It would be easy to say that Dhrupad is not made for the impatient. But I think the reverse can often be true – I’ve seen the music’s slow, meditative power exert particular influence on minds that may naturally tend to be in a hurry. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the ancient tradition has enjoyed an online resurgence in the hectic modern world, as listeners from all walks of life are drawn to its tranquility via YouTube in increasing numbers.
Dhrupad’s long, low elaborations tempt you, above all, to focus on the fundamental constituents of sound itself. The music is typically vocal-based, although some performances are led by the seven-stringed, sculptural rudra veena (see both sounds on display in the clip below). Percussion usually comes from the pakhawaj, a deeper, more raw-sounding ancestor of the tabla.
Performances will start with an alap – an unaccompanied introduction where each note is sequentially held against the tanpura’s background drone, colouring the room with the rhythmless tones of the raga to come.
On listening to Dhrupad for the first time, your mind may find itself intuitively searching for a ‘tune’ to latch onto (globally speaking, it’s actually pretty rare to hear music without a melody in the middle…). But the magic is to be found in the actual frequencies themselves – the infinite textures within each note, abuzz with precise vibration and microtonal sruti resonance. You can suspend your ears and mind there, contemplating the immediate sensory present rather than the rush of events in the world around.
However, the music is far from being inherently meek or gentle. You may choose to sit in motionless meditation for much of a Dhrupad performance, but a good concert will still be a very physical experience – the resonations will run through your body as well as your mind.
After all, the idea of nada brahma (‘universe as vibration’) lies at the core of Dhrupad’s mystical roots in Vedic scholarship of millennia past. Close your eyes, and meditate however you feel you want to – though Dhrupad is an exacting, disciplined art to perform, it aims towards catalysing highly personal reflection for those who witness it.
And even the most solemn concerts tend to feature fair doses of bouncing rhythms and virtuosic vocal turns. The focus of the music is never towards flamboyance or extravagance, but louder, denser elements are still used regularly and tastefully, opening up further dimensions of contrast and restraint.
And while certain corners of the genre may sound strange at times, even jarring to some, dhrupadyas would say this is because our modern-age minds have drifted too far from the fundamental basics of human experience. What impulse could be more natural than using the voice to calm the mind? What could be less strange than that?
● Read next: Gopal Shankar Misra and the ‘curious veena’ – profiling a hidden Hindustani hero, and sampling the sounds of his super-rare slide instrument