Portrait of an artists’ community: The Dhrupad Gurukul

The Guest Post Series on “My Favourite Things” has contributions by those sharing my interests in travel, books, music, and on issues that I am passionate about. These posts are not always by fellow bloggers, and the authors are always those who have interesting experiences to share.

Today’s guest post is by Ajinkya, who writes about the challenges that the guru shishya parampara faces in contemporary times. He is a student of Dhrupad and learns at the Dhrupad Gurukul in Palaspe, Panvel. The Gurukul is run by the legendary vocalist, Ustad Zia Farid-uddin Dagar, and his illustrious rudra veena playing nephew, Bahauddin Dagar.

“Alap entails the search to get the most perfect pitch of every note….”
                                                               –  Ustad Zia Farid-uddin Dagar

It is 4:30 am.

The trucks low through the thick of an outskirt town’s sleepy oblivion. Somewhere, a chai wallah starts to wash his vessels and the clank of his kettle dissolves noiselessly into the tired rattle of bus tires and bumpers coughing though the dusty highway. Hidden away on the side of the road is a small cluster of houses lost somewhere in the limbo between Bombay cityscream and the undisturbed solace of Palaspe village. A tramp wraps his newspaper a little more tightly around his skeletal frame and huddles into a ball. Mosquitoes circle his body like vultures hankering for a dying man’s last sigh. The dim darklight of a morning taking angdai falls lazily on a dilapidated board saying “Dhrupad Gurukul”.

The D hangs half lit like a symptom of an era. The same old debates circling around the romance of a lost time and the preservation of an art come to one’s mind. Scratching away at the surface of recycled intellectual trash these irrelevant speculations are quickly forgotten as one approaches the gurukul.

The air is still. The slow elegant ripples of the tanpura foreground a deep male voice falling gently down the well of the saptak and resting gently on the kharaj shadja. A student is doing his riyaaz. The dogs, by now used to the unusual ways of the Dagars and their shagird, lie quietly listening. They snicker to themselves as the student falls asleep and his note slips like a taut rope suddenly snapped mid sigh; dangling aimlessly. His guru is not there to watch him as he surreptitiously tries to catch a few winks.

Indeed the guru is not always there to watch. The shishya is one immersed in the mahaul of the gurukul; sometimes even a mere spectator in the mehfil — but a silent and watchful one. He can choose whether he wants to flow in the current of his Ustad’s passionate surrender or get caught in the foliage of uncertainty, unable to move.

As a form, Dhrupad is said to be one of the most meditative kinds of classical music. My favourite metaphor to try and describe it’s special place in the spectrum of music and ras is that of music and vices; that if music was to be compared with the ‘vices’ then Dhrupad would have been the joint — the charas. It’s a different experience altogether!

The Guru Shishya mode of pedagogy is not simple. Learning is slow and measured. The student is ever alert, the teacher omniscient. He is doused in supreme indifference and timely wisdom. And Music is a gift.

As I watch my guru bhai practising, I contemplate the particular location of this site — the Dhrupad Gurukul — a page torn out of the diary of another world and thrust into the garbage that is today’s existence. It is almost a capsule, a glimpse of romance and nostalgia trying to survive the heat of chaos-driven existences, petty financial pursuits, a city caught in transit — bursting at the seams, ready to implode. It is as if the Dagars have quietly put a foot into reality’s door and are letting a sliver of art and history slant towards the dark basement that is today’s world.

This small one-storey building holds within its confines a community of artists and rasikas at the edge of the urban sprawl like the curiously colourful fungus that lodges itself on the end of a wet branch — slightly different and parasitic to the untrained gaze but still beautiful. Truly, the Bombay Dagars and their shagird are a funny lot — doused in their music they slowly oscillate between functional reality and the transformative experience that is Dhrupad. Here you will find the deep sonority of the rudra veena strings making way for a Jet Li action movie; a student’s riyaaz drowned by an animated conversation taking place about the ills of the UPA government (over a cup of chai and Shibhu’s steaming pav vada).

The Gurukul becomes a site of dual tendencies — a strange mix of the contemporary and the timeless; and the fusion is sometimes harmonious, difficult, downright funny but not always pleasant. The act of knowledge transfer — the creation of a shishya, the evolution of a child into a dhrupadiya is a slow, gradual process. The epiphanic moment of artistic abandon and Blakelike Truth is elusive. Setting out in search of it is like waiting under a tree for the mango to fall. It emerges in the gradual immersion of the student into music and the life it brings along with it. Yet, it can envelop the shishya so suddenly that he  cannot but surrender to the taste of Dhrupad and the dhrupadiya’s way of life.

