Monday, April 20, 2009

Bahauddin Dagar -- “In the beginning, your Ustad teaches you; thereafter, your instrument teaches you”

Bahauddin spoke to Deepak Raja on 9/11/02

People often introduce me as the 20th generation of the Dagar lineage, referring to Nayak Haridas Dagur of the 16th century. But, we don’t have clear proof of this. I am comfortable with tracing the lineage to eight generations, to Baba Gopal Das, who converted to Islam, and became Baba Imam Baksh in the 18th century. My father, Zia Mohiuddin and uncle, Zia Fareeduddin, had both studied vocal music, the sitar, and the Been, from my grandfather, Ziauddin Khan, who had studied the Been with Bande Ali Khan, the legendary beenkar. At home, my grandfather routinely accompanied himself on the Been, and was also an accomplished sitar player. Professionally, of course, he remained a vocalist.

As far as I know, the Been has been a part of our family’s training in music for several generations. If anyone wanted to start performing on the Been, he had to seek permission of the elders. Our family sees the Been and vocal music as complementary arts. It is true that all instruments derive their inspiration from vocal music. But, in our family, the Been has been treated also as a guide to vocal music. The subtleties of intonation, and intervallic transitions in Dhrupad are often explained by demonstrating them on the Been.

In the 1950s, after independence, when my father and uncle came to Bombay from Udaipur in search of a career, they had only a sitar with them, and no decent place to keep the instrument. They certainly had no money to buy a Been. They had hoped to make their careers as sitarists, starting initially as teachers. But, by then, the idiom of the sitar was moving dramatically towards dazzling artistry. They had a few students. But there was very little real interest in their soulful style of playing. Finally, they abandoned the sitar – my father in favour of the Been, and my uncle in favour of vocal music. But, they remained loyal to Dhrupad. That was the turning point in their lives. They contributed to reviving interest in Dhrupad, and were able to build a following as teachers and performing musicians.

I had my early training on the sitar with my mother. Then, I played the Surbahar for a while. It was in 1982 (age 12) that I started studying the Been with my father. Dhrupad training has vocal music as the base. So, that was there throughout. The sitar requires nimble fingers, while I found that my hand was rather heavy for the instrument. The surbahar requires long fingers. In relation to the size of my palm, my fingers are short. So, I was not happy on the Surbahar either. Temperamentally also, the Been suited me better than the other two instruments. I am often tempted to sing in public. But, I practice only on the Been, and only learn by singing. Now there is no going back. I will stay with the Been.

My father was as gentle a teacher as he was a father. He never pushed me towards learning, or practice. He merely warned me that I could not expect to inherit his musical capabilities and professional stature without working for it. If I wished to grow up merely as his son, I was free to do so. But, to become a musician, I had to cultivate the attitude of a disciple. His method of teaching was subtle, and mysterious in its effectiveness. In each raga, he would give a student a few key phrases that captured its soul. Then he would ask him to work on them till the spirit of the raga revealed itself. And, we did find that once we had mastered the key to a raga, the whole raga opened itself up effortlessly when we sat down to play.

On technical issues, his method was immensely patient. He would let a student keep repeating the same mistake until the student himself realized something was going wrong. When the student started becoming uncomfortable, he would point out the right way to handle the music or the instrument. I have watched him train scores of students, and it is truly amazing how little visible effort has gone into their grooming. He taught me exactly as he taught his other students.

Performing career
In 1990, when my father died, I was only 20, with only five or six years of proper training on the Been. At that stage, I was not upto the mark – in fact, nowhere near being upto the mark. Despite this, financial considerations forced me to plunge into the profession. So, I started performing wherever I got an opportunity, and started teaching, while my own training continued with my uncle, Zia Fareeduddin. I dare say, if my father had been alive, even today, I would have been performing very little.

Teaching was a source of income. But, more than this, it was a part of the family’s philosophy of music as a profession. My father believed that by teaching, you ensure that you are always surrounded by music and musicians. He often said that you often notice your own mistakes only when you see your students making them. While you correct your students, you correct yourself too. He therefore believed in teaching generously, and holding nothing back. He knew that everything taught comes back to the teacher several fold in terms of learning.

The early years after my father’s death were difficult. Professionally, what helped me most was the 3-year fellowship the Lakhanpal Foundation granted me unconditionally immediately after my father’s death, and the concert-tour of the US organized for me by the SPICMACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music Amongst the Youth) in 1994. I shall always remain grateful to these institutions. These two gestures of support enabled me to stand on my feet, and build a career.

