Secular notes in perfect harmony with the sacred

Gundecha Bandhu Umakant and Ramakant’s soaring voices give harmony a new meaning at a Montreal cathedral. Photo: Hari Muslim
Gundecha Bandhu Umakant and Ramakant’s soaring voices give harmony a new meaning at a Montreal cathedral.
(Photo: Hari Muslim)

Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, popularly known as the Gundecha Brothers, or Gundecha Bandhu, were in Delhi recently to provide live accompaniment to Chandralekha’s iconic choreography “Sharira” which is animated to their sonorous paean to “Jagat Janani Jwalamukhi”. A third brother, Akhilesh, is the renowned pakhawaj player.

The singing duo Umakant — Ramakant are recipients of a national film award — Rajat Kamal — for the best music for the film Raga of River Narmada, the Sanskriti Award, Madhya Pradesh’s Kumar Gandharva Award, and the Padma Shree in 2012 for their contribution to Hindustani music. Today they are the foremost practitioners of the spartan, demanding Dhrupad form of Indian classical music.

The grey-haired Umakant and the younger Ramakant are in their fifties and always perform together. This jugalbandi gayaki is a longstanding tradition of the Dhrupad gharana they represent — the Dagar bani. Earlier examples of those who performed seamlessly as a pair include the late Zakiruddin Khan and his younger brother Allaband, once court musicians of the state of Alwar; senior Dagar brothers Nasir Moinuddin and Nasir Aminuddin and more recently Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar. The Gundecha duo’s harmonisation goes beyond singing — they even dress alike for concerts!

Brought up in the holy city of Ujjain, which they still regard as their ‘energy centre’, the two are now based in Bhopal, where they run a very successful Dhrupad Gurukul since 1999. Both double post-graduates, with Umakant holding degrees in economics and music and Ramakant in commerce and music, they were propelled into the field by their father’s passion for classical arts. During their studies, they decided that Dhrupad was “where the soul of Indian music resides” and so decided to do advanced training in the guru-shishya parampara in Dhrupad with their gurus, the renowned Dhrupad vocalist Zia Fariduddin and also with Zia Mohiuddin (distinguished performer of rudra veena).

They recall with deep reverence their first guru, Ujjain’s Master Ram Narayan, who was so altruistic that he would not only teach dedicated and riyaazi students free, but would spend endless hours supervising them. “Although employed only as a tabla accompanist at the local school, he was an extremely talented musician, with command on both sur and taal, recalls Umakant, who admits that he was the one responsible for their gala banana.

Recipients of the state fellowship in 1981-85 and the national fellowship in 1987-89, they emerged as serious students and inheritors of their guru’s tradition. “The source of Dhrupad comes from the chanting of Sama Veda. The Dagar bani is a 20-generation-long tradition of Indian music, a secular tradition rooted in sacred practice. Our teacher Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar would teach us by playing on the veena. “When you watch the brothers perform, you notice that their gestures suggest the playing of the veena!

The duo performed in public for the first time in May 1985, at the Uttaradhikar dance and music festival in Bhopal, and caught the eye of connoisseurs right away, a circumstance that ensured their talent did not go uncelebrated. They were in the vanguard of the brilliant young artistes who were catapulted into fame with the Festivals of India. Subsequently, they have performed at some of the best venues in the country and the world.

New ground has been broken by inclusion of women dhrupadiyas at their Gurukul, and by expanding the repertoire of poetry used in Dhrupad style to sing the poetry of Tulsidas, Kabir, Nanak, Padmakar, Nirala, Prasad and Mahadevi Verma. They have even sung the Sanskrit compositions of ‘Guruguha’, pen-name of Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1775-1835), one of the famed trinity of poet-musicians — Vageyakars — of South India. This kind of open-mindedness has “helped us to widen the reach of Dhrupad, and succeeded in letting people feel that Dhrupad music is not rigid and non-creative”. They believe that a music tradition can survive only when it is actively enriched by its upholders. “It is the followers who make a tradition survive and thrive,” say the Gundecha Brothers.

Both brothers are unanimous that to become a performer, it is essential to undergo the guru-shishya parampara, which they recognise is “based on careful listening of music.” However well meaning a guru, the nature of institutionalisation, the sheer pressure of course-work is such that quality and depth of understanding get compromised. Under the parampara, there is no restriction of time: “The guru spends as much as four to five years on just one raga. There are no short cuts”.

Both brothers vehemently reject the claim that young people today want shortcuts. “At our Gurukul, we have students who have left their regular careers as lawyers and computer engineers, including some from the IITs, who have chosen the life of a ‘student of music’ over other options.” Umakant recalls a conversation he had with an IIT student after a concert, in which the student kept asking questions, wanting to know what was the earning potential for a life dedicated to pursuing music. “I was very frank, I told him that a decent life of respectability could be expected if the practice is disciplined, pure, true and sincere”. The brothers believe that to be a great artiste is the result of a special configuration in which a good guru and good shishya come together, the karm or learning is good and only then can one hope for good bhagya (luck).

Today’s students, according to them, are more informed through multiple sources and are clear about what they really want. “This is in sharp contrast to our times, when we really didn’t know what we wanted till well into our second post-graduation,” they admit. “The fact that they have so many choices — far more than we had — and if despite that, they still choose music, we know it is a carefully considered choice, and usually a lifelong one.”

An issue that concerns them is the narrowness of categories. Some of the great musicians whom they respect — Amir Khan, Vilayat Khan and Kumar Gandharva — pushed boundaries. In a similar way, they feel that the term ‘classical’ does not successfully describe their music, which is a parampara. They prefer the margi-deshi description, which is more suited to the Indian system and which allows weaving in of the larger repertoire of gharana paramparas.

The fact that most support for classical music comes from the government is not a healthy trend, say the brothers. “There must be multiple systems of support.” They accept that classical arts cannot usually sell tickets. To change this syndrome, they feel that organisers, artistes and audiences must be equal stakeholders. They insist, however, that to bring the audience on the same page, the artiste must never allow ‘dumbing down’ of the art. Instead, it is their duty to uplift the audience to a level of artistic excellence.