Walt Whitman and Dhrupad???

September 1, 2013

In traditional Dhrupad music the performance typically follows a fairly standard format: alaap, jor, jhala, and then a composition.  The first three sections are sung with syllables like “ree, ruh, nuh, toom,” etc.  Some scholars believe these have roots in an ancient Vedic mantra, other scholars disagree.  At any rate, they don’t mean anything any more.  (Though learning to use them in the most beautiful combinations to bring out the essence of the raga is quite difficult.)
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Following those sections the musicians typically sing a composition with words.  (And this is where the drum usually enters as well, to mark the time cycle and provide additional color for the text.)  The texts are usually in some dialect of medieval Hindi (e.g. Braj, Brij Bhasha, etc), modern Hindi, or even Sanskrit.

That’s great, but the problem is I didn’t grow up speaking Hindi.  And while I can learn to speak and sing the words well enough that my accent isn’t a deal breaker, it will never feel entirely natural to me.

I’ve been working on Rag Todi with Umakantji.  After working on alaap, jor, and jhala for the last few months he sent me off to find a composition from one of the senior students.  But none of them had one.  So I wrote my own, using an English text: a Walt Whitman poem.  Several of the other students at the Gurukul though I was being a bit bold since Indian musicians usually don’t compose until much later in life, but I disagree.  After all, I’m a professional composer back home.  I know how to analyze a genre and produce music within that style.  So that’s what I did.  I transcribed a bunch of compositions from Gurujis’ various recordings and modeled my composition after them.  But I used some distinctly Western ideas of word painting.  Why not?  I’m an American!

If I do say so myself, it’s pretty good.  I sang it for Umakantji and he was receptive to it.  I told him that although I was working hard to improve my voice to the point where I could perform some day, I don’t have any delusions about becoming some great Dhrupad singer.  I would have to drop everything and move here for a long time and I’m obviously not going to do that.  Nor am I interested in throwing away my cultural heritage as a Westerner, like many Westerners have done who become involved in this music.  So I have to find my own way with this.  He seemed to understand that.  He had a few good little tips to improve the composition, but otherwise he was open to it.  He indicated that he doesn’t think English (or any of the Romance languages) are really appropriate for “traditional” Dhrupad, mainly because of the cultural ties between Sanskit/Hindi and the music.  I don’t disagree with him.  But as I said, I have to find my own way with it.

The fact is that I have the basic raw ingredients to become a fine Dhrupad singer: a good natural voice, an intense work ethic, and a lot of creative energy.  But I wasn’t born and raised over here.  While the music resonates deeply with me, the culture only partly.  There are many things about India’s culture that I love, but many other things will always feel very wrong and foreign to me.

America has its share of problems, but it’s also got some incredible strengths to it.  Our natural wilderness, our independent nature, our spirit of innovation, our intense work ethic, and so many more.  I can’t let go of those things, nor do I want to.  I’m an American who sings Dhrupad.  And sometimes that means singing some Walt Whitman!

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One Response to “Walt Whitman and Dhrupad???”


  1. I’m sure you’ve heard Ramakantji talk about tradition vs convention. In that sense, the sad part is a lot of “culture” and “tradition” in India is just convention and the actual tradition is simply forgotten or ignored… The tradition is actually mostly plain logic and really deep scientific innovations, gleaned from a heightened state of awareness.

    I guess while gammaks could not be done in an english text the way we do it with sanskrit compositions, other forms of beauty could be expressed.. Naming it traditional dhrupad or not could be a very subjective matter.. As long as the product brings joy or some utility to at least the creator, its probably worth the effort…


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