Dhrupad FAQs

Many of my friends at home have asked me about Dhrupad, so here are some questions and answers:

What is Dhrupad?

In India there are two major systems of classical music: North Indian Hindustani and South Indian Carnatic.  Dhrupad is a genre of music from the North Indian Hindustani system.  Dhrupad is characterized by long tones, extreme precision of tuning pitch, and the use of syllables such as “ahh ruh nuh nuh.”  Some scholars believe these syllables have their roots in a particular Vedic chant.  Dhrupad performances typically unfold in four parts: alaap, jor, jhala, and bandish.  The alaap, jor, and jhala only use the syllables, and increase in rhythmic density and complexity.  In a full Dhrupad performance these sections may take at least an hour.  The “bandish” is the composed composition, using text. The barrel drum the pakawaj joins here.  Dhrupad includes improvisation, of a highly codified and sophisticated nature.

Dhrupad is said to have originated from an even more ancient religious music form, Prabandha (2nd to 7th AD). The language of Prabandha was preeminently Sanskrit, whereas Dhrupad used mainly medieval Hindi or Brijbhasha. Today, modern Hindi is also used. The word Dhrupad is the Hindi form of the original Sanskrit, Dhruvapada, a combination of Dhruva = structured or rigid, and Pada = word.

The birth of Dhrupad coincided with the Bhakti movement of Vallabh Sampradaya and resultantly was devotional in nature. Dhrupad was sung in temples, the singer facing the divinity or it was sung by Vaishnav mendicants in their wanderings. This was the genesis of the Haveli Dhrupad. From this early chanting, Dhrupad evolved into a sophisticated, classical form of music.  (Last two paragraphs from Uday Bhalwalker’s website)

How does one learn to sing Dhrupad?

One learns this music directly from a guru, or teacher.  Dhrupad can’t be learned from books or audio tapes or YouTube videos.  One must apprentice under a master teacher for several years to gain the proper understanding and techniques.

 Is it difficult?

It is extremely difficult.  I have a parallel career as a Western composer and percussionist.  I graduated from the most competitive schools, procured a tenure-track job, and have toured the world in that capacity, performing Western classical music in top venues like Carnegie Hall, so I can state with authority that singing Dhrupad is as difficult as learning Western classical piano or violin or percussion.

Can a non-Indian learn this music?

Yes!  There are many non-Indians performing Dhrupad at a high level all over the world.  The color of one’s skin or country of origin is no matter.  Just as people from Asia or South America have become virtuoso Western classical or jazz musicians, so have many Westerners become virtuoso Dhrupad performers.

The singing style is different than Western classical singing, right?

Yes, it is.  It is a totally different voice culture.  Dhrupad singers never use vibrato, as that would destroy the pitch precision.  We also use more resonance in the nasal cavity, though a proper Dhrupad voice should always be rooted in the throat.

Does Dhrupad include improvisation?

Yes, though it is of a highly codified and sophisticated sort.  One doesn’t just “jam out” on a mode.  It takes years and years of dedicated to practice to learn to improvise correctly in the Dhrupad style.

But wait, I thought you had a career as a Western composer and percussionist . . . ?

Yes, I do, and I maintain that as well.  I’ve learned over the years how to balance the forms of music and practice more effectively to maximize my time.  It is possible to do both at a high level, though one must be extremely disciplined.

What is the drone instrument and why do you use it for Dhrupad?

The drone instrument is called a tanpura.  It is the large, guitar-like instrument with four strings.  Typically one of the lead performer’s students will play it, seated behind the soloist.  The strings are tuned so as to emphasize the root note of the raga, the tonic, or the shaddhaj.  Tanpuras are magical instruments.  When tuned properly they emit a whole rainbow of fundamentals and overtones, producing a highly complex sound field called a drone.  This drone is essential for Dhrupad performance.  Every note a Dhrupad performer sings or plays must either disappear into the drone or bounce back from it in a very specific way.  The pitch precision of Dhrupad is only meaningful in combination with a tanpura; one needs the tanpura as a reference point for each note.  Some performers also use electronic tanpuras, especially for practicing or performances where it isn’t possible to use a real instrument.

Is Dhrupad “hippie” music?  

Many Westerners associate Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar and the “hippies” of the 1960s, and the attendant drug and free-love culture.  This is regrettable.  Most Indian classical musicians are highly disciplined people who work very hard at their art form and live a conservative lifestyle.  Indeed, Ravi Shankar himself was such a disciplined musician and while he was glad that Westerners were interested in his music, he discouraged his Western students from using drugs and leading a sloppy lifestyle.  This music is far too difficult to practice or perform while stoned or tripping.

Is Dhrupad a kind of meditation?

Yes it is.  Listening to Dhrupad will clear your mind and body and open up you to higher levels of thinking and feeling.  And it will also energize you if you listen carefully.  When I hear a good Dhrupad performance I have tremendous amounts of energy for days.  It is both calming and energizin

Is the tuning system different than Western music?

