Master of the Rudra Vina

Article and Photographs by Ira Landgarten

USTAD ZIA MOHIUDDIN DAGAR (1929-1990) was the world's most renowned exponent of India's ancient rudra vina, the instrumental ancestor of the sitar. He was also one of the few masters of dhrupad, the slow, austere, meditative traditional music still performed as it was centuries ago by Dagar's forefathers in the Mughal courts. But Dagar was no mere historical curiosity. He had several promising students in India, and in the United States, where he performed and taught regularly since his American debut in 1968. Dagar was affiliated with the American Society for Eastern Arts in Berkeley, California, and he also taught for many years at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

A staunch traditionalist, Z. M. Dagar represented the nineteenth generation of an illustrious family whose musical traditions date as far back as the thirteenth century. Yet Dagar did break with tradition when he became the first in his family of classical vocalists to publicly perform on the vina.

"All dhrupad singers were vina players," Dagar explained, "because vina was very important for dhrupad. Sometimes a singer would play the vina to check the shrutis (microtones, of which there are 22 in the Indian octave), and by listening to them on the vina, he would learn. But the singers never performed on vina outside the home."

Dhrupad means "fixed poetry," and in fact refers to a style of classical Indian vocal music. Though it is commonly held that dhrupad was originated in the fifteenth century by Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior, in north-central India, it is more probable that the raja merely revived and encouraged a musical form evolved from prabandha, a far more ancient type of classical song composition. Because of their sacred temple origins, dhrupad songs were religious or philosophical. They were majestic paeans to gods and goddesses, performed with great reverence. Gradually the object of these grand hymns shifted from divinities to nature, and to the kings and emperors who protected and patronized the musicians.

A dhrupad text, which avoids ornamentation and demands clear, firm intonation, consists of only four lines, and with these any raga or other composition can be rendered in its purest form. Each line, which forms the basis of a musical segment, has a name and an order of its own, and in Indian terms, "the musical idea stretches its wings in the asthayi (first section), soars up in the antara (second section), goes in the sanchari (third section), and finally, with a broad sweep of notes in the abhog (fourth section), furls its wings."

It was during the reign of Akbar the Great (1542-1605) that dhrupad reached a high-water mark, and four banis - methods of improvisation or presentation - became apparent in the songs. These were the gaudahara bani, the naohara bani, the khandara bani, and the dagora bani. The last of the four literally has been synonymous with the Dagar family tradition to the present day.

Z. M. Dagar was born on March 14, 1929, in the town of Udaipur, within India's state of Rajasthan. He began his training early under the tutelage of his father, Ustad Ziauddin Khan Dagar, court musician for the Maharaja of Udaipur. "Actually I was five years old when I started singing," recalled Dagar, "and I practiced exercises until I was seven or eight, when my father started me on compositions and ragas - but no theory, because I was very small. At that time I was also given a small vina to play, but it was hard for me; so my father said, 'Start with sitar.' A couple of years later I switched to vina."

The order of strings on the vina, from bass to treble, is the reverse of that on the sitar. But the change did not seem to hinder Dagar's transition from one to the other. "It all depends on practice," Dagar insisted. "Though the vina is really strung opposite, I never felt any difficulty, because vina is a family tradition. My father was a very great singer, but in the daytime he played vina. I always watched him; I liked the instrument. My mind was all the time vina, vina, vina, vina, vina! He cautioned me, 'You want to learn, but don't play vina outside the home!'"

The young Dagar was inspired by the playing of such greats as Dabir Khan and Sadaq Ali Khan, as well as by that of certain sadhus - holy renunciates who played only according to their deep devotional moods. Finally, Dagar became so intent on devoting himself solely to vina as a means of expression that his father consented to a public recital. Z. M.'s performance career began at age 16 at the court of Udaipur, like so many of his family before him. "Practice and keep your tradition," the maharaja told him.

Dagar remembered that he was only 11 when he first began thinking seriously about improving the structure of the vina, but his father did not encourage experimentation. "So many times I changed the peacock sound chamber and decorations," Dagar said, "but my father would say, 'Wait, wait! Don't!"' In 1948, two years after his father died, Dagar resigned from the Udaipur court and began a lengthy period of research, experimentation, and practice. He traveled to Jaipur, to Calcutta, and finally, in 1951, to Bombay - where he lived for the rest of his life.

As a result of his investigations into improving the vina's sound, he decided to totally redesign his instrument. For hundreds of years, vinas had been constructed the same way: A light, hollow length of bamboo served as the neck, with nonmovable wooden frets secured to it by hard wax, and two dried gourds (tumbas) served as sound chambers. In 1959, Dagar commissioned the shop of Calcutta luthier Kanai Lal to construct a strikingly different prototype. One year later Lal's younger brother, Nitai-babu, proudly unveiled the finished product. The neck of Dagar's new vina was a hollow tube of seasoned teak, with a large, intricately carved peacock sound chamber at one end and a dragon's head at the other. The lotus-bud-design tuning pegs and the floral decorations that covered the gourds were also fashioned from teak. To further enhance the deeper sound quality he had sought, Dagar had Lal substitute two giant tumbas, specially grown in central India, for the standard-size gourds.

