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Dhrupad: Meditations on sonic ecstasy

Dhrupad is thought to be the oldest tradition of Raga music in India.  It possibly evolved from the singing of the Sama Veda, but also seems to have absorbed influences from Persian music. It flourished at a time when sound was held to be a direct Yogic path, and when early Indian Sufism, with its high reverence for music, was embracing all creeds as a path to the same source.  After rising to its zenith in the Royal courts of the Middle Ages, dhrupad waned to the edge of extinction, and was escorted quietly into the 20th century by a handful of family linages: most notably the Dagar family, whom my teachers learnt from.

 I discovered this art form through a friend who had spent years in India studying music. The recordings he shared with me drew me closer and took me into new groves of musical quality. I went to India in 2002 to find a dhrupad vocal teacher and had the serendipitous fortune to meet the Gundecha brothers, Umakant and Ramakant, and began learning with them at their home in Bhopal. There I fell truly in love with this ancient art form and have sustained the practice to this day. I subsequently made 6 more study visits to Bhopal, and have performed dhrupad in India and around the world.  When we feel love for something, no labour is too great. So I see my passion for this music as a measure of its profound beauty.

Dhrupad is an ecstatic musical form. As the singer plunges into deeper states of absorption, a subtle energy rises to animate his improvisations. The singer keeps traveling spontaneously through the form, to a place beyond polarities. The formal progression of the music, from slow to fast, from low to high and from simple to complex, models and guides the ecstatic process. As the singer’s spirit ascends, the soul of the music descends and incarnates into flesh and blood.

Dhrupad is about deep harmony (samvaad in Sanskrit). Each raga is a model of harmonic unity, a living constellation of natural harmonic ratios. These intervals, derived from audible overtones or harmonics, resonate deeply with our being. Harmony expresses peace (shanti), an important aesthetic in dhrupad. I find, in singing these pure resonances against the sound of the tanpura (the singer’s dronal accompaniment instrument), a place where nature is pristine, untouched and rejuvenating. It leads me to Soul, to the peace and perfection that resides within.  It is a refuge, a place to disarm and surrender.

There is no doubt to me that dhrupad is yogic music. My vocal practice (sadhana) reveals profound spaces in myself and is an ongoing source of mystic experience. The outer form of the music is an expression of the singer’s inner process: an ecstatic journey in which the listener is invited to participate. We could say that listening to Raga music is a meditation on sonic ecstasy. The music is a blueprint for wellness and a sanctuary from the tyranny of Space-Time. Everything that I learn about myself I pour into the vessel of my vocal practice and it hasn’t ceased, after 18 years, to sustain my curiosity and my passion.

Many of the traditional ragas have become old friends to me. Coming into their presence through the act of singing them, inducing them into their sonic bodies, produces that sort of pleasure that erases one’s ego chatter. These old friends are powerful. They can shift a stagnant mood in a few breathes and take me to new dimensions where words are useless. They can disarm the fiercest demons. They never age, but get more virile with the years. Each one, a mere geometry of harmonies, comes with a living soul that touches my own. To me they are deities without form: masks of God. My ragas are my temple into which all may enter, regardless of culture, creed or belief.

I feel immense gratitude to have had the opportunity to study this music with artists of high calibre, and been given the opportunity to place my flame at the altar of that ancient linage.  The Dagar family trace their musical heritage back 500 years to the great dhrupad singers of the court of Akbar.  I feel a sense of responsibility to foster that knowledge and pass it on.  In a world increasingly driven by objectification and excess, is not Beauty a thing worth fighting for?