Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Bishnupur Gharana: An Interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay - I

The Bishnupur Gharana: an interview with Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay

Arijit Mahalanabis[1]

Of all of the Dhrupad traditions in India, perhaps the most obscure is the Dhrupad tradition of Bishnupur. The Bishnupur Gharana has significantly influenced the popular, urban and folk music of Bengal. However, its contributions to the world of classical music have not necessarily been well understood, or indeed, even appreciated.

One of the difficult realities of Indian classical music today is that one’s geographic location, to a great extent, limits one’s ability to be heard or appreciated. This is certainly the case with the musicians who practice in Bishnupur. Removed from the urban musical stronghold of Kolkata many of these musicians toil in obscurity without the benefit of popular acclaim. It is difficult to say that Pandit Sujit Gangopadhyay is one such musician. As a prolific and accomplished performer, active teacher and able administrator, Sujit Babu is a well established figure of the Gharana. However, as a musician living and performing in Bishnupur, his views on the issues related to the gharana’s present, past and future are rather enlightening, and perhaps more thought-provoking than those of his contemporaries who perform Bishnupuri music in Kolkata and elsewhere. In this interview conducted on 5th September, 2009, I asked Pandit Gangopadhyay about a variety of different aspects of his gharana.

Arijit Mahalanabis [AM]: Namaskar Panditji. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about the Bishnupur Gharana. Can you begin by saying a few words about the gharana’s present state and its past achievements?

Sujit Gangopadhyay [SG]: The Bishnupur Gharana passed through a golden age a long time ago. Many great musicians from the gharana practiced music contemporaneously, and the gharana was famous throughout India. This may not be the case today, but the gharana is seeing something of a revival. More students are studying this music, and demand amongst audiences too is growing. Of course, musical giants are not born every day. However those who are involved with the gharana at present are doing their work, practicing music, and teaching and learning the tradition. Our age-old tradition manages to continue.

AM: Can you tell me something about your gurus? What contributions did they make to the gharana especially with regard to Dhrupad and Dhamar?

SG: My father, Amarnath Gangopadhyay, practiced both Khayal and Dhrupad. He was my first guru. He studied with Atulkrishna Bandhopadhyay, one of the great musicians of our gharana. Atulkrishna in turn, was a student of Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay[2], and Ustad Tusiruddhujin Khan. He studied Dhrupad and Dhamar from Gopeshwar Babu, and Khayal from the Ustad.[3]

As for me, I went on to study with Amiya Ranjan Bandhopadhyay, a major figure in our gharana at present. Amiya Babu is considered to be the senior-most artist in the state of West Bengal today. He belongs to a much respected family in our gharana. His father was Satyakinkar Bandhopadhyay, a great exponent of both Khayal and Dhrupad. I should point out that a very significant aspect of Satyakinkar Babu and Amiya Babu’s music is that they have both put equal emphasis on the practice of Dhrupad and Khayal, and have maintained both styles side-by-side.[4] This was true of Gopeshwar Babu’s music also. It is a common notion that Bishnupur Gharana is a Dhrupad gharana. But really, it is a gharana that puts equal emphasis on both Dhrupad and Khayal. Certainly Dhrupad occupies a hallowed ground in the gharana. But the great musician Ramprasanna Bandhopadhyay, who was Gopeshwar Babu’s elder brother and guru, and the son of Anantalal Bandhopadhyay, was an accomplished instrumentalist. His student was sitarist Gokul Nag, the father of Manilal Nag, and one of Ravi Shankar’s gurus. Sitar, as you know, is a Khayal ang instrument. Ashesh Badhopadhyay, the son of Ramprasanna Babu, was a great Esraj player. In fact, Rabindranath was very fond of him, and he spent his life at Vishwa Bharati. So although Dhrupad is very important in the Bishnupur Gharana, it is not the only music found in the gharana. Bishnupur as a gharana encompasses Dhrupad, Khayal and Instrumental music in a very complete and exhaustive way. As a member of this gharana, I personally practice both Dhrupad and Khayal.[5]

AM: Can you describe the process of receiving talim from your gurus?

