The Dhrupad revivalists

The Gundecha Brothers talk to Chitra Swaminathan about bringing back to concert halls a fading art form and grooming young enthusiasts.

January 12, 2017 04:55 pm | Updated 08:38 pm IST

Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha

Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha

W hen the Gundecha Brothers recently performed at the beach-side Spaces, the experimental arena set up by dancer-choreographer Chandralekha, the sea proved to be a great metaphor for their music. Like the long coast line, their voice has an extraordinary range, soaring and tumbling like the waves that lash the shore. They unravel the nuances of dhrupad as if sifting through grains of sand. Their steady and introspective notes appear like the night sky above the gleaming water.

The brothers, Ramakant and Umakant, have been an intrinsic part of Chandralekha’s last choreographic work ‘Sharira’ since 2001, when it was conceptualised. They were in the city for her tenth death anniversary tribute festival.

“Sharira came to us when we were on an inward journey, exploring dhrupad and our own musical sensibilities. It was important to save the art from decline, open up its repertoire and reach out to the contemporary audience. We began to find a meeting point for the dhrupad’s integration with other performing styles. We introduced medieval and modern poetry; sought interesting collaborations such as with Chandralekha and Astad Deboo,” says Ramakant.

Dhrupad is derived from the word ‘druva’, which means pole star, and ‘pada’ is poetry. Its austere notes traditionally didn’t lend themselves to embellishments as in thumri or khayal. The art form is said to have emerged from Vedic hymns and mantras and is based on nada yoga. The raga elaborations sound like songs of meditation with their trance-like alaaps. Hence, yogic practices were earlier integral to dhrupad training, to develop an inner resonance. “A reason why we could so beautifully fit into ‘Sharira’, which derives its aesthetics from yoga,” says Umakant.

The Gundechas with their moorings in the Dagarvani are the disciples of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar , the foremost exponents of this genre, who belonged to a long lineage of dhrupad masters. “The Dagar family was the sole practitioner of this style of singing, till some of its members decided to train ‘outsiders’. It led to the gradual rise of dhrupad. The art form that thrived under the patronage of the Mughals and Rajput kings, began to lose its popularity post-Independence,” informs Ramakant.

The brothers, who have been singing together from childhood, set up the Gundecha Gurukul in Bhopal, to keep this musical form alive. “It was important to break the myth about its restrictive structure. We now have students, both boys and girls, from across the country (Arvind Mohan and Nirupama Venkatesh are from Chennai) and even outside to train with us. Like other segments of sastriya sangit, there is enough scope for individual expression here. To be creative, what you need are conviction and sound training. Hamari kalayen hamesha navonmeshi rahi hai (our arts have the strength to bring in the change from within),” says Umakant.

The two have upheld the distinctive features of the Dagar gharana and are as committed to teaching as to performing. “There are certain fundamental aspects to dhrupad taleem that we inherited from our gurus and continue to practice in our gurukul. There is greater emphasis on relaxed pace, kharaj sadhana (practising of the lower note), tonal precision, grammar and understanding the mood and emotion in the ragas and swaras. Though we have a progressive approach, the dhrupad’s inherent musical values are sacrosanct for us. Remember our greatest musicians Tansen and Baiju Bawra were dhrupadiyas . This glory has to be preserved and celebrated.”

After their formal education, Umakant and Ramakant completed their Masters in Music, before joining the Dhrupad Kendra in Bhopal to gain a deeper insight of the art. “During our days there, we decided to give up our jobs and dedicate ourselves to the cause of dhrupad. Despite the difficulties and challenges of pursuing a genre not widely practised and heard, we have never regretted the decision,” say the brothers, who are accompanied at concerts on the pakhawaj by their sibling Akhilesh.

“Our house is always echoing with rhythm and raag. Yeh dhrupad ki den hai (it’s dhrupad’s gift),” smile the two. Call it the happy Gundecha gharana!

Madras connect

In 1987 we performed at Krishna Gana Sabha, In the audience was the inimitable M.S. Subbulakshmi. She “later invited us to her house. We were delighted not just about visiting her house but also singing there for almost three hours.”

A new chapter

Their book ‘Sunta Hai Guru Gyani’ is a compilation of conversations with illustrious musicians such as Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, Pt. Debu Chaudhary, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Vidushi Kishori Amonkar. These artists have spoken in depth about significant aspects of classical music, which would be useful to young performers and learners. “Putting together this book was an humbling experience and we cherished every moment,” say the brothers.

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