The musical journey of an etymologist


DSC_0327His name means ‘the one with good qualities’ and if there is a prize for guessing correctly the traits of a child at birth and naming him accordingly, Wasif’s parents certainly deserve it. Wasif was born in April 1968 to Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar. He takes his father’s first name — Faiyaz, which means artistic and generous. With the two names — Faiyaz Wasif, his personality is more complete, and sets the tone for the article that follows, as Wasif himself enjoys exploring the etymology and meaning of words.

The family’s history traces back to several centuries beginning with Girdhar Nath Pandey in the reign of Babar. His son, Surendra Nath Pandey had the privilege of learning music from a famous musician of his time, Pandit Mohan Das Jogi. The two sons of Surendra Nath, Gadadhar and Gyandhar Pandey learnt from the revered Swami Haridas of Vrindavan – the teacher of legendary musician, Miyan Tansen, the court musician of Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. The brothers were also devotees of a Sufi saint, Sufi Saifuddin Chishti, under whose influence they decided to embrace Islam. The elder son, Gadadhar, became Masnad Ali Khan a renowned dhrupadiya and the younger, Gyandhar, became Surgyan Khan, a renowned beenkar.

Subsequently, members of the family went on to become court musicians in the courts of the Scindias of Gwalior and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab. In the Mughal court of Bahadur Shah II, their ancestor Behram Khan enjoyed the Emperor’s favour. In fact it was at the Emperor’s behest that the nonagenarian musician moved to the court of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur, when the Emperor felt that twilight was fast falling on the Mughal Empire. The family represents one of the main gharanas of dhrupad called Dagar Vani or Voice of the Dagars. And Wasif is the 20th generation of practitioners from this family.

Born in Delhi, young Wasif started school at a local Montessori and then went to Gyan Bharati School. He admits he was not very excited about studies in school but loved the arts and sports, especially music, and cricket. Even today he doesn’t shy from playing colony cricket with anything that can pass off as a bat and a ball.

Wasif began his musical training at the age of five, with his father and his uncle Ustad N Zahiruddin Dagar. But he had unconsciously been absorbing musical impulses right from birth as he heard his father and uncle — Delhi’s famous Dagar brothers — doing their riyaz or daily practice. Long hours of practice ensured that they sang like one and unwittingly gifted Wasif an unconscious reference point. That is why he was able to step into his father’s shoes when barely 21 years of age and sing with his uncle, on 25th February 1989, just a few days after his father’s untimely death. There has been no looking back since. Post his father’s passing, between 1989 and 1994, Wasif was groomed by his uncle and other members of the extended Dagar family. Later when his uncle passed away Wasif returned to solo singing.

Wasif fondly recalls his training at the hands of the greats. He uses the analogy of the Lion for the teaching process, where the Guru is the lion and the student, the tail, following him in every movement. “It starts with imitation, but as you grow and move forward, multiple pathways open up before you. First you are scared of stepping out of the familiar coordinates, but as you grow in skill, you grow in confidence, and daring.” When asked if he was encouraged to question at all, he recalls an incident when he did ask a question, but felt that his Uncle had not heard him since there was absolutely no response or acknowledgement. “But a year later, he referred to the same question, and explained it asking me if I finally got the answer. Not only did he answer me but also restored the faith that he listens.”

The difference between students of his time and students today, according to him, is the fact that the latter have no patience and want instant answers. But if one has to learn the arts one needs to be, what he calls, “impatiently patient”.

He believes that music is a coming together of the five P’s — pitch, pulse, pause, perfection, and purity. He admits that it is not always possible to reach perfection or purity even after you have put in long hours of hard work. In music he sees the coming together of opposites to create a whole. Thus rhythm is incomplete with just beats, till it incorporates silence. “Silence is majestic- and plays so many roles that include being suggestive, perceptive, deceptive”. He explains his definition of perfection as “the ocean in a dew drop”, claiming that sometimes the perfect mass of water is the tiny dew drop and not the mighty ocean.

Wasif has lived through a time when India saw many institutions of music and dance coming up. He has strong views on the subject. “Institutions have produced some good performers, but that is because they have spent a long time after class with a Guru,” he says thereby differentiating between the teacher and the guru. “The teacher is concerned with completing the curriculum, the guru with completing your understanding of the raaga. Therefore, he will not rush to complete a predetermined number of raagas. That is not his concern. In fact he will never change the raaga till he feels that you own it. The nature of the raaga is to be ‘bahroopi’ or multifaceted, easily slipping away to evade capture, so this kind of investment in time is probably much needed in learning raaga music.” Thus he admits that while western forms of education have some benefits, we must not ignore our own strengths, and apply them where they stand to benefit us more.

Wasif spends so much time in contemplative practice that rather than being cut off from the world due to his solitude, he finds himself to be a better observer of life. It is his belief that the Indian mindset of jugaad and breaking of rules comes from the fact that people are not sure they will get what they are waiting for and therefore they jump the queue. “The uncertainty of delivery is unsettling and causes the problems,” says Wasif. Then playing with words again he adds, “ Greed, imbalance, anxiety, disruptions, and disharmony disturb creative people. ARTS people can turn into RATS or shine like a STAR”. All capitalized words are anagrams of each other — another example of his thrill at playing word games. He adds, “Research is a vast subject. It is a sea, it is to see, it is about the seer, it is to search along a wide arc and a high arch”, he says playing with words contained within the term research.”

The word ‘heart’, he says, contains the verb ‘to hear’, the noun ‘art’ and the emotion that leads to the falling of a ‘tear’ and contains the anagram of ‘earth’. “You see, both heart and earth are about compassion,” he says signing off this little game with a flourish. Then moving to Hindi, or rather Hinglish, he comes up with word play around dimaag — the mind. “The fire or aag in it has to be dim, for the idea to cook well, or else everything, and everything around it burns to cinders”. With his wit and wisdom, he has reduced complicated learnings to simple, easy to remember sentences.

Surprisingly for a Dhrupadiya, whose music is serious and somber, Wasif is playful by nature. He enjoys scrabble, sudoku, football, films and classic poetry. He prefers the music of old films “because they used raaga music. Therefore, those songs are still living. Today apart from the music it’s the camera I have questions about. It does not stay stable and is always cutting, changing and chasing. You have to give time to the shot to create resonances”.

He ends our meeting with a small sher — a couplet in Urdu — dedicated to his Ustads:

Zaahir hue hain, Zaheer ki taleem ko leke hum
Duniya mein phirr rehe han, ilm-e-Faiyaz liye hue

I found meaning through the teachings of Zaheer (a reference to his uncle Ustad Zahiruddin Dagar)
I stay relevant in the world through the artistic knowledge of the seer
(a reference to his father Ustad Faiyazuddin Dagar)