dhrupad.

Their father Ustad Mehr Ali Khan Khanderay was also a very competent dhrupadia. He sang on the radio and at a few live concerts around the country. Born in Talwandi, he had migrated to Lyallpur, now Faisalabad, and performed to the acclaim of the initiated audiences. Apart from him and his sons, in the early days of the Music Conference, the elder Dagar Brothers came from India to perform. And then many years later, probably in Sangin Nagar and in private houses such as those of Haris Noorani, the doyen of dhrupad, Zahiruddin Dagar gave a good demonstration of the musical form. A few years later a very young Wasifuddin Dagar accompanied Zahiruddin Dagar on a subsequent visit to Pakistan and displayed the progress that he had made.

There was a revival of dhrupad by the middle of the twentieth century and probably a Dhrupad Society was formed in Paris. This led to renewed interest in this form of music and as it is performed in the sub-continent, proving to be infectious as Indians woke up and began taking notice of dhrupad as it had been initiated by the West.

The leading Dagar vani dhrupad vocalists Umakant Gundecha and Ramakant Gundecha, known as the Gundecha Brothers had always sung together. Born in Ujjain, they had moved to Bhopal in 1981, for training under the dhrupad master, Zia Fariddudin Dagar and his brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. These gurus were second cousins of the two major forces in the second half of the twentieth century, two duos known as the senior Dagar Brothers -Nasir Moinuddin and Nasir Aminuddin and the junior Dagar Brothers-Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Faiyazuddin.

After rigorous training for four years, their first public performance was in May 1985, at the Uttaradhikar Dance and Music festival in Bhopal. Umakant and Ramakant with good voices and strong lower registers, had worked to expand the dhrupad repertoire by incorporating texts by poets such as Tulsidas, Padmakar and Nirala.

During the course of its development, the dhrupad evolved four vanis (style) – Gaudi vani, Khandar vani, Nowhar vani and the Dagar vani. With the passage of time the distinct features of each style were blurred and they began to overlap. With the near demise of dhrupad it is difficult to say which style is being followed. It is now impossible to assess how different this form of dhrupad is from the dhrupad as it existed in its heyday.

Dhrupad was once the most significant form of music in the sub-continent. It is said that one of the creators of this form was Man Toomar, the Raja of Gwalior and his court musician Bakshoo. The greatest exponents were Baiju Bawara, Swami Haridas and reputedly the greatest musician ever born Mian Tansen. From the 15th century to the end of the 19th century, dhrupad dominated classical music and was considered to be the major form of singing. The grandeur of the Mughal court in Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra or Lahore; wherever the capital, was shifted was given final touches by this form of music. The provincial courts emulated the example established by the highest court of the land, and most of the great names of our music are listed as performers in these courts.

Besides Aliya Rashid, Ateequr Rehman the pakhawaj player, has also been educated at Dhrupad Sanasthan. Among their lifetime of achievement, the Guncheda brothers won the National Fellowship 1987-90, Kumar Gandharva Award by the Government of Madhya Pradesh 1998, Padma Shri by the Government of India 2012, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2017 and the Swati Tirunal Samman in 2018.

Ramakant Gundecha passed away on the 8th of November.

Dhrupad in Pakistan is dying