Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, Pandit Taranth
The late jazz bassist Charlie Haden once described his preference for slow tempi by saying, laughingly, "I'm an adagio guy." Although the Italian term never made it to India, the same sensibility applied to another master of the lower register, Ustad Z.M. Dagar, a beenkar (specialist in the ancient Indian rudra veena) whose reputation, like Haden's, hinged on his capacity for acoustical profundity.
And what profundity it was. The rudra veena is an awkward-looking contraption, with a long stick body supporting multiple strings, resonated by enormous gourds at each end. While the instrument is not naturally loud, it possesses an extraordinarily rich spectrum of harmonics; every note spins out a long purling skein of overtones that turn even simple melodies into hypnotic essays in timbre. Dagarsaheb's entire musical career served as a refutation to those who confuse musical accomplishment with mere virtuosity, for he could convey more in one note than most other musicians could in a year's worth of dazzling pyrotechnics. While he was never accorded the international celebrity of other great Hindustani musicians like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, he achieved worldwide recognition as an unmatched exponent of a rarely-heard hereditary tradition; the Dagar family name is synonymous with the austerely powerful dhrupad style of music.
For a recording made in 1969, the music on this CD is superbly reproduced. The intense shimmer of upper partials from the rudra veena's long strings is front and center; each note (especially those in the bottom octave) containing whole worlds of intonation.
The formal structure of raga elaboration in the dhrupad style entails a long and detailed exposition, in which the performance gradually increases its "event density" over anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. This Stockholm concert, recorded at the studio of Swedish painter Axel Törneman, clocks in at just over an hour, of which the first fifty minutes is devoted to the unaccompanied alap section, itself divided into three sections of increasing speed and density.
The pentatonic raga Chandrakauns offers enormous scope for the gradually-unfolding improvisational elaboration which was Dagarsaheb's metier. Meant for performance in the deep night, this variant of the Kauns family of ragas includes a flattened third and sixth alongside a tensely expressive natural seventh scale degree. Some performers also utilize the natural second as a "color" tone, typically used fleetingly in upper-register passages. This 1969 performance occasionally highlights this tone in other registers as well; Dagar's imagination was clearly captivated by the quality of the interval and he used it in middle- and lower-octave sequences to telling expressive effect.
In the hands of a lesser artist, these excursions would have been regarded as melodic apostasy: violations of the raga's underlying rule structure. But Dagarsaheb was no "lesser artist"; he redefines the rules through sheer magisterial authority and an intonational sense in which every infinitesimal microtonal shift is palpably charged with intention. Thus we are witness to an evening of music in which the raga's boundaries are expanded, reconfigured, and stretched — but its emotional and aesthetic core values are never for an instant betrayed or neglected.
After Dagarsaheb develops the raga structure in slow tempo, he moves into the jor and jhala sections, in which rhythmic pulsing on his instrument's drone strings anchor his melodic excursions in a steady though unmetered pulse that doubles and quadruples in tempo. In these parts of the recital it is easier to point to specific virtuoso moments, for while the master's picking patterns remain subtle, their speed creates a richly polyphonic effect — a grandly phrased melody in glacial tempo, set off against what feels like an orchestra of droning harmonics.
The concert's final section shows the rudra veena moving in rhythmic space, partnered with the deep tones of the pakhawaj, a barrel-shaped drum with a powerful and resonant presence. In dhrupad performance, a song composed in a particular rhythmic framework is improvisationally varied using different combinations of text syllables at multiple speeds to create and resolve rhythmic tension. The drums' role is to anticipate, complement, underpin, and occasionally dispute the singers' ideas, and Pandit Taranath Rao (better known as a tabla player and as a revered teacher of undisputed generosity and authority) carries out these responsibilities with aplomb and palpable enjoyment.
The maestro's family lineage of vocal music is keenly evident. The rudra veena has a magnificent voice: lyrical, sustained, keening, serene. This music is dignified, yes — but it is also deeply heartfelt. Every note is laden with expression; the music commands your attention, and repays you richly for it.
Z.M. Dagar was quoted once as saying, "God made me an elephant, not a deer," which is, after all, just another way to describe yourself as "an adagio guy." Enjoy this exquisite hour of music from one of the greatest masters of adagio the world has ever known. - Warren Senders
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