I was fortunate to experience a 3-day intensive workshop at Sunlit Path with Niloy. In complete contrast to the tradition of slow, concentrated, dedicated learning over decades from a guru, Niloy introduced the world of Dhrupad. For someone like me, who is deeply drawn to this meditative and philosophical sound art, what a gift. Dhrupad is so complex that an introduction would do well.
What is a tone?
Classical Western harmony divides an octave into 8 tones, and if you add the semitones, there are 12. Each of these tones can serve as the root for a scale, which in turn can be major or minor. If the semitones are ‘calculated’ from a lower tone to a higher one, this is radiant, a major scale is created. If the semitone is calculated down from a higher one, it is a little lower, the scale is a little darker. Johann Sebastian Bach, with his well-tempered tuning of the piano, averaged these semitones, since they actually differ only in the microinterval. The advantage is technically obvious: the piano can mirror all harmonics, the harmonic circle is implemented on the piano. As a pianist and organist, this was important to him. For the history of music it produced a harmony of pragmatism. La Monte Yung retuned the piano mathematically clean for a well-tuned piano. When I first heard this, it was an incredible release. All this time I had only heard music that was well-tempered, not well-tuned. But it is precisely those subtle differences that are at the heart of Dhrupad.
The Nada Yoga
Nada Yoga the yoga of sound is the exploration of sound, tones, vibration. Niloy related anecdotally that one of his students was somewhat skeptical about his ability to hear and chant microintervals. He brought a meter and on that day, a normal day for Niloy, an average day, Niloy was able to produce 17 microtones in one pitch interval, that is, hold them with his voice. So for an octave with 8 tone intervals, that would be 133 microintervals. At another workshop with Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, Dagar demonstrated 7 microtones in one tone interval on the Veena, which we could all easily relate to. However, Dagar said that he works with at least 12 microtones and there are many more available. But just not everyone can comprehend that. To be able to do that, you have to practice the ear and the voice and the instrument – Nada Yoga. Sharpening the senses, exploring what the world of sound has to offer the human perceptual apparatus.
The Kena Upanishad asks who hears when hearing, who sees when seeing, who thinks when thinking. Who hears when ‘I’ hear? What is hearing? What connection does hearing create to the world? In the Upanishads, the basis of the world as we know it is vibration, physics says energy. Vibration is a vibration, matter vibrates, light vibrates, sound vibrates. Vibration is the basis. In physics, force is not added here: gravitational force and momentum force, for example. Left out is the force of consciousness. In the Vedas forces are symbolized with the cows and horses. They stand for the forces of the universe. And if one has seen a few thousand cows on India’s streets, it also gradually becomes clear where this image comes from.
But back, the sound as a vibration, so heard by whom? There is a vibration in the world, there is a perceptual apparatus that picks up and translates that vibration, and there is a consciousness that experiences it. The Rishis knew that consciousness must be structurally similar to what constitutes the world and what the senses convey. How could it function any other way? Since in this tradition of thought vibration is the basis of everything, there is of course an image and a primordial form, which is OM, the primordial sound and it is described in the Mandukia Upanishad. In the Nada Yoga it is only also about exploring this connection. The oldest tradition to do this is Dhrupad.
After these brief considerations, it is not surprising that the ragas are not notated. There is no notation system for Dhrupad. A raga is actually just a scale of tones that serves as the basis for a practice. There are morning, noon and evening ragas and of course early morning and late evening and sunrise ragas, monsoon ragas and festival ragas etc. The tradition of Dhrupad, the original form of classical Indian music, which is over 3000 years old, has perceived much over the millennia. Who hears while listening? What is Dhrupad? It becomes clear that this is where things get philosophical very quickly.
Dhrupad is a living tradition, passed down from teacher to student. A very central element of dhrupad is the exploration of tones, intermediate tones, and the path from one tone to the next. For example, when a Monsoon Rags Rag Megh forms a scale of 6 tones: Sa, Re, Ma, Pa, Ni, Sa so this is the basic framework. Between the tones there are countless phrasings. And the tones themselves can of course be repeated or the scale structured e.g. Sa, Sa, Re, Re, Ma, Ma…. Or Sa, Re, Sa Re, Re, Ma, Re, Ma… or Re, Sa, Re, Sa, Ma, Re, Ma, Re… And instead of Sa, Re, Ma, Pa, Sa, syllables can be used that are derived from the Bījamantra, for example. So it quickly becomes very complex. Learning dhrupad is learning these myriad techniques. So a performance of a raga – I hesitate to say performance, because of course we’re not talking about a concert form, we’re talking about Nada Yoga – a performance is a very structured meditation that is only decidedly superficially like a jazz improvisation. No two ragas are the same.
Now, when you open yourself to the world of dhrupad, it’s about a very different kind of listening. There are no right or wrong sounds. To produce a sound is to bring it forth. Where does it come from? In singing, it starts with the breath, the body, the sitting posture, a calm mind. Our voice is not a technical device. The process of making a sound is the vibration of the vocal cords. Finding the ‘right’ tone is a search on those vocal cords. Professionals are so fast and precise that a listener does not hear this. But that is exactly what Dhrupad is about. How do I create a sound, do I steer towards it from below still above or from above down? Do I circle it or do I hold it, do I give emphasis, do I draw it in or do I project in. So before I produce the first sound, I am actually already around mystery of the world. It’s always about vibration – OM. Now that the first vibration is there, how do I go on? How do I get to the next sound? What is sound? So this is not so much about the concept of music. It is Nada Yoga.