Siñca bhikkhu ima nāva sittā te lahum essati/ chetvā rāgañ ca dosañ ca tato nibbānam ehisi
The boat must be lightened, says the boatman
It can’t take all of you, it will capsize.
The Buddha says shed your passions and can
All desire, make yourselves weightless and wise.

This delightful and lyrical call to abandon ego on the ride to nibbana, or nirvana, is from Dhammapada, a collection of suttas or Buddha’s teachings in verse form. Suttas are far moved from the poetic universe of the dhrupad, a genre of Hindustani classical music that is set to eulogies to gods and kings. But S Anand has been interweaving the two in a leap of artistic faith.

Over the last two years, the Ambedkarite and founder of publishing house Navayana has been exploring the possibility of setting suttas to ragas. A student of dhrupad stalwart Wasifuddin Dagar, he has been writing raga-sonnets, some set to suttas, as a bid to break away from the traditional body of Hindustani bandishes that remain stuck in antiquity.

Raag Shuddha Sarang

It is a personal musical journey for the anti-caste publisher, one that is unfurling within the confines of his music room, learning sessions with his ustad and recitals among friends.

For Anand, suttas and dhrupad make for a seamless philosophical unit both in form and content. And this is particularly so, he says, in the tradition of the Dagarbani, or the Dagar school of dhrupad singing, where the emphasis is on building the raga in abstraction.

“The raga is an empire of swaras,” he said. “It is also at once emptiness, and that for me reflects the idea of shunyata (void) embodied in the suttas of the Buddha. The suttas hold infinite possibilities in the Dagarbani tradition where you introspect on many things – how a note is born, where it goes, even how it fades and dies. The tradition teaches you not just the production of a note but how to let it go.”

Raag Kambhoji – “Imasmim sati idam hoti”

Dhrupad, considered the oldest of all surviving genres of Hindustani classical music, grew out of a poetic tradition that was primarily religious in nature and came into its own in the 15th century. Its antecedents are traced back to forms of bhakti song-poems such as prabandhas and Bishnupadas.

Given its roots in a poetic tradition – and despite its vastly abstract form – the dhrupad is more verse-centric than the khayal, in which the composition is just a hook to hang a raga. Its lyrics are split into four parts that follow an elaborate alap – sthai, antara, sanchari and abhogi. This intense focus on the verse, however, has changed considerably in recent times, with most of a recital taken up by the alap.

As it evolved, moving from its Sansritic core to Brajbhasha and more popular platforms, the dhrupad became the preferred musical form for Hindus, Sufis as well as Sikhs. As literary historian Francesca Orsini says in her paper ‘Krishna is the Truth of Man’, the dhrupad found a “multireligious audience” in “open” contexts of the kind where religious words and symbols could be interpreted variedly. For the Sufis, the dhrupad was a setting for sama, a state of musical trance, and a metaphor for the tenets of right living. There are inextricable links too between the Gurbani of the Sikhs, its poetics and musical approach, and the dhrupad.

It is into this eclectic mix that Anand wants to bring in the suttas. It helps that his ustad is known and admired for his expansive approach to music.

Bhairav – Paticca Samuppada

“I find these bols [words] deeply philosophical and spiritual, often reflective of nature, and they sit well with the swaroop [form] of the ragas Anand uses,” said Dagar. “There are very few new bandishes in dhrupad – we mostly continue to draw from the works of Tansen, Baiju Bawra, Ras Khan, the ashta chhap kavis [eight poets who wrote music for Krishna worship] and Tulsidas. But there is no denying that music needs new breath even we preserve the old. The Gundechas, for instance, have sung Nirala and Kabir. Besides, the upaj [creative path] is the singer’s domain, within the rules of grammar.”

