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The House of Dagar: An abiding pledge to the beauty of dhrupad (PAWANPREET KAUR , THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN, 6 May 2012)

Wasifuddin Dagar, one of the few remaining forebearers of dhrupad, talks to Pawanpreet Kaur about the musical form, his wonder years cocooned in music and the shrinking relevance of a cultural heritage in a world that is too eager to forget.

The Dagar family is to Indian classical music what the Bach family is to Western classical. With over 500 years and 20 unbroken generations of seasoned musicians, the name Dagar has come to be synonymous with dhrupad, one of the oldest surviving forms of classical vocal music in India. Characterised by a leisurely and supple style, Dagarvani (Dagar style) has upheld the integrity of its musical inheritance, never compromising the purity of a raga at the altar of showmanship.

Wasifuddin Dagar, one of the few remaining bearers of the Dagar legacy, explains that dhrupad is akin to a form of worship, one in which offerings are made through sound. "The word dhrupad comes from dhruva (fixed) and pada (words). Backed by intricate grammar and compositional aesthetics, it embraces a whole gamut of human emotions and is therefore simultaneously meditation and art," he says. Dhrupad is also the copious source from which other musical forms such as khayal, thumri, tappa, ghazal and so on sprang forth.

The Dagars, he explains, claim lineage from Swami Haridas, a renowned singer at Emperor Akbar's court. But it was Baba Behram Khan who in the 19th Century gave the Dagar tradition its present form and passed it on to his nephew's sons, Ustad Zakiruddin Khan and Allabande Khan. The brothers' eight grandsons brought Dagarvani into the 20th Century, spreading its musical notes all across the Northern plains. "With the loss of royal patronage post-Independence, doomsayers said dhrupad was going to die. But our family preserved this classical art and their influence grew to such stature in the musical world that they were referred to as the Dagar Saptak or the seven series of musical notes," smiles Dagar, who was awarded a Padam Shri in 2010.

In its pursuit of experiential knowledge, Dagarvani modelled itself on the guru-shishya tradition, seeking to achieve the twin goals of instruction and character building. "One does not become a musician by simply being born into a music family," says Dagar, adding that a child will naturally respond to music, but it is up to the teacher to inject into students the desire to learn more. "Luckily for me, I was trained by my father Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar and my uncle N. Zahiruddin Dagar, the junior Dagar brothers, and their lessons were so interesting that I used to wait for the lessons rather than being dragged to them," he says.

Film music was never encouraged at home but in the ’70s and ’80s there was simply no escaping it. And so, while the women in our household would listen to film music on radio, my father and uncles’ rooms were soundproofed, to prevent film sounds from invading their space.

The atmosphere at home, nestled in the green tranquillity of the Asian Games Village in the Capital, resounded with music, brimming with eclectic influences of musicians, artists, poets, students and connoisseurs. "My father and uncle ensured that we received more than just training. They encouraged a lifestyle in which we would learn to see arts as the great mirror of life," he recalls. True devotees of their craft, the duo encouraged foray into other arts, but upheld the sanctity of their musical tradition. Recalls Dagar, "For example, film music was never encouraged at home but in the '70s and '80s there was simply no escaping it. And so, while the women in our household would listen to film music on radio, my father and uncles' rooms were soundproofed, to prevent film sounds from invading their space."

And it was this single-minded devotion to an unmatched inheritance of music that kept the younger lot emotionally bound to their legacy. So while the maestro had fleeting love affairs with things outside music, he never lost sight of his family's rich tradition. "I was listening to dhrupad even before I was born! Like any other youngster, at one point I was enamoured with the charms of photography and cricket but I just couldn't think of anything else long enough to move away from my music," he chuckles.

Seeing his gurus on close quarters, Dagar realised early on that an artist's life and temperament manifests itself in his art. "My uncle Zahiruddin sahib, was energetic yet moody whereas my father Ustad Faiyazuddin, was a mild-tempered man, much more accommodating," he says. These traits reflected in their music, apparent even in their famed jugalbandis. "Uncle's voice was dynamic – sonorous, powerful, whereas my father was supple and adopted a measured pace in his music," adds Dagar. And despite their statures, these musical colossuses never once exhibited egoistic pulls and pushes common to the world of music, on or off stage. "They were kindred spirits, exactly on stage as they were off it. They were brothers not just in blood, but in their spirits too."

To be a classical musician in an era of cultural abandonment is a struggle in itself. For dhrupadiyas, however, this was a struggle of epic proportions. "People, including musicians, considered dhrupad to be rigid and inflexible but it is simply constant, gushing in a regular, continuous flow. One cannot enjoy music wrapped up in five-minute packages and our family was determined to fight these odds," says Dagar.

Sadly, his father's demise in 1989 came at a time when, after years of personal and professional struggle, dhrupad was rekindled in the public heart and memory. "My father's sudden demise shocked us all, but it was most importantly, a huge loss to music and to dhrupad lovers," he recalls. Less than a fortnight later, a 20-year-old Wasifuddin was asked by his uncle to give his first public performance with him. "No one had seen my uncle perform without my father but he thought a jugalbandi would be the perfect homage to his partner. Though I was apprehensive, my uncle had faith in me," recalls the 45-year-old. Breaking away from the 'brothers-duo' tradition, the uncle-nephew then took to performing together, captivating audiences throughout the world. After his uncle's demise in 1994, however, the young Dagar scion decided to carry on his musical tradition in solo. "When you sing with someone, you have to understand a lot of things – coordination, adjustments, your partner's mood and his nature. I've seen at very close quarters how painful the death of a partner can be and have adjusted well to the mechanics of solo performances," says the musician, who is known for infusing both his father's and his uncle's style in his recitals, lacing his solos with the delightful flavours of jugalbandi.

Like his gurus, Dagar has shown relentless commitment to the cause dhrupad. He not only trains students dedicated to the dhrupad tradition but also collaborates with leading cultural and music institutions the world over to propagate his music through recordings and performances. As president of the Dhrupad Society and Dagar Brothers Memorial Trust, he coordinates the organisation of recitals and commemoration of the Dagar legacy, such as homage to his uncle Ustad N. Zahiruddin Khan, which is being held at India International Centre on 7 May. "The public needs to understand that the world of classical music is part of their culture. And I just want to relax the spines of connoisseurs, who take dhrupad a bit too seriously. They need to understand that a raga is a personality in itself and it varies according to people's understanding of it," he says.

So while carping critics and over-zealous aficionados spar over its relevance today, dhrupadiyas are now articulating the twin-needs of better documentation and active patronage. "There is not a single book on the Dagar family and though I've been working on one for the past eight years, it hasn't yet seen the light of day because my publishers seem a little unenthusiastic." Dhrupad exponents, he feels, should be given more opportunities to present their art, "And who is a better patron than the public," he opines.



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