Skip to Content

Home > Essays > Perspectives on Dhrupad

< Previous | Next >

Perspectives on Dhrupad

by Deepak Raja

This essay is the EPILOGUE authored by the guest-editors to the 1999 Annual issue of the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, titled PERSPECTIVES ON DHRUPAD. It is being presented with the consent of the Society. The full document is available from the Office of the Secretary General, Indian Musicological Society, Jambu Bet, Dandia Bazar, Baroda 390 001, India.


The perspectives presented in the foregoing papers, considered along with our observations, portray Dhrupad as a mideaval genre of raga-based art-music, threatened with extinction, but showing initial signs of a revival.

The Dhrupad genre is believed to have evolved from one of the streams of Prabandha Gana, which held sway between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Dhrupad replaced Prabandha Gana from the 14th century, and reached its zenith between the 15th and 18th centuries. Thereafter, it receded from the mainstream and yielded place to the Khayal form. Since then, it has survived on the periphery, pursued by a few dedicated families.

Dhrupad was structured originally around the poetic and melodic- rhythmic material from the tradition of devotional music practiced in the Vaishnava temples. Its entry into a secular environment paved the way for the acceptance of appropriate changes in poetic content, and mode of presentation. However, even in its manifestation as a genre of art-music, Dhrupad retained its bias in favour of the poetic element (the Pada), and continues to merit classification as "Padashrit" (founded on poetry) and "Swarashrit"(founded on melody). For the same reason, Dhrupad remains, primarily, a genre of vocal music.

Today, we recognise the parallel existence of two streams of Dhrupad: the form of devotional music practiced in the Vaishnava temples, and popularly known as Haveli Sangeet, and Darbari Dhrupad, the performing art, popularly known as, simply, Dhrupad.

The decline of Dhrupad

There are several views on the causes for the decline of Dhrupad. The historical-political view argues that a genre of devotional music sustained primarily in the ritualistic context of the temples could not possibly have thrived in an aristocratic environment as a form of entertainment. Proponents of this view also suggest that Dhrupad's situation might have been more precarious because it was a genre of Hindu devotional music exposed to the proselytising zeal of a Moslem aristocracy.

This view might seem inconsistent with the belief that the reign of Emperor Akbar was the "Golden Age of Dhrupad". Consider also the fact that the decline of classical Dhrupad commenced during the sunset years of the Mughal Empire, and accelerated under the patronage of the Hindu aristocracy in Bengal and Bihar.

It is, therefore, worth considering a socio-cultural view of the phenomenon. The decline of one genre, and its replacement by either its own transformation or by an alternative genre, is an open-ended historical process. This process is a natural response to the changing audience profiles, cultural/ musical needs of society, and changing esthetic values.

Dhrupad probably declined in popularity because of its own rigidity. Almost every facet of the genre militated against change. Its resistence to change, and its failure to accommodate audience tastes caused its popularity to decline. This is supported by the observation that Dhrupad's effort to protect itself from extinction led it towards a rhythmic obsession which, in the opinion of many, resulted in an unpleasant aural experience.

Dhrupad's successor, the Khayal, was the product of an evolutionary process as much as Dhrupad itself was. Dhrupad can be interpreted as having transformed itself into the Khayal. By this argument, the Bada Khayal is nothing but the three-tiered Dhrupad alap, merged with the Pada, and renderred to percussion accompaniment.

Also, consider the fact that the fountainhead of every significant gharana of Khayal music belonged to a lineage of Dhrupadiyas. We cannot also ignore the fact that literally hundreds of Bada Khayal compositions performed today retain the poetic element and the melodic contour of their Dhrupad originals.

Comprehensive raga presentation in Hindustani music ensured its continuity by losening the rigid Dhrupad format. Its flexible manifestation came to be known as the Khayal. Some Dhrupad gharanas, however, persisted with the traditional format of presentation despite a progressive decline in its popularity.

This declining popularity had its logical impact on the diversity of the Dhrupad styles available to music audiences. Although Dhrupad can claim at least five living stylistic traditions, the public mind is, by and large, exposed only to two of them, the Dagar and the Darbhanga gharanas.

Vaishnava temple music

Compared to Dhrupad, Vaishnava temple music, or Haveli Sangeet as it is known in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh, claims superior resilience. It is argued that its audience is the Lord himself, and is sustained by the commitment of the clergy to music as an offering to Lord Krishna. Its value as a part of "atmospherics" of religion is, of course, recognized. Despite this acceptance, it is claimed, the genre is not exposed to the fickleness of public taste. This claim, and the argument supporting it, both deserve scrutiny.

First, the argument. The audience of temple music might be involuntary and captive. This fact does not make the audience inconsequential to the survival of the genre. The commitment of the clergy might have the sanction of ecclesiastical tradition. But, this fact does not make the genre immune to the esthetic values of devotees. If, or when, the music becomes a matter of either dissonance or irrelevance for devotees, the clergy will lose interest in sustaining it. Therefore, even if only indirectly, Haveli Sangeet must also be ultimately susceptible to changing public tastes.

