Dhrupad – Reclaiming Saamagaana

Center for Soft Power mourns the passing of Padmashri Ramakant Gundecha, the younger of the two Dhrupad exponents known as Gundecha Brothers. Pandits Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha – along with Rudra Veena player and Dhrupad scholar Dr Rajshekar Vyas have been trying to revive and reinforce the hoary but now tenuous link between Vedic Saamagaana chants and contemporary Indian classical music

Dhrupad, the oldest form of Indian classical music, with its chant-like cadences and intonations in both the aalaap as well as the bandish, and its use of Sanskrit, has now survived only at the fringe of Indian classical music with a bare handful of practitioners holding their own in the modern concert stage.

Among them are the Gundecha Brothers, Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, exponents of the Dagar bani of Dhrupad, and probably the only musicians carrying on the illustrious Dagar legacy which has held sway over 20 generations. Ustad Hussain Sayeeduddin Dagar, who passed away in June last year, aged 78, was the youngest of the eight great Dagar Khans. The older brothers include Ustaad Nasir Moinuddin, Nasir Aminuddin Dagar (known as the ‘elder’ Dagar brothers), Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar (called the ‘junior’ Dagar brothers). The renowned brothers were the grandsons of the legendary Zakiruddin and Allabande Khan Dagar.

The Hindustani classical music that we are familiar with is “Khayal” music with its Sufi and other influences that rule the roost when it comes to North Indian classical music, across India. Dhrupad’s deeper roots are clear both in its rendering style as well as its frequent employment of Sanskrit compositions and verses borrowed from Sanskrit texts.

As Ustad Saeeiuddin Dagar, had no hesitation in pointing out, the Dagar family had Hindu and Vedic roots, before the Mughal era, and the Dhrupad style of Northern classical music is rooted in an ancient form, and even underpins other extant forms like Khayal and Karnatic music.

The Gundecha brothers, along with Rudra Veena exponent and Dagar disciple Dr Pandit Rajshekar Vyas of Udaipur, who occasionally shares the stage with them as a musicologist, are trying to research and re-establish the links between Dhrupad gaan and Saamagaana as a pedagogic effort for new learners.

Sound occupies an important place in Indian philosophical thinking, even exalted as the Shabda Brahman or Naada Brahman. “The philosophy of Indian classical music is to realise the Ultimate Sound, says Prof Vyas.

“The human sound is not the Ultimate Sound. Our forefathers by analysing nature and the human voice and comparing the two discovered that there are layers of sounds that we can access.  There are 17 different layers of sounds leading to the sound of the Sun or the Bruhat (Great or vast) Sam sound. The sound of the tanpura is termed as Bruhat sound in the Saamagaana.

“Musicians lead all of us to that sound. You would have seen Dhrupad singers looking upwards while singing, trying to access that sound. Our gurus would say that this musical sound is soaked in feeling and the feeling is thinner than the fragrance of a flower. Listening to Dhrupad, we forget we are of this earth. We get detached from our bodies,” says Prof Vyas.

Prof Vyas has researched both the Sama Veda and Saamagaana. “The Sama Veda is not a text of music. It comprises of 1,875 riks  taken from Rig Ved, with only two riks taken from Yajur Veda. Our great Rishis probably repeated the riks of Rigved in the Samaved as the spoken word of Rigved was not sufficient by itself to create oneness with the Ultimate Sound. The masters probably felt the need for Saamagaana to sing the text.”

The term Dhrupad is derived from the words ‘Dhruva’ referring to the unmoving pole star and ‘pada’ meaning poetry. Saamagaana combines ‘Chhanda’ and ‘Prabandha’ i.e. verse and meter, with their union being the origins of Dhrupad. It indicates a return of the Svara (tone), Kala (time) and Shabda (text) to an unchanging point, which is believed to be the basis of Saamagaana.

Umakant says that there are some salient features of Dhrupad which differentiate it from other musical forms. Dhrupad singing begins with an alaap in three speeds Vilambit, Madhya and Drut, a feature which is unique to it and an idea which originated in Dhrupad. Besides, in Dhrupad singers are accompanied by the pakhawaj and tanpura only without the harmonium or any other accompaniment.

