Dhrupad is one of the oldest and most beautiful forms of devotional music in the world. Elements of Dhrupad evolved out of vedic chanting in Northern India approximately 2,000 years ago although it did not fully blossom until the 16th century. Although it has evolved a great deal since then, its original form is still largely intact today, making it the most ancient style of Hindustani classical music, raga music, that is still performed.
Dhrupad is spiritual in nature. Some might consider it a form of worship, in which offerings of nāda (sound) are made to the Beloved.
Although Dhrupad can be quite entertaining, the purpose is to elicit an emotion, feeling or a state of being. Some common feelings include shanta (peace), shringara (love), adbhuta (wonder), karuna (sadness), vir (courage), and hasya (joy).
A Dhrupad performance typically includes at least 4 sections, alap, jor, jhala, and a composition. The alap section is completely improvisational and performed without a specific time signature, beat or tempo. The swaras (notes) of the raga are introduced to the listener during the alap through traditional phrases which evoke the rasa (emotion or feeling) of the raga being performed. During the jor, a steady beat is introduced although a specific taal (rhythm pattern) is not discernible. Over time, the tempo increases. During the jhala section, fast, rhythmic patterns are introduced although a specific taal may not be used. The performance typically ends with a composition which is played in a traditional taal such as tivrataal (7 beats), sultaal (10 beats) or chautaal (12 beats). The main gat (theme) of the composition is often explored through additional structured improvisation always staying in taal.
Dhrupad alap and compositions often conform to a structure which has up to four subsections, called asthayi, antara, abhog and sanchari. Some traditions call the abhog section sanchari and vice versa. The asthayi part uses the notes of the middle and lower octaves. The antara uses the middle octave’s second tetrachord and the notes of the higher octave. The third section (abhog or sanchari depending on tradition) contains phrases which have a wider range and include both low notes and high notes. The fourth section (sanchari or abhog depending on tradition) serves to summarize the piece.
The word Dhrupad is Sanskrit and is derived from the words dhruva (steadfast) and pada (verse or poetry). During the alap, Dhrupad vocalists often sing phrases using solely the sound “ah” known as akaar. Other times, they use sacred sounds or phrases such as a re ne na, té te re ne na, ri re re ne na, te ne toom sometimes known as “nom tom” syllables. Although Dhrupad compositions were likely originally written in Sanskrit, they evolved over time into a dialect of Hindi called Braj.
In my opinion, Dhrupad places a greater emphasis on maintaining the purity of the Ragas through exactness in the swaras (notes) and chalans (paths) than the other forms of Indian Classical Music. Although Khyal, another form of Indian Classical Music which evolved out of Dhrupad, also aims to maintain the purity, it sometimes falls short when it contains decorative, artistic embellishments or phrases designed to showcase the skill of the performer. Although, in my opinion, the Dhrupad form naturally lends itself to purity, Dhrupad performers are just as susceptible to compromising the purity of a raga as others.
Dhrupad is most commonly rendered using the voice. However, the Rudra Veena, Surshringar, and Surbahar can also be used. Typically, three to four performers will be on the stage of a Dhrupad performance. The main performer will sing or play a melody instrument. They are accompanied by one percussionist who traditionally plays the pakhawaj (a two headed drum). Lastly, the tanpura (the Indian Drone) is caressed by one to two individuals who are often students of the performers. Sometimes there are two main performers, such as the Senior Dagar Brothers. This type of performance is called jugalbandi.