SG: As I said I received my training from my father. As you know, our guru-shishya parampara requires us to sit with the guru, learn the chalan, roop and overall emotion of the raga, and then repeat the guru’s musical phrases over and over again. I too learned in this traditional way. For example, my father might say to me, look at the komal re and ga in Todi. Both these are somewhat flatter than the usual komal re and komal ga. One might say they are atikomal. Many ragas use these notes, but Todi is special. These things are best learned by listening to and repeatedly singing with one’s guru. It is very difficult to write such things down on a sheet of paper. See how the komal re in Bhairav is different than Todi! It is a bit higher than the usual komal re. Also as you know Bhairav has andolit Re and Dha. They are andolit in Ramkali also. But the Re-Dha andolan in Bhairav is somewhat wider, with a more Tivra bent. For this reason, when Dha is taken andolit in Bhairav, a small touch of Komal Ni also appears, from the extensive upswing of the note. It now shows as a vivadi swar regularly in performances of the raga. The same is true of Re. Its upswing in the andolan places it at a shruti that is quite a bit Tivra from the usual Komal Re. While we wouldn’t say these vivadis are part of the raga, in performance they do happen. Ramkali on the other hand has these andolans, but they are not nearly as Tivra, and as a result these vivadi chhayas of the Re and Dha do not arise. The only way to learn such subtleties is through the medium of the guru. One cannot learn these from a page. This is the kind of training I received in the Guru-Shishya Parampara.

AM: Did your gurus describe such subtleties in words, the way you have just done, or were these principles that you gleaned by singing with them?

SG: First they would speak about it, and then demonstrate musically.[6]

AM: As you know, some gharanas like the Agra Gharana are known for Bolbant and Layakari. Others like the Dagar Bani are known for their work with the shrutis. What would you say are the stylistic characteristics of the Bishnupur Gharana?

SG: Vaishnav thought is central to the Bishnupur Gharana. Our kings were adherents and philosophers of Vaishnavism. Hence the entire culture revolved around the idea of Bhakti. When you come to Bishnupur, you will see there are uncountable numbers of temples devoted to Krishna and Radha. For this reason, the music of our gharana, instead of focusing on virtuosity and ustadi, is centered more on Bhakti ras, and giving rise to feelings of devotion in both the musician and the listener. This is why Rabindranath found this musical style more to his liking. Because many Dhrupad gharanas do not focus on the Bhakti aspect of the composition, some musicians belonging to such gharanas do not even sing the four parts of the composition clearly! Many musicians start by singing the sthayi and then begin doing bolbant and layakari on the sthayi. Then they sing the antara and launch into bolbant and layakari on the antara. And often the sanchari and abhog are dropped altogether! Here, we sing all four parts clearly first. After that, we do some Bolbant. Because of this approach, the gravity of the composition stands out.[7] By the way, the word Dhrupad refers to a composition. Alap is not part of a Dhrupad. It is a separate genre altogether. We sing it before a Dhrupad because when Dhrupad is sung on its own, the presentation is too short. The ras that is within the raga that can attract the human mind becomes obscured. Therefore, by singing the Alap, the beauty of the raga becomes apparent, and the direct appeal of the raga to the heart becomes clear. But Alap is a totally different form of music from Dhrupad. It is anibaddha first of all. Dhrupad by its very name and nature cannot be anibaddha.[8] But coming back to your question, singing the four parts clearly and without distortion is very important in our Gharana, so that the depth of meaning and feeling, the resonance of bhakti that is in the text, in full measure finds a home in the listener’s mind. In my limited experience, most other gharanas do not treat the four parts clearly. And as I said, musicians start doing Bolbant in the middle without first showing the full composition. But another issue is that sometimes the Bolbant becomes too much and overwhelms the composition and its intent. There is a lack of a sense of proportionality in this respect. So, to sum up, in the Bishnupur Gharana, the full form of the composition is more important than a display of virtuosity in Bolbant.

AM: But it is not the case that you don’t do any Bolbant at all, is it?

