Dhrupad (hindi – ध्रुपद) evolved from medieval Indian classical music. Early examples of dhrupad include distinct compositions attributed to Swami Haridas and his students, including Tansen, the legendary royal court musician of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) and Baijnath Mishra (Baiju bawara — Baiju the irreverent) the contemporary court musician of Mansingh Tomar In Gwalior. Having evolved gradually from temple prayers and chants, dhrupad was the dominant form of classical vocal music in North India until the eighteen century when khayal  (thought; imagination), a lighter, faster and more florid form gained wider acceptance. Dhrupad remains one of the oldest performance art forms still practiced and propagated traditionally. Dagarvani (The tongue/language of the Dagars) is one of the main surviving schools of dhrupad.

The art form (भक्ति कला)

A dhrupad performance.

Dhrupad has traditionally been a vocal tradition though instrumental versions (particularly using the veena) are also prevalent. One (or some times a pair) dhrupad performer is typically accompanied by a percussionist (on a pakhawaj — पखावज — drum) besides and facing the vocalist to facilitate improvisation, and one or two tanpura drones situated close by behind to complete the ensemble. This predominently meditative artform avoids the more modern tabla rhythms and also eschews any other supportive instruments.

A dhrupad presentation (प्रस्तुति)

A dhrupad performance consists of two distinct portions — the alap and following it, the composition. Dhrupad starts with a relaxed alap, an extended melodic improvisation without lyrics or rhythmic accompaniment that is supported only by the tanpura. The percussionist patiently and silently awaits its crescendo.

The alap (आलाप)

The alap aims at realizing the mood and establishing the personality of the raga. This alap has distinct slow, medium, fast tempo (laya) phases — the vilambit, madhya laya and drut / ati-drut. With a customary vocal range of two and a half octaves, the alap usually begins with the tonic of the middle octave at its center. The vocalist first gradually moves to lower notes, eventually exploring the lowest notes of the lower octave, reaching a climactic point at the deep tonic of that octave.

Another dhrupad performance.

Alap is rendered entirely without lyrics in aakar  (आकार — without consonants) form using the aa figure-words and then later using syllables (tom-nom — तोम-नोम) such as ta, te, re, ri, ne, na, tom, nom to articulate the raga melody, establishing the character (the path; dagar — डगर or walk; chalan — चलन) of the raga.

Following exploration of the lower octave, the alap gradually expands to the middle octave. New improvisations add progressively higher notes reaching another climax at the tonic of the highest octave.

This methodical, gradual, progressive ascent and exploration is considered one of the most dramatic aspect of dhrupad alap. Most alap and rhythm (laya-ang — लय अंग) ornamental finesses of dhrupad such as gamak (गमक), kampit (कम्पित), andolit (आंदोलित), dhuran (धुरण), muran (मुरण), lahak (लहक), hudak (हुदक), sphurti (स्फूर्ति) are unique to, or rendered distinctly differently compared to khayal, its closest artform.

The medium tempo (madhya laya — मध्य लय) portion of the alap introduces/unveils a regular rhythm similar to the jor (जोड़) in indian instrumental classical music. With this rhythmic component added, the vocalist continues the exploration of the raga melody in the same octave range covered earlier, but now increasingly emphasizing the central octave. The dramatic effect of ascent and descent becomes more powerful with the added implicit rhythm and more complex note patterns and phrases.

At a suitable point in the medium tempo the rhythm bursts into an even faster pattern — the drut (द्रुत — fast)/ati-drut (अति द्रुत — super fast) laya. This section, similar to the jhala (झाला) in instrumental music is dominated by the rhythmic element with increasingly more complex phrases, and vocal ornamentation (including distinct heavy oscillations — gamaks). Rhythmic patterns now greatly contrast the elegant calm and simplicity of the earlier portions of alap. The alap usually ends with a complete gliding downwards slide through the entire middle octave to end on the tonic around which the alap began.

The Composition (बंदिश अथवा रचना)

Having laid the foundation, alap dissipates and additional rhythmic support of the pakhawaj signals the start of the composition.

मानुस हौं तो वही रसखान, बसौं मिलि गोकुल गाँव के ग्वालन।

manas hon to vohi raskhan, bason mili gokul gaanv ke gvalan.

जो पसु हौं तो कहा बस मेरो, चरौं नित नंद की धेनु मँझारन॥

jo pasu hon to kahan bas mero, charon nit nand ke dhenu majharan.

पाहन हौं तो वही गिरि को, जो धर्यो कर छत्र पुरंदर कारन।

paahan hon to vohi giri ko jo dharyo kar chhatra purandar kaaran.

जो खग हौं तो बसेरो करौं, मिलि कालिंदी कूल कदम्ब की डारन॥

jo khag hon to basero karon mili kalindikool kadamb ki daaran.

A 4 section dhrupad primarily sung today in the dagar tradition signature raga Kambhoji. The raga is distinct from south indian melodies of similar names and is sung only in dhrupad. The lyrics (doha — दोहा) were composed by Syed Ibrahim Ras Khan (1548-1628; Amroha, India), a Muslim poet of Pashtun origins, who used the pen name Raskhan, and was a devotee of Lord Krishna. A plaque at his grave bears the poem today. The lyrics translate as follows: If I were to be reborn a human, let it be one of Krishna’s cowherds. If it will be an animal, let me graze among Nand’s cows. If a stone, let it be on the govardhan at the feet of Krishna. If a bird, then let me live on the banks of the kalindi.

The alap is followed by one or more compositions – a dhrupad, or dhamar – with poetic lyrics and thunderous accompaniment from the pakhawaj single barrel percussion drum. The dhrupad rachna (poetic lyrics) is set to one the distinctive dhrupad taals (rhythm cycles) such as chautaal (चौताल, of a 12 beat cycle), sooltaal (शूलताल, 10 beats), or dhamar (धमार, 14 beats). Dhrupad lyrics most commonly use ten or twelve beats cycles, whereas ones in a faster fourteen beat synonymous taal most often evoking the theme of the water color festival holi are called a dhamar.

A composition rendition begins with a straight forward recital of the fixed composition, often traditional and ancient, and usually consisting of two to four parts (the sthayi, antara, sanchari, and the abhog) from a poetic text. After the first cycle of lyrics recitation, the vocalist adds dramatic improvisation known as bol-bant (word-division) in the following beat cycles. Short phrases from the lyrics are used in increasingly complex and richly syncopated rhythmic patterns, combined with the powerful cross rhythms of the pakhawaj to the conclusion of the recitation.