Buddhist practices and dhrupad may have met some time in the distant past. In the Dhrupad Annual of 1992, musicologist Richard Widdess writes about the idea of a Buddhist dhrupad as practised in the carya (temple rituals) of Nepal. Carya giti (songs) or padas, discovered in an 11th century manuscript, were mystical song texts related to Buddhist doctrines and ascribed to specific ragas. “Caryā can thus be considered to be one of the precursors of the later classical dhrupad; indeed, one writer [Emmie Te Nijenhuis] has called the caryā songs ‘the earliest specimens of dhrupads that have thus far comedown to us,’” says Widdess.

Over the last two years, S Anand has been exploring the possibility of setting suttas to ragas. Credit: Srijaya Anumolu.

Anand’s work on raga-sonnets comes after a long span of engaging with Indian classical music, Hindustani as well as Carnatic. He recalls being disheartened by the Carnatic landscape, “the whole baggage of Brahminism and the hegemony of Thyagaraja and the trinity in Carnatic”. “It is great music but the verses themselves are often lacking in poetry and revel in cliches and namavalis – names strung together in the case of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastri,” he said.

After moving to Delhi in 2007, Anand moved closer to Hindustani music and to Kabir thanks to filmmaker Shabnam Virmani’s Kabir Project. He remained, he says, “an autodidact or sorts, unwittingly mixing Dhrupad with Carnatic, Khyal and bhakti sangeet”. But it was dhrupad, where a raga could be explored for over an hour as a formless alaap, that drew him the most.

Anand finally approached Wasifuddin Dagar in 2018, having heard his annual Muharram session, Unveiling of Tanpuras. “The atmosphere moved me to tears,” he recalled. “I realised I had found my guru.”

Raag Multani – “Jai Jai Bhim”

The suttas he sings are drawn from varied compilations: from the 82 sayings of the Udanavarga (collection of “inspired utterances”), he sings the Tithha Sutta, known as the parable of the five blind men and the elephant, in raga Shree. Imesu kira sajjanti eke samaabrāhmaā/viggayha na vivadanti janā ekagadassino’ ti (O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim/For preacher and monk the honoured name! / For, quarrelling, each to his view they cling. Such folk see only one side of a thing.)

Set in much-loved Bhairavi, there is a sutta about transcending all binaries from Bahiya Sutta. Yattha āpo ca pahavī /tejo vāyo na gādhati/na tattha sukkā jotanti/ādicco nappakāsati/na tattha candimā bhāti/tamo tattha na vijjati. Yadā ca attanāvedi/muni monena brāhmao/atha rūpā arūpā ca, sukhadukkhā pamuccati (Where water, earth, fire and wind have no footing: There the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible, the moon does not appear, darkness is not found. And when a sage, a brahmin through sagacity, has known [this] for himself, then from form and formless, from bliss and pain, he is freed.)

Raag Bhairavi – Bahiya Sutta

“The lyric – a bandish, a poem, a sutta – is a container or structure,” said Anand. “It is for us to fill and shape it. Of course, each raga has its grammar and there are rules. But I don’t believe in the notion of ‘purity’ cited so often in classical music. Khamaj raga, for instance, is called a kshudra prakriti raga [petty and non-serious as opposed to deep]. And there are great artists who seek to convert a Muslim-sounding raga like Jaunpuri – because it is attributed to Sultan Hussain Sharqi of Jaunpur – into Sanskritic ‘Jeevanpuri’ and so on. But ragas, even when created by petty humans, are above hierarchies and the brahminic classificatory impulse around purity – impurity that caste creates.”

Why not then delve into voices from the past that are truly timeless and universal, relevant to the politics and culture of today?

“Buddha, Kabir, or the many abhangs in Marathi, the vachannas in Kannada or the cryptic verse from Thirukkural that talk of life, death and everyday truths,” he said. “There’s so much of good secular poetry in the many languages of South Asia that can be sung in raga. If I sing something that’s over 2000 years old today, am I not being more traditional? The parampara of ragas is to me truly modern because I am modern. My practice is influenced by Ambedkar who led me to both Kabir and Buddha.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.