Understanding Dhrupad

“Naiyya Paar”: Crossing the Waters

Understanding Dhrupad from the notes of lecture-demonstrations by Pandit Ramakant Gundecha

Bhopal, March 3rd to 6th 2009

 ‘Awareness’ is the key to singing dhrupad.  Mind and body have to be harnessed through yoga techniques to be still (‘sthir’) and focused.   You have to contemplate and find the answers to the basic questions: why are you singing? what do you practice? how do you practice it? how do you recognize the perfect swar when it stands before you? how do you merge your voice into it?  what makes a swar so beautiful? which swar sounds good and which one sounds better ? why ?

You may not reach the ultimate truth, but you should try through logic and intellect to analyse what you hear and sharpen your awareness of ‘sur’.  Singing with a well-tuned tanpura is essential for this exercise: you have to listen to what you sing as well as to what you hear from the tanpura (“make the tanpura sing with you”). You have to cross-check and adjust your ‘sur’, for if the tanpura is sounding out of tune, it means you  are singing out of tune. If there is full and constant awareness  of  the tanpura’s ‘sur’, then you are on the right path and “everything will be alright”.

There are three cardinal factors in understanding and singing dhrupad:

1) Using the voice in a stable way. By ‘shadaj sadhana’ and with the help of yoga techniques like pranayam and meditation, you can stabilize the breath /voice to merge perfectly with the tanpura until the two are like mirror reflections of each other. When singing there should be total concentration of the mind while the body  is held motionless and “lifeless as a stone”. The voice should be your own, strengthened and stabilized through ‘swar-sadhana’. It has to be balanced and synchronized coming from the navel,chest, throat, nasal passage and  cerebrum. It should merge with the ‘sur’ of the  tanpura. Only the Sanskrit vowel sounds are to be used ; the note should end with the uncorrupted vowel sound.
2) Application of right pitch. Every note has a correct placement ( ‘sahi jagah’) , a specific distance (‘shrutiantar’) from the ones preceding and following it and a specific movement (‘meend’) by which it arrives. It is only when these very subtle conditions are met that the combination of notes creates a certain raga: their beauty and true character emerge and the intended mood or ‘rasa’of the raga is established.
3) Allowing the voice to create natural harmonics. The above conditions, if correctly carried out, create a natural ‘samvad’ or consonance which you have to strive to recognize, cultivate and evolve. “Experience the note before you strike it.” There has to be constant awareness of what and how you  are singing, and a constant cross-checking to achieve the parameters above.

If any one of the above three factors is incorrect or missing, natural ‘samvad’ will not be achieved and the effect of the music will not be right. A good musical mind and ear is necessary to recognize and create natural harmonics. Heightened awareness of ‘sur’(yours, the tanpura’s, the guru’s), spacing of notes, pitch, ‘laya’, ‘aakar’, understanding  the myriad subtleties the guru displays before you, absorption,  memorization and recall, mental acuity, aesthetics.… these are some of the many intellectual processes that make up the singing of  dhrupad.

Dhrupad is ‘atmaranjit’ or ‘margi’ music which is meditative in nature as against ‘manoranjit’ or ‘desi’ music which is entertaining. This suggests that the slow, introspective style of dhrupad is capable of connecting the singer/listener to a higher state of mind.  The essence of the raga lies in its slow exposition or ‘alap’, where the ‘sur’ is pure, unhindered by the emotional content of the lyrics that follow in the ‘bandish’. The ‘bandish’ or song is only a part of the presentation of the raga, like a few colourful threads in the vast tapestry of the raga. Using the tune of the bandish to establish its raga is an exercise in mediocrity, and should not be encouraged.

The true beauty of a raga can be experienced only through its exactly pitched ‘sur’, not through its melody. Every ‘swar’ or note in a raga is crucial and occupies a defining position in the ascending/descending continuum of the scale. The pitch and  timing of every swar impacts the surrounding swars. If even one swar is sung lower or more elevated than it should be in that raga, it causes perceptible shifts in the notes surrounding and tied to it, and the entire character of the raga is lost.  Also, the same note will sound different, have a different colour, in different ragas because of its adjacent notes and the way in which it has been reached.

In dhrupad, the importance and minute attention given to perfect ‘sur’ and its subtleties is best illustrated by the concept of  ‘shrutiantar’, the immeasurable , indescribable  position in a  range that each note is assigned in a given raga.  These shruti patterns and positions are unique to each raga and are what gives the raga its unique ‘rasa’. They can only be learnt from the guru,  he who can hear a ‘sur’ and can know how much higher or lower it needs to be taken to make a perfect samvad for the given raga. Also, how it will sound  when it has arrived at its chosen position!  When this position is achieved, the raga shines forth, its true character is revealed and for the singer it is a moment of  touching  pure thoughtlessness, a  state of indescribable bliss.

    “When you know and can achieve the exact placement of a note, you have seen Brahman and you can understand all of music”.

It is also imperative to have a searching, questioning mind. Question even the guru while keeping faith in him. Only the guru can lead you through the subtle, unmeasurable, unwritten world of  ‘shruti’.  A true guru will welcome the questions and learn from the process.

      “You are all teachers somewhere” says Ramakantji to his students, “I am also constantly learning from you, responding with different techniques to your different difficulties.”

If the guru so wants and the student is ready, teaching and learning dhrupad can be done in a few years. It does not necessarily take a lifetime, like some masters make it out to be. Understanding the corner-stone concepts and rules, visualizing the framework within which the note patterns are formed and having the innate musicality to carry them out are essential to the process.

Do not accept the guru’s teaching blindly, but understand and be convinced about it before you accept it. Never try to be a clone of your guru or his voice. Be aware of and nurture your own voice, it is your own unique identity. Understand, learn from and experience the oral tradition (‘shruti-shravan’) by which this great music has been handed down from guru to disciple.  And when the time comes… go forward on your own, crossing the waters fearlessly.

Gita Shenoy
Mumbai, 7th Aug’09


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