Staging the death of Dhrupad: How a living art form is ‘revived’ to advance Hindutva

The claim that Dhrupad was rapidly dying is a construction of 20th century brahminical musicians who fashioned themselves saviours and revivors of an art form that they themselves were staging the death of.
Dhrupad vocalist Asgari Bai
Dhrupad vocalist Asgari Bai
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This is the second piece in TNM’s Re-caste-ing Culture series. While the term “re-caste-ing” is being used in anti-caste contexts by those who seek social justice and reparations – in education, employment, and other walks of life, re-evaluating historical narratives on culture in modern India through the prism of caste is still in a very nascent stage. This series by three independent writers hopes to re‘caste’ mainstream celebratory narratives within Indian art and culture by centering the contexts, intellect and bodies of different historically marginalised sections and practitioners from these spheres.

The first time I heard about a musical form called Dhrupad and the first time I actually listened to it were such starkly different experiences that it was hard to believe they were the same. Within the ecosystems of my brahminical upbringing and initial music training, I learnt of Dhrupad as an ancient form of music straight from the Vedas, in which the words Ananta Hari Narayan Om were tuned to musical form. I first listened to the music in this recording of musician Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar (a vocalist from the hereditary family of Dhrupad practitioners known as the Dagars), whose artistry has often been described as fearless and untameable. On hearing him entering the music as a purely sensorial experience that resisted any rigid theorisation, my difficulty in reconciling these two vastly different ‘truths’ is almost expected.

Within the popular imagination of Hindustani music, Dhrupad is seen not just as a musically ‘purer’ form, but also as somewhat more virtuous. The oft-repeated refrains surrounding Dhrupad are that it is the oldest (and thus most ‘pure’) form of Hindustani ‘classical’ music that was born out of the Sama Veda, and had a glorious reception in history until the more entertaining/ less serious forms, Khayal and Thumri, emerged. Dhrupad is also shrouded by lofty words that tie it to the hubris of spirituality – Nada Yoga, Dhrupad as pranayama, chakra meditation and so on.

“The nature of Dhrupad music is spiritual. Seeking not to entertain, but to induce feelings of peace and contemplation in the listener … It is a form of devotional music that traces its origin to the ancient text of Sam Veda … The word ‘Dhruva’ is as old as the Natya Shastra itself in which we find a separate chapter on Dhruva-Geeta,” according to the Dhrupad Sansthan website.

Such commonly used descriptions to introduce the genre seek to gain textual approval for the music from the Natyashastra – a Sanskritic text on the performing arts, which artists across ‘classical’ genres are eager to latch on to as the source of all art. Along with this, they go back directly to the Sama Veda in a one-upmanship of ancientness and brahminical authority.

This simplistic history and theorisation – catalysed by the outlook of Savarna musicians/ musicologists like VN Bhatkhande and VD Paluskar – is an attempt to deliberately obscure the complex musical traditions and the vectors of change they have passed through. It also covertly sidelines or marginally co-opts the traditional practitioners of Dhrupad music, most of whom were Muslim, and from heterogenous-caste communities of hereditary musicians known as Dhadhis, Kalawants, Tawaifs.

More realistic and historical approaches to contextualising the emergence of Dhrupad tell us that the musical genre as we know it today may have ‘originated’ in the 15th century in the court of Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior. As a curious counterpoint to present day insistences that the music is two millennia old and thus ‘Margi’ (‘classical’, divinely ordained and not meant for entertainment), sources from the time such as the Ain-i-Akbari refer to Dhrupad as an emerging and flourishing art form. In the same text, Dhrupad is also spoken of as ‘desi’ – art that emerges out of a regional context, from a group of living-breathing practitioners, without shying away from its capacity for pleasure/ joy/ social interaction.

A recording of Dhrupad vocalist Asgari Bai, one among a few rare and unacknowledged hereditary women performers of the form

Given this context, artistes claiming that the music they practise fell into their laps directly from the Vedas through a linear history also veils the art form from the “indulgence” and “debauchery” associated with princely courts and court music in northern India, where Dhrupad thrived under royal patronage.

Over three centuries, the practice of Dhrupad moved across parts of northern India, diversified into subgenres, was practised by musicians at both Mughal and Rajput courts, and co-existed with other genres. Among other genres was Thumri, a form of music that is characterised by its erotic/ sensual content and associated with women courtesan performers. Khayal, the most recognised genre of Hindustani music today, also emerged in this context.

Naubat Khan Kalawant, a Dhrupad musician from Akbar’s court, holding the musical instrument Rudra veena/ Bin. His direct descendants, Adarang and Sadarang, who were trained in Dhrupad themselves, became important figures in the propagation of Khayal. From the British Museum, 1590.

The relationship between the multiple genres that make up what we today call ‘Hindustani music’ was complex. It was perhaps even conflicted, with Khayal becoming more popular, widely listened to. But in no way did the emergence of ‘newer’ genres obliterate or cause the death of Dhrupad. It is significant to note, as Jon Barlow and Lakshmi Subramanian write, “leading khyaliahs of the late 19th and 20th centuries were by and large those dhrupadiahs who emerged as authentic sources of khyal teaching.”

