When the inner voice inspires and elevates

Uday Bhawalkar Dhrupad by Avinash Pasricha
Pt. Uday Bhawalkar

 The inter-linkedness of decisions and destinies far removed from each other cannot be denied, but it does not always assure positive or serendipitous developments. Dhrupad was one of the 10 rare forms of art selected by Kamladevi Chattopadhya in her term as chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. This laid the foundation for a new generation of Dhrupadiyas to emerge.

Among the success stories that emerged from this experiment is that of Uday Bhawalkar. Today Pt. Bhawalkar teaches across cities and performs across continents. He lives in Pune, in a house that he refers to as swarakul, a home of musical notes, with students coming and practicing at any time of the day. He spends some time as a Visiting Artist in Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle in the Department of Ethnomusicology, in a position held many years ago by his guru, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. He holds workshops in London every year at the Asian Music Circuit and is also one of the gurus at ITC SRA (Sangeet Research Academy), Kolkata.

He wasted no love on regular studies, but started learning music from the age of eight, initially from his sister and then at a local music school in Ujjain (1975-81). At 15, Uday, the youngest child in the family, got a serendipitous opportunity when he saw an advertisement in the papers seeking students for learning Dhrupad under the renowned Ustad Zia Fareeduddin Dagar. The Dagar name was a well-known brand as it had its own vani (voice), the dagarvani.

The first few months of the four-year training that he was to receive in Bhopal at the Dhrupad Kendra saw young Uday groping in the dark, as his Ustad’s alaps, (the abstract notes of a raga), lasted as long as one hour. “It was only when the compositions began, with rhythms and words, that things started falling into place,” he recalls. Dhrupad is a spartan and somber form demanding complete attention from both the singer and the audience. “But I have never regretted taking up this form.” Admittedly there are fewer Dhrupad artists than in any other musical genre in India, but music, as a rule, does not assure a comfortable life and Dhrupad even less so, for it calls for qualities of detachment. “Dhrupad suits my temperament,” Uday admits.

It is believed that Dhrupad emerged from the resonant sound of the Omkar, the origin of naad or cosmic sound, the reverberation of which initiated all creation. Shiva is believed to be the first Dhrupad musician, followed by many sages who sought the essential truth. Thus, Dhrupad is deeply rooted in the ancient Indian tradition of introspection. Only one who has the capacity to turn inwards and hold steadfast to the inner landscape of the raga and the swara (the melody and the note), can do justice to Dhrupad.

Uday’s first public performance was in Bhopal in 1985. But it is his performance in 1987, in the presence of Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar, the eldest member then of the Dagar family that he remembers most fondly. He recalls how, impressed with his singing, but more as a positive stroke to encourage him to carry on with the same commitment and dedication, the senior musician gave him a gold medal.

In all, Uday learnt for 12 years from the Dagars, for after his training with Ustad Fariduddin Dagar he went on to train with his elder brother the Rudraveena maestro, Ustad Mohiuddin Dagar in Mumbai. He surrendered himself to the training; in turn, seeing his sincerity and devotion, the gurus gave to him generously. A word about the Gharana system. As its name suggests, it is marked by an element of lineage, entitlement, security and secrecy. Maybe that is the reason why many of the gharanas of Dhrupad fizzled out over time. Towards his gurus Uday feels most beholden, because they willingly and completely shared their knowledge accounting for the wholeness of and comprehensiveness of his learning.

“Our Ustads have trained us well enough to command the respect of audiences. Our training has given us the basic equipment and allowed our creativity and individuality to express itself. Thus, they are allowing us the freedom to shape Dhrupad,” he admits. They ensured it would become a revived and relevant musical parampara (tradition), and that each disciple saw himself as a stakeholder. “I just feel that I would have found it hard to be so committed and driven to serve a form of music that was stagnant.”

So although he worked hard in learning faithfully the ragas, talas and bandishes (traditional compositions) from his gurus, including subtleties like the right use of breath to establish chhand (metre) and pronunciation, Uday’s concerts have a uniquely individualistic signature. He believes that when immersed in the note and the raga the state of sahaj is reached when the self-disappears and music takes on its own existence in accordance to the principal of darshan, the inner seeing. That is why audiences claim that his rendition of Dhrupad is “different”. It is indeed so. His raga rendition is steeped in rasa and bhava (sentiment and emotion) but with a strong spiritual underlay. His range of improvisation is balanced and poetic, a far cry from the aural wrestling between raga and rhythm that often passes off as challenging Dhrupad.

“There was a time”, he admits, “when Dhrupad was more popular in Europe, especially France than it was in India. But it is not so now”. He attributes its European popularity mainly to the Spartan meditative alaap and the gradual buildup of the structure, which contrasts radically with Khayal and Thumri, both of which release all constituent elements that go into making it, simultaneously. But today, while Dhrupad’s appeal overseas has not waned, it has gained considerable popularity in India as well. Today disciples are flocking for training, there are many more corporate scholarships available today than the few government scholarships like the National Scholarship and the Junior Fellowship, both of which he had once received from the government. But the most important validation for Dhrupad is the fact that all significant music festivals include Dhrupad, in both vocal and instrument forms. “It is on these shared platforms that our calibre as mainstream musicians is tested,arts” he says.

If there is something that still worries him about the future of Dhrupad it is the shrinking number of gurus of mettle. Uday has been teaching since the age of 20. On his part, he attempts to impart as rigorous a training, as his own Ustads gave him. No one looking for a quick ride to fame should hop on to the Dhrupad bandwagon, he says.

Dhrupad gayaki and the mindset it requires has transformed him. He used to be impatient and on a short fuse. The Indian arts, with their inward gaze, are believed to have strong transformatory powers. The first person arttouch is the maker of the artistic experience. In fact, this transformation is a test of the trueness of the music and the purity of the heart that filters it. “Music is about the mind no doubt, but it has to be of the heart to touch another,” he says, rather gravely.

Among some of the artistes with whom he has collaborated in India are modern dancer Astad Deboo and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Internationally he has worked with the Frankfurt based Ensemble Moderne, a leading New Music ensemble that currently unites 21 soloists from around the world. He has also sung with a host of individual musicians from Spain, Georgia and the US. Films in which one can hear his voice are Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer’, Mani Kaul’s international venture Cloud Door, Amol Palekar’s period film Anahat and Renuka Shahane’s debut Marathi film Rita.

Although Uday Ghawalkar insists that awards do not drive him, validation has come in the form of the Kumar Gandarva Award, named after another titan of a musician from Madhya Pradesh, and the Raza Foundation award, instituted by the internationally renowned artiste SH Raza. However, Uday Bhawalkar is quite clear that it is not the limelight, but the incandescent glow of the swara that he seeks.