“Saamagaana is a timeless concept. It doesn’t belong to any time, or any period. It is timeless and makes you timeless.”  

Ramakant Gundecha

“We sing only with the tanpura. We think the purity of the note, the essence of the raga which we have learnt from our Ustads (Zia Fariduddin Dagar and also with Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar) can be rendered only with the tanpura. Dhrupad singers don’t use a harmonium as its notes are fixed. In Dhrupad there are many many shades of the note in different ragas. So it difficult to sing with the harmonium.” They can sing with the sarangi or the Rudra Veena, provided the player is trained in the Dhrupad style.    

 Prof Vyas says that for Dhrupad singers the most important part is the Shadaj Madhyam Samvad (the conversation created by playing the combination of the Shadaj- Madhyam swars). “In Indian classical music only these four notes are important – Sa Re Ga Ma. The others – Pa Da Ni Sa are a replica at 1.5 higher pitch. If you take Sa Re Ga Ma to 1.5 higher pitch you will get Pa Da Ni Sa. The main thing movement is there from therefore Sa to Ma and Ma to Sa. Sa Ma Sa Ma Sa Ma…..”

Umakanth Gundecha (left) and Ramakant Gundecha

As Ramakant puts it, “Saamagaana is a timeless concept. It doesn’t belong to any time, or any period. It is timeless and makes you timeless.”  

The disappearance of the music of Saamagaana during the periods of non-Vedic cultures for several centuries put paid to a music culture where the notes were uttered in their pure form with emphasis on correct pitch with whirls of Shrutis surrounding them.

Professor Vyas says that with the advent of the Buddhist movement and a shift from a predominantly ‘yagnic’ culture, for a period of 1000 years between 600 BC to 600 AD, Saamagaana disappeared.  

For a short while after this, musical texts including Matanga Muni’s Brihaddeshi (Between 6-8th Century AD) and Sarangdeva’s Sangeet Ratnakara (13 Century AD) along with the study of the Vedas were the focus of musicologists trying to revive Saamagaana.

In contemporary India, particular after 1947, Ramakant says it has been difficult for Dhrupad practitioners to propagate their music freely due to the ‘secular’ mood in the country.

“Sadly after Indian Independence, successive Governments have tried not to link music with Hindu temples. They have largely propagated the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb (Ganga Jamuna Doab culture which focusses on Indo-Muslim culture). When we connected music to temples it created negativity. Reacting to this, when we try to balance our music, we do not do justice to its Hindu origins. Now the political environment is relatively open for us to talk about ‘Hindu’ music. Earlier if you would talk about Hindu devotional or scriptural music you would be considered orthodox and intolerant.”

Prof Vyas, and the Gundecha Brothers are working together to establish the connection between Saamagaana shastra and kriya.

The significance of the Saamagaana is in creating oneness with the Universal sound, which is represented by the Tanpura says Ramakant. “The feeling of oneness is coming because of samvaad (conversation) with yourself. The singer depends entirely on the tanpura. The tanpura’s sound is the replica of the human body, the replica of the upagatha. That is why the tanpura has a thumba to match the lower harmonics of the human body,” says Ramakant.

Dhrupad singers have often commented on the ability to stand the test of the tanpura. It is believed Dhruva-pada helps to create irresoluteness or unwavering fidelity to the tanpura.

Ramakant says the tanpura “is not an instrument, it is a system. You have to play the tanpura in a way that every string is heard at the same time.  The simultaneous playing of all four strings of the tanpura must resonate with the alignment of our body represented by the naval, chest, throat and cerebrum. When this vertical alignment matches the Sam (Ultimate Sound), then the feeling of oneness creates sublimity and a meditative feeling. Dhrupad and other Indian music strives to achieve that experience.”

