The grandmother of Hindustani classical music, dhrupad is known to be the oldest extant form of raga music in India. It originated from a tradition of temple singing and became the prestigious music of the medieval courts, like those of Mansingh Tomar and Emperor Akbar. Though its role as court music disappeared in the early 20th C, its role as sacred music continues to this day. It is an art form of exceptional depth, richness and rigour, drawing from roots of unknown antiquity. At the same time, dhrupad is a living tradition still passed from guru to disciple, which has continued to develop and sustain its spontaneity. Therefore, it could be misleading to say that the music is ‘old’, since it regenerates with the singer’s every breath.
Dhrupad is considered a profound and spiritual music, nurtured by the cultures of yoga and bhakti. Its most important aesthetic flavour (rasa) is ‘shanti’, inner peace. Its cultivation is a spiritual practice (sadhana), or path (marga), by virtue of the discipine required to learn. The voice is the king of instruments, accompanied always by the harmonic drone of the tambura. The rhythmic cycle (tala) is brought to life by the pakhawaj drum. The music can cover a huge energetic spectrum, from deepest stillness to wild exhilaration.
“Dhrupad is undoubtedly the only ‘pure’ tradition in Indian music. I belong to Senia Gharana and my initial training of music was started, in the Dhrupad style. It is essential for any student to have a base of Dhrupad to become a good musician of Indian classical music.”– Hariprasad Chaurasia
The raga is the melodic basis of Indian Classical music and also its most distinguishing musical feature. The concept of raga is notoriously difficult to define, and Indian musicologists since the middle ages have come up with various definitions, all as equally bewildering to the uninitiated. Is it possible to explain an experience to someone who doesn’t know that experience directly? And there is no exact translation of the word in the tongues of the occident, since it names an experience as yet unidentified in Western music.
The Raga is a development on the more basic concept of a mode (a scale with a fixed tonic), but a raga has more to do with the ‘inaudible’ level of the music. That is, it is something that can be felt. The raga identifies the specific feeling (bhaav) created by the set of intervals being used and comes to life through improvisation. It may be defined by a simple ascending and descending scale, or there may also be phrasal restrictions and distinctive movements that characterise the raga. When a particular set of notes are no longer perceived in their multiplicity, but as a singular effect, then the raga is manifest. The great vocal meastro Pran Nath described the raga as a 'living soul', 'always existing in between the notes'.
The word ‘raga’ can mean ‘attraction’ or ‘desire’—or that which colours (rangana) the mind, which infuses it with love. The raga brings ‘ranga’: colour, relish, delight. It draws us in, captures our mind and purifies our emotions.