Family and students gathered together on the occasion of Ustad Farid-uddin Dagar's birthday

Students of every kind come to the Gurukul. There is the “part-time” student, the “hobby” student, the “tuition” student (who comes in once or twice a week, as opposed to staying in the gurukul) the “foren” student who comes in once or twice a year for short durations, the student who learns only to learn and not to perform, the “full-time” student, and even the “full time pass” student ! The Shishyas often try to negotiate day jobs, or other gigs along with their passion. It is a place where students go in and out and let themselves be carried by the tide of the music and yet live in the “real world”. There are those who spend most of their time in the Gurukul — they are the “full-time students” who have decided to give their lives completely to the art.

The Dagars walk that tightrope between commercialisation, the gallery and their art. They negotiate their way through it and end up on the other side tottering. Still, they go on without compromise. Indeed, sometimes, I find it hard to believe that a site such as this exists at all!


17 thoughts on “Portrait of an artists’ community: The Dhrupad Gurukul

  1. I would like to add two more categories of students (who may not necessarily visit your Gurukal). The first are what I call the “festival” students 🙂 Students who come learn music when festivals are around the corner. I know of people who approach a music teacher to learn Tyagaraja’s Pancharatna Kritis before the annual music festival dedicated to him is held. Or those who learn the Tirrupavai or Tiruvambavai before navratri ! The second category are the skype students. I really wonder how the teaching–learning sessions are conducted over the net with voice distortion, time lag, etc. To each his/her own I guess.

    One keeps reading that the guru shishya parampara or pedagogy as under threat all the time. I prefer to think that it is changing and evolving to keep up with the way our world is changing. No matter what, as long as there are dedicated gurus, as there will be students—all kinds of students.


    1. Interesting that you mention the ‘festival’ students. Sounds a lot like the students who start doing homework just one day before a visiting faculty comes back to take class. Earlier when I was in Bangalore and my guru would come there to teach us once a month – this phenomenon would be quite the trend in terms of riyazh. But that was a different kind of learning. I don’t know how seriously we took the music then.
      About skype classes, even I’m quite skeptical. Especially with dhrupad, one can’t EVER compare a live performance or class with its virtual counterpart. The sheer corporeality of the form and its performance, the capacity to affect it has can never be conveyed. This, I believe comes in the way of understanding and even learning. My impressions, for instance, when I listen to a concert live are very different from when I hear a recording. The recorded experience is not a fraction as transformative as the live one. However, you never know, this might become a popular practice (though we don’t have skype classes yet). Skype classes may also mean a different class of students and this means money also comes in to the art – which is necessary. The community just about manages to sustain itself without any aid. Moreover, the commercial circuit is not something exploited by these performers. After all making money has a dubious relationship with diluting or ompromising on one’s art, and playing to the gallery is one thing the Chembur Dagars’ community will never do. We need something for rozi roti no? So maybe in retrospect (and for very different reasons) I wouldn’t be completely against skype classes 🙂 Thankyou for the insights!


  2. interesting post and very nicely written. I sometimes wonder if the romance of the Gurukul system is a bit overrated. when i was learning dance, i would ask questions like ‘why are we doing this or that?” and one of my teachers would say, ‘ dont ask. just do.’ she was asking me to defer to her better judgment. As a student, i found this extremely frustrating.

    But eventually i understood, that somethings cannot be explained and have to be felt. and it was precisely these kinds of things that she would respond to with ‘dont ask. just do’ . even so, the frustration as a student continues and I think it takes a certain personality type to stick with the traditional guru-shishya system.


    1. Hey. I know where you are coming from. As a student, I’ve dealt with these concerns. I’ve been there for quite a while now (for long periods as well as intermittently, but i;ve stuck with it. In fact, as an independant researcher I’m looking at this context and the question of ‘learning within a tradition’. My attempt there is to move away from both approaches I have encountered in accounts of the guru shishya- the romanticised as well as the school whcich calls it feudal – looking at the teacher -patriarch – student -slave sort of paradigm. I’m looking at the gurukul and the guru shishya through the lens of the mundane – the everyday. I’m getting down to the brass tacks – the earth of this system. it’s true what you say – the nostalgia of a lost era often foregrounds this kind of learning. However – this is not the ‘traditional’ guru shishya learning style – the teachers, students, larger community and the space itself represent a re invention. a phenomenon in transition. this is what I propose.
      About the frustration I know EXACTLY what you mean. But there is a lot to say about this – the discourse of boundaries, questioning the guru, the different subjectivities that the student inhabits at various points – the value of staying with something for a long time (I have stayed with only one or two phrases of alaap for three to six months at a time. Students learn only one raag for years) these are topics for much discussiion. I can share my work etc. if you’re interested.
      About romanticising it’s true – put it down to my lit background and my extravagant pseudo lyrical style. Also this is only a vignette. For a larger piece (which I am working on for a diff. kind of space) I intend to engage some of the issues which you refer to employing a critical and even detached (to some extent – if that is possible) gaze.
      Incidentally, I think we might have met. I am a friend of ayun’s – there was a coffee making incident whih she alleges your mum remembers. 🙂


      1. I did suspect you were Ayun’s friend Ajinkya ( what are the chances of more than one Ajinkya in Bombay learning Dhrupad!) I remember meeting you at JanFest when I, very officiously, told you that i spotted someone directing a camera at one of the artists. It turned out to be some diabetes machine or something!