SG: No, no. It is definitely a part of the performance. But it is secondary in importance. You see, the Bolbant is the alankar or the ornamentation of Dhrupad. In Dhrupad one cannot do ornamentation that is often associated with other musical genres, because these reduce the overall gravity of the composition. So the Bolbant is the only way to ornament the composition. But it is a secondary feature of the performance, and we don’t let it overwhelm the Dhrupad.[9]

AM: Is there a particular manner in which the Bolbant of Bishnupur is meant to unfold in a performance?

SG: When you first start learning Bolbant, you learn to move in dugun, tigun, chaugun, chhegun, and so on, in a very methodical manner. But when we perform, we don’t progress in such a systematic manner from dugun to tigun, to chaugun, etc. I, for one, mostly improvise in dugun and tigun. I try to be as creative as possible in my own way in these layas, keeping in mind the positioning of the taal. Bolbant in Dhrupad is like Taankari in Khayal. In Khayal, you set a tempo and move as per your thinking. Just like that, a Dhrupadiya unfolds his creativity in the present tempo using Bolbant as a device. On the odd occasion I might sing one pre-determined movement. But it is largely extemporaneous in nature.

AM: But in teaching students, you systematically teach them dugun, tigun, chaugun and so on?

SG: Yes, when basic training is being done, we teach fixed movements in each type of laya. Often the focus is on retaining the melody of the composition while changing the laya.[10] But as I said, in performance, it is done extemporaneously.

[Continued in Part II]


1. Director, Seattle Indian Music Academy. The author would like to thank Tanmoy Ganguly for his invaluable assistance. [back]

2. Gopeshwar Bandhopadhyay (1880-1963) is one of the most notable names of the gharana, and achieved all-India fame as a Dhrupadiya and composer of much merit. [back]

3. SG credits Atukrishna Bandhopadhyay’s Dhrupad training to Gopeshwar Babu and his Khayal training to the Muslim Ustad. This is interesting. Although Ustad Bahadur Khan is credited with starting the Gharana and thus importing the majority of Dhrupads into Bishnupur, I felt there might be a slight distinction here between the Hindu keeper of the tradition, who provided the Dhrupad repertoire and the Muslim keeper of the tradition, who provided the Khayal repertoire. This may not have been a distinction SG wanted to make, but it was something that struck my mind while I talked to him. [back]

4. Here SG begins to lay out the characteristics of the gharana. This is the first characteristic. The gharana takes pride in its equal contributions to Dhrupad and Khayal. [back]

5. In SG’s view therefore, the gharana itself is distinguished by the fact that it never limited itself to one or the other discipline. Dhrupad, Khayal and Instrumental music all found homes in Bishnupur. His views on other musical styles fostered in Bishnupur appear later in the interview. [back]

6. This seems like a significant bit of insight in to pedagogy in Bishnupur. A number of traditional musicians in my experience frown on speaking about the music explicitly. Repeated demonstration through music is used as the only tools of instructing the student. Here SG indicates that verbal discourse was an integral part of the training. [back]

7. There are two very interesting things about these statements. First, a key differentiator between Bishnupur and other gharanas according to SG is that the Bishnupur Gharana is centered on the idea of Bhakti as the main driving force for presentation. Thematic differentiation of this sort across gharanas, as far as I know is never seen. But what legitimizes this claim is his subsequent description of this ideology’s impact on musical style. There is a certain coherence of intent that is not found in what musicians of other gharanas have to say on this topic. [back]

8. Setting Alap aside as a separate ‘song type’ is an unusual view. But this also bolsters the idea of Khayal being an integration of Nibaddha (Dhrupad) and Anibadhha (Alap) into a single form. Here SG seems to be arguing that Dhrupad is a deconstructed form, in which the ‘bhaav’ of the composition in the form of a Dhrupad, is maintained quite distinctly from the ‘ras’ of the raga in the form of the Alap. [back]

9. SG here is drawing a parallel between Bolbant in Dhrupad and Taankari in Khayal, something he will elaborate on later in the interview. [back]

10. That is, the fixed melody and the words of the Dhrupad are sung in dugun, tigun, etc. The composition is essentially sped up while retaining the tempo of the taal. [back]


Suvir said...

