Dhrupad, the oldest form of Indian classical music, owes its origin to the chanting of Vedic scriptures, the Sama Veda to be precise. The melody and rhythm of Samagana which gradually developed into the religious music forms of ‘Chhanda’ and ‘Prabandha’ in around 2nd to 7th AD, in turn gave birth to Dhrupad. Shifting from the predominant Sanskrit language of its origins, Dhrupad primarily dealt in the Braj Bhasha-a medieval Hindi dialect. Etymologically, Dhrupad, a Hindi derivation of the Sanskrit ‘Dhruva-pada’, a combination of the Sanskrit words ‘Dhruva’ meaning immutable and ‘Pada’, word or poem, implies an austere form of verse, set to structured musical patterns.
The classical music tradition during the thirteenth century split up into two separate genres, i.e. the North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic music. It is the devotional music practiced mainly in the temples from Mathura to Gwalior, from Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra that evolved as the northern Hindustani or the more sophisticated classical form of Haveli Dhrupad. For years, Dhrupad has been the fundamental classical means of expression for the Bhakti ideology in the North. Structured in a deliberate, unhurried four-section format under the precise elaboration of a Raag, coupled with the flow of strict rhythms, Dhrupad flourished as a classical genre of music wherever it received the patronization of the ruling elite, both in temples and in the courts of Rajput and Mughal monarchs. It is in the royal courts where Dhrupad underwent a rather flexible and secular revision in composition, since its rigid structure appeared too complex and sophisticated for the royal audience. Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior in particular, a great patron of music and a revered musician himself, highly promoted the practice of Dhrupad and introduced certain revisions too. His contributions marked the birth of Darbari Dhrupad, famous proponents of which were the great Tanna Mishra or Miyan Tansen and Baiju Bawra.
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There are two chief components of a Dhrupad performance:Alaap and composition. It is with the Alaap-a slow and elaborate development of a Raga, using free flowing melodic patterns-that the performance begins.The phases and movements of the Alaap initially appear rather gentle and ruminative in nature but the tempo seems to increase in certain stages (Jor) and vigorous ornaments come to dominate in the fast-paced passages (Jhala and often referred to as Nomtom). The essence of Dhrupad lies in the artist’s proper selection of elusive microtones and it usually takes a lifetime to acquire the very precision and coherence it so demands. The composition that follows the elaborate and prolonged Alaap marks the climax of the performance. Traditionally, a Dhrupad composition consists of four sections: Sthaayi, Antara, Sanchari and Aabhog. A wide range of human sensibilities and emotions, such as, compassion, sensuality, anger, pathos and valor are depicted through Dhrupad performances.
Dhrupad, by style, has a masculine nature and alongside being primarily a vocal practice, is traditionally rhythmically accompanied by the Pakhawaj (Mridangam) and melodically, the Veena. Although Veena no longer features as an accompaniment to it in these days, the revered ancient instrument Rudra Veena is strongly associated with this genre of music. The performance of Dhrupad is a fine exhibition of melodic nuance on one hand and the elegant wealth of its sophistication on the other. Hereby it is also very important to note that it is essentially due to the poetic and literary exquisiteness of Dhrupad that for the very first time, the lyric transcended its mere disposition of being only a medium of expression of the notes and rhythm. In fact, it is this delicate blend of the melodic elegance and the poetic excellence that renders Dhrupadas a completely unique and remarkable genre of music.
Dhrupad,in later years, also paved the way for the foundation of another Hindustani classical vocal music genre known as Khayal. Following the footsteps of Dhrupad, Khayal too flourished in the Hindu and Muslim courts as several practitioners of Dhrupad gradually switched over to the newer form, contributing immensely to its repertoire, development and ultimately to its popularity and patronage. By the nineteenth century, Khayal came close to replace Dhrupad as the predominant form of Hindustani vocal music, and within the subsequent century, progressively shifted from the royal courts to the concert arena of the public. Although Khayal moved to explore newer domains and more creative avenues, it still preserves a close affinity towards both the content and form of Dhrupad music. Employing Dhrupad elements in its composition came to elevate its sublimity but on the contrary, the opposite has never been appreciated by its practitioners. Unlike Khayal, Dhrupad stands on one note uniformly and searches for the micro notes lying in its depth.
The decline of Dhrupad with the subsequent advent of Khayal, marks a paradigm shift in Indian music in which music came to be considered as a medium whose primary end purpose is to entertain. But the true objective of Dhrupad is not necessarily entertainment but the sophisticated ideology underlying its very fabric is meant to uplift, to expand sentience, to elevate our consciousness and understanding. In that sense, Dhrupad can be seen as a form of vocal exercise, an exclusive tool to bring the mind to a contemplative and peaceful state. To keep up with the bargain of momentum and commercialized popularity of the modern days, Khayal too is losing its essence. The practice of music which once was regarded to be a mode of artistic communication has been reduced to a time-bound commodity. But as the Indian philosophy of life has taught us, every single being comes back to where it left – Dhrupad too, albeit quite silently and slowly, is making a steady comeback within the musical circles. In a world so immersed in troubled waters, so strife-torn and unstable, only the philosophy of Dhrupad music speaking of the quest for the soul lying underneath, can offer us the peace we so desperately crave for.
Dhrupad in Bengal
The religious and political association that this particular genre of music is strongly imbued in, helped it to carve out its own unique space in Bengal. In the late 16th century, Bishnupur, one of the major Brindavani-Vaishnavite centres in Bengal, under the patronage of the Malla rulers, saw a burgeoning predilection for the Dhrupad music. Although other royal courts of Coochbihar, Dhaka, Krishnanagar, Bardhhaman, Mahisadal, etc. emerged as major sites of classical music practices, Bishnupur flag shipped the exclusive elements which culminated in a separate Gharana altogether. According to some literary and musical sources, Ramshankar Bhattacharya is known to be the founder of the Bishnupur Gharana. In the subsequent age of colonial rule and Bengal Renaissance, Ramshankar’s disciples and Dhrupad practitioners from Bishnupur and other parts of regional Bengal started to move to Calcutta, the capital and cultural pivot of the nineteenth century India, and seriously engaged in the new patronage of the aristocrats around this colonial metropolis. Thus the cultivation of Dhrupad underwent a spatial and cultural shift from the regions to the metropolis, influencing both the music and the musicians immensely. Similar to other Northern regions in India therefore, Dhrupad in Bengal marked a strong foothold, owing to the vigorous devotionalism and royal patronage, and gradually paralleling its own delicate movements along the flows of Raag, meandered through the annals of history, enriching the musical repertoire of Bengal as well as India.