The Dhrupad Mela is a four-day festival of Dhrupad in Varanasi, U.P., India, usually held in late February around Shiv Ratri. 2014 marked its 39th year. The concerts start around 7:00 p.m. and go until about 7:00 a.m. the next morning. They are held under a tent by Tulsi Ghaat, one of the centers of the city, right on the river.
Varanasi is pretty intense. There is a magical energy to the place, and it has been a bastion of Indic culture and intellectual achievement for millennia, but it is has fallen into serious disrepair in recent years. The city has a horrendous rubbish problem and the roads are crowded and dirty, with the usual Indian panoply of animals, humans, and vehicles.
The tent for the Dhrupad Mela holds about 200 people and at times it was jam packed. Since it is a mela there are different levels of musicians. None of them were rank beginners, but there were plenty of intermediate-level performers. While listening to them wasn’t inspiring, it was educational, and I was glad for the opportunity. The issues that I’m struggling with in my own singing were often on display and it was helpful for me to hear them from outside my body.
Dhrupad is a small field and there are very few performers working at a high level. As far as male singers go, my gurus the Gundecha Brothers and a handful of others are singing at the highest level. I heard several other big-name Pandits and Ustads at the Mela but they were horribly out of tune, their voice culture was flimsy, and they were distracted and unfocused. That’s a big problem for this music. In the Western classical tradition if a bad orchestra butchers a Beethoven symphony at least Beethoven is lurking in the background; at least there is an incredible work of art in there somewhere. But with Dhrupad the responsibility is 100% on the performer to maintain every aspect of the artistry, and the most fundamental parameter is singing in tune with the tanpura. When that is gone, nothing remains but mannerism. I heard a lot of Dhrupad mannerism, but precious little Dhrupad.
The audience was 90% foreigners, and most of them were young, counter-culture “hippies”. I’ll explore that phenomenon in another post, but it was interesting to see how few Indians were there.
Despite how enjoyable the Mela was in many respects, the infrastructure for the venue was poor. The presenters had put up thin sheets as a “roof”. When it started raining the second night the sheets immediately soaked through and water started dripping vigorously onto the audience. We moved around to try to find dry spots, but it was fruitless and after about twenty minutes of this the audience largely cleared out. Those who stayed were herded into a building in the back where we could stay dry and still see and hear the performers, but the connection with the artists was lost. Add to this the constant noise of Hindi pop music blaring from neighboring houses, car horns, fireworks (for Shiv Ratri), dogs and monkeys running around the venue, garbage littering the venue, including near the stage, etc., and I felt badly for the artists. It’s sad to see an artist of the caliber of Uday Bhalwalker having to perform in such sub-standard conditions. I suspect some of this is partly because Dhrupad as a genre is still somewhat ghettoized compared to Khyal, but it was also largely just typical Varanasi/Indian lousy infrastructure. As much as I love India and Indian music, I passionately hate the infrastructure problems here. It is so depressing to see such a rich and deep culture held back so strongly by lack of basic infrastructure.
The third night the presenters had made somewhat of an effort to offset the impending rain by putting up tarps. However, they were full of big holes! By 11:00 p.m. it again started raining heavily and within minutes there were rivers of water pouring through the holes. The artist at that moment was shrieking away, completely out of tune, and I decided I had had enough. I went back to my hotel and practiced for a bit and then listened to a recording of Gundecha Brothers. I had an incredible mystical experience when listening to that recording, which I’ll discuss in the next blog.
Despite my kvetching, I’m very glad I attended the Mela. I learned a great deal and when the weather was good I had some wonderful moments listening to the top artists. I applaud the presenters for keeping it going. I know from personal experience how much work it is to make something like this happen. But they should work harder to find better financial backing in the future to produce a more professional environment. The artists deserve better.