Friday, Jul 01, 2022

What Is The Future Of Ancient Rudra Veena In Hindustani Classical?

Integral to the Dhrupad system of north India, the rudra veena is facing an existential crisis. A just-concluded three-day music festival in Jaipur seeks to find solutions and strings together its exponents, makers and aesthetes from across the country.

Photos by Nitin Vaidya

From the metropolis in the east of India, Mangala Prasad Sharma has travelled a long way to reach a city diametrically opposite on the vast country’s map. Yet there are cultural similarities that his Kolkata shares with faraway Jaipur, where the veteran instruments-maker is a dignitary at a unique cultural event.

It’s to speak at a vital festival dedicated to the endangered rudra veena that septuagenarian Sharma has reached the Rajasthan capital. His worry about a low demand for the difficult instrument in Hindustani classical has got an extended resonance: the rudra veena, integral to the even more esoteric Dhrupad stream of north Indian music, has only a handful of practitioners.

It is in this context that the October 13-15 fest gains significance. Held over three days and late evenings in a landmark monument in Jaipur, Rudra Veena Utsav 2017 brought together not just its exponents from varied schools, but even its scholars and makers besides, of course, the aesthetes and average buffs. Together they assembled over daytime and dusk sessions, discussing the rich past, bleak present and possibly better future of the plucked string instrument.

Organised by the Ustad Imamuddin Khan Dagar Indian Music Art & Culture Society in association with The Dagar Archives—both Jaipur-headquartered, the festival over the past weekend featured six sessions, with the ones in the evening dedicated solely to performances that overwhelmed the listeners with their meditative sobriety. The morning sessions featured both stage shows as well as panel discussions.

“The basic idea is to propagate the importance of the rudra veena,” points out chief organiser Shabana Dagar, president of the Society founded after the legendary court musician of Udaipur. “It’s an instrument so central to Dhrupad and has no many practitioners of late. So we took care in ensuring that all of its schools left found representation at the festival, which has no parallels in India.”

In fact, Shabana, who belongs to the 20th generation of the famed Dhrupad exponents of the Dagar family, points out that her organisation has itself been able to organise the rudra veena festival after a seven-year gap now. The 2010 Rudra Veena Utsav was a four-day affair, recalls fellow organiser Imran Dagar of the Society, which has also been convening monthly cultural sessions in Delhi for the past two-and-a-half years.

The festival, conducted in the imposing 130-year-old Albert Hall Museum of Jaipur, began with a Dhrupad vocal by French Jerome Cormier from France, a disciple of Delhi’s Wasifuddin Dagar. This was followed by a veena jugalbandi by Murali Mohan and Heikel Mlouka, who presented aalaap, jor and jhala in the morning raag Todi. The youngsters, accompanied on the pakhawaj by Praveen Arya, are pupils of Bhopal’s famed Gundecha brothers and besides Rajshekhar Vyas of Udaipur.

Pt Vyas, now 78, lamented over the “sad state” of the seven-string (four main) rudra veena today, stressing the need for governmental support in a big way. “Without this ancient instrument, India’s music heritage become lame,” added the senior instrumentalist, a disciple of yesteryear Dagar brothers Ziauddin and Moiuddin.

Veena-maker Prasad, originally from Banares, reiterates the request. “It takes six to eight months to make a rudra veena. One, or at best, two sell a year. This, against more than a dozen sitar my Kolkata shop sells.” The chunk of the rudra veena, with 24 brass-fitted raised wooden frets, demand comes from foreigners, curious and enchanted about my its sound, he adds. “I get orders from America to Australia.”

Such a phenomenon shows the ill-health plaguing rudra veena, points out Survir Misra, a senior player of the instrument who performed on the second evening of the festival. “It has to be a thoroughly living art, not an antique piece,” he emphasises. Adds fellow professional Bahauddin Dagar: “The high price of the instrument itself is a big disincentive for the starter. The rudra veena costs anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh. All the same, even for the rich, it cannot be just a hobby. You have to be fully dedicated.”

Not surprising, thus, that Dhrupadiya Carsten Wickie himself makes the instrument punctuated by two large resonators made of dried or hollowed gourds along its long tubular body (made of wood or bamboo) with a length between 54 and 62 inches. “We are torch-bearers of a largely neglected art,” the German-origin Kolkatan sighs.

On day one evening, Sharada Mushti rendered raga Desh, with her performance echoing the influence of surbahar, the bass sitar. As music buff Nitin Vaidya points out, “she is the second woman rudra veena performer after Jyoti Hegde.” That was followed by Zahid Faridi’s recital that began with an alaap in Bhairavi.

The Sunday morning saw Gujari Todi taken up by Arpita Sharma, a disciple of Suvir Misra. This was followed by a session on veena-making, where Sharma, Wicke and Misra spoke. That evening, Wicke, who has learned from (late) Asad Ali Khan, gave a detailed rendition in raag Bihag and later Sohini. Mumbaikar Misra, a disciple of Zia Fariduddin Dagar, presented raag Poorvi Kalyaan and then a fast compositionin raag Bageshri Malkauns.

The final evening was opened by Pt Vyas with an extended aalap, Jor-jhala and compositon in rag Gaangey Bhooshani. Bahauddin, from Mumbai, took up raag Yaman, with accompaniment by his disciple T.M. Venkatkrishnan, a Tirupati youngster who has been training in rudra veena for five years.

The festival also witnessed a rarity: the rudra veena artistes planted two saplings each at the venue complex in the presence of Rakesh Chholak, superintendent of the museum.