I prefer listening to the music than reading about the music. Theoratical expositions ABOUT music most of the time borders onto promotional discourses.
For example, to say that there is bhakti in bishnupur mainly and less in others is wrong.
I have huge points of differences and objections on the issues raised in the interview.

Abhik Majumdar said...

I agree that at least in the Indian context, theoretical discourse often tends towards the subjective. At the same time, it will be interesting to know more about your objections. A specific question: The Bishnupur gharana, in fact most dhrupad traditions, tend to treat dhrupad and dhamar very distinctly. OTOH, to my (admittedly limited) perception, the bol baant patterns that the Dagar tradition uses for both dhrupad and dhamar sound very similar.

> to say that there is bhakti in bishnupur mainly and less in others is wrong

Agreed, but then he stops (just) short of saying that:

"[M]any Dhrupad gharanas do not focus on the Bhakti aspect of the composition, some musicians belonging to such gharanas do not even sing the four parts of the composition clearly!" (emphasis mine)

Perhaps all he means is that bhakti is a predominant concern of Bishnupur, just as, say, the character of the raga, specifically aspects such as microtonal accuracy, happens to be a predominant concern of the Dagar tradition. We may draw credence from Pt Gangopadhyay's admission that Bishnupur purveyors are not so particular about shrutis as the Dagars and their followers are. Surely that doesn't mean the Bishnupurites are more or less indifferent to shrutis, right? And likewise we cannot conclude that other traditions like the Dagars are indifferent to the Bhakti aspect just because place enormous significance on aspects like shruti.

Suvir said...

I would have liked detailed discussion on issues like -
1. Bolbant as "alamkar"" in Dhrupad thesis.
2. Other traditions not treating the 4 parts of composition properly.
3.Defining Vishnupur Gharana mainly in terms of musicians instead of specific features of their music.

Arijit Mahalanabis said...

Abhik is right. Sujit Babu's comments were not to meant as disparaging of any other tradition. He merely was trying to point out the predominant role of bhakti in how a composition is performed.

In fact, aware as he was of the interviewer's own affiliations with the Dagar Gharana, he was extremely respectful of the Dagar tradition, even if he disagreed with certain aspects of it.

Suvir-ji, please elaborate further on your issues and the aspects you would like to research further. I can try to have a follow-up conversation with Panditji, depending on schedules of course. This interview was an initial attempt at gaining perspective on the gharana. I don't claim it to be a thoroughly researched thesis by any stretch of the imagination. There is certainly more work to be done.

I do take exception to the statement "I prefer listening to the music than reading about the music. Theoratical expositions ABOUT music most of the time borders onto promotional discourses." There is no promotion going on here, and this forum is one that is by its nature textual. At a later date if we can get the music of some of the Bishnupuri musicians of the present time out into the public domain, no one will be better pleased than I. But I assure you, if the suggestion is that anything was done with an agenda (which I read into your choice of the word promotion), you're mistaken.

Suvir said...

I do reiterate that most of the time discourses about musical traditions are promotional - though not specifically the instant one.
To say that some thing is more in one's tradition which is lacking in another one is certainly disparaging in some way- especially the idea of a 'hindu' keeper versus the 'muslim' keeper of dhrupad.
I have thought about this issue greatly and find that the so called hindu keepers have done 'nothing' to preserve and promote the art of dhrupad singing or playing veena whereas Dagars have gone miles ahead to keep the dhrupad tradition alive.
Dagars would have never been able to preserve the purity of Padas, lyrics and their exposition if it were not for their 'bhakti' and devotion. If one cannot rise to their level atleast we should not encourage others trying to disparage their tradition by saying that they lack in bhakti!!
If I am reading too much into the issue then I apologize for misconstruing the same in advance. But I genuinely feel slighted by such statements.

Arijit Mahalanabis said...