In addition to the disadvantage of having an involuntary audience, Haveli Sangeet is more vulnerable than classical Dhrupad because its audience is, on an average, of inferior discernment. An art-music audience can appreciate Dhrupad as well as Haveli Sangeet as sophisticated musical genres. But, for the Vaishnava devotee on a pilgrimage, it is merely a devotional song, on par with a Bhajan from a film. With the disadvantage of an undiscerning, involuntary, and uninvolved audience, Haveli Sangeet functions in an accountability vacuum. It gets no indication of its own relevance, can drift imperceptibly towards irrelevance, and has no basis for shaping a response aimed at averting extinction.

Now, the claim. The present reality does not show up Haveli Sangeet as being in a better health than classical Dhrupad. The question of musicianship in "Samajgayan" (community singing) does not arise. Amongst professional soloist singers, the average level of musicianship is uninspiring. The inflow of fresh talent to the profession has all but dried up. Many popular Vaishnava temples now function without Haveli Sangeet as a part of the daily ritual of service. Some of them have replaced live Haveli Sangeet with commercial recordings of Bhajans as ambient music.

Preservation and revival

The present status of Vaishnava temple music suggests that the commitment of the clergy, however strong, is a poor bulwark against the threat of extinction. Considering the totality of its circumstance, it is difficult to identify conditions under which Haveli Sangeet can become a living tradition again or re-fertilize classical Dhrupad. However, if conducive conditions do emerge, revivalists can now draw upon a substantial body of documentation and research being undertaken by scholars in India and the west.

The revival of classical Dhrupad can be contemplated because it addresses a voluntary audience. And, voluntary audiences will be attracted to great music, irrespective of the genre.

From a contemporary perspective, the feasibility of a Dhrupad revival owes a great deal to the towering duo, Ustad Nasir Ameenuddin and Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Dagar. They demonstrated the value of what Indian music was about to lose, perhaps irretrievably. But for their legacy, Indian society might not have mustered the will and the resources to initiate revivalist movements.

Their recordings remain, to this day, the most powerful testimony available to the maturity and sophistication of the genre. Their formidable musicianship remains a durable challenge for all vocalists -- Dhrupadiyas as well as Khayaliyas. Their music also earned for them the admiration of serious musicologists in Europe, who helped to create an international constituency not only for Dhrupad, but for all of Hindustani music.

The departure of the Elder Dagar Brothers from the concert platform created the conditions for Dhrupad enthusiasts to clamor for revivalist initiatives. Two significant initiatives, each qualitatively different from the other, are noteworthy. Both of them have attempted to extend the boundaries of musicianship in Dhrupad beyond heredity.

The Bhopal initiative was spearheaded and funded by a state government, with pedagogical and stylistic inputs from one of the streams of the Dagar tradition. In contrast, the Brindaban movement was initiated and funded by the hereditary clergy of a Vaishnava denomination, and functions under the guidance of another reputed Dhrupad lineage, the Mallik family from Darbhanga in Bihar.

The Bhopal initiative has attracted good talent, and so far trained about twenty Dhrupad musicians, of whom a handful are now established concert performers. In terms of its sustainability, this initiative faces two major uncertainties -- the uncertainties associated with all government supported cultural projects, and the scarcity of competent and dedicated Gurus.

The Brindaban movement's contribution to musicianship has been comparatively modest. However, it has utilized the growing interest in the culture of the Vraja region and its Vaishnava cults, to promote the hitherto lesser known Darbhanga gharana.of Dhrupad. The movement claims significance also on account of having restored Dhrupad's link with its original home in the Vaishnava temples. From available evidence, this link appears tenuous, and its long-term value to either Haveli Sangeet or to classical Dhrupad is debatable.

Neither of these establishments has been around long enough to bring Dhrupad to a state of self-generating growth. Dhrupad requires superior momentum to reach such a stage. This will probably come from the future role of the alumni of these establishments as teachers and performers, and the continued growth in Dhrupad's popularity with audiences.

Audiences and musicianship

Young Indian vocalists with respectable performing standards have partially restored Dhrupad to the mainstream concert platform. These musicians are making conscious efforts to shape Dhrupad to impart to it greater acceptability amongst contemporary audiences. In creating a market for their music, their focus seems to include Indian audiences south of the Vindhyas nurtured in the Carnatic tradition, and "soft" targets for Hindustani music in Europe and the US.

Their efforts appear to be winning back mature Hindustani music audiences who had either rejected Dhrupad as an unpleasant aural experience or not heard quality Dhrupad for a long time. For the newer entrants into the classical music market, especially the younger and uninitiated audiences, Dhrupad appears to be a novel experience, but more accessible than Khayal.

In South India, Dhrupad claims acceptance because of two factors: a general opening up of the Carnatic market to Hindustani music, and the similarity of the Dhrupad format to the Ragam-Thanam- Pallavi format in Carnatic music.

