Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

The Wonder of Dhrupad

by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)

When I was awakened with one simple thought at 4 a.m. today my intention was to convey the sense of mystery I felt at a remarkable concert the previous night here at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG). What unraveled was a dhrupad container that cannot contain dhrupad.  Just as the mind cannot measure infinity, words cannot convey the experience.

Nonetheless, as often happens, I felt that I wanted to say something about my experience of that concert and Dhrupad itself.

Some of the best things in this world are a paradox like some poetry or shunyata, for example. (Would that I could know!) Take Dhrupad, the oldest extant vocal form of Indian classical music. It may possibly derive from the Sama Veda.

Dhrupad is simply out of this world.  If you have an affinity for dhrupad music and you didn’t grow up with it ---and do not assume that all Indians do---one might think that it is a little like going to the edge of the universe or maybe even like being at the beginning.  Maybe it is like that too for those who grew up with it. If your technique as a dhrupad master is refined, I would think that you are assiduous in your mastery but you go beyond technique and form while staying inside it. At the first notes uttered by a dhrupad master, something in me says pay attention. We are at the birth of a universe.

Dhrupad and the birth of a world

If you like dhrupad and you never heard it before you might be the sort of person who upon meeting  someone like Swami Rama, say, or Swami Veda perhaps, something in you says “Ah, yes. I know you.”

I wonder if the humblest of dhrupad singers sometimes feels like the earliest Singer or at least at His/Her feet. Yes, the Singer of a universe or of universes calling a world into being--- because dhrupad can lend you the sense that you are at the very beginning of Creation. As a listener, this is only possible if you are well seated and quiet well before the invocations and the singing begin. The song itself is a sort of ongoing invocation as if one could never in full say hello to God or Guru. It requires, at the very least, humility and a willingness to stand at the edge of the unknown and let it unfold in you. Dhrupad is a prayer beyond thought, or at least that is how I would describe it though I am sure that some would describe it differently. It might draw you toward meditation. Thus far, the live dhrupad concert has a deeper effect on me than a recording does. This may have something to do with the inextricable interaction between performer(s) and audience.

Pandit Shri Datt Sharma

I had heard dhrupad in an Indian music course at university but it sort of sat there on the window ledge like some alien thing that was in the room but to me did not really exist. I think that the mind can do this with all sorts of things we aren’t used to—like maybe meeting someone who seems very different from ourselves or a genie or a saint or an angel. It just felt odd. The first time I was aware of hearing dhrupad enough to let it enfold me was in the Meditation Hall at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama upon hearing Pandit Shri Datt Sharma. For once, I had a sense that something was there in a dhrupad performance. Pandit Sharma conveyed depths and awe that were all enveloping. Swami Veda was present and that might have also had something to do with my new willingness to be open to dhrupad music. Swamiji sometimes had/has a way of helping you to understand beyond your usual reach. So did this particular dhrupad master—Shri Datt Sharma of Delhi, Planet Earth, the Universe.

The second time I heard dhrupad, I was at the same place months later, waiting for a concert to begin. I did not know what kind of music it would be that night. We have had many great musicians of different genres here. As Bhola Shanker Dabral escorted Pandit Shree Datt Sharma into the hall, upon recognizing him from his first concert here, I heard myself gasp “God has just arrived!”  After the concert Pandit Sharma said to me “You may come to our cottage when we rehearse if you like. “ Again, I was astonished. I went. I sat quietly and listened to him and his young daughter Aditi sing. Gratefully, no one danced around me. I felt small next to what felt like the seamlessness of the singers and song.

2013 was the last time I heard Pandit Shri Datt Sharma. Yet I didn’t hear him because I came late to the long song and if you miss the beginning of a dhrupad performance you are nowhere. I never imagined that this would be the last time I would hear him.

The 30th December 2015 Concert

Yet in India there is a tradition of lineage. There are many lineages in meditation, music, painting, and in all the arts. It is a deeply personal relationship. Learning, cultivating an art form in this way is a spiritual discipline and a way of life moving toward one end: moksha, which has been described as ultimate freedom.

Shri Datt Sharma has left us a living legacy in his children. Every time I hear music from this family I am surprised. Nothing contains or names it though it feels nothing short of an intimate conversation at the beginning of the world—inscrutable, yet at the same time, pulsing at my very core.

The children of Shri Datt Sharma had come to offer us a night of dhrupad with Pandit Santosh Sharma on the Indian drum called the pakhawaj. Lead vocalist Aditi Sharma Garg was also accompanied by vocalist Arush Sharma, her younger brother, and Ila Sharma, her younger sister, on tambura.

The Tambura

Aditi spoke about the tambura, which is rich in overtones and inner resonances. It offers a continual drone and supports the whole of the music. Aditi recalled that Swami Veda once likened the role in music of the tambura to that of the central stem of a human being, the medulla oblongata, the spine and connecting systems which control, among other things, the way the heart and lungs work.

In remembering Swami Veda, Aditi said that as she was applying the folds of her sari that evening, she thought of how we measure great distances in light years. “Souls like Swami Veda are always measured in light years too,” she said. “He is the light who carries us from nowhere to somewhere.”

A love of children

I have observed Aditi teaching children Indian classical music before and have been impressed with her unshakeable self confidence, sense of humor and ease. She enjoys them immensely, even the gigglers.  Once during a children’s class here she asked some obstreperous boys sitting right next to her if the needs of their important United Nations delegation were being met. Then she explained to the rest of the class that these people were here to solve some very important world issues on global warming and other critical problems. I could barely control my laughter.

This time she taught the children of our 2015 children’s retreat in the morning and informed them that they would perform at some point in the evening’s concert.  That night, as she was singing, a few children began to giggle uncontrollably. Aditi once again exhibited her understanding of children and found no fault with their behavior. She explained that she had started dhrupad when she was 4, and sometimes the songs seemed very long to sit through. She also said that her younger sister had once said to her “you sing well but you sing too long.” So Aditi had patience but also compassion with the restlessness of a few of the children in the audience. Everyone was put at ease. Then the children took the stage and sang what they had learned from Aditi that day.

The Ragas

That night they sang Raga Malkauns and Raga Bhopali. In Raga Malkauns, who is calling Narayana, Narayana, the spirit who floats on the waters? Yes, live people are singing. But there is a sense of a divine, shining presence lighting up the room and drawing us inwards to deep peace.

In Raga Bhopali, as well, you believe Aditi when she tells us afterwards “This world takes you away!” The concert ends and you don’t want it to end. I am a firm believer in what Aditi Sharma Garg tells us, that “Music has no boundaries.”

Gamaka, the mysterious oscillations of voice

At their departure, I asked Aditi to tell me something about the passages in dhrupad where oscillations occur. “Those are called gamaka,” she said. “Dhrupad is cosmic.”

She explained that when a universe is born, at the moment of the Big Bang, it is like nuclear fusion when the elements helium and hydrogen meet and cannot combine to form a compound. It is an explosion of boundless proportions such that a universe is created from the energy emitted.

”Here too, several octaves are created,” she said. She linked these octaves to the chakras called anahata and ajña, for example, the heart and eyebrow centers respectively.

Aditi’s vibrant joy and wonder permeate realms beyond reach. From beginning to end, she rides the waves of light. Sometimes Arush sang the barest suggestion of a phrase and in that restraint, turned the key in the lock of a hidden door. From Aditi’s first mysteriously uttered sounds through the gamaka, of entire worlds in potentia being shaken loose from their sleep, we experienced traces of the perennial come alive in us, calling us home.

These oscillations in voice, the gamaka, she explained, invoke a moment when God reverberates.



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