Our arrival in Varanasi this year was deliberately timed with a four-day Druphad Mela (festival). Druphad is an ancient form of Indian classical music developed in the Mogul court more than five hundred years ago. It is one of Gerard’s favorite music forms. Even though I’d heard it being played a lot in the house, I’d never paid a whole lot of attention not finding the singing compelling. But as I’ve experienced in the past, with certain jazz players like pianist Cecil Taylor, seeing it is a whole different thing from just hearing a recording. As the festival progressed I slowly began to appreciate what I was hearing. By the last night, I was sharing in the anticipation for the Gundecha Brothers, one of the more famous dhrupad singers in India today. The depth of this art form was beginning to reveal itself to me.
The evening began with a young Japanese woman singing dhrupad in a very correct but cautious manner. (Many south Asians are attracted to Varanasi, whether it’s because of the music or the spirituality or both. They come and stay for many months studying music, dance and yoga.) As she finished playing, thunder began to rumble and lightening flashed. Within minutes the skies opened and the rain came down in torrents. The back part of the tent sagged as the water quickly began pouring through. We were all asked to move in front of the stage, where an outer roof protected the tent. Abandoning the seated area, we all crowded forward, jostling to make room for each other. Even if I’d wanted to leave, how could I? No rickshaws and too far to walk back to the guesthouse.
The curtains of the tent flapped like broken sails in the wind and water sprayed everywhere. A young European man sat on the stage anxiously clutching his subahar (an instrument similar to the sitar but with a wonderful deep sound). He was finally asked to play. The music from this instrument was so beautiful. And again even though Gerard has played loads of it I’d never taken the time to listen to its unique sound.
By the time the Gundencha Brothers appeared the rain had stopped, two thirds of the tent, with our shoes, was a swamp, and the crowd had greatly thinned. But after the first number, I turned around and again the tent was packed with an enthusiastic audience – a 50/50 mix of westerners and Indians.
The alap, the first movement of the raga began softly and then gradually built, exploring all of the variations within the raga. The interplay between the two voices was instinctive, one left off as the other picked up. After the alap, two pakhwaj drummers joined in. One a Japanese guest, who might have felt out of his depth on the stage, nevertheless he held his own. As the music built with the percussionists, I forgot being tired, wet and uncomfortable. It seemed everyone in the soggy tent was swept up in the excitement.
They played for almost two hours, finishing with “Shiva Shiva”, an incantation to the God Shiva. What a perfect choice for Shiverati (the birthday) in the City of Shiva! Most of the crowd was familiar with the song and the atmosphere more akin to that of a popular music concert than a classical one. The audience wouldn’t let the Gundecha Brothers leave and they played an encore raga. There were other acts to follow, but who could play after this? It was almost midnight, and we were both totally saturated by the music…not to mention the rain. We put on our water-logged shoes and trudged out to the main road to find a cycle rickshaw. We hadn’t been back in the guesthouse for long when there was another cloudburst.