In the domestic market, with an ample availability of other genres of classical and semi-classical music, audience preferences or loyalties are not shaped by the genre as much as by individual musicianship. The situation in Europe and the US appears different. There appears to be a genre-based following for Dhrupad, verging on a cult. This probably defines a market that has either found other genres of Hindustani music comparatively inaccessible, or had only negligible exposure to them.

In the western markets, Dhrupad appears to claim a premium on the grounds of being "ancient" and "spiritual". However, such intangible values cannot over-ride the fundamental factor of intelligibility and comfort with the aural experience. The easier accessibility of Dhrupad is, therefore, likely to be the primary driving force. In this sense, even almost four decades after the first European concert tour of the Elder Dagars, Dhrupad might still be functioning as a "beginner's brief" or an "orientation course" in Hindustani music for western audiences.

Several western-born musicians have, by now, acquired respectable performing competence in Dhrupad. Despite their accomplishments, the western market appears to deny them a fair share in the belief that their music is not "authentic Dhrupad".

The intermediaries in the western "ethnic music" market are searching, in vain, for a prototype of "authentic Dhrupad" as a yardstick against which Dhrupadiyas can be evaluated. They have yet to come to terms with "continuity within change" and the stylistic diversity of gharanas as fundamental to the understanding of Indian musical genres.

In addition, the easy accessibility of Dhrupad to audiences could have created the erroneous impression that Dhrupad is also easy to master as a performing art. This error compounds the risk of misjudging musicianship and leads, predictably, to diffidence in evaluating the talent and accomplishment on offer.


These trends are creating an interesting situation. The livelihoods of Indian Dhrupadiyas are being sustained largely by European and American audiences. Since the Indian market is not diffident about assessing Dhrupadiyas, western Dhrupadiyas can shape reputations on the Indian stage. But, their Indian successes, earned at great financial cost, do not give them an encashable credibility back home.

As a genre, contemporary Dhrupad is evolving within the interaction between Indian and Western musicians on the one hand, and culturally alienated Indian audiences, and trans-culturally receptive western audiences. But, the west is, in effect, funding it very substantially.

We need to recall Dhrupad's evolutionary history in order to appreciate the implications of the current situation.To begin with, a genre of Hindu devotional music accepted the role of a performing art and became Dhrupad. Because the influence of the Middle-Eastern and Moslem aristocracy was in the ascendancy at that time, Dhrupad accepted some elements of middle eastern music along with some dilution of its Hindu mythological poetic bias.

In its second transformation, Dhrupad encountered stylistic influences from the music of the Sufi cults, again of middle- eastern origin. This encounter gave birth to Khayal, a more secular, and more complex art-form in which the dominance of the poetic element was weakened, while the meditative-contemplative character was retained, and perhaps strengthened. .

In both these encounters, the alien counterpart was another Asian culture with its own tradition of religious/ meditative music. The fusion was not only easy, but also enriching. Dhrupad's present encounter with the west is a qualitatively different reality. Dhrupad is now interacting with a totally dissimilar and secular musical culture from the northern hemisphere. The equation, too, is different. Dhrupad is no longer the dominant mainstream genre, rich in repertoire, and generously patronized at home. It is dealing with alien influences from a position of weakness, and economic dependence. How is contemporary Dhrupad handling this reality ?

Without implying any disrespect to the commitment of Dhrupadiyas to their art, it is possible to interpret the tendencies in contemporary Dhrupad as product/ marketing strategies. These observations are, of course, more valid in the case of musicians - primarily Indian - whose training and natural advantage offers them the possibility of making strategic choices.

One tendency shows Dhrupad trying to move closer to its roots, and to strengthen and broad-base its Indian-ness. This suggests a strategy of enlarging the Indian market for Dhrupad, and expecting the resultant music to simultaneously - and perhaps consequently -- become more attractive to its western constituency.

The other tendency is pushing Dhrupad closer to aural comfort for western listeners. This suggests a strategy aimed directly at consolidating Dhrupad's hard-currency market, even if, as a consequence, its domestic market remains restricted to the culturally rootless yuppies.

Both these tendencies are often visible in the music of the same musician. However, they are also seen as individual predilections of different Dhrupadiyas. The present generation of successful Dhrupadiyas can afford to experiment with different directions or even do without a well-defined direction because quality Dhrupad musicianship is still in short supply.

It is fair to recognize that there is also a third tendency, visible amongst a few lesser-known Dhrupad gharanas lacking a significant visibility in the "market". They continue to perform their music exactly as they have done for two centuries, or more, of virtual oblivion.

At the present juncture in Dhrupad's history, it is not cynical, but realistic, to analyze Dhrupad primarily as a response to a "market". The genre will merit examination afresh when, and if, it attains the stage of delivering an abundant supply of quality musicianship.

Deepak Raja Suvarnalata Rao (c) Indian Musicological Society,1999

Deepak Raja
Bombay, MH India