Many of my friends at home have asked me about Dhrupad, so here are some questions and answers:
What is Dhrupad?
In India there are two major systems of classical music: North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic. Dhrupad is a genre of music from the North Indian Hindustani system. Dhrupad is characterized by long tones, extreme precision of tuning pitch, and the use of syllables such as “ahh ruh nuh nuh.” Some scholars believe these syllables have their roots in a particular Vedic chant. Dhrupad performances typically unfold in four parts: alaap, jor, jhala, and bandish. The alaap, jor, and jhala only use the syllables, and increase in rhythmic density and complexity. In a full Dhrupad performance these sections may take at least an hour. The “bandish” is the composed composition, using text. The barrel drum the pakawaj joins here. Dhrupad includes improvisation, of a highly codified and sophisticated nature.
Dhrupad is said to have originated from an even more ancient religious music form, Prabandha (2nd to 7th AD). The language of Prabandha was preeminently Sanskrit, whereas Dhrupad used mainly medieval Hindi or Brijbhasha. Today, modern Hindi is also used. The word Dhrupad is the Hindi form of the original Sanskrit, Dhruvapada, a combination of Dhruva = structured or rigid, and Pada = word.
The birth of Dhrupad coincided with the Bhakti movement of Vallabh Sampradaya and resultantly was devotional in nature. Dhrupad was sung in temples, the singer facing the divinity or it was sung by Vaishnav mendicants in their wanderings. This was the genesis of the Haveli Dhrupad. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated, classical form of music. (Last two paragraphs from Uday Bhalwalker’s website)
How does one learn to sing Dhrupad?
One learns this music directly from a guru, or teacher. Dhrupad can’t be learned from books or audio tapes or YouTube videos. One must apprentice under a master teacher for several years to gain the proper understanding and techniques.
Is it difficult?
It is extremely difficult. I have a parallel career as a Western composer and percussionist. I graduated from the most competitive schools, procured a tenure-track job, and have toured the world in that capacity, performing Western classical music in top venues like Carnegie Hall, so I can state with authority that singing Dhrupad is as difficult as learning Western classical piano or violin or percussion.
Can a non-Indian learn this music?
Yes! There are many non-Indians performing Dhrupad at a high level all over the world. The color of one’s skin or country of origin is no matter. Just as people from Asia or South America have become virtuoso Western classical or jazz musicians, so have many Westerners become virtuoso Dhrupad performers.
The singing style is different than Western classical singing, right?
Yes, it is. It is a totally different voice culture. Dhrupad singers never use vibrato, as that would destroy the pitch precision. We also use more resonance in the nasal cavity, though a proper Dhrupad voice should always be rooted in the throat.
Does Dhrupad include improvisation?
Yes, though it is of a highly codified and sophisticated sort. One doesn’t just “jam out” on a mode. It takes years and years of dedicated to practice to learn to improvise correctly in the Dhrupad style.
But wait, I thought you had a career as a Western composer and percussionist . . . ?
Yes, I do, and I maintain that as well. I’ve learned over the years how to balance the forms of music and practice more effectively to maximize my time. It is possible to do both at a high level, though one must be extremely disciplined.
What is the drone instrument and why do you use it for Dhrupad?
The drone instrument is called a tanpura. It is the large, guitar-like instrument with four strings. Typically one of the lead performer’s students will play it, seated behind the soloist. The strings are tuned so as to emphasize the root note of the raga, the tonic, or the shaddhaj. Tanpuras are magical instruments. When tuned properly they emit a whole rainbow of fundamentals and overtones, producing a highly complex sound field called a drone. This drone is essential for Dhrupad performance. Every note a Dhrupad performer sings or plays must either disappear into the drone or bounce back from it in a very specific way. The pitch precision of Dhrupad is only meaningful in combination with a tanpura; one needs the tanpura as a reference point for each note. Some performers also use electronic tanpuras, especially for practicing or performances where it isn’t possible to use a real instrument.
Is Dhrupad “hippie” music?
Many Westerners associate Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar and the “hippies” of the 1960s, and the attendant drug and free-love culture. This is regrettable. Most Indian classical musicians are highly disciplined people who work very hard at their art form and live a conservative lifestyle. Indeed, Ravi Shankar himself was such a disciplined musician and while he was glad that Westerners were interested in his music, he discouraged his Western students from using drugs and leading a sloppy lifestyle. This music is far too difficult to practice or perform while stoned or tripping.
Is Dhrupad a kind of meditation?
Yes it is. Listening to Dhrupad will clear your mind and body and open up you to higher levels of thinking and feeling. And it will also energize you if you listen carefully. When I hear a good Dhrupad performance I have tremendous amounts of energy for days. It is both calming and energizin
Is the tuning system different than Western music?
Yes, if you mean the Western piano, which divides the octave artificially into twelve equal notes. This system is called Equal Temperament, and while it has advantages for the harmonically-advanced music that developed in Europe in the 19th century, it is very square and unnatural for modal music, which is what the Indian system is based on. Dhrupad musicians mostly sing justly-tuned intervals, that is, intervals with low ratios that are found in the natural harmonic overtone series. (E.g., a 3:2 for a perfect fifth or a 5:4 for a major third.) These intervals feel quite different than the intervals you hear from a modern piano. They resonate in your body and your mind in a very different way. They’re not necessarily better than Equal Temperament, but I argue that they are more natural for singing over a drone. That being said, my favorite percussion instrument is the marimba, which is in Equal Temperament! I’ve performed hundreds of concerts as a marimba player and the instrument sounds beautiful to me. The tuning discussion is far too complicated for a FAQ. Take me to a sushi lunch and I’ll explain in detail; it is quite fascinating.
Some Dhrupad Artists who have made recordings and have YouTube videos that you should check out:
Gundecha Brothers (the best!)
Uday Bhawalkar (also amazing!)
Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni (a Westerner who has mastered Dhrupad on the cello, a wonderful musician)
Senior Dagar Brothers