Sings Dhrupad

Master of dhrupad traditional indian chant,present an exceptional performance live in Bombay


On this recording, Amelia Cuni presents two ragas, both of which, according to the time-theory of Indian music, are prescribed for early morning performance, and are associated with a devotional mood. They form a part of Amelia's single most brilliant concert appearance in India, which catapulted her into celebrity status.

The performance was recorded live at the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre in Bombay (January 26,1995). This institution invites performances with utmost discernment, makes the most stringent demands on their musicianship, evaluates concerts astutely, and rewards the worthy with recognition like none other.

Ms. Cuni is recognised today as the finest non-Indian exponent of vocal music in the mideaval Dhrupad style, and probably the only significant Dhrupad vocalist amongst women anywhere. Ms. Cuni's achievement is exceptional because of her command over all the departments of the art form -- the grammar of the Raga melodic structures, the rhythmic disciplines, sensitivity to the literary content of the poetic form, and the distinctive technique of voice production with its demands on breath-control, lung-power, and tonal precision. This recording also establishes Ms. Cuni as a highly original musician. She has integrated her training with maestros from three different stylistic traditions of Dhrupad music into a refreshing and distinctive esthetic experience. Its originality lies in its spacious melodic vision, the absence of obvious masculinity which characterises traditional Dhrupad, and its subtle, though astute, handling of rhythmic intricacies. Ms. Cuni's music is intellectually subtle, grammatically sound, and structurally orthodox. But, a great deal of her music's appeal rests on the resplendent luminosity of her voice, and the emotional intensity with which she charges her renditions. For, in the ultimate analysis, all art must liberate grammar in order to become emotionally irresistible.


The term Dhrupad (Dhruva = immutable/ fixed + Pada = Hymn/ verse) refers to a style of presenting Raga based music which dominated Hindustani (North Indian) classical music between the 15th and the 18th centuries. Dhrupad has its origins in an unbroken musical tradition going back to the pre-Christian era. The tradition has, over the millenia, shaped two distinct streams: the original devotional form, "Haveli Sangeet" (the Dhrupad of the temples) and its later manifestation, Darbari Dhrupad (The Dhrupad of Royal Courts) which is the performing art. In its present form, Darbari Dhrupad, the performing art, is an offshoot of "Prababdha Gana" (Prabandha = organisation/structure, "Gana" = song/ singing), which enjoyed great popularity between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Golden Age of Dhrupad commenced when the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Reign:1542-1605), invited the legendary musician, Mian Tansen, to to be one of the "Navratnas" (Nav= Nine, Ratna=gem) at the Imperial Court.

Starting from the 18th century, Dhrupad receded from the mainstream, attracting progressively fewer listeners, and even fewer talented musicians. Since the mid-1960's Dhrupad is going through some kind of revival. Spearheading the revival are two distinguished families of hereditary Dhrupad musicians -- the Dagars from Rajasthan (North-western India), and the Maliks from Darbhanga (Eastern India) -- both of whom have preserved the art-form for almost 400 years, and trained a sizeable number of Indian, European and American students and scholars. Because of its devotional character, Dhrupad is predominantly a vocal tradition. However, instrumental music, mainly the Rudra Veena, dance (Brihaspati,1989), and even theatrical performances, including Rasalila (ballet with religious themes) have been associated with the Dhrupad tradition. In comparison with the modern Khayal style of vocal music, Dhrupad is austere, sparing in its use of melodic embellishments, subtle in the demonstration of virtuosity, meticulous in its respect for its literary content, and firmly anchored in the orthodox principles of melodic organisation. What Dhrupad denies to its audiences in terms of sensuous and cerebral excitement, it more than compensates by imparting a distinctively elevating experience. The esthetic assumptions of Dhrupad are dominated by an austere philosophy of architectonics. Le Corbusier (Towards a New Architecture), describes a building is a machine to live in. Nothing more; nothing less. Extending this metaphor, Dhrupad is a musical machine for the expression of a Raga's emotional content. Nothing more; nothing less. To Le Corbusier, as it is to Dhrupad, the plan i.e., the functional organisation of spaces (a concept compatible with the meaning of "Prabandha" in Sanskrit) is everything; any element which does not derive inevitably from the plan, is either sculpture or ornamentation, and therefore not architecture, and therefore redundant. If Dhrupad represents the architecture-dominant facet of Hindustani music, the latter-day Khayal style qualifies as strong on sculpture, and the light/ semi-classical Thumree genres, as strong on ornamentation. By discouraging sculpture and ornamentation, and disciplining the organisation of melodic material, Dhrupad frees the musician to focus all his artistic energies into what is critical to the emotional charge of the music -- (a) absolute tonal fidelity achieved through arduous practice of breath-control and voice training, (b) meticulous adherance to the grammar of the Raga. The appeal of Dhrupad to the western mind is a part of the attraction of the Indian Raga system as a framework for individual creativity. But, what has made Dhrupad more popular, in the West, than the modern Khayal style is its easier accessibility. And, what makes it more accessible is (i) the emphasis on tonal fidelity and emotional richness arising from this, (ii) an adherance to a systematic structure of melodic development, (iii) and a presentation format that separates the melodically complex from the rhythmically complex, thus obviating the need to absorb the simultaneous manipulation of melodic and rhythmic elements.


