Print Edition - 2014-05-17  |  On Saturday

On the path of devotion

- Tiku Gauchan
On the path of devotion

May 16, 2014-

If you were given just the gist of his quest, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Inoue Sou was on a mad mission. When only six, a Japanese boy begins training to play the flute for Shinto shrine ceremonies; by his early twenties, he's become so good at it that he performs not just in Japan but in concerts around the world. In his late twenties, during a trip to India, he hears Hari Prasad Chaurasia's music, and the complexity of Chaurasia's compositions so intrigues him that when he gets back to Japan, he gives up shrine music, an art form that he's worked with for more than 20 years, and starts taking flute lessons from Chaurasia's pupil, Nakagawa Hiroshi. As he picks up the basics of Hindustani classical music, he finds himself drawn deeper into the heart of the raga—into the mysteries of the alap: the improvisational, non-scripted overture that starts off a raga; he realises that to master the alap, he must delve deeper into the mysteries of sound itself: and to do that he must practice with the sounds produced not by the flute but as produced by the human body made an instrument; so he decides to give up the flute and turn vocalist; to do that, he must return to India. And so in 2008, when he's close to 30, he goes to Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, to learn the Dhrupad style of singing at the feet of the famous Gundecha Brothers, in their gurukul, Dhrupad Sansthan.

Two years into his training, he meets Vishal Bhattarai, 10 years his junior, who has come all the way from Nepal, having already trained in the Bageshwari Sageetalaya, in Butwal, and the Shree Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, in New Delhi. The two develop a bond. And at the behest of their teachers, they start a Dhrupad gurukul in Kathmandu in late 2013, right after they finish their training in Bhopal.

But the quest—now become a journey of two singers together—on the face of it, can seem bewildering to the casual observer. All the dedication that the two have put into their art—even today, they get up at five in the morning, perform Nada Yoga, practice their scales, do vocal exercises, drink endless cups of tulsi-and-ginger tea through the day and improvise jugalbandis together—all that has led to is a spartan classroom in their apartment at the foot of the hill in Bhaisepati. The room has only tanpuras, photos of their gurus, a few chakatis strewn about and origami stuck on the green walls. This, their own live-in gurukul, is where they wait for their students to turn up. So far, they have three dedicated students; most who show up take a few lessons, but once they learn that it's going to take years of study to get anywhere, they don't stick around.

Their gurukul doesn't have a name. That's mostly because Inoue and Bhattarai view their work as the carrying on of the lineage of their teachers and their school, the Dagar gharana of Dhrupad. Their teachers, the Gundecha Brothers, learned the ancient art of Dhrupad singing from the legendary Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who learned the art from other teachers and so on in a lineage that goes back all the way to the Mughal courts—Tansen is said to have worked with the form—and still further back, some say, all the way to the Sama Veda.  

That's quite a weight for the duo to carry. But so much weight of tradition also means that much more of a knowledge storehouse that they can draw from when they get freeforming in the alap portion of their recitals. Improvisations turn out better when you are creating new combinations from a rich storehouse than when you have to work with a thin resource. And especially during recitals, it helps that Inoue and Bhattarai know each other so well. The two of them perform their ragas in the jugalbandi style, in which the strands of their voices intertwine to pull the melody along, and for the alap to succeed both vocalists must be perfectly attuned to the other. Since no one plays the lead part, they'll take turns laying down a strand of the melody and the other will sing around that; mostly it's either single syllables being stretched out into a note they are working with or incantations of the names of divinities, such as ‘Narayan’: the Dhrupad is devotional music, and the performance can be seen as an offering made to a higher power.

When the two are singing, they first fill the silence with their tanpuras, and then focus all their attention on their song's notes, which they overlay onto the canvas that the tanpuras' drones create; as they wade into the alap, where each singer works within the framework of the overarching melody that informs the architecture of the raga, they give the listeners a preview of the shapes and colours of the sounds that they will work with in the course of the performance. It's easy for us listeners to latch onto the sounds during the alap because the elemental syllables and notes the singers are working with don't signify anything beyond the sounds: they are shorn of the usual significations of language, and if we pay attention enough, we too find ourselves deep in the swirls of the alap, together with the singers. Dhrupad seeks to use these elemental sounds to help the singers and the audience alike gain a sort of transcendence, at least temporarily, from the noise—both physical, and mental—that we live with. The singers, if they have trained enough in their art, like Inoue and Bhattarai have, become quite adept at losing themselves in their music; and if we follow along, if not by the alap, then by the jhor section, when the pakhawaj (a large madal-like drum) kicks in, and the raga builds up to a Dionysian climax—the jhala—we can gain some sort of transcendence too, by losing ourselves in the various colours of the notes we familiarised ourselves with during the alap.

For Inoue and Bhattarai, the performances are important not so much for making forays into the music market—there really is no market for their music; they could probably make bigger names for themselves if they were to use their musical training to branch out into more mainstream projects—but because these performances make for an integral part of their training, and for sharing their art with those who want a vehicle for transcendence. They have occasionally performed for audiences—at the Yala Maya Kendra, at the Kirateshwor Temple, the Japanese Embassy and in baithaks put together by friends—but they are still not a mainstay of the music circuit here, and they almost prefer it that way. Everything they do, from their daily practicing of scales to the performances, are essentially ways to learn, as much as they can, the science of sound—their way of testing the findings of the Dagar school and incorporating their experience into their repertoire.

The Gundecha brothers asked them to spread their gharana’s music to Nepal and that's what they are doing here. For now, the students are few and the interiors of their gurukul are mostly filled with the improvised jugalbandis the duo work on for hours on end. But they are perfectly content with exploring the worlds they create with the divine madness that is their art. And teaching it to those willing to stay the course with them.

Published: 17-05-2014 09:49

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