Friday, August 03, 2007

At the Dhrupad Gurukul, Bhopal

I spent a fantastic week at the Dhrupad Academy outside Bhopal with the Gundecha Brothers. It seems clear now that everything else is irrelevant compared to music.

These brothers have revived an ancient form and popularized it. Students of one pair of the Dagar brothers, they have innovated as well, using the poems of Tulsidas and others in new Dhrupad compositions.

Anyway, I had a great time - no phone, no email, no newspaper - only fresh air, silence and music. It became rapidly clear that my concepts of certain Raags - Jhinjhoti, Khamaj and Bihag were rather primitive. I now take greater care in musing over single notes rather than worry about the whole. Word has it that my violin sounds bearable now. I even ventured to learn some vocal music and exercised my rather rusted vocal cords. The human voice is certainly a better instrument than any man-made contrivance. This is best understood by listening to the Gundecha brothers glide seemingly endlessly between notes.

Music starts early in the morning with the boys singing low notes. The sounds of the Tanpura fill the building. Classes in the morning and a collective simple lunch. Many students from remote towns in India stay at the Academy on small scholarships, and - what is more gratifying - with the complete support of their families. The future of Music in India is bright.

I have to thank David for introducing me to the Gundecha Brothers.

My last day with them had Khamaj on the menu. I learnt many 'tricks' and understood a lot more. I thought I would leave extracts about Khamaj from a never-to-be-published book.

My Dear Daughter,

You will read this letter only after I have gone, I know. Do not grieve. I am happy in the other world, which is full of music. If it had been otherwise, I would have returned! Of course, I shall miss you, my musical companion and most wonderful daughter. But you have your duties and must teach music to someone before you can join me so that we can be together forever, enjoying music in the place where it was created to begin with.

Have you seen the photograph of the two of us? It was in Benaras. I had always dreamed of taking you there with me where we could enjoy music. You were very young then and might have even forgotten by now. So I am going to write about it to remind you.

My greatest failing was that I never introduced you to the lovely Raaga Khamaj. I did not know it well enough and was perhaps temperamentally unsuited for it. But it seemed unfair that you should be deprived of some knowledge of this Raaga. I wanted you to hear it in Benaras, where Thumris, Tappas, Chaitis and other musical forms are almost invariably based on Khamaj.

And so, during a school vacation, I took you away. It was difficult as you will now understand. There was little money, and travel in those days was not easy. But I did it. Others did not like it but my mission was more important than the insults of others.

Then gradually, the mood shifted to music and an old man sang some old Thumris. The magic of Khamaj suddenly fell on all of us. Sinuous, winding, beautiful – the old man seemed capable of finding unexpected twists and turns in the Raaga. Just when we thought he could not possibly do anything new, he composed a new pattern, amazing himself and the audience! This was your first introduction to Khamaj, shorn of theory. He handled the Shuddha and Komal Nishads of the Raaga with a delicacy inconceivable. When you heard it first, you clutched my hand hard with your little fingers. Then I truly knew that music meant the same to you as it had meant to me!


He stopped dramatically. Then he continued in a whisper, Shadaj, extending it long and soft. Then with a jerk, he crept down, singing Komal Nishad, like the bending branch of a Mango tree! He approached the note and seemed to study it from all angles – literally! He bent this way and that, stood up and looked downwards, fingers still on the harmonium. He looked sideways and then forward. He looked backwards and lowered his voice! He was possessed by the magic of the Nishads, traversing all the millions of ways in which they could be reached.

“Look”, he shouted, suddenly turning to us. “Have you seen a more exasperating and cunning Raaga? I have spent fifty years trying to master it and still it eludes me! Today I was sure I would finally learn. But it smiles and goes away! It is a whore, whom all can love and enjoy and none possess! It is a gift of the Gods!

Why do we avoid Shuddha Rishabh when so much of feeling is soaked in it? Hear the pleading, the desire, the appeal in it! Must I shed tears daily that I sing this note and no one cares?

Mother of so many Raagas, Khamaj vibrates with mysteries and beauty. Komal Nishad, shy and enchanting, never far away from its elder sister, Shuddha Nishad, much bolder and protective, with a radiant beauty that turns the head of the cows and calves nearby …. the gateway to higher octaves…ah! How I love this note! Have you not seen the animals sitting outside, unable to eat or sleep, tortured by the Nishads? Try to feed them and see them refuse…they want only the Nishads of Khamaj by which their plaintive pleas to God might be heard. Many of them have passed on, with God unmoved by their cries of agony. And, the dancing girls whose art is expressed through the pleading lyrics in Khamaj – what would their existence be like without the Nishads? The men who come to watch them dance and sing and then come to them – they have been seduced by the Nishads, hapless unknowing victims, guided by Khamaj, their souls laid bare, their pasts visible to all. The doors of their chambers close and the Raaga displays itself in the higher octave. Sing they might Shadaj, Shuddha Rishabh, Shuddha Gandhar, Shuddha Madhyam and Shuddha Gandhar (Sa Re Ga Ma Ga), but they turn and look at the sisters, who in turn look at each other and smile. And so the men seek them, but the enchanting Nishads turn away, pointing instead at the images of God on the walls.
We stood up and quietly left. It was true; a small collection of cows and dogs stood outside silently, listening, their eyes closed. We walked past them respectfully. We said not a word as we walked back to Mishraji’s home. And though we went to many other concerts over the next few days, this experience remained with us throughout.

We returned to our little town, with Khamaj following. And as you grew up and I watched you, it seemed that Khamaj had left a lasting impression, colouring everything you said or did. You became more sensitive, more mature, wiser, and more beautiful.