Dhrupad as a way of life


Reflections from May 8, 2014

“Dhrupad is more than music. It is a way of life.” -Ramakant Gundecha

Yesterday evening, in front of a packed audience at the Indian Embassy, my Gurujis, Ramakant and Umakant Gundecha, gave a performance and took the time to explain the fundamentals of Dhurpad music. Afterwards they answered any questions the audience had regarding the style of this ancient tradition, the oldest form of Indian Classical Music. During the dialogue, Ramakantji made two points important to any student of ICM. One, Dhrupad is the music of the body, and two, that dhrupad is a way of life.

First, Dhrupad is the music of the human body. It is more than a vocal tradition, because to practice one must engage all parts of the body. My lessons with Ramakantji over the last 5 years have focused on 3 elements: Voice Culture, Stability of the voice, and Sur. Voice culture involves developing the correct tone for the note, to produce the right sound.  Stability involves strengthening the voice so that is stable. This element involves engaging different areas of the body from the head to the core to stabilize breath–a foundation I draw on from my ashtanga yoga practice and some basic Pranayama. Last, Sur is the pitch, but it is more than pitch–for to sync with the tanpura is to find a balance among millions of microtones ,and for a nano-second, it is the achievement of perfection. It is incredibly difficult to achieve. My violin teacher recently noted in Western classical music that we are all constantly out of tune as violinists. The difference between a great violinist and an OK violinist is just how quickly s/he can adjust her pitch to cover up that imperfection. In ICM, it’s all about how close we can get to sur.

Second, Ramankantji noted that dhrupad is not just a form of music, but it is a way of life. To practice the basic elements of dhrupad effectively, involves an internal transformation and commitment.  If one ever visits the Gurukul, this is made apparent from the start. A student’s day starts at 4 am with vocal practice and sagam, followed by lessons in the morning as well as  afternoon and evening practice sessions. It is incredibly touching to see the commitment of these students.

I sometimes feel I am constantly failing as a student of dhrupad, because to truly practice it, one must commit oneself. At this time in life, my priorities and commitments do not allow for that kind of practice. I merely look to my daily asana practice, occasional violin playing and bits of singing here and there as stepping stones, though I realize they barely scratch the surface in terms of growing within this musical tradition.

I remain ever grateful–and in awe of–dhrupad. Dhrupad sets a path for a kind of discipline in life. Once one has the foundations of dhrupad, all else can follow. The art form, with a few rigid principles set in place, allows for an incredible freedom, flexibility and playfulness, which is a beautiful allegory of life itself. Dhrupad is 99% practice and 1% theory (as Pattabhi Jois used to say of Ashtanga yoga as well).

Smithsonian Dhrupad Concert from May 2014

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