Dhrupad is the oldest surviving genre of classical singing in India. Its name, from dhruva-pada, seems to mean "the eternal verse", and its foremost characteristics are a somber, dignified, devotional mood, its very slow tempo and slow melodic development. Like all Indian classical music, Dhrupad is modal, with a single melodic line and no harmonic parts. The modes are called raga, and each raga is a complicated framework of melodic rules.

From what we know, Dhrupad originated as devotional singing in Hindu temples and can be traced as far back as the Vedas themselves. From the Vedas evolved the "Udatt" and "Anudatt" forms of music, which later on evolved into Dhrupad, possibly around two thousand years ago. Under the Islamic Mughal ("Mogul") rule, it was appropriated as court music.

Dhrupad, as we know it today, hasa repertoire of short songs (two to sixteen lines) which are performed by a solo singer, or a small number of singers in unison, to the beat of a double-headed barrel drum, the pakhawaj. The songs are mostly in praise of Hindu deities, but in recent centuries, Islamic or simply regalist lyrics have been written and added to the repertoire. The song itself, which is known as the Dhrupad, is preceded in performance by a wholly improvised section, the alap, without accompaniment of the drum. The alap in Dhrupad is sung without words, using instead a set of syllables in a recurrent, set pattern: a re ne na, té te re ne na, ri re re ne na, te ne toom ne (this last group is used in cadences to reach the tonic or the end of a long phrase). The syllables are like various colours on the palette of the painter and are popularly thought to be derived from a sacred mantra.

Today, alap comprises the greater part of most Dhrupad performance. It can easily last an hour, with a slow tempo and gradual, controlled development of melody (raga). It is broadly subdivided into alap (unmetered), jor (with steady rhythm) and jhalla (speeding up) or nomtom. In this last part, the syllables are sung at a very rapid pace, sometimes incorporating very special-sounding ornamentation techniques (gamaka), and the nomtom has become one of the most popular parts of Dhrupad concerts.

Traditionally, the only instrument used for playing Dhrupad was the been, which is technically a fretted stick zither with strings set along a bamboo or wooden neck with a large gourd mounted at each end. The word "been" is a colloquial form of the Sanskrit "veena", the generic word used for plucked-string instruments all over India. To differentiate the been from the different south Indian veena, the latter is often called Saraswati Veena and the former Rudra Veena.

Some players have used other instruments for Dhrupad. Preferably, such instruments should have a deep bass register and long sustain. As in all Indian classical playing, the instruments must support bending of the note.

Recent history

The 18th century saw the beginning of a great decline of Dhrupad singing. A new genre, khyal, gained popularity at Dhrupad's expense. It placed fewer constraints on the singers and allowed for displays of virtuosity that were rare in Dhrupad. In addition, the basically Hindu Dhrupad was somewhat out of context in a Muslim setting; here, khyal offered something less devotional and more entertaining. Also, new instruments were being developed – the sitar and the sarod – that were not suited to the slow tempo and low register favoured by Dhrupad, so that Dhrupad instrumental also began to lose ground.

As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th century khyal was all-pervasive, along with the new instrumental style of classical music, and Dhrupad was becoming all but extinct. Only a few families carried on the tradition.

Almost single-handedly, one of these families, the Dagars, brought about the Dhrupad revival. Dagar singers toured widely and were beginning to be recorded. Soon, this was to co-incide with the growing foreign interest in Indian music. Starting in the 1960s, Dhrupad was to become almost more popular outside India than at home. Perhaps it is the stylistically easier style on the Western ear, but, as it is the older style, it was also seen as the most "genuine" and traditional. The Dagar revival also helped breathe new life into a few other families of Dhrupad singers.

Today, Dhrupad enjoys a place as a well-known, respected but not very popular genre on the north Indian classical scene. It is no longer on the brink of extinction.

Styles of Dhrupad

There are said to be four broad stylistic variants of Dhrupad – the vanis (or banis): Gauri (Gohar), Khandar, Nauhar, and Dagar. These are tentatively linked to the five singing styles (geetis) known from the 7th Century: Shuddha, Bhinna, Gauri, Vegswara, and Sadharani – but more importantly, there are a number of Dhrupad gharanas: "houses", or family styles.

How the gharanas relate to the vanis is a debated question. At any rate, the most well-known gharana is that of the Dagar family, who of course sing in the Dagar vani. The Dagar style puts great emphasis on alap, and for several generations, their singers have been known to perform in pairs (often pairs of brothers). Perhaps a bit peculiarly, the Dagars are Muslims, but sing Hindu texts. Dagar family lore speaks of twenty generations of Dhrupad singers in an unbroken line. Some of the best Dhrupad singers outside the Dagar family, such as Uday Bhawalkar and Dr. Ritwik Sanyal belong to Dagar vani.

From Bihar state come two another gharanas, the Malliks and the Mishras. The Malliks are linked to the Khandar vani, and emphasize the composed song over improvised alap. The Mishras practice Nauhar and Khandar vani, with some unique techniques for nomtom alap. In Pakistan, Dhrupad is represented by the little-known Talwandi gharana (Khandar vani).

Alongside the classical performance tradition, the practice of singing Dhrupad in temples continues to this day. Only a very small number of recordings of this singing has been made. It bears little resemblance to the style we otherwise know: there is very little or no alap; percussion such as bells and finger cymbals, which are not permitted in the north Indian classical setting, are used, and the pakhawaj used is a smaller, older variant called mrdang, quite similar to south Indian classical mrdangam.

Compositions exist in time-cycles (talas) as sultala (7 beats), tivratala (10 beats) or chautala (12beats). A composition set to the 14-beat time signature is however called a dhamar. It is seen as a lighter musical form, and associated with the Holi spring festival of colours.

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