The Gundecha Brothers: Promoting the Indian Tradition of Dhrupad


interviewed by Bill Witherspoon

The Gundecha Brothers practice

The Gundecha Brothers, Umakant, Ramakant, and Akhilesh, are preeminent performers and teachers of the ancient classical music of India called Dhrupad. The brothers will be in Fairfield teaching a workshop on June 17 and performing on June 18. Bill Witherspoon recently spoke with Umakant and Ramakant to find out more about Dhrupad

Bill Witherspoon: What is Dhrupad music like?
Umakant Gundecha: Dhrupad is something like your Gregorian chant. It is primarily temple music and has a meditative quality in its structure and presentation.

BW: Could you give an example of a structural element that would contribute to the inner or meditative experience?
Ramakant Gundecha: One example is the Alap. Alap takes you to a different level of consciousness. Alap is not just a tune of the raga, a sequence of notes. It is a kind of exploration of the notes and their meditative qualities. Alap uses meaningless syllables, so it is a kind of pure music and that allows you to contemplate the sound. In other styles Alap is not developed with such prominence.

BW: What is the role of silence in Dhrupad, and how does silence relate to tuning?
UG: Silence has a very important role because in silence you hear the tanpura.  Tanpura generates the raga without singing it. I mean, in silence the tanpura automatically sings the raga. When you hear the tanpura, it sings the raga with you.  Though the tanpura is based only on two strings and has a drone effect, it provides the whole spectrum of the raga.

BW: So the tanpura represents the first expression of sound from pure silence and contains the entire raga in seed form. In terms of the experience of the listener, and the performer, is it correct to say that the goal of Dhrupad is an exploration of sound, which can lead to the doorstep of no sound, to silence? 
RG: Yes, it leads to both levels of silence, speechlessness and meaninglessness. Because, as I told you, the aim of the singer and the listener is to get to a higher level of consciousness, where you are sunk into the position where there is no sound, no meaning, no world. That is beyond worldly meaningfulness.  Thoughtlessness. Where you get rid of all distinctions: good, bad, nice, not nice.  You go beyond this. And that is expressionless—you cannot express it. So it’s a journey from colorfulness to colorlessness.

BW: Given the fact that Dhrupad is centuries old, what is its attraction to the modern person?
RG: This is a very important question.  Dhrupad is very contemporary, very much an element of the present. This is because it’s not rigid; there is no fixed sequence or notes that always remain the same every time you sing. In Dhrupad, the ragas are very open and spontaneous, improvised, and contemporary. Because of improvisation, whenever you perform any raga it becomes an expression of that very moment, of that very present. So it’s centuries old but at the same time contemporary, immediate.

BW: Does the audience influence the improvisation?
UG: Since Dhrupad is improvisational and in the moment, the audience has an important role in making the music.  Because if the performer gets good waves, good appreciation from the audience, it gives him more energy to get deeper into his creation.

BW: So serious and refined listeners are part of the collaboration between performer and audience.
RG: Yes, that’s why in the Indian tradition there is a custom to appreciate the singer during the concert. This is opposite to the Western system, where you clap at the end and keep silence during the concert—which also helps a lot—but in Indian music, as soon as you like something, you don’t clap but you say, “Ah! Ah!” This expresses the deep happiness from your heart.

BW: What are the characteristics of the ideal listener?
RG: What I think is that the characteristic of a listener is to listen with a great focus, very carefully. That is important.  With great attention is most important. It is not necessary for an audience to be learned about Dhrupad or about Indian classical music. Music is not a matter of understanding but feeling. You should be ready to feel from the core of heart.

BW: What would you want an attentive listener to experience?
RG: I cannot say about the audience, and I cannot dictate that the audience should feel like this or that, but what I feel after singing is that the bliss, the joy, is present. And as I have experienced in many of our concerts, people say that after hearing Dhrupad they are taken to a higher level of consciousness, are transported somewhere else. This is the most common and frequent reaction. So I think that there must be something in it, because a lot of people say this. This is the power of Dhrupad.

The Gundecha Brothers’ June 17 workshop and June 18, 2010, performance will be held at ICON Gallery. For details, call (641) 455-6436.

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