There are no overnight stars in classical music: Umakant Gundecha

Enduring bond: Pandits Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha in performance at Under the Banyan Tree event in Delhi

Enduring bond: Pandits Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha in performance at Under the Banyan Tree event in Delhi

It is not a regular stage setting. At the baithak-style ambience at 1AQ in Mehrauli, the audience alternates between gazing at the Qutub Minar in the distance, and the sky above. Seated under the Banyan tree, on a moonlit night in Delhi, the stars of the dhrupad world present some of their best known compositions. Pandits Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, better known as the Gundecha Brothers, delve deep into the poetry of the mystic saints, with the same clarity that qualified their thoughts on classical music, stardom, the aesthetics of dhrupad and innovative pedagogy, in a conversation earlier in the day.

“ ‘Jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya’ is a popular verse of Kabirdas that has been composed and sung by several masters, in many different genres – khayal, folk music or semi-classical. We thought about presenting it in the dhrupad shaili.” Over two decades ago, the maestros had performed their interpretation of the couplets of saint-poet Kabir, in the dhrupad style. It was fresh, different, and blazed a new trail in the presentation of the age-old classical form of dhrupad along with an expansion of its content repertoire. Amid mixed responses of harsh criticism from purists and undiluted adulation from audience, the Gundecha Brothers discovered their musical identity. “The challenge of presenting this poetry in the Dhrupad genre was to keep the grammar and aesthetics of dhrupad intact within the composition,” recalls Umakant.

Sharing the risks of experimenting within the classical idiom, Ramakant says, “Dhrupad is known to be a deeply traditional gayaki, so to do something new at that time in the 1980s and 90s meant inviting criticism and opposition. Orthodox musicians and connoisseurs initially gave us a lot of flak for these explorations. They had full faith in dhrupad, but didn’t believe in us, that we could do justice to the genre. At the same time we had a tremendous response from the rasikas. That kept us going. We did not allow the criticism to pull us down.”

Journey through jugalbandi

While their eyes might be closed as they immerse themselves in the improvisation of words and notes, they are completely tuned in to each other’s musical movements. One picks up where the other leaves, giving each other ample space, and later coming together to conclude in unison. The jugalbandi between the brothers is poised comfortably on the understanding of a lifetime spent together. “We were certain from the beginning that we will sing together and even before we started presenting dhrupad, we used to sing together only. In fact, our journey in music started together as youngsters,” Umakant chips in.

Reflecting on the characteristics of a successful and balanced jugalbandi, they opine, “It is important that both the artists get equal space and time to sing. Secondly, in terms of style, they must reciprocate, complement and build on each other’s expression. And the most important part is the understanding between the musicians, as human beings,” maintains Ramakant

Learning curve

From their humble moorings in Ujjain, the brothers spent years learning the fundamentals of classical music, encouraged by their supportive father. In 1981, they gave up their regular full-time jobs to travel to Bhopal to learn the intricacies of dhrupad with Dagarbani exponents Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar.

“Our ‘Bade Ustad’ (Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar) was an exceptional teacher and he was a visionary. Along with music he had deep insight into human nature and psychology. Once a situation arose when we became extremely disappointed that we may not be able to pursue dhrupad and that this is the end of the road for us,” reflects Ramakant. Struggling with difficult circumstances in 1983-84, they found themselves submerged in self-doubt and confusion. “This is part of the cycle of an artist’s life – a period of absolute self-confidence, followed by phases of self-doubt, instability, struggle, where one starts questioning one’s life decision to be an artist! It happens with each and every artist, almost like a rite of passage. It is at that point that our Bade Ustad called us, and said to us, ‘Someday you will be the stars of dhrupad.’ At that time it sounded absurd because the idea of stardom could not be associated with dhrupad which hardly had any audience in those days!” remembers Ramakant. They chuckle remembering the era when they had to explain to organisers what dhrupad was since khayal was the predominant classical form. They also express their gratitude to their gurus, who did not allow them to buckle under the pressure of a challenging life choice.

‘Patience and perseverence’

“There are no overnight stars in classical music, it takes time, patience and perseverance. The guidance and vision of our guru made a huge difference,” states Umakant. In an environment where hardly anyone knew dhrupad, their mentor worked with them to make the presentation of dhrupad attractive and engaging for the audience. Looking back on the process of creating their niche, they say, “We started thinking about the reasons behind why dhrupad was heard so less. Why? We started questioning ourselves. How do we split the concert time given to us into a repertoire that audience would find interesting? With our guru’s suggestions, we worked on various elements of the concert format to make it more fascinating – diction, pronunciation, sur, laya, taal, poetry, the overall stage presentation of dhrupad was to be revised,” he explains.

With a musical style marked by simplicity and innovation, the Gundecha Brothers started earning recognition among organisers and rasikas. In 1992, they went to the festival of India in Germany for the first time and the trips grew each year.

“It can be said that dhrupad is more popular than khayal abroad. It is connected with our traditional roots, it has simplicity and depth – this unique combination draws universal appeal. For instance, alaap doesn’t use words, it connects with everyone through melody. Historically, another reason could be that Pandit Ravi Shankar has been a known name for the global audience when it comes to Indian music and he used to play the ‘dhrupad ang’ on sitar. So, people are often curious about this dhrupad element. In the 1960s, the senior Dagar brothers also set the stage for dhrupad abroad and maybe the next generation of performers including us reaped the benefits!” opines Ramakant.

Possibilities ahead

The maestros established their institute, Dhrupad Sansthan, in Bhopal following the gurukul mode of imparting training. “The thought behind starting the institute was to take dhrupad beyond the ivory towers to people who belong to the same background as us – non-musical families, people from smaller cities, lower-middle-class families, those who lack financial support. We started teaching by giving genuinely talented and interested students scholarships. Today, we have students who have quit lucrative jobs and taken the risk to pursue dhrupad. Some of our students are earning their livelihood only through dhrupad, that is a huge shift,” says Ramakant.

For the duo, their latest exploration involves new methods of teaching. Their upcoming book on dhrupad pedagogy would discuss these techniques in detail. They also share the vision of expanding dhrupad to the sphere of more instruments. “Along with Dr Rajshekhar Vyas, a dhrupad instrumentalist, we are collaborating and attempting to bring in more students who can present the dhrupad style on various instruments – flute, saxophone, sitar, sarod, santoor, surbahar, and others,” says Umakant.

As they round off the conversation to focus on the evening concert, the Gundecha Brothers complete each other’s sentences, articulating their common vision, “To take dhrupad to the world, that is what we were born to do – as teachers, performers, and lifelong students of this art form!”

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 3:29:52 am |