Yes, if you mean the Western piano, which divides the octave artificially into twelve equal notes.  This system is called Equal Temperament, and while it has advantages for the harmonically-advanced music that developed in Europe in the 19th century, it is very square and unnatural for modal music, which is what the Indian system is based on.  Dhrupad musicians mostly sing justly-tuned intervals, that is, intervals with low ratios that are found in the natural harmonic overtone series.  (E.g., a 3:2 for a perfect fifth or a 5:4 for a major third.)  These intervals feel quite different than the intervals you hear from a modern piano.  They resonate in your body and your mind in a very different way.  They’re not necessarily better than Equal Temperament, but I argue that they are more natural for singing over a drone.  That being said, my favorite percussion instrument is the marimba, which is in Equal Temperament!  I’ve performed hundreds of concerts as a marimba player and the instrument sounds beautiful to me.  The tuning discussion is far too complicated for a FAQ.  Take me to a sushi lunch and I’ll explain in detail; it is quite fascinating.

Some Dhrupad Artists who have made recordings and have YouTube videos that you should check out:


Gundecha Brothers (the best!)

Uday Bhawalkar (also amazing!)

Nancy Lesh-Kulkarni (a Westerner who has mastered Dhrupad on the cello, a wonderful musician)

Senior Dagar Brothers

Sayeeduddin Dagar

Z.F. Dagar

Z.M. Dagar

Manik Munde

Bhavani Shankar

Wasifuddin Dagar

Ritwik Sanyal

Mallik family

First Dhrupad performance

Last night I gave my first Dhrupad performance.  It was at a small house concert we organized.  Several of the neighborhood families came over.  They each brought some food and  drink.  Image

We gutted the dining room area and laid down a rug and pillows.  We lined the back walls with chairs for folks who preferred to sit up a bit more.

I sang alaap, jor, jhala in Rag Todi, as well as a composition I wrote that is based on a Walt Whitman poem.  The performance lasted about 25 minutes.  My friend Roman Das accompanied me on pakawaj.  He’s a fabulous player and a great person.  After I sang, one of my fellow Gurukul students also performed.  His name is Vic and though he’s much younger than I am at 23 years old, he’s been studying Dhrupad for four years and is thus a kind of senior student.  He gave a nice performance.

I felt a little keyed up before we started.  Even though it was just a casual house concert, I viewed it as a kind of “midterm” test for the last three months of work here in India.  I think I passed with good grades, though.  When I listened to the recording today I heard a lot of good things.  My voice has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year.  There is still much to do, but of course it’s infinite.

Our neighbors were just wonderful.  All of them have been so nice and welcoming.  Indian hospitality is alive and well here in Lake Pearl Spring and I’m honored to know them. Curiously, though, none of them knew anything about Dhrupad.  So there I was: a white man foreigner from Idaho, U.S.A., explaining the basics of this ancient Indian music to native Indians.  That’s the 21st Century for you!!

Jessica took pictures and managed the kids.  We put the little ones upstairs in front of a movie.  Nonetheless, there were frequent squabbles and crises.  All of which she managed with her characteristic grace and intelligence.

I’m looking forward to more performances down the road, but for the next few months it’s back in the woodshed for lots and lots of practicing.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bieber

There are a few things I didn’t expect to be doing while in India.  Teaching the music of Justin Bieber is one of them.


Some background first: As part of my Fulbright grant I’m doing a little teaching at the Gundecha Brothers’ Gurukul.  I offer a lecture every few weeks or so.   I’ll be covering a variety of topics throughout the year, including an overview of Western classical music, some basic Western music notation, tuning (including Just Intonation and Equal Temperament), and basic orchestration.

This has put me in the curious position of being an ambassador for Western music to the Indians.  I say “curious” because back home it is the reverse: I am often an ambassador for Indian music to my Western students and colleagues.  Misunderstandings abound on either side.  Many of my Indian friends believe that all Western classical music is in equal temperament, that there is no improvisation in our tradition, our music is entirely technical and devoid of feeling, and there is no melody.  All false.  My Western friends believe that Indian classical music is out of tune (actually the reverse is true, it’s often more in tune than most Western music), that there is little variety in Indian music, the voice culture is unrefined, and that Indian musicians don’t use notation at all.  Again, all false.

Indeed, it seems that my career has more and more taken the shape of being a kind of negotiator between the two traditions.  I’m even building a major non-profit organization right now with my brilliant colleague Reena Esmail, in which we will focus on artists who have created a whole new kind of music that brings together the two traditions in meaningful ways.  We are planning festivals, educational experiences, etc.  More on that later.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to Justin Bieber.


Umakant Gundecha’s son is named Nirant, though everyone calls him Niru.  Niru is in his early 20s and he LOVES popular music and wants to learn more about Western pop music.  So I’m teaching him the basics of Western notation so that he can learn to read a lead sheet.  I’m also encouraging him to learn some different software so that he can be more effective in a studio.  I’ll eventually teach him some drums if we can find a drum set.  Finally, he wants to learn more about songwriting.