Dagar also began using heavier-gauge strings, and he added another chikari, an auxiliary rhythm string, to the traditional pair. He further ordered that the metal-topped wooden frets be lengthened from 2-1/4" to 3-1/2", giving him greater freedom to bend his notes. "This was good for pulling," he explained. "With the longer frets, I could pull five notes on my first (kharaj or bass) string, whereas before I could pull only half a note!"

Another innovation was in the method of fastening the frets to the neck. "Originally," Dagar explained, "the frets were fixed in place with wax, which was a lot of trouble. If the weather was very hot, the wax would melt. If the weather was very dry or cold, the wax became tight and cracked. So I liked the idea of fixing the frets as sitar frets are fastened - with thread, and movable along the neck." Though 24 frets gave Dagar all the notes, including sharps and flats, necessary for Indian classical music, the movable frets allowed the minute tuning adjustments needed for various ragas, as well as allowing compensation for seasonal or climatic changes.

In playing his new vina, Dagar dispensed with mizrabs, the wire plectrums traditionally used for vina and sitar. He found that striking the strings alternately with the nails of his right-hand first and second fingers, while occasionally striking the rhythm strings with the slightly elongated nail of his pinky, produced a "better, mellow sound."

Finally, he even altered the established north-Indian manner of holding the vina. Traditional practice had vina players resting the instrument's upper gourd over the left shoulder; instead he nestled the large gourd upon his left knee, in the way of south-Indian vina players.

Finding travel difficult with such a large, delicate instrument, Dagar kept one vina in the United States and two in India. "I'm still researching for a better sound," he reported, "and I've ordered two more vinas from Kanai Lal, so every year I go to India, spend a month at my home in Bombay, then go to Calcutta to check everything. Now each vina takes a couple of years to make."

Despite all his technical innovations, Dagar insisted that his music remained unchanged. "Many people ask why I don't play faster - though I know how to play fast, also," he said. "My father told me, 'Please keep the tradition. Your style should be slow, not fast.' Some gharanas [traditional stylistic disciplines] play with a lot of mizrab, a lot of ornaments and improvisations; each is different. But I never change my style."

Dagar's playing has been described as being "both sensual and profoundly spiritual at the same time." Capturing the subtle, unique character of each raga often depends on accentuating the sharp, flat, or very flat qualities of certain notes; and it was the perfect rendering of these subtleties that became a Dagar trademark. In a deliberate and unhurried fashion, he unfolded and revealed each note of the alap movement, the slow, serene solo exposition of a raga - hypnotically, hauntingly coaxing and stretching the most delicately shaded nuances, the notes between the notes, from the thick bronze strings. Dagar's stylistic emphasis clearly was on the alap, his vina's voice supported only by the drone of a tanpura, a plucked open-string instrument used to constantly sound the tonic and dominant notes of the scale as a guiding background for the soloist. In recitals outside India, Dagar often performed only with tanpura accompaniment, though he enjoyed the addition of a pakhawaj - a large, sonorous, double-headed wooden drum - when available, to round out a performance by bringing it to a stately conclusion.

Dagar's theoretical knowledge, much of which was handed down to him by his family, was voluminous; yet he seemed to prefer limiting his concert repertoire to a few favorite ragas. These are profound, sober, mysterious pieces, tinged with pathos, longing, and majesty, and he explored them anew at each recital. To maintain the intimate quality of his music, Dagar tended to avoid large halls or outdoor performances. He said that "a small hall, a good amplifier, sensitive microphones, and a good audience" were the elements most conducive to enjoying his transcendental Indian chamber music.

Today both the rudra vina and the dhrupad style are rare in India. Times have changed, and audiences have been won over by the faster, more exuberant improvisational khyal techniques of the sarod and the sitar. "Twenty years ago there were a lot of vina players," lamented Dagar, "and now only a couple are left in India. Dhrupad is very, very difficult. It requires much practice, patience, and a lot of time before a teacher will allow a student to perform. Khyal is a little easier than dhrupad; but I like the sound of vina. It makes me relax!"-Adapted from article in Frets Magazine, May 1981

Dagar's Tuning:

3 Chickari strings: High sa (G#), #2 steel; Sa (G#), #4 steel (two)

4 Main playing strings: Low ma (C#), #7 steel; Low sa (G#), #22 bronze; Very low pa (D#), #20 bronze; Very low sa (G#), #18 bronze

Laraj (occasionally struck with left-hand pinky): Low sa (G#), #24 bronze


ZM Dagar: Raga 219

ZM Dagar: Raga 222