Mumbai, the city of big businesses and home to cine stars, the Hindi film industry and much of the television world, has another aspect that very rarely comes into the limelight. It is also home to a number of practitioners of classical Hindustani music. It was in this western metropolis that Dhrupad maestro Zia Fariduddin Dagar passed away on Wednesday, at 80. Like the ageless art in which he had immersed himself, the veteran performer and teacher remained unaffected by material changes around him. Yet, he kept pace with the times.
As a guru, he introduced to the world of music some of the most eminent Dhrupad artists of the country, including the Gundecha Brothers, Uday Bhawalkar, Ritwik Sanyal, Nirmalya Dey and Rudra veena exponent Bahauddin Dagar.
During the mid-20th century, Dhrupad, like many great art forms of India, lost out in the popularity sweepstakes but found a niche audience in the West. What attracted its fan following there was perhaps exactly what reduced it here. In the mid-1970s and early 1980s, India was busy creating a space for itself as a modern, sovereign nation. It was towards acquiring amenities such as the telephone and the television that common folk preferred to expend their energies on, rather than the spiritual, otherworldly qualities that imbued a meditative art like Dhrupad.
Independent India had not been hospitable to the Dagar clan, which traces its lineage to Swami Haridas, the guru of Tansen. Fariduddin’s father Ustad Ziauddin Khan Dagar, was a musician in the court of Maharana Bhupal Singh of Udaipur. Once parliamentary democracy brought an end to court patronage, the family moved to Bombay where it struggled to make a living. It’s not surprising to know that Fariduddin Dagar, affectionately known as Chhote Ustad — his elder brother Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who died in 1990, was called Bade Ustad — nearly decided to settle in Europe when teaching assignments in Austria and France beckoned.
It was Ashok Vajpeyi, the then Secretary in the Department of Culture, Madhya Pradesh, who was key to persuading him to stay on by starting a Dhrupad Kendra under the Ustad Allauddin Khan Music Academy, Bhopal, in 1981. “The Chhote Ustad was a great teacher who most generously gave to his pupils what he had and also urged them to find their own paths,” said Vajpeyi over email from Prague. “In Dhrupad Kendra, he produced, in the very first batch, some of the best known Dhrupad singers of today, namely Uday Bhawalkar and the Gundecha brothers.”
He highlighted the ustad’s other great contributions: his willingness to teach those from outside the tradition and his holistic approach. These students “were the first non-family members to attain expertise and eminence in Dhrupad,” he noted. “In Dhrupad Kendra, he nurtured an ambience where the young musicians were also exposed to the other arts, visual and performing, poetry, theatre, etc, taking advantage of Bharat Bhavan. But for the ustad, Dhrupad would have never brought Madhya Pradesh back to claim its rightful place on the music map. He liberated Dhrupad from narrow family confines and thereby made it more liberal, more contemporary, more vulnerable and open to new possibilities and change.”
For Kiran Seth, hearing the ustad in concert in the mid-1970s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, along with his duet partner Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar, was the inspiration Seth traces to the founding of Spic Macay. “They sang ‘Poojan chali Mahadev’. I can’t forget it,” said Seth of the concert that was organised by the Asia Society.
“I think he was really guru material,” Seth said, describing his master as having “infinite patience.” He recalled a visit to the Dhrupad Gurukul near Panvel.
“He used to get up at 3.45 and tune the tanpura. We would get up out of sheer embarrassment. We practised the mandra saptak (notes of the lower octave). That 4 to 7 riyaaz before sunrise was really a mystical experience.”
The ustad was a regular at workshops and summer intensives organised by Spic Macay and conducted the predawn naad yoga sessions. “It was riyaaz and more. That more was very powerful,” said Seth.
If Vajpeyi felt the Chhote Ustad was “a guru par excellence,” he also found him to be a performer, “a wanderer seeking the ineffable, taking a path less taken.” Seth noted the powerful combination of the two brothers as teachers.
“His brother was a philosopher of music, apart from being a great musician. And Farid saab was a task master, who made sure the riyaaz was implemented. That combination was what created such artists as Ritwik Sanyal, Uday Bhawalkar, and the Gundecha Brothers.”