My area of specialty is classical music, but I’ve done some work with singer-songwriters, so I have an idea of how things work in that world.  The first step to learning how to write a pop song is to see how other people have done it.  So, pretty soon I will have Niru transcribe some Justin Bieber songs (his favorite artist) and we’ll analyze them.  We’ll use both the Indian Bhatkande notation system that he knows, in parallel with Western notation.  That way he can reinforce his Western reading skills.   After we’ve analyzed a few tunes, he’ll try to make some of his own.

Again, something I NEVER expected to be doing in India!

Process versus Product

Today wasn’t my best day.  I slept poorly last night and woke up exhausted.  The motorcycle commute to Gurukul was wet and sloppy.  I was happy to see my friends at Gurukul, but I didn’t sing very well for Ramakantji and I left the lesson feeling like I had stepped back several months.


I had to ask: why am I here?  Why am I doing this?  I already have a busy and successful life as a Western musician.  The possibility of becoming a first-rate Dhrupad singer is pretty slim given how difficult this art form is.  Yes, I have a good raw voice and natural aptitude for it, but can I really commit the time necessary? 

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I’ve derailed again.  This happens a few times a month, here in India and at home too.  The reason?  I’ve started focusing on the PRODUCT rather than the PROCESS.  It’s easy to do as a professional musician.  After all, I am in the business of selling my creative work to people.  I can’t completely ignore the marketplace if I want to continue working.

But Dhrupad (or Western classical music, or any great classical music) is an endless ocean.  One lifetime isn’t enough for even a 1/10th of this music.  It’s so deep and so complex that the only way one can cope with the overwhelming difficulty of it is to simply give oneself up to it.  Release the ego.  Don’t worry about the product, just enjoy the process. 

Once I remembered these feelings I felt that familiar glow come back.  I felt a purpose, a higher calling.  I was in a groove.  I can’t wait to get up tomorrow and start practicing and composing again.  I’m back in the game.


I enjoy practicing. I always have. Ever since I was 10 years old I’ve loved nothing more than getting behind my instruments and working things out.


Practicing is my main job here in India. I start first thing in the morning, at about 6:00 a.m. I make a cup of Indian coffee, start up the drone box, and begin singing a raga. This first practice we call “Kharaj” and it focuses on the low register. I do this for about 30 minutes. Then I usually compose at the computer for at least an hour.

Then to the gym for a workout, shower, breakfast, and then the motorcycle ride to Gurukul. Once I’m there I warm up for another 30 minutes or so, then I have a lesson with Ramakantji, then Umakantji. Each lesson is about 30 minutes.

Then I go home and play my drumming practice pad for an hour. (It’s important that I keep my Western percussion chops in shape so I can resume my performing career when I get back home.)

Then I do another 30–45 minutes of raga singing, this time on “aakaar” or “ah”, as well as palta (scalar variations). This segment is done with full voice, very strong and loud. It’s like the weight lifting of singing. I rest for a bit, then sing for about two more hours. I focus on the material I learned in the lessons. All told it’s about four to five hours of singing, an hour of composing, and an hour of drumming. I also spend time listening to Guruji’s various recordings and transcribing phrases and analyzing their performances. It’s a full day. I’m working hard and making good progress. It’s fabulous.

Amazing trip to India

I recently got back from a transformative month in India, studying Dhrupad vocal with the renowned Gundecha Brothers (Ramakant, Umakant, and Akhilesh).  I worked with Ramakantji via Skype since last June, but this was my first time at their “Gurukul” where I received daily lessons.

For those of you who know me as a percussionists/composer you may find it strange that I’m taking vocal lessons, but I’ve been singing off and on for about 10 years, mostly Hindustani style.  Dhrupad has always been my passion and finally things opened up in my life last year in such a way that I could devote more time to really improving as a singer.  I have no delusions about becoming some great Dhrupad singer, but I’m making rapid progress and I’m already starting to use my voice with my Super Marimba project, Alarm Will Sound, and other projects.  Ramakantji has been very encouraging and thinks I’ll be able to start performing in another couple years.  I’m looking forward to that and I’m hoping there will be ample performance opportunities with all the yoga centers, Hindu temples, and universities here in the NYC area.

The Gurukul is a wonderful place and I very much enjoyed getting to know all the other students.  As with any community of people there are disagreements and bickering from time to time, but in general I found the students to be exceptionally gracious and kind.  Everyone seemed to be walking on clouds most of the time, due to the experience of singing Dhrupad and studying with the master Gundecha Brothers.  It’s a very nourishing music that gives one energy and hope and the feeling of being very grounded.  I didn’t encounter any of the cynicism and negativity that so badly pollutes the classical music community in America, especially with orchestras. I can’t wait to go back there.  It really felt like home.