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Ten Questions For Dhrupadiya Pandit Nirmalya Dey

Shuchita Rao

Vocalist Pandit Nirmalya Dey, the illustrious disciple of the renowned Dhrupadiya, Padmashree late Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar (who taught Pandits Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha, Professor Ritwik Sanyal, Pandit Uday Bhawalkar and many others) will be visiting Boston in June and performing at 125 Prospect St. in Framingham on Sunday, June 12 at 4pm, in association with LearnQuest.  Pandit Dey has won many awards and is a TOP grade artist of All India Radio. He will be accompanied on the pakhawaj by the reputed player, Pandit Mohan Shyam Sharma. (Listeners interested in the concert and students interested in attending a separate workshop with the musicians may contact the organizer at rudi.seitz@gmail.com for more information.) Here are excerpts of an interview with Pandit Dey.

Q1. Please tell us about your childhood and your family.

A.      I was born in Guwahati, Assam and raised in Kolkatta. My mother was a singer who sang Bengali songs for the radio in Kolkatta. She inspired me to learn music, specifically the Dhrupad genre of Hindustani music. I started learning music at a young age and initially studied Dhrupad with Prof. Nimaichand Boral, who was a disciple of Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Khan Dagar. While living in Kolkata till 1987, I had the opportunity to listen to live Dhrupad performances by several members of the Dagar family such as Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar and Ustad Husseinuddin Dagar, Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar in addition to listening to music on the radio. In terms of college education, I studied business and worked as a Cost Accountant for multi-national firms for a few years. Ultimately I turned to a career in performing and teaching Dhrupad because it was my calling.

Q2.  What fascinates you about the Dhrupad genre of music?

A.      The Dhrupad genre possesses all the elements of classical art and is well documented in our ancient treatises on music such as the Sangeeta Ratnakara.  For instance, nuances of Dhrupad music, embellishments of tone, principles of improvisation and the process of how an alaap movement in Dhrupad should start, proceed and end are all described in the text. I learned the practical aspects of singing Dhrupad before I discovered that the source of the elements of the Dhrupad can be traced back to our ancient Sanskrit texts. This tie-back of the practical aspects of Dhrupad to ancient texts and the fact that traditional masters teach all that is mentioned in the texts is what I found fascinating about the Dhrupad genre of music.

Q3. Do you feel that one needs a certain type of temperament as a person to study and sing Dhrupad?

A.      I do not believe that a specific musical temperament is needed to study and sing Dhrupad. A basic musical aptitude is necessary and the ability to listen, appreciate and understand Dhrupad is helpful. Dhrupad cannot be learned and mastered in a few days because it is not about just learning a few key phrases from a teacher and reproducing them. It takes time to learn to sing, to contemplate about the discipline and to develop an individual understanding and approach.

Q4. Do you sing other genres such as Khayal, Thumri, and Tarana etc?

A.      I appreciate khayal genre but sing Dhrupad. If one wants to learn Hindustani music, one must study the khayal and other genres of Hindustani music in addition to Dhrupad. I had once applied for a Master’s degree of music program at Khairagarh University and met the registrar to discuss my application. He told me “You can certainly work towards a Masters program in vocal music – you cannot earn a Master’s degree only in Dhrupad.”

Q5. When did you start learning from Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar Sahib? Tell us a little about that journey.

A.      I was singing Dhrupad professionally since 1979. In the year 1988, I left Kolkatta and moved to Bhopal to learn under Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar. He was the Guru (the master) at the Bhopal Dhrupad Kendra at that time. He listened to me for ten minutes and told me I would have to start learning from zero all over again because my “vani” is not correct.  I learned privately from Ustadji for twenty six years.

Q6. What kind of techniques for riyaaz (daily practice) do you follow in daily life?

A.      I practice Kharaj saadhana (tonic sa note) and musical notes in the lower octave in the early morning. After the sunrise, I take a short break and do faster movements in ascent and descending scales during the day. I follow that with raga exploration doing slow alaap, medium tempo alaap, fast tempo alaap and sing compositions. Then comes riyaaz of improvisation with rhythm. I end up with four to five hours of riyaaz unless I am traveling.

Q7.  The possibilities for improvisation in a raga can be extensive. The journey from one note to another can be varied and deep, touching multiple micro-tones. What is the guiding principle of how deep to go into the exploration?

A.      Good question. In Dagar Vani, we do swar-vistaar (exposition of tones) in such a way that the ambience of the raga can be felt by the performer and listeners. In fact, we do not say that we are performing a raga. We say we are trying to experience the raga. The raga stays the same but how we experience it from time to time is different. If the pathway between the notes is wrong, the raga will be lost. We contemplate on the tonal embellishments needed in moving from one musical note to another. We sing in a manner that preserves the mood of the raga.

Q8.  Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, the elder brother of Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar was a Rudra Vina exponent in addition to being a Dhrupadiya. Were you ever interested in learning to play the Vina or the Pakhawaj?

A.      I learned the basics of how to give a theka on the pakhawaj instrument but did not learn how to play stringed instruments. I concentrated on singing Dhrupad. I have given several jugalbandi performances with Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, son of late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar.

Q9.  What is your opinion on Western instruments such as saxophone and silver flute being able to play Dhrupad?

A.      The Western scale is tempered and different from our approach of dealing with the tones. None of the seven tones is fixed as per the principle of Dagarvani tradition. Their tonal positions are varied to create the befitting melodic sentences in order to establish the Raga. The tradition of Occidental music does not have a system of tonal variation. Rag is not just the scale or combination of tones, and I doubt that Western musicians can comprehend about the tonal variations made to create the right mood and ambiance of a particular Raga. They are able to sustain notes but not to slide between notes. Application of intonation (Swara Kaku) is an essential element of Dhrupad tradition for creating the tonal shades and that may prove to be difficult for a Western musician.

Q10. You perform and teach Dhrupad actively. What future do you see for your students and Dhrupad?

A.      Dhrupad is an exclusive art form. Now that there is no royal patronage, the government must do its part to support artists who devote their life to learning and practicing Dhrupad. The state of Madhya Pradesh runs two Dhrupad Gurukuls and there is also Dhrupad Sansthaan as well as other institutions promoting Dhrupad in that state. I feel that every state should support at least one music academy. Look at the life of an aspiring Dhrupad musician. There are many uncertainties. First, he/she must listen to good music to get inspired. Then, he/she must learn and pursue the art form devoting all their time to it. At the end of it, it is difficult to predict if the performer will be a successful one and secure a livelihood from its pursuit. I am doing my best to put forth what I learned from my teachers and what I have realized through my own efforts in the pursuit of Dhrupad. We need the support of the government and community organizations to keep up our efforts and to nurture future generations of musicians. 

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