Z. M. Dagar: a Memoir by Jody Stecher

Z.M. Dagar was the slowest moving individual I've ever met. He was never interested in playing very fast music, and his mind and body seemed to be set at alap speed. He gave the impression of being continuously half asleep, but everyone who got to know him soon realized that Dagarsahib was alive and alert to subtle realities that most people never even notice. He was a keen observer of people and events, a sort of amateur psychologist, and he could speak to the innermost part of a person when he wished to - with his music of course, but also with words. English was his fourth language I think, but he got his point across splendidly.

Dagarsahib had very strong hands and fingers. I watched him make sitar mizrabs from heavy wire without any tools and of course he pulled heavy vina strings with phenomenal accuracy. Anyone who has tried to replicate Ustad's meend and sruti will know it takes not only a lot of patience and skill but steady endurance as well.

He was a splendid cook. He used black pepper as much as chilies and was fond of chicken. He made the best blackeye peas (loobia) and the best cauliflower I've ever eaten.

He felt that North Indian classical music, and Dhrupad alap especially, was a Universal Science of music and sound, of which India was the custodian. It could be learned, performed and deeply felt by non-Indians. He rejected the notions of "Hindu music," "Muslim music," "Black music" etcetera and I think he enjoyed gently annoying ethnomusicologists by his emphatic dismissal of their terminology and concepts. Of course he recognized different musical styles in different cultures and communities but he knew from experience how pure music could transcend rather than define the differences between people. He also knew that sound is vibrating air and that vibrating air in itself has no religious beliefs or cultural identity.

Dagarsahib was proud of his family and its musical traditions. He spoke to me often of his ancestors and their accomplishments and musical characteristics. It seemed to me that he had the highest respect for two in particular, his father Ziauddin Khan, and Behram Khan. He played Darbari Kannara rarely and Shri Rag virtually never, because these were, as I understand it, specialties of his father. Ziauddin died when Z. Mohiuddin was a teenager, and these rags apparently reminded him of this loss. His great great great uncle, Behram Khan, was Dagarsahib's model of the perfect musician.

I had the good fortune to be present when Ustad was teaching various students. I don't know how many dozens of lessons I witnessed. He related to each student differently but I can make some safe generalizations about his teaching methods. First of all he found a way for each student to relax and feel safe with nothing to defend or to prove. This was a prerequisite condition to both being able to learn and to achieve the fixed unwavering mind that is essential to this kind of music. Next, and equally important he would find the student's strength and affirm it. If a student was doing anything right, anything at all, he or she would hear about it from Dagarsahib, both directly and indirectly. He would usually discourage students from criticizing their own music, saying, with the greatest kindness imaginable, that if anything in the student's music needed criticism or improvement, he, the teacher, would be sure to mention it at the appropriate time. Which he did.

He would teach a student relatively few rags, but at great length and in great detail, as opposed to many rags quickly and superficially. The student eventually developed the skill and confidence to perceive the details of any rag one might hear, and to learn it without direct instruction. This of course took time and effort.

He always taught by singing, whether he was teaching vocal or instrumental music. The core of a typical lesson consisted of Dagarsahib singing a phrase and the student repeating the phrase. If the phrase was correctly sung or played, the student would be instructed to repeat it several more times. If not, Dagarsahib would sing it again and perhaps use sargam or demonstrate on the student's instrument. After the phrase was correctly repeated a number of times, Ustad sang a new phrase which was similarly repeated. Then the student would sing or play both phrases in sequence. In this way, over days, weeks, or months, 20, 30, 40 or more minutes of music would be memorized. This much was true of all of his students' lessons. But there were differences. One person would be asked to memorize something exactly. Another would be encouraged to expand or vary a phrase; or the same student would be asked to do any of the above on different occasions.

In my own case, I learned, through my mistakes, to intuit viable alternatives. When I would play something that was slightly different from what Ustad sang (although I had intended to render it perfectly) he would let me know if it was something he might have sung. In this way I learned the parameters of a rag. Over time I learned to make 'mistakes' that were coherent musical statements in the Dagar tradition. When starting a new rag he always made sure I could repeat the asthai exactly as he sang it. When we reached jor, sometimes he'd have me memorize phrases and sometimes he'd have me improvise for 10 or 15 minutes. He would nod approvingly, utter an occasional vahvah and would stop me only if I went out of tune or out of rag and I didn't realize it. I was always aware that he was always aware of what I was aware of.

My first year of study with Dagarsahib was entirely on sarod, which I had been playing for about five years. Soon after, I began to learn and concentrate on the sursringar, which has a beautiful voice for alap, akin to the vina. I also learned vocal music from Ustad for about a year. Just as he treated every student according to their 'nature' as he would put it, my lessons on each instrument had somewhat different qualities, reflecting the nature of the instrument and its effect on me. My sursringar lessons were serious and exacting, the music slow and profound. On sarod he would have me play very fast three octave tans that I wouldn't have dared to try on my own for fear of ruining the music. He would say: "You are always showing me what you can do. Show me what you can't do so I can help you." This was so disarming that I found as I would attempt 'impossible' tans that I actually could play them after all. During another sarod lesson he had me switch 'on command' between Bhairavi and Bilaskhani Todi, until I could produce, to some extent, the microtonal differences at will. In my vocal lessons he stressed an open unconstricted sound and instructed me to arise at 5AM each morning and sing SA and PA alternately on the vowel 'aa.' When I first received my sursringar (this was his personal instrument which he brought to me in California from Chembur and sold to me at cost) he gave me only sarod lessons and told me to "play whatever you feel" on the sursringar each night for a half hour or so just before going to sleep. After five or six days we began lessons on the sursringar.

Z.M. Dagar was a famous binkar and teacher, but he was also a wonderful singer. He didn't have a loud voice or (so he said) a lot of vocal stamina, but he had a mastery of nuance, sruti, and phrasing that I have never heard equaled. Listening to him sing was not unlike listening to him play. As for his playing, he put in a lot of detail, a lot of meend, more microtones then most other musicians, and he maximized the vina's ability to sustain long tones. His music was slow, majestic, and deeply spiritual.

I heard him play about sixty rags, but he had favorites that he played regularly. His concept of certain rags (Multani, Malkosh, Mian Malhar, and Todi, all come to mind immediately) was similar to that of other Dagar family members. Other rags like Abhogi, Chandrakosh, Bhairavi and Yaman, he played with facets and details never heard elsewhere. His Behag was exquisitely delicate, his Marwa hypnotic, and I am at a loss for words to describe his Bhimpalasi - it was beyond compare. His versions of Desi and Jaijaiwanti also had fascinating beautiful special features that no other contemporary North Indian musicians displayed in their renditions, but curiously he never seemed to play these two rags in public, only for friends and select rasikas, and then only for a minute or two.

He was rightly known as an alap specialist and gave a relatively short portion of public recital time to playing with pakhawaj. Yet he had an unusually firm grasp of time and tal. This was particularly evident when he was giving vocal lessons. He would sing dhrupad and dhammar in an apparently nonchalant manner and suddenly without warning land forcefully on sam. He would lead the listener away from counting beats or any kind of metered perception and then when one least expected it: BAM!, as if to say: "I was never lost..." It was like a giant whale moving gracefully on the surface of a calm sea suddenly diving with a great splash and flourish.