The young find them ‘cool’. The elderly, sanskari. The only Sanskrit band in India, Dhruvaa, rocks the stage. Notwithstanding their traditional Indian attire—dhoti, kurta and angvastram—their approach to music is contemporary, albeit delivered in a classical format.
Dhruvaa – The Sanskrit Band is unique, not because of the novel concept alone, but also because their music is both lifting and soulful. Though they sing in one language, the band members are as diverse as the cultural legacy they represent.
The band is trying to popularise the 2000-year-old genre of Dhruvaa gaan, which gave birth to Dhrupad gayaki. As Sanskrit’s status as the lingua franca declined, Dhruvaa gaan disappeared from public memory. The band members are trying to keep the classicism of the language and music intact, in a contemporary format.
The challenge taken up by these young men and women is daunting. “There are those who tell us, ‘You are doing punya (an act of charity),’ and then there are those who object to the use of the word ‘band’ with Sanskrit. We are neither doing punya, nor are we trying to ape rock or pop bands. We are a professional musical band. The use of the word ‘band’ with Dhruvaa is unavoidable, because no one remembers ‘vrinda’ (choir), the traditional way of rendering Sanskrit verses,” says Dr Sanjay Dwivedi, 32, the founder of Dhruvaa.
The son of a Sanskrit scholar, Sanjay was looked at as a kind of prodigy. At 11, he had memorised the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. When he sang Sanskrit shlokas at FICCI and the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, he won accolades and awards. The training in Indian classical music which he has received since childhood added to his love for Sanskrit and the way Vedic richas were sung. He says he was fortunate to be a disciple of Prof Radha Vallabh Tripathi, a scholar who possessed exceptional insights, and who made him explore the classical texts in a contemporary context.
“My career path was charted out for me. I had topped the Master’s course in Sanskrit at the Hari Singh Gour University, Madhya Pradesh. A faculty position awaited me. But, this was not all I wanted. For years, I had been composing music for Sanskrit plays like Mrichchhakatikam (Shudrak), Uttara Ram Charitam (Bhavabhuti), Urubhangam (Bhasa), and Abhigyanshakuntalam (Kalidasa). The strands of music and Sanskrit both made me thrive. I couldn’t leave one for the other. For months, I sat at home without work, contemplating what I should do.”
Ideas had been floating in his mind. While attending a musical concert at Alliance Francaise, he realised he could enjoy the music without understanding French. Why couldn’t the same be true for Sanskrit, he wondered.
That Sanskrit is known only as a classical language of spiritual obscurantism disturbed him. He wanted to make the classical language appealing to the young by introducing them to its beauty of expression and variety of rasas(emotions). “Perhaps the first ever love letter was written on a bhojpatra in Sanskrit by Shakuntala, the heroine of the famous Sanskrit play, Abhigyanshakuntalam (in around the 4th century BCE). The intense feeling of virah(separation from the beloved), is often written for women characters, but we sing passages from Uttara Ram Charitam, that express the intense virah of Lord Rama, the parallels of which are not found in world literature,” says Dr Dwivedi.
After two months of hard work with just eight members, Dr Dwivedi worked out a way to sing Sanskrit compositions in classical music, in a hummable, foot-tapping form. The band’s renderings are made engaging by three vocalists — Vaibhav, a Dhrupad singer, Gyaneshwari, a singer of khayals and Dr Dwivedi. They are supported by Vijay Gaur on the acoustic guitar, Amir on the sarod (who happens to be the grandson of Ustad Liyakat Ali Khan), Sagar on the keyboard, Swapnil Bagul on the tabla, Tushar on the pakhawaj, Manoj Chipleka on the acoustic drum, Rakesh on the flute and Yashwant Rao on the violin. Barring a few, most of these artistes come from the small towns of Madhya Pradesh.
The band works with a fusion of two diverse musical streams. Composition are sung based on classical ragas, with accompanying traditional Indian instruments like the pakhawaj, tabla, flute, sarod and the harmonium. Then, the same composition is interpreted in a fast-paced version, such as with jazz, with the instruments of western music like the violin, acoustic guitar and acoustic drums. The challenge is to make sure it is not jarring and maintain the high aesthetic beauty of the language and the verses.
Dhruvaa begins their show with ‘Prachand Tandav’, a fast, rhythmic composition of powerful alliterative syllables, followed by the Vedic richas. A very contemporary composition ‘The Dancing Ganesha‘, reminds one of the foot-tapping elements of Latino music. They keep re-inventing their sound, working towards perfection. Some Sanskrit scholars believe the band has enhanced the beauty of the language.
The first performance of the band in 2015 at Bhavabhuti Auditorium, Bhopal came as a pleasant surprise to a small gathering of about 300 people. The audience collected Rs 11,000 as reward for the unique initiative. “This was encouraging, even though we had spent more on booking the hall and other technical requirements.”
Within two years, after a few bad experiences, the band had learnt their lesson — Sanskrit is not for charity. They became professionals and never had to look back. “We are like any other musical band, with all kinds of technical requirements, and that includes expenditure on sound and light equipment,” he adds.
The popularity and success of Dhruvaa is also an indicator of changing times; of greater interest in heritage and culture. In 1996, selected compositions of Kalidasa’s Meghdootam were composed by Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. The music, produced by Music Today, had compositions sung by Kavita Krishnamoorty and A Hariharan in Sanskrit, with the accompaniment of classical instruments like the veena and mridangam. It didn’t find much success.
Last year, the band created a record of sorts by performing four shows for 35 days without a break at different locations in Onkareshwar, MP. “ We had to take a workshop and train more musicians to meet the demand,” says Dr Dwivedi.