In his eulogy of Ramakant Gundecha, one of the three Gundecha brothers who can be seen as the very faces of this “revival”, cultural critic Sadanand Menon writes that the Gundecha brothers “returned to the Dhrupad ang (form) of Hindustani classical music, something akin to its lost breath … Trained by the Dagars, Ustad Zia Fariduddin and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin, the young Gundechas were like a waft of a fresh, moist breeze blowing through a wilting garden.”

Menon’s capacity to fashion the Gundechas as revivors of what he claims to be a “wilting” art form while making a passing reference to their hereditary teachers speaks of the gaze with which ‘classical’ music has been viewed by powerful critics and practitioners.

Often, hereditary artistes and teachers are relegated to being storehouses whose skill and knowledge need to be extracted by elite Savarna musicians who can then claim to be reviving and giving new life to art forms through nefarious misappropriations of lyrical content, musical aesthetics and historicity.

Menon’s statement also reveals how despite holding positions as Ustads/ gurus in the  teacher-student relationship, teachers from historically marginalised castes/Islamic backgrounds have to navigate a highly skewed power dynamic with their Savarna/ Hindu students whose musical ‘contributions’ come back full circle to delegitimise, if not erase their teachers’ artistry.

The claim that Dhrupad was a rapidly dying or wilting art form is therefore a construction of 20th century musicians from elite brahminical backgrounds who fashioned themselves saviours and revivors of an art form that they themselves were staging the death of.

It is also important to note that the so-called ‘revival’ of Dhrupad not only traces an unbroken, brahminical past leading up to the Natyashastra, but also claims to be not merely music but more. This exoticised version of the art form ties it neatly to the Shastras, Vedas as well as to Yoga through an entirely fabricated idea of Dhrupad as ‘Nada Yoga’, a Vedic practice of sound that is strictly spiritual and has the capacity to use sound and breath to “activate the chakras”, produce pure/ divine sound and become a meditation through sound rather than being ‘just’ a temporal music.

An interview with Gundecha Brothers in which Dhrupad is spoken of as Nada Yoga, with claims to the music being able to activate one’s ‘chakras’ if sung correctly

Academic and yoga practitioner Morgan Baker writes about how modern, “globalised yoga” constructed by nationalists like Vivekananda is built upon ahistorical claims to ancient “Hindu origins” and thus serves as an apt vehicle for hypernationalist Hindutva discourse as well as an alluring package to Westerners: “For many Westerners, the idea of tapping into an ancient, mystic, esoteric practice that promises the cessation of suffering is intensely seductive. It is precisely this aura of mysticism that renders yoga and yoga spaces vulnerable to ahistoricism, anti-intellectualism, and propagandization.”

In very similar ways, the staged ‘revival’ of Dhrupad in the last century leaves us with a ‘globalised Dhrupad’ that relies on its esoteric claims to being ‘Vedic’ music and a wishy-washy yogic practice at once, to allure Western audiences/ students and subtly – yet markedly – also become a vehicle for hypernationalist Hindu propaganda. It is, therefore, not surprising in the least that most Dhrupad festivals like the Benaras Dhrupad Mela, Dhrupad Samaroh or Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh – which are presently prominent sites of music making – are sites of Savarna Hindu fervour, Hindutva and nationalism. The overtly Hindu origin stories, almost entirely Hindu musician lineups, religious musical content and patronage/ funding at these festivals speak of the long brewing desire to ‘revive’ Dhrupad by doing its “ghar-wapsi” (return to home) to so-called pure, ‘Indian’ (i.e., Hindu) roots.

I return here to my inability to reconcile the two conflicting ‘truths’ around the history and nature of this musical genre – the first is one that seeks legitimacy through a convenient origin story. Savarna musicians creating linear, brahminical origin stories around the art forms we practise speaks of not just an appropriative desire to own all art, but also of an anxiety to keep artistic competencies unquestioned.

The music of musicians who have fashioned themselves saviours and revivors of Indian culture has gained a special kind of artistic impunity. To question its value and legitimacy is to question constructs of nationhood, ‘Indian’ (Savarna) culture and Hinduism.

Saba Dewan, author of Tawaifnama, which traces the lives and history of women singers from tawaif/ courtesan backgrounds, reflects on the relationship she shares with her protagonists’ lives. “My place in this history is that of an usurper, is it not?” she asks. The second ‘truth’ – the Ustad’s recording – comes to me as a complex navigation of a living-breathing but mediated truth, that forces me to see and locate myself within this sense of being the usurper. Acknowledging that the new, brahminical/ globalised brand of Indian ‘classical’ music rests on its erasure of hereditary (and especially hereditary women) performers makes it imperative to construct alternative genealogies of music. What it demands of us is to see in the music of musicians who have been systemically marginalised, a layered negotiation of socio-politics and a deeply complex – but immensely palpable – sense of resistance.


  1. I wish to acknowledge that both the Gundecha brothers and Sadanand Menon, whose work I have referred to here, have been accused of sexual abuse and assault. The reference to them here is by no means an endorsement of their work; it served as a criticism of their socio-politics and artistic endeavours.
  2. The YouTube recording of Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar is mistitled as Raag Rageshree, what he sings is Raag Bhinna Shadaj.

Prerna S is a student of English literature, anthropology, and a musical form called Dhrupad. She sees her writing as coming out of navigating these worlds and trying to understand her own location within them.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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