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In Search of Excellence

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In Search of Excellence

MOHAN NADKARNI, The Illustrated Weekly of India February 8, 1987

Virtuoso Zia Mohiuddin Dagar has devoted his life to keeping alive the ancient instrumental tradition. It is, therefore, only fitting that the Ustad has had conferred on him the prestigious Kalidas Samman for Indian music. Instituted by the Madhya Pradesh government, to be awarded this week, it is the highest recognition in the classical arena.

Mohan Nadkarni interviews Dagar, one of the two surviving exponents of the rudra veena in the country.

A radical change has come over the music scene. It is a value change with regard to musical creation and appreciation. The prospect is not rosy. But I am hopeful.

A study of the artiste from one of his many albums.

A study of the artiste from one of his many albums.

The veena, together with its inseparable percussion partner, the pakhawaj is, by common consent, the most ancient and honoured of all Indian string instruments. According to many musicologists and musical historians, these two vadyas not only form the background of our classical music, but also provide the very basis of evolution of other instruments, which wee originally estimated to have numbered 500.

Ironically, the voice of the veena, which has possibly the longest evolutionary history, is heard the least in our musical citadels. It simply does not command mass appeal in this age of speed and hurry – of mass

Yet, this does not disconcert the veteran Zia Mohiuddin Khan Dagar in the least. To him the veena or rather the rudra veena, as it is known in the Hindustani parampara, has been much more than a professional compulsion. To him, it is an article of supreme dedication and faith. And, in the true spirit of a crusader, he has devoted his life to keeping the ancient instrumental tradition alive. In so doing, he has undertaken painstaking research in the field and has succeeded in improving the traditional veena in point of depth, range and volume.

It is, therefore, just as well that the Ustad has been chosen to receive the prestigious Kalidas Samman for classical music for 1986-87. The Samman instituted by the government of Madhya Pradesh in 1982 ‘to honour excellence, exceptional creativity and long dedication in the field of arts’, carries a purse of one lakh, a citation and a plaque. Presently, it is the highest national-level award for music in the country.

Mohiuddin Khan Dagar, who was born on March 14, 1929, is a scion of the illustrious family of dhrupadiyas and beenkars from the erst-while princely state of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. By all accounts, he is one of the two surviving exponents of the rudra veena (the other veteran is Asad Ali Khan of Delhi). Although research and teaching have been his main pursuits, his music as a performer, offers the quintessence of the best virtues of the dhrupad parampara, pioneered and popularized through the centuries by maestros of the eminence of Bande Ali Khan, Zakhruddin Khan and Ziauddin Khan, who was his father.

Of late, the Ustad has been spending a good deal of time teaching his students at the ashram-like institution which he has set up at Palaspe, in Raigad, Maharashtra. A family man – he is happily married to a Hindu Wife, formerly Pramila Naringrekar, and has a talented teenage son. He has his permanent residence at Chembur in Bombay.

How ancient is your musical lineage?

Here is the genealogical chart. It indicates the various branches of the Dagar family tree. Our ancestry is traced to Baba Gopal Das alias Imam Khan, who flourished during the reign of Mohammed Shah Rangile, the Moghul emperor of Delhi.

At what age were you initiated into music and by whom?

I was only seven when my father Ziauddin Khan Dagar, began teaching me the basics of the traditional music of North India. The training was in both vocal and instrumental music. Even while I learnt to sing dhrupad, I was also acquainted with the styles of playing instruments like the veena, the surshringar, the sitar, the surbahar and the sarod.

Who are the other veena players in the Dagar family?

None. That was why I took to veena playing. Besides, I felt that the voice of the veena sounds very close to the human voice. Another reason for my choice of the veena is the imperative need to save it from oblivion.

Who are the contemporary veena players outside your family? What are your relations with them?

The name of Asad Ali Khan comes to my mind at the moment. He is a great beenkar and we have a friendly relationship.

Your standing as a musician has been questioned by many aficianadoes for quite some time. In the first place, it is said that you started out as a sitarist, but somehow could not make the grade. So you switched over to the veena.

Not at all, As I have mentioned earlier I wanted to play my part in perpetuating the veena-playing parampara. Yes, I did play the sitar for the purpose of teaching and earning a living.

Your detractors assert that you are not conversant with the various angs of dhrupad music and that you render only the sitar baaz on your veena. They also look askance at your manner of holding the instrument as well as that of playing it.