Unlike Western classical music, Indian art music combines the role of the composer and performer in the person of the performer. However, since every performer cannot possibly have the makings of a great composer, the musical system provides him with esthetically coherent melodic frame-works within which to exercise his improvisational creativity. These melodic frame-works, called ragas, have evolved over the millennia as virtual archetypes with clearly defined, and widely shared, emotional, visual, and sometimes, even seasonal, mythological and historical associations. The task before the composer-performer is to utilise the "grammar" of these archetypal structures, and to create "literature" which unlock their subterranian meaning. The "grammar" of each raga is specific enough to establish its unique identity amongst ragas, while being open enough to trigger an infinite variety of aural experiences, from musician to musician, and even for the same musician, from concert to concert. The Raga system thus provides the basis, simultaneously, for continuity and familiarity on the one hand, and change and diversity on the other.


Both the Ragas on this recording are presented in the two-part orthodox Dhrupad format. The first part, called the "alap" (Sanskrit for: Informal conversation or Introduction), follows a traditional melodic progression, but is totally improvised and rendered without percussion accompaniment. The second part, rendered to percussion accompaniment, is called the "pada" (Sanskrit for: Hymn or devotional verse). The poetic frame of the "pada" presentation is totally pre-composed; but the musician is permitted a limited variety of melodic-rhythmic improvisations around the frame. The esthetic function of the Alap is to interpret the "grammar" of a Raga comprehensively, freely, and originally, with the purpose of expressing its "Rasa" (essential emotional content). Being the most abstract and unfettered form of melodic expression in Indian music, the Alap is the ultimate test of musicianship, but more specifically, of the musician as composer (Sharma, 1977).

The full-fledged Dhrupad Alap is rendered in three paces/tempi: Vilambit (slow paced), Madhya Laya (medium-paced) and Drut (fast-paced).

Vilambit Alap : The slow-paced Alap is recognisable by its free-flowing melodic structuring, devoid of any perceptible rhythm. But, there is, indeed, a subtle rhythm in it. A majority of phrases have an ascent and descent, not necessarily in that order and, one of the two will be ever so slightly quicker than the other. In its contemporary form, the slow-tempo alap follows a step-by-step melodic development through two phases: (a) Sthayi (b) Antara. The Sthayi developes the raga form in the lower octave and lower tetrachord, while the Antara develops the raga form in the upper tetrachord and the higher octave.

Madhya Laya Alap: The medium-tempo alap is the first Alap movement explicitly structured to a rhythm. It is a simple two-beat rhythm, paced at about two beats per second. Like the slow-tempo alap, the medium-tempo alap also follows a step-by-step melodic progression. However, the melodic span of each phrases tends to be wider, and the phrases are often interconnected, and normally in progression.

Drut Alap: The fast-tempo alap does away with the step-by-step melodic progressions of earlier sections and moves in broad melodic sweeps across the three ocvtaves. This movement generally conforms to a 4-beat pattern, and the performer frequently plays with odd-numbered (3/5/7) beat patterns within the four-beat framework. The tempo of rendition in the drut alap can go upto about four beats per second.

The "Pada": The rendition begins with the recitation of the poetic-melodic-rhythmic form, as composed, followed by improvisations around it. The "Pada" (composition) itself normally has two rhyming stanzas, which together constitute an accurate delineation of the complete melodic structure of the Raga.

Dhrupad compositions are set to Chautal, a 12-beat rhythmic cycle, with most compositions beginning on the first accentuated beat of the cycle. The basic form of improvisation consists of the rendition of the Pada itself at one-and-quarter times, one-and-half times, twice, thrice, four times, and occasionally, six times the pace of the rhythmic cycle. Such stepped-up renditions are followed by Tihais (a melodic phrase or set of phrases rendered thrice ending, in most cases, at the Sam, the accentuated first beat of the rhythmic cycle), and Chakradhars (a Tihai rendered thrice). Other improvisation consists of Layakari (rhythmic variations) within the metric cycle based on either the division of the tempo (Laya-banta) or division of the words of the poetic form (Bol-banta). No other type of improvisation is allowed in the orthodox Dhrupad style.



Raga Shuddha Todi is also known as Miyan-Ki-Todi, in memory of the legendary musician Miya Tansen, who adorned the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, and is believed to have composed the Raga.


On the Western scale of C, this corresponds approximately to: C, D flat, E flat, F sharp,G, A flat B

The normal melodic development of the Raga form is straight-forward and hexatonic, omitting the fifth (Pa tone or G on the western scale). The fifth is used very selectively, more often in the descent than the ascent, in order to provide a resting point of peace and tranquility in an otherwise anxiety-laden melodic form. This Raga is prescribed for performance in the first two hours after sunrise and, like most early morning Ragas, is associated with a deeply devotional sentiment. But, its religious fervour is dominated by pathos and anxiety.


Nat Bhairav, a popular raga, comes into being by blending raga Nat of the Bilaval parent scale with raga Bhairav representing the Bhairav parent scale. Although raga Nat is an independent raga in its own right, it is rarely performed in its pure form. In contemporary classical music, Nat is encountered mostly as an embellishment of the more popular ragas, as in Nat Bhairav, or Bhoop Nat, Nat Kedar, Nat Malhar, Nat Kamod, Nat Bihag etc. The raga has the character of Nat in the lower tetrachord, and of Bhairav in the upper tetrachord. In terms of tone material, Nat Bhairav simply replaces the komal (flat) Re tone of Bhairav with a shuddha (natural) Re tone. But, in terms of phraseology, the Nat effect imparts a moderately playful character to the profound base-raga, Bhairav.


On the Western scale of C, this corresponds approximately to: C, D, E, F, G, A flat, B


S R R G G M From Nat

R G M d d P Bhairav + Re tone of Nat

M P d N S' From Bhairav

N S' N d P From Bhairav

M P d N d P From Bhairav

d P d M P G M R Bhairav + Re tone of Nat

R G M G M R S From Nat.

The dominant tones, or melodic centres, in this raga are Ma, and base-Sa. In its rendition, Re and Pa are used as additional resting points. The Re and Pa tones are treated firm as in raga Nat, while the Dh tone is oscillated to communicate the Bhairav facet of this raga. According to the time-theory of Hindustani music, the Raga is prescribed for performance in the early morning, between 8.00 am and 10.00 am. It predominant emotional content is devotional.

Commentary: Deepak Raja. WORDAGE 2213 (written May,1998)

Deepak Raja is an established Sitar and Surbahar player, belonging to the Vilayat Khan stylistic tradition, and a financial consultant by profession. He is a contributing musicologist to India Archive Music Ltd., New York, and a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society.