You're reading too much into the issue. Pt. Gangopadhyay states specifically that 1) Ustad Bahadur Khan brought Dhrupad to Bishnupur; 2) Many of the padas are traceable to Tansen, Ustad Bahadur Khan's own family, and other Muslim musicians; 3) Some recent musicians through their practical demonstrations of their art, place more emphasis on ustadi than bhakti.

Of these three points, wrt #3, he doesn't say the Dagars are such musicians. In fact in thinking about such issues, I would suspect that he might have been referring to certain musicians of a Bihari gharana, rather than the Dagars. Again, pure conjecture on my part, not to be attributed to Panditji.

Also, how is it disparaging another tradition to say one's tradition is more focused on one thing versus another? Is it not true that there is more layakari in Agra khayal than Kirana khayal?? Does that make Kirana lesser?? That, in my opinion is not sound logic at all. Pt. Gangopadhyay was trying to lay out the major characteristics of his gharana, which included a deep link to the Bhakti movement of Chaitanya and subsequent populist Vaishnavites.

I reiterate, he was never anything but respectful of the Dagars and their place in the work to preserve and propagate Dhrupad. The sensitivity shown in your reaction is commendable for your staunch defense of the Dagar tradition. But it is unwarranted in this particular case. No one is making a judgment about the Dagars vis a vis Bishnupur. They are different traditions emphasizing entirely different aspects of Dhrupad.

Finally, I would add that the source of your angst may be traceable to my observation that Atulkrishna Bandhopadhyay received Dhrupad talim from a Hindu and Khayal talim from a Muslim, and I wondered if there was a duality in this observation. Were Muslim musicians considered keepers of the Khayal tradition and Hindu musicians keepers of the Dhrupad tradition? This is an unanswered question for me, but one of rather minimal importance. Panditji was merely telling me the history as he remembered it. He didn't attribute the preservation of Dhrupad to Hindus, or somehow claim Hindus were better keepers of the tradition. But it does make sense to me that if the padas of import in Bishnupur were deeply religious and Hindu in nature, that Hindu musicians would gravitate towards their preservation.

Further, I don't know the demographics of the gharana fully yet. But there just seems to be a predominance of Hindu names in the list of musicians. What does that really mean?? Perhaps the Muslims in the vicinity didn't vigorously participate in musical activity. Perhaps they were shut out. I don't know. But maybe it's worth a look, maybe the whole issue is moot.

So in short, best not to get worked up about claims that are actually not being made.

jsp said...

the definition of dhrupad is very simple. according to abul fazl, a dhrupad is 4 rhyming lines each of indefinite metre. this is in fact what justifies the use of taals other than short cycles of say 4 or 6 beats and less commonly, 5 or 7 beats.only irregular metre justifies the 12, 14 and 16 beat cycles in all the art music of hindustan,dhrupad, khayal, tappa or thumri.
anything other than this is not a dhrupad at all.and no amount of sophistry can obscure this.
as for all the talk of bhakti, it is a load of nonsense.please look up , for example, sangit sahasras,copies are available at the sales counter of the sangeet natak akademi delhi. easily the largest collection of dhrupad lyrics available anywhere.they are even classified by the editor, the late dr premlata sharma ,according to theme. please tell me how many deal with bhakti?
in fact abul fazl goes on to say that the dhrupad treats of love and its wonderful effects upon the heart, adding that dhadi women accompnied on the duff sing the dhrupad and suhela in a highly accomplished manner.
all this in the heyday of dhrupad!do look up ain e akbari , vol. 3 . it is available in many libraries.
the aalap is roughly to dhrupad what jogging is to say, tennis. it is completely irrelevant to the dhrupad and is a separate discipline by itself.tagging long aalaps to dhrupad and dhamar performances is akin to students "padding" their assignments to make them look long and respectable.
the fact is that dhrupad singers simply do not have the training to embellish their lyrics-when they know them that is-while khayal singers either yawn their way through ati vilambit[another piece of nonsense] sections or play sarangi with their throats.

commandoforce101 said...
pandit kali prasad mukherjee, an eminent singer bishnupur gharana,,a documentary