Gradually, I started getting concerts in India and abroad. Initially, Europe and the US accounted for a large part of my concert presence. In the last couple of years, however, the Indian market has grown well. I have been accepted at some of the major Indian events – Sir Shankarlal Music Festival in Delhi, the Dover Lane Conference in Calcutta, the Tansen Festival in Gwalior. Today, almost 80% of my concerts are in India, and the fees are also improving fast. Culturally, the big cities have become westernized and affected; but audiences in the smaller towns of Maharashtra, MP (Central Provinces), Bihar, and Punjab are showing a lot of interest in Dhrupad and the Been. Southern audiences are also taking interest in the Been now, and I have an educational tour planned in the South with SPICMACAY.

Some of this growing interest is curiosity about the “Mother of all Indian instruments”. But, when people hear the music, they are pleased. Many people, even in India, come to me and want to learn the Been. This is, of course, a tricky one because they have to be in Bombay for me to teach, and they have to own a Been which can cost upto Rs. 35,000 (US$ 900). Some of my American and European friends have offered to sponsor deserving Indian students with a gift of an instrument. So, something worthwhile is taking shape. There is already a great shortage of beenkars.

In the younger generation, I am the only performing beenkar. Asad Ali Khan’s teenage nephew, Zaki Hyder, is not performing yet. If we don’t do something now, there will be no beenkars in the future. I am very happy with the opening up of the Indian market. The money and the goodwill from foreign concerts are welcome. But, I have no special fascination for foreign travel, and I never want to settle abroad, no matter what the financial rewards might be. For my foreign tours, I now keep one Been in the US, and another in Europe. I will continue to travel, perform; but will always return.

The posture
My father was the first significant beenkar to shift from the traditional posture to the Carnatic style posture. He had, of course, learnt the Been in the traditional posture, holding it under his right arm, and across his chest. My grandfather probably also played in the traditional posture. My father made the change because the lap-top posture gave him much greater control over the meend through the in-tandem use of three left-hand fingers, without compromising the impact of the strokes. He found that this was a very valuable asset in the alap, which was his forte. The posture he adopted conformed to the prescription in our scriptures that the top of the stem at the left end should be at the same height as your left shoulder. Therefore, no traditional tenet of Been playing has been breached by the change.

In the early stages, I was taught the Been in the traditional posture, and I have experienced the difference. When you hold the instrument across your chest, your approach to music changes entirely. The melody and the strokes both become more agile, drifting towards the sitar idiom. If you want to play an alap-dominant, soulful quality of music, the lap-top posture works better.

But, interestingly, the change of posture introduced by my father did not obviate the need for tailor-making the instrument. The distance between the two gourds is defined by the waistline of the beenkar, and this requirement remains valid because of the size of the gourds. This is why the 150-year old Veena of Murad Khan, now in possession of Pandharinath Kolhapure, has multiple sockets for fixing the gourds. That was an interesting experiment. The Carnatic Veena does not have this problem because the gourd sizes are smaller, and the construction of the instrument is different. And the combination of design and posture works fine for their music.

The posture change introduced by my father need not be a major issue of debate. The Vajrasana posture evolved in the era when the music was performed in the temples and in the courts. In that environment, it was considered proper and respectful for a musician to be on his knees, and not to expose his feet. For the same reason, the traditional posture for the sitar and the surbahar was also Vajrasana, changing only later, when musicians found Vajrasana less efficient for playing the music they wished to play. Today, we should consider the issue in relation to how efficiently it delivers the music.

The idiom
In his early days, my father used to perform the entire Dhrupad format, along with all components of the Pada and tar-parans. I have recordings to demonstrate his technical prowess in all the departments of the Been idiom. As the years rolled by, he began to concentrate more on the melodic subtleties of the raga in the alap-jod-jhala movements, because he derived much greater pleasure from them. When I discussed this with him, he said that he had allowed his temperament to guide his art, and asked me to allow my inclinations to define my art. He often said – “In the beginning, your Ustad teaches you; thereafter, your instrument teaches you. You have to work equally hard with both of them”. I am now beginning to understand what he meant.

In the rendition of the Pada and the tar-parans, the Been does have a small problem because of unidirectional strokes. I pluck with my bare fingers; but even if I wore a mizrab (wire plectrum) as other beenkars do, I will not get the clear separation between the composition and the improvisations as effectively as the sitarist achieves with bi-directional strokes. I have tried playing Masitkhani compositions; it does not work. Also, the stroke density is too high for the Been. Our instrument is meant for delivering the maximum musical value with the minimum number of strokes.

One solution is singing the whole Dhrupad composition first to familiarize the audience with its melodic contours, and then play it on the Been. This method is getting a good response. I am not sure this is a perfect solution. But, I don’t have one today. It could take me another ten years to find one.

(c) Deepak S. Raja 2002
Thwe finest recordings of Bahauddin Dagar have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.