Hours before his concert this month for students of The Shri Ram School, Delhi, rudra veena exponent Bahauddin Dagar makes it clear that he does not play rhymes or familiar songs when performing for children — unlike a few classical musicians who do so to make their musical form accessible. “That’s no way of generating interest. They may doze off tomorrow with my music. But the next time they see a rudra veena, they’ll know this instrument,” says 48-year-old Bahauddin. Children, he says, are better listeners and ask better questions. He is less patient with adults. “I cannot field questions like what is your favourite raga,” he says with a wry laugh.
When we meet him at Spicmacay Foundation chairperson Rashmi Malik’s residence in Delhi, Bahauddin is dressed in an off-white kurta pyjama, with his hair combed back neatly and tied. He begins by saying that he was hesitant when Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman approached him earlier this year to be a part of Harmony with AR Rahman, a five-part Amazon Prime series hosted by Rahman and featuring a different musician in each episode. “I didn’t have much idea about what this show could or could not do, or if rudra veena and Rahman’s electronic fingerboard could ever find common ground,” says Bahauddin. He eventually warmed up to the concept of the show and even collaborated with him for a piece. “Here was someone who was trying to connect with the common people. Most do not know the difference between a guitar and a veena. This show may have helped people to know that there is something called a rudra veena. To me, even that is enough,” says Bahauddin, who often gets asked the difference between a rudra veena and “the original veena” — the Saraswati veena, which is popular because of its association with the goddess. “The rudra veena belonged to the Diwan-e-Khas (hall of private audiences) — just about 25 people would listen to it. Now, it’s available for the masses, too, through various festivals and YouTube,” he says.
Despite a surname that has become synonymous with dhrupad, Bahauddin stays away from the spotlight, performing at a handful of concerts only. His recent Spicmacay concerts — six back-to-back concerts over six days in Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Yamunanagar, Saharanpur, Delhi and Ghaziabad, are a rarity, says Bahauddin, whose command over the deep notes of the ancient string instrument has made him one of the finest dhrupad musicians in the country.
Dhrupad has always found fewer takers compared to the more popular khayal and thumri. The slow unfolding of the alaap at the start, the absence of poetry or bandish, or that of taans and sargams have not helped its cause. It is slow, austere and an invocation. “Many a time, people know of a raag through a bandish. If it’s Ari eri aali, they say it’s Yaman (night raga, often taught to beginners in Hindustani classical music). They do not know what Yaman is but they do know that this poetry belongs there. Dhrupad does not have that identity, but it does not bother me,” says Bahauddin.
The Dagars’ dhrupad tradition traces its history back to Baba Gopal Das Pandey, father of Ustad Behram Khan — known to be the pioneer of the Dagar musical gharana. The story goes, the then Mughal ruler in Delhi, Muhammad Shah Rangila once offered a paan to Gopal Das, which he accepted. As a result, he was ostracised by the Brahmin community and later converted. Today, the Dagars remain the oldest family practising dhrupad, popularised by the much revered senior Dagar brothers — Nasir Moinuddin Dagar and Aminuddin Dagar, uncles to Bahauddin.
Dhrupad is usually associated with vocal music, but in the Dagar tradition, beenkars (veena performers) acquired significance, too. Much of that credit belongs to Bahauddin’s father, Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, or ZM Dagar, who modified and redesigned the rudra veena. An ancient instrument, dating back to lord Shiva in many lores, the rudra veena was, traditionally, not played in public and used by the vocalists, instead, to practise melodies. Zia Mohiuddin modified the structure by enlarging the tumbas (guards) and the hollow neck, and made the instrument much larger for better resonance. Created by the famed instrument maker Kanhai Lal sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, it weighed 10 kg by the time it was ready for use.
Bahauddin began, however, by learning the sitar from his mother, Pramila Dagar, when he was 10 years old. “According to my father, I needed to first build up my calluses if I were to take the veena seriously. So, I learned the basic bandishs for two-and-a-half years on the sitar,” he says. Growing up, Dagar listened to The Beatles, Madonna and many other contemporary musicians which are not usually heard of in a classical musician’s home. “My father never said no to listening to something. I’d go to my room and play rock and metal on full blast,” he says.
On many occasions, ZM Dagar welcomed open discussions in the house about the possibilities of dhrupad. “My father listened to atrocious recordings sometimes. I would say, ‘How do you manage to listen to this?’. He’d say, ‘Take the good bits from this. See what you can learn out of it. You can’t expect everyone to know everything. Everyone has a different school of thought. Mark and learn’,” says Dagar. By the age of 16, with a foundation in sitar and a taste for rock music, too, Bahauddin decided to be a musician.
By the time he was in college, the young Dagar started volunteering at Spicmacay’s concerts and jazz festivals. In 1990, ZM Dagar died. Over the next 40 days, his father’s lessons kept coming back to the college-going Dagar in fleeting moments. He started practising the first raga, Yaman, again and again, while getting concerts on the side. “People would say, ‘Bahauddin has come, He’ll play Yaman.’ But I didn’t care,” says Dagar, who debuted at a concert in Mumbai’s Elphinstone College in 1991. Renowned music critic Mohan Nadkarni was present at the concert, when Dagar made a mistake while playing raga Saraswati. But Nadkarni, who knew his father well, spared him with a small warning. Dagar later continued learning from his uncle Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and from his father’s friend and filmmaker, Mani Kaul — Kaul had spent nine years learning from Zia Mohiuddin and Zia Fariduddin, before making the film Dhrupad (1983). For two years, every Sunday, Dagar would sit down with Kaul and polish his art to perfection. “I also began listening to a lot of Carnatic music. Famed Carnatic musician and percussionist Palghat Raghu used to come and teach me in Chembur (in Mumbai),” says Dagar.
Appreciation and recognition eventually started coming in. About 15 years ago, Bahauddin began to teach. “But I realised that the exchange of money (with teaching) cannot work. The learning isn’t organic,” says Bahauddin. Some years ago, he left his Chembur home and moved to a house in Palaspa, a tiny village in Raigad district, Maharashtra. Bahauddin lives and teaches in this house which his father had built in 1982 originally, as a dhrupad gurukul where a handful of students could live. “Our music needs a certain solitude for the sadhana and that’s what I get here. Music needs to be learnt without any pressure of a career. That’s when it’ll have depth. That’s when the magic, slowly, unfolds,” says Bahauddin.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines