An Ambedkarite intertwines Buddha’s teachings with the dhrupad in an artistic act of faith
Siñca bhikkhu imaṁ Navaṁ sittā te lahum essati/ chetvā rāgañ ca dosañ ca tato nibbānam ehisi
The boat must be lightened, says the boatman
He can’t take you all, he’s going to capsize.
The Buddha says to throw away your passions and can
Any desire, go light and wise.
This delicious and lyrical call to abandon the ego on the way to nibbana, or nirvana, comes from Dhammapada, a collection of Buddha’s suttas or teachings in verse form. The suttas are far removed from the poetic universe of dhrupad, a genre of classical Hindustani music that is tuned to praises to gods and kings. But S Anand intertwined the two in an artistic leap of faith.
Over the past two years, the Ambedkarite and founder of the Navayana publishing house has explored the possibility of associating suttas with ragas. A student of the faithful dhrupad Wasifuddin Dagar, he wrote raga-sonnets, some on suttas, in an attempt to break away from the traditional body of Hindustani bandits who remain stuck in antiquity.
It’s a personal musical journey for the anti-caste editor, taking place within the confines of his music room, learning sessions with his ustad and recitals with friends.
For Anand, suttas and dhrupad form a homogeneous philosophical unity in both form and content. And this is particularly the case, he says, in the tradition of the Dagarbani, or the Dagar school of dhrupad chanting, where the emphasis is on building the raga in abstraction.
“The raga is an empire of swaras,” he said. “It is also both emptiness, and this for me reflects the idea of shunyata (emptiness) embodied in the Buddha’s suttas. The suttas hold endless possibilities in the Dagarbani tradition where you introspect yourself on many things – how a note is born, where it goes, even how it fades and dies.Tradition teaches you not only the production of a note, but how to let it go.
The dhrupad, considered to be the oldest of all the genres of Hindustani classical music, was born from a poetic tradition of a mainly religious nature and established itself in the 15th century. Its antecedents can be traced back to bhakti song-poem forms such as prabandhas and Bishnupadas.
Given its roots in a poetic tradition – and despite its highly abstract form – dhrupad is more verse-centric than khayal, in which the composition is just a hook to hang a raga from. Its lyrics are divided into four parts which follow an elaborate alap – sthai, antara, sanchari and abhogi. This intense focus on verse, however, has changed considerably in recent times, with most of a recital being taken up by the alap.
As it evolved from its Sansritic core to Brajbhasha and more popular platforms, dhrupad became the preferred musical form of Hindus, Sufis as well as Sikhs. As literary historian Francesca Orsini says in her paper ‘Krishna is the truth of man’, the dhrupad found a “multi-religious audience” in “open” contexts of the genre where religious words and symbols could be interpreted in a variety of ways. For Sufis, the dhrupad was a framework for sama, a state of musical trance and a metaphor for the principles of righteous living. There are also inextricable links between the Gurbani of the Sikhs, its poetic and musical approach, and the dhrupad.
It is in this eclectic mix that Anand wants to bring the suttas. It helps that his ustad is known and admired for his expansive approach to music.
“I find these bowls [words] deeply philosophical and spiritual, often reflecting nature, and they go well with swaroop [form] ragas that Anand uses,” Dagar said. “There are very few new bandish in the dhrupad – we mainly continue to draw from the works of Tansen, Baiju Bawra, Ras Khan, the ashta chhap kavis [eight poets who wrote music for Krishna worship] and Tulsidas. But it is undeniable that the music needs a new breath even if we preserve the old one. The Gundechas, for example, sang Nirala and Kabir. In addition, the upaj [creative path] is the domain of the singer, within the rules of grammar.
Buddhist practices and dhrupad may have met in the distant past. In the 1992 Dhrupad Annual, musicologist Richard Widdess writes about the idea of a Buddhist dhrupad as practiced in the carya (temple rituals) of Nepal. The carya giti (chants) or padas, discovered in an 11th-century manuscript, were mystical chant texts related to Buddhist doctrines and attributed to specific ragas. “Caryā can therefore be considered as one of the forerunners of the later classical dhrupad; indeed a writer [Emmie Te Nijenhuis] called the caryā chants “the earliest specimens of dhrupads that have come down to us up to the present time”, explains Widdess.
Anand’s work on raga sonnets comes after a long period of engagement with Indian classical, Hindustani as well as Carnatic music. He remembers being discouraged by the Carnatic landscape, “all the baggage of Brahmanism and the hegemony of Thyagaraja and the trinity in Carnatic”. “It’s good music, but the verses themselves often lack poetry and revel in cliches and namavalis – related names in the case of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastri,” he said.
After moving to Delhi in 2007, Anand became close to Hindustani music and Kabir through filmmaker Shabnam Virmani Kabir Project. He remained, he says, “an autodidact of sorts, unwittingly blending Dhrupad with Carnatic, Khyal and bhakti sangeet”. But it was the dhrupad, where a raga could be explored for over an hour like a formless alaap, that appealed to him the most.
Anand finally approached Wasifuddin Dagar in 2018, after hearing his annual Muharram session, Unveiling of Tanpuras. “The atmosphere moved me to tears,” he recalls. “I realized that I had found my guru.”
The suttas he sings are taken from various compilations: from the 82 sayings of the Udanavarga (a collection of “inspired words”), he sings the Tithha Sutta, known as the parable of the five blind men and the elephant, in raga Shree. Imesu kira sajjanti eke samanotabrahmahnotto/viggayha naṁ vivadanti janā ekanotgadassino’ ti (O how they cling and argue, some who claim / For preacher and monk the honored name! / For, quarreling, each to his point of view they cling. Such people see only one side of ‘a thing.)
Set in the highly regarded Bhairavi, there is a transcendence sutta of all Bahiya Sutta binaries. Yattha apo ca paṭhavī /tejo vāyo na gādhati/na tattha sukkā jotanti/ādicco nappakāsati/na tattha candimā bhāti/tamo tattha na vijjati. Yadā ca attanāvedi/muni monena brāhmanoto/atha rūpā arūpā ca, sukhadukkhā pamuccati (Where water, earth, fire and wind have no foothold: There the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible, the moon does not appear, darkness is not not found. And when a sage, a Brahmin by sagacity, knew [this] for himself, then from form and formlessness, from bliss and pain, he is liberated.)
“The lyric – a bandish, a poem, a sutta – is a container or a structure,” Anand said. “It is up to us to fill it and shape it. Of course, each raga has its own grammar and there are rules. But I don’t believe in the notion of “purity” cited so often in classical music. Khamaj raga, for example, is called kshudra prakriti raga [petty and non-serious as opposed to deep]. And there are great artists who seek to convert a Muslim-sounding raga like Jaunpuri – because it is attributed to Sultan Hussain Sharqi of Jaunpur – into Sanskrit “Jeevanpuri” and so on. But the ragas, even when created by little humans, are above hierarchies and the Brahmanical classificatory impulse around purity – the impurity that caste creates.
Why not then delve into the voices of the past that are truly timeless and universal, relevant to today’s politics and culture?
“Buddha, Kabir, or the many abhangs in Marathi, the vachannas in Kannada or the cryptic verses of Thirukkural which speak of life, death and daily truths,” he said. “There are so many good secular poems in the many South Asian languages that can be sung in Raga. If I sing something that is over 2000 years old today, am I not more traditional? The parampara of the ragas is for me really modern because I am modern. My practice is influenced by Ambedkar who led me to both Kabir and Buddha.
Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.