        Your work sounds super interesting and I would love to hear more. I think that though most people scoff at blind discipline, it is a prerequisite to exploring the depths of any art form. I would love to hear what you have learnt in your explorations.


        1. Hahaha. That was when I was a volunteer at janfest. I volunteered so I could listen to the music up close without paying! Anyway, i’ve not gone back since then.
          My work is very interesting! I don;t know about the quality, but I enjoy it (not as much as the actual practice but still). Maybe when the final manuscript is ready I can share it with you and we can talk about the frustrations and travails of students universally 🙂 Cheers!


  3. Great idea, inviting a guest to write on your blog. I thoroughly loved this post. For this once, lets leave critiques of the guru-shishya parampar aside, and just let the primeval notes of dhrupad overwhelm you. I could almost feel them as I read this.Good work, Ajinkya.


  4. I liked the description and no attempt to translate those words into English, which would be meaningless unless one understood the parampara. However, Ajinkya, I felt the post was rather small and much more could have been added for us to get a better glimpse of the life of a gurukul.


    1. Thankyou ‘sunbyanyname’; and for your feedback. I uderstand the feeling of incompleteness. In fact I felt that way too when I read it over. But then, the post was short partly by design and partly because it is a work under construction and there are other irrelevant reasons. For the purpose of this blog post, I let it be that way. It is meant as a vignette – a little window into the world that the ‘Chembur Dagars’ an the community formed around them inhabits. As I told Sumanya, I am an independent researcher (while being a student of music) attempting to look critically at this tradition. I have, therefore done more work on the subject and would love to share further writings. Maybe I could resurrect my own blog and put it there. (I am not ‘regular blogger’). While being in initially introspective (this piece was not originally in prose form), the purpose of the blogpost was also to generate interest and draw people’s attention to such a space – almost forgotten to the collective imagination. If it has done that much for now, than it’s good. maybe there’s more coming 🙂


  5. Enjoyed reading, Reminded me of the days I spent in my vilalge school and then in Hostel at a reputable public school.
    The love and care and Fear we had of our teachers or Gurus , the respect we had for them.. The looking forwrd to hearing those words from him/her just saying well done to us .. meant a lot.

    I think with advent of technology all this is being lost .. and teachers/gurus are not what or how they used to be ..

    Nice to read just a lovely note on this gurukul where tradition -culture is still being followed along with the technological advances ..

    On a funny side I was a OUTSTANDING student , oh yes I was .. alsways STANDING OUT of the class 🙂


    1. This system does have parallels with several other kinds of pedagogic systems and cannot tbe encompassed by one single framework. Thus we are reminded of the village school, the apprenticeship tradition, the mystical tradition etc. The soul of the educational system in this context is what I am interested in, however. I am glad it reminded you of your own schooling. thankyou for your feedback 🙂


  6. Thanks Ajinkya and thanks Sudha for this wonderful glimpse into a world that I can only imagine. For people far away like me, “lives immersed in art” are romantic fantasies, but still I am a little surprized by the dark tones of the writing and despaired-decaying images that it creates ..


    1. It is true that there are some dark images that leave a different taste. If you are talking about the descriptions then that is my own state of mind. Of course all darkness does not imply a deppresive state. There is a beauty in sorrow. Asavari for instance is a beautiful bgut sorrowful raag.
      on another note, the music itself is what transforms one to the level of the utmost ecstasy. The place of this music, it’s practitioners and lovers, however, in society and in a cultural context is what draws strands of sorrow. Even the financial condition and the way the tradition manages to somehow sustain itself is part of the cause for worry. What one can marvel at, though, as I say in the piece, is that despite everything the community carries on dreamily. lost in the art. with one leg placed (not too firmly) in the functional universe.
      Is it not unique?


  7. Am so keen to understand what is going on on dhrupad scene. Please tell me who are the Chembur Dagars? And who are the not Chembur Dagars? Names please and tell me what is the difference between them. Is it in the style of teaching or performing? Or any other approach to life and art? Where are the other non Chembur Dagars? Ange


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