I say, in all humility and with due respect, that such objections sound motivated and there is no truth what-soever in them. On the manner of holding the veena there are no hard and fast rules in the shastras. Haven’t postures and manner changed with respect to several instruments like the sitar? Please have a look at the pictures of old masters and see the variations in their postures and manner. Why, then, should my detractors single me out for ridicule? What matters is the factor of comfort for the performer. The type of veena I have innovated is much heavier than the earlier type – it weighs 10 kg. It became heavier and unwieldy in the process of its remaking.

Since your claim to far-reaching innovations on your instrument is also questioned, I would like to know about them in detail.

If only those who question my claim to the various innovations cared to come and see me, I would gladly demonstrate before them. I have researched labouriously for almost two decades and more, in an effort towards improving the quality of the sound of the veena – that is the rudra veena – and to make it more versatile. As you know, the traditional veena comprises frets firmly embedded in wax, and therefore, difficult to shift according to the requirements of the performer. To overcome this limitation I devised a new method of tying the frets with thread of enable their shifting as and when necessary.

I have also increased the width of the threads. The result is that the last string, known as kharaj, on my instrument, can now yield five to six notes in a single legato. I have also introduced thicker strings balancing the sounds with a strong hollow wooden stem in place of the traditional bamboo.

And finally, the smaller gourds have been replaced by bigger ones to make for more profound resonance. Isn’t this all innovation?

Is your raga repertoire woefully limited, as is asserted by some?

Not at all, I have inherited a vast repertoire of traditional melodies, well-known as also less known. Even so, I am sure you will understand and appreciate the fact that each artiste has his own choice of favourite melodies and he is often seen to render them, mainly because they suit his temperament. Few, indeed, may be the musicians who have ever cared to go beyond their favourite repertoire of 25 to 30 ragas for concert presentation during their lifetime. There are some all-time greats among them and you can also identify them!

You are one of the few traditional stalwarts to go abroad regularly and quite frequently, too. Is it that the veena is getting more popular in the West in contrast to what one finds at home?

Yes, I have been visiting Europe, America and Canada every year since 1968 on teaching assignments. On an average, the duration of each such visit is nine months. I give performances in several major cities of these countries.


Are you happy with the results of your labours?

Certainly – and something much more. Believe me, a reverse and a welcome trend is increasingly in evidence on the foreign musical scene in the context of our traditional music. With each passing year, more and more Westerners – and also some Indian settlers abroad have begun to discover a new significance in our ancient music. There is a marked preference for the old styles of singing and playing on their part. I mean the styles of dhrupad-singing and veena-playing.

Could you elaborate?

Although I have been the first musician to take the North Indian veena abroad, the credit for popularising the ancient parampara, both vocal and instrumental must go to my celebrated cousins, the late Nasir Moinuddin Khan Dagar and his younger brother, Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar, as also Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. These maestros, in their individual way, prepared the ground for people like me and made my task much easier.

The Western connoisseurs and students of music have discovered something original and pure in dhrupad and veena music. They have often likened the exploration of alapi to a mother’s caressing of her infant – full of tenderness and love. Strange but true,. The dhrupad parampara as a whole is showing positively hopeful signs of reclaiming its status as a performing art on a foreign soil. And, as it often happens, if the trend catches on and gets stronger abroad, one can be sure of happier days for the parampara in the land of its birth!

How do you find the interest of Indian settlers in classical music in general and dhrupad and veena styles in particular?

Comparisons are invidious and odious, too. I can cite only one example. It was my performance at the Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City. When the curtain rose, I surveyed a full auditorium. There were only five or six Indians in the packed hall. All the rest were Americans. And this, too, mind you, after many an Indian friend had pressed me to perform there and I kept to my promise.

The spectacle was distressing and disconcerting. It has been my common experience that while genuine music lovers among foreigners approach Indian classical music with all reverence and respect, our Indian settlers approach Indian Music purely from the entertainment point of view. By contrast, you will find Indians and their families packing programmes like cabaret shows in American cities!

How big is your shishya parampara?

So far, I have thoroughly groomed five foreign students. Most of them have been basically Western musicians, who have not only taken to veena-playing as their full-time profession but are also engaged in performing and teaching the style. And they are doing their job with a missionary spirit.

Take the case of my American disciple from Chicago, Nancy Lesh. She was a professional cellist of 15 years’ standing. She was determined to play the veena style on her instrument in the spirit of a true seeker and has now come over to India to continue her pursuit.

How do you survey the contemporary music scene?

A radical change has come over the music scene. It is a value change with regard to musical creation, understanding and appreciation. The prospect is not rosy. But I take it as a passing phase. I am hopeful.


1 Comment

  1. Its very fortunate that his son Bahauddin Dagar has now taken up its performance with gusto. A very meditative alap jod jhala is unfolded followed by a very short gat. We hope he is able to train a few more shishaya on the rudra veena.

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