Saturday, 29 June 2013

Dhrupad in Seattle

ZM Dagar’s musical legacy

By Shuchita Rao
One of the foremost present-day practitioners of Dhrupad, Umakant Gundecha has an interesting name for Seattle, USA. He calls the city “Dhrupad Nagari” meaning “City of Dhrupad”. For, true to its reputation of providing a vibrant blend of cultural activities that draw upon its rich ethnic diversity, Seattle is home to a large number of practitioners of the Dagarvani style of Dhrupad.

It all began with the visit by an eminent rudraveena maestro from India, the late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (Z.M. Dagar), who came as a visiting faculty member more than three decades ago at the invitation of Robert Garfias who headed the University of Washington’s (UW) Ethnomusicology program in the mid 1970s. Over a period of four years spread over the mid-to-late-1970s, the ustad, a representative of the 18th generation of the Dagar family of musicians, trained several students in the art of dhrupad. He also taught khayal to beginner vocalists and trained instrumentalists who specialized in playing Indian stringed instruments such as the sitar, surbahar, violin and sarangi. Fred Lieberman and Daniel Neuman who succeeded Garfias at the ethnomusicology department at UW also actively supported the visiting artist program. Over the years, musicians interested in learning dhrupad moved to Seattle from states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and California.

Z.M. Dagar’s prominent disciples in Seattle

Ustad Z.M Dagar groomed two disciples of Indian origin, Shantha Benegal and the late Prabha Rustagi, both committed to learning Dhrupad. However, in addition to students of Indian origin, the ustad also succeeded in inspiring a number of students of non-Indian origin. Annie Penta, Jeff Lewis and Jody Stecher (now of California) are some prominent senior disciples who not only learned and performed dozens of dhrupads but also disseminated the knowledge by teaching them to other students in the Seattle area. The presence of a considerable number of Dhrupad practitioners in Seattle to this day is not just testimony to the ustad’s knowledge, scholarship and effective teaching style but also credible proof of the lasting impression he made on the music scene in Seattle.

Jody Stecher, a renowned singer and multi-instrumentalist, was pre-Microsoft resident of the Redmond suburb of Seattle, when he learned to play the instrument Sursringar from ZM Dagar. The sursringar, an almost extinct ancient Indian musical instrument, has a soothing sound similar to the rudraveena played by Z.M. Dagar. Stecher spent time with the ustad in Seattle and also in India. His audio recordings have been Grammy finalists and Indy award winning entries.

Senior disciple Annie Penta tells a moving story about her association with Dhrupad. “I was born in Bethlehem, PA, and after a life with a brother, four sisters, and then another brother and sister from our dad’s second marriage, many years of piano, trumpet lessons with my dad, a real wish to sing in the glee club, a BA in Chemistry and a fine introduction to the music of North India from Ali Akbar Khan and master percussionists Mahapurush Misra and Shankar Ghosh over four summers in California, I went off to study Dhrupad vocal music with Zahiruddin and Faiyazuddin Dagar (cousins of ZM Dagar) in New Delhi, capital of India. The Dagar brothers were wonderful to me. For 14 months, they sang with me every single day. It was heaven for me. They treated me like one of their family and taught me as a child. I learned alap and about two compositions during that time. I thought I would return from India singing Dhrupad like a champ but that certainly didn’t happen! When I returned to the States, rudraveena maestro ZM Dagar was touring the California coast. I went along on that tour and asked the Ustad if he would teach me and he said “YES”, so I moved to Seattle in 1975.”

Shantha Benegal, who moved from India after her marriage and who has been a Seattle resident for over four decades conducted a programme called “Music of India” on a Pacifica radio station, KRAB FM for over 13 years in the 1970s. Two listeners, Jody Stecher and Ellen Ziegler, who called her while she was on the air one day, were instrumental in introducing her to ZM Dagar.

Benegal recounts her first lesson with the ustad. “Dagarsaahib had taken note of my deep interest in music on a couple of occasions. I expressed a desire to learn Dhrupad and he asked me to show up for a lesson on a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1975. I recall being a little scared of learning from a great ustad. Through sheer coincidence, I met Dhrupad and tabla (indian percussion instrument) enthusiast Annie Penta during my first lesson. We ended up singing and performing together for the next 30 or more years and came to be known as the “Leela Dhrupad Sisters”.

The late ZM Dagar taught Benegal and Penta compositions in several ragas. The compositions were set to a variety of rhythm cycles. He also trained them extensively in the art of singing alap. “There were no recording devices when the ustad learned music from his teachers. The Dhrupads had to be memorized and orally transmitted from generation to generation. It was therefore essential that we learned, practised, performed and taught the compositions with accuracy. Daagarsahib asked us to pay careful attention to compositions as they are in essence, roadmaps to ragas,” says Benegal who has retired from active performance but continues to coach several students in the art of singing Dhrupad and Khayal.