When the singer sees the Sam, and achieves oneness, the wheel of musical energy begins to revolve, says Ramakant. “It generates, runs, and further generates the momentum of the music. The music becomes a generator in itself, creating new pathways of exploration.  The singer ‘sees’ this vision of music and performs it at the same time.  He has to see, absorb and execute it simultaneously. The musician has control it or it can overwhelm him and that overwhelming is a kind of limitation. You have to absorb that energy and go beyond it.”

Prof Vyas recounts his experiences in a class with his guru Ustad Zaiuddin Khan. “Ustad would avoid getting emotional on stage. But when he used to sing while teaching us, he would at times start weeping – not for one minute, two minutes, but for half an hour, one hour, two hours when he would realise the actual sound and see the picture of the Sam. At times, he was so awed by this experience that when he was himself singing he would say, Wah, Kya baath hain!”

The ability to see this vision of music varies from musician to musician and the greater the saadhana towards aligning oneself with the tanpura, the clearer is the thought process, says Ramakant.

“If one were to take the note Ga, even as the singer focuses on Ga, it expands. The small Ga becomes bigger, and then you have to zoom in again, and when you concentrate it expands. You keep zooming in, there is no end to it. It all depends on how microscopic your ears are.  That needs lots of concentrated energy. The sound first emerges in the brain, which then commands the body. Depending on what pronunciation you want to render you are pulling the vibration from your body in a particular way,” says Ramakant.


It was Ustad Zakiruddin Khan Dagar, who on the behest of Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar, revived links with Samvedic scholars, musicians and musicologists researching the connection between the Vedas and Indian classical music.

Ustad Zakiruddin Khan along with Vyas Pandit Shambhu Ram Shastri, the Kulguru of the Mewar state, studied the Samaved and a few allied texts such as Pushpasutra, Rktantra, Samtantra, Akshartantra, Chhandogyaupanishad, Tandyabrahman, Shathpathbrahman, Panchvinshbrahman and six Brahman books of Samved and other books related to Vedic Saamagaana.

Prof Vyas says these texts talk about how Sam should be, what are the notes of Sam and the intricacies of Saamagaana, explained in the sutra method. “They explain the nature of the notes, the melody and the ras of a particular melody called Chhandas.”

While India has largely had an oral tradition of imparting both Vedic as well as musical knowledge, the validity of any one authentic rendering tradition is absent with practioners following different styles. “The oral songs that were sung during the Rig Vedic period have been lost. I have spoken to people who were singing the music of Saamagaana and they mostly sing in one unvarying tune,” says Prof Vyas. They have theoretical knowledge of the Seven Geethis prescribed in Saamswarkramani but cannot differentiate between them, he says.

Professor Vyas, Umakant Gundecha and Ramakant Gundecha

It was Ustad Zakiruddin Khan, who developed the Sadharani Geethi style of Dhrupad singing and Rudra Veena playing combining elements of the Seven Geetis (Gayatri, Aindri, Roudri, Paavman, Chhandasi, Agneyi and Mahanamni) and the four Vanis (Gauharvani, Khandarvai, Dagarvani and Nauharvani) reviving the Saamagaana tradition of music.

The Gundecha brothers have always sung together and while this was a conscious choice, it is also a tradition of Saamagaana. The Dagar family, to which tradition they belong, often sang together. It is a Vedic tradition which required three people to sing together, without which Saamagaana was not possible. It was necessary to have an Udghata (the main singer), Upagatha, Prasthotha (beginner), and praharkartha to give a complete sound experience.

While they perform, sometimes one singer utters the lower pitch, the other traversing the higher octaves a practice mentioned in Saamagaana. Samaved is always sung with three or four persons and two persons are assigned the duty to utter the same corresponding note that the main singer is singing, but in a lower pitch.

Prof Vyas says when he listens to the Gundecha Brothers, he can see the theory he is researching being executed. “When I listen to them, I think – here is Gaudi, here is Bhinna. They use shruthi, coming from 12th shruthi to 6th shruthi. Nowadays people say we cannot utter shruthis in Saamagaana, but the brothers are using it. The commentaries of Saamagaana mention that without Shruthi there is no music. There would be no sur.”

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