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'Even if I have one student, the art will reach the next generation'
It's tantric. It's expensive. And it's not meant for large concerts. Ustad Bahauddin Dagar on the matchless rudra veena.
The master of the rudra veena (an ancient instrument rarely played today and popularly known as the been), Ustad Bahauddin Dagar represents the 20th generation of the Dagar line that started with Nayak Haridas Dagar in the 16th century. However, Bahauddin is more comfortable tracing his lineage to eight generations ago starting from Baba Gopal Das who, having converted to Islam in the 18th century, came to be known as Baba Imam Baksh.
The maestro belongs to the Dagarbani school of Dhrupad music. He trained under his father, the late Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and his uncle, Zia Faridudin Dagar. Bahauddin has performed all over the world and recently gave a stirring dawn recital at the Jodhpur Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) where he played Raag Bhairavi and Raag Lalit. The 40-year-old musician talks to TOI-Crest about his beloved instrument and why he prefers to steer clear of fusion.
There aren't many rudra veena players left today.
I have one girl who is 16 and very interested. She's from IIT Delhi and comes to me many times. She's a brilliant girl. Another one is from Turkey who has stayed on in Kolkata and is learning the instrument. There's a boy from Greece and one from Israel, but it's mostly women who are learning the been. So it's going back to Ma Saraswati.
What about Indian students?
I feel many people do not have the maturity to play the rudra veena. One has to learn the sitar and the sur bahar before one can begin learning the rudra veena. And this happens by the time one is 16 or 17 years old. Today's youth do not have that kind of patience. Besides, they have the pressure to earn money, which is fairly easy in current times, unlike earlier days when there were limited avenues of earning your livelihood. Today, a boy who's 20 has to deal with issues of a good paying job and for a girl that age there are pressures of marriage. So, only if someone is really interested do they come forward to learn and give that kind of time.
Many instruments are dying today and the rudra veena is one of them. What according to you is the reason for this?
The whole thing behind the rudra veena is that it's expensive and very difficult to maintain. A good veena is made of Burma teak, which costs around a lakh of rupees and hence is not very affordable for students. Today, Burma teak comes for something like Rs 18, 000 a running foot. So I'm working with some artisans from Kolkata and Benaras and trying to get cheaper veenas within Rs 25, 000 made from tun wood or bamboo. This way, people can at least acquire it, strum it for sometime and grow to like it, so that we can have more veena players. The best veena obviously is of teakwood, like mine, which was designed by my father with a sheshnag head, movable threads and bigger tumbas. Teakwood veenas last for 300 to 400 years as against bamboo ones, which bend after a few years.
How many students do you have?
I have three students. But whether they will be able to perform professionally, I can't say as of now. It depends on their circumstances.
Does that worry you?
No, not at all. As long as I have one student, one strong pillar, the art will reach the next generation.
What about your children - any interest there?
I have a daughter who's eight and right now she's more interested in talking (laughs). I feel one can't force anything on a child or anyone in the family. Besides, a bad musician is worse than no musician.
Why is the rudra veena less popular than, say, the sitar?
The rudra veena has always been like this. It was never a very popular instrument. Even though it's been compared to a yantra and has many tantric qualities - it can be kept in the house because there are no flat surfaces and emanates good vibrations around it - the rudra veena has always had limited reach. There are many dos and don'ts associated with it - like you don't touch the rudra veena without having a bath, if you play it you don't touch a cow or pig. It's an instrument which you don't play to an audience. It's not meant for a concert. It's not an extrovert instrument, rather it's an introvert instrument - meant for inner journey, meditation and sadhna. It's a very puritan instrument with many nuances. For instance, the sa can be divided into seven parts in a rudra veena. Further, it's said that a voice of a king was measured by a rudra veena. So it's like a computer for the voice. It's only given to select students. In olden times, it would be 10 to 12 years before a teacher would even ask a student to touch it. But in today's changed world, we're trying to reach out to as many students as possible.
What does a serious student need before learning the rudra veena?
One needs to have this, this, this and this much of interest in music (he stretches his arms out). My father used to always say a musician is never born. You have to make one through sanskar and education. The reason why we used to have the gurukul parampara was that we nurture the students all 24 hours, change the way they think, dress, talk and approach people. It's a total living. For the rudra veena, a student has to be below 16, to understand its little nuances. There has to be a certain level of maturity and inner will - like, 'I want to learn it'.
You said it's not meant for performances...
Yes, it's an instrument for chamber concerts at the most. Usually, the veena player was told that the king would come to him to listen to it. It's like a diwan-ekhas kind of thing. But, times have changed now.
What about its tantric qualities you mentioned earlier?
That's meant for higher studies like the sound of om and rin that emanate from its strings for inner connection. Only a musician of a very high calibre can understand such nuances since a rudra veena has a very primal sound. It can wring your mind and really twist it very badly.
How was the experience performing at RIFF?
I liked it though I'm not a performing person, but I like to play as I tend to improvise while performing. I don't look at the audiences unfortunately.
But isn't a performance important to attract more people?
It's important for sure, especially if one is performing in certain areas like Jodhpur against the backdrop of a historical fort. It also helps us, musicians, to look at our own work, redevelop and rethink it. Besides, we always say that inter-classical music is like prayer. So, taking it from there, I feel that I'm the priest who's facing the god. So, it's an introduction to god and a matter of sharing whatever I have to offer. It's not anything that I give or show. That's why I say I don't perform. It's much nicer than playing in any concert hall. Besides, when I perform, I shut myself up from any outside influence.
Every musician has tried to improvise and contemporise their art. How difficult is it to do this with the rudra veena?
My very first recording (1991) was a small threeminute fusion piece with Louis Banks and that was my first mistake. Not for the fusion that I did, as I enjoyed it a lot, but because since then, for the next seven years, people always remembered my fusion piece. They never talked about my concert. I want to be known as an Indian classical musician and not as a fusion artiste. That's not because I have anything against fusion, in fact I think it's amazing. But I feel one has to develop a different mindset for fusion and I don't have that. I prefer Indian classical - whether it gets me anywhere or not. I don't really care.
So does that mean no collaborations for you in future?
Yes. Because I'm absorbed in my veena and it's not easy for me to readapt to something else. One has to put time and energy and gel with another person for any collaboration. If I have to put that kind of time into a collaboration, I'd rather concentrate on my veena.
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