Among Benegal’s prominent disciples is computer engineer Arijit Mahalanabis, who learned Dhrupad from Benegal for 12 years. He now runs a music school, the Seattle Indian Music Academy (SIMA), with five other teachers. Instruction is imparted in vocal music, stringed instruments such as sitar, surbahar, rudra veena, sarod, piano, guitar and percussion instruments such as tabla to some 250 students. “Since 2008, I have been focusing on music full time, teaching, performing and arranging concerts by visiting musicians. The mission of SIMA is to provide a service where students can learn Indian classical music to their degree of comfort,” says Mahalanabis.

Jeff Lewis, an exponent and teacher of the sitar, surbahar and rudraveena is a faculty member of SIMA and also offers private lessons through Skype. He met ZM Dagar in 1977 when the ustad was teaching Dhrupad at Dominican College, under the auspices of Bob Brown and his Center for World Music. Later, during 1978-1981, Lewis assisted Dagar in teaching Dhrupad at UW. He also lived with him in Mumbai in the early 1980s as a member of the Dagar household, learning and touring with the ustad. He became a close friend of his son Bahauddin Dagar, who has gained steady recognition over the past few decades as a rudraveena player of merit. “My ustad was a great musician and visionary who had the uncanny ability to recognize the musical capability and level of interest of any student who came to him,” says Lewis.

Ramesh Gangolli, retired professor emeritus of mathematics at UW, who now teaches a course on Indian Music at UW, acknowledges the late ZM Dagar as an important musical influence that led him to explore and study Indian classical music. “While Ustad Dagar was primarily a rudraveena player, he could vocalize and explain structural concepts of raga music with great insight. He developed a loyal following of listeners and students during his annual visits to UW in the late 1970s and early 80s. A prime disciple of the Dagar brothers, Uday Bhawalkar visited UW and spent some time in 2005-2006 renewing an interest in Dhrupad among students in the Seattle area”, says Gangolli among a group of pioneers responsible for creating the non-profit organization Ragamala. The volunteer run organization strives to preserve the tradition of Indian classical music in Seattle and regularly organizes concerts by master practitioners to this day.

Dhrupad is now being played on Western instruments

Greg Powers plays Dhrupad on the trombone and has released audio compact disc (CD) recordings with Stuart Dempster who provides support on the didgeridoo. Andrew Buhr regularly performs Dhrupad on the double bass. Powers, Dempster and Buhr are students of Jeff Lewis. It is testament to the adaptability of Dhrupad.

Dhrupad festival to be held in Seattle in July 2013

The late Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and his younger brother, the late Zia Fariduddin Dagar have certainly left behind a rich legacy of Dhrupad through their students and their students’ students.

Come summer of 2013, “Dhrupad Days” to be held in “Dhrupad Nagari”, Seattle, USA should see the spotlight on the ancient musical tradition.

Vibhavaree Gargeya, a Seattle resident of almost 20 years and member of organizing committee of the Dhrupad festival says, “ Dhrupad is a sophisticated and gentle art form that I discovered in Seattle. That I discovered it here, and not in my hometown of Bangalore, India is testament to the global nature of the music scene in Seattle. I was captured by the sophistication, introspective nature and gentleness of this art, and as I learned more about the people who practised Dhrupad, I found this nature reflected in its practitioners, and most of all in stories about their guru ZM Dagar. That one individual can leave such a strong legacy in a city half way across the world is a story that deserves telling. My hope is that the Dhrupad festival brings more people in contact with this art form, which is all about introspection, gentleness, and, ultimately love. If it brings Dhrupad to new listeners, providing them an opportunity to learn it, and induces moments of introspection and quietness, my personal goal in organizing Dhrupad Days will have been achieved.”

With workshops and performances by Ramakant Gundecha, Jeff Lewis, Arijit Mahalanabis, Jodi Stecher and their students, the Dhrupad Days festival in Seattle holds every promise of a grand celebration.


  1. Great article about Indian traditional music! I would like to listen it at the concert soon. Thank you.

  2. The practice of Dhrupad (from Sanskrit: Dhruva pada - "firm in word" or "firm footed") style of music requires understanding of what a "raaga" is and how human it is. So satisfying to see within my lifetime Western people and people influenced by Western ideas inching towards that understanding.

  3. Great article, Shuchita!! So nice to hear about the Seattle connection :)

    1. I had excellent learning experience two years in a row by attending Dhrupad workshops with the Gundecha brothers. I think I have improved in aligning my Sa with the tanpoora and have a better understanding of dhrupad Alap.