“Hunooz Dilli duur ast” (Delhi is still far) is the prophetic message the Sufi poet Nizamuddin Auliya is said to have sent Emperor Ghiasuddin Tughlaq in 1324, as he began his journey back towards the capital after conquests in Bengal. The officious Ghiasuddin had interfered with the building of Nizamuddin’s baoli (stepwell) and insisted that all men work instead on Tughlaqabad, his citadel. Tiptoeing around the order, the workers did night shifts at the Auliya’s well. Soon, the emperor is said to have ensured that oil was not supplied for the lamps. The apocryphal story has it that the Auliya’s curse caused the emperor’s death. The tent he was resting in at Afghanpur, on the outskirts of Dilli, collapsed and crushed him. Tughlaqabad, his forgotten citadel, was abandoned by his son, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, and fell to ruins. The massive fort maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India rims the metropolis along the Okhla industrial area today. In the heart of Dilli, Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah flourishes.

For the renowned dhrupad musician, Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar, there’s no such grand story attached to his relationship with Dilli. Born in the Old (Nizamuddin) and raised in the New (Asiad, Khel Gaon) of Delhi, his life in music has been lived in the city. He sees himself as a Dilli-wala in every sense. One of his poems for his city goes:

Kai sadiyon ki basti hai
Kai sadiyon se basti hai
Baste baste basti hai
Dilli dil mein basti hai

The city of histories here
Many histories live here
It lives among the living here
In the heart of hearts here

By early May, the Dagar family moved out of their Dilli home of 34 years, No. 379 in KP Thakkar block, Asiad Village, also known as Khel Gaon, the sports village that came up next to Shahpur Jat for the Asiad Games of 1982. Since 1988, this had been known as the House of Dhrupad in Delhi. Prior to that, the Dagars lived in A11, Nizamuddin East.

“They want to save the art form but they don’t want to save the artist,” said Dagar, who is among the 27 storied musicians, dancers and artists evicted by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs from state-allocated housing in the leafy and lush environs of Asiad Village.

A framed photograph of a young Wasifuddin Dagar with Laurence Bastit on the tanpura. Credit: S Anand.

Awarded the Padma Shri in 2010, Wasifuddin Dagar bears the mantle of the Dagarbani tradition that traces its ancestry to 20 generations. “Whoever comes to live here next, there’ll be people from far and wide dropping by, and they shall ask, where are those Mohammedans who sang and celebrated Eid and Diwali, Holi and Christmas with equal zeal,” said a smiling Dagar.

As he packed his music room, where framed pictures, LPs, memorabilia and the dusty histories of Dhrupad Society and the Dagar Brothers Memorial Trust lay stashed in old suitcases, a sher (couplet) from Ghalib spoke to the dust at hand.

bhalā use nah sahī kuchh mujhī ko raḥm ātā
aṡar mire nafas-e be-aṡar meñ ḳhāk nahīñ

If my beloved must have no pity at least I must
The effect of my ineffective sighs is nothing but dust

Padma Vibhushan Birju Maharaj died before facing the ignominy of having bailiffs show him out of his state-allotted residence at Asiad Village. The 91-year-old Odissi exponent Mayadhar Raut was not so lucky. His belongings, including his Padma Shri, was put out by the bailiffs. A small section of the media, waking up just then to the existence of such a figure, fussed over him for a few hours. Once he was made an example of, other artists got the message and began to pack.

In our guru’s case, possessions accumulated over 34 years had to be appraised – what to keep and what to throw? It was a nerve-wracking five days of packing as most members of the household fasted for Ramzan, not losing faith in a power bigger than the state flexing its might and claiming its right.

Wasifuddin Dagar was fortunate to have one of his student’s parents help him find a new home – in distant Gurgaon, far from where he and his uncle and father, the legendary Dagar Brothers, Ustads Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar, had made their home.

The itinerant Dagarbani

Historically, the Dagars have wandered around central and north India seeking patronage and ways of keeping their art form alive – a distinctive and slow method of unfolding the abstractions of a raga. The way they interpret a raga often is like watching a bud unfurl into a flower: each moment bearing a movement that is poignant in its poise. In Dagarbani, you hear a wild flower singing a song. The name Dagar is associated with Baba Behram Khan ‘Dagar’, who created an entirely new style of singing, Dagarbani. This is a rare instance of a signature style of art turning into a surname.

An old notebook maintained by Faiyazuddin Dagar opens with this entry. Credit: S Anand.

Baba Behram Khan is said to have lived for a phenomenal 120 years and died circa 1880. He served the royal courts in Lahore, Alwar, Delhi, Suket-Mandi and Jaipur in the 19th century. He developed a systematic pedagogy where anyone, irrespective of background, could aspire to learn. Scholars say that he mastered the Sanskrit treatises on music and created an approach to teaching and performance that made musical learning available to those who did not have access to esoteric family knowledge. This style is also known as sadharani geeti, the simple method of singing. Baba Behram Khan championed the cause of those seen as outsiders to music.

Khan is credited with introducing a “popular classicism” in Hindustani music. The music scholar Dard Neuman says, “He taught a tawaif (courtesan), Goki Bai, as a student, which was prohibited among orthodox families at the time… He broke ranks with orthodox interdictions and allowed the sarangiya Fateh Ali Khan, the accompanist-turned-soloist, to sing.”

In 1857, the fall and exile of Bahadur Shah Zafar made Behram Khan leave Delhi and move to Alwar, and then to the Jaipur court, taking with him his retinue of over 200 disciples and an extended circle of family, kin and friends. Any new patron had to provide for more than just music. Take care of the artist, and the art gets taken care of, to paraphrase his heir, Wasifuddin Dagar.

In modern times, with royal and temple patronage on the wane, the Dagars, like other musicians and artists, moved where their art took them, and took their art to wherever they moved. Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Jaipur and Kolkata came to be associated with the many Dagars, brothers and cousins, all men. The renowned brothers, Ustads Nasir Moinuddin Dagar and Nasir Aminuddin Dagar, who came to be known as the Senior Dagars, moved to ̉Calcutta. Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, the rudraveena player and his vocalist brother Ustad Fariduddin Dagar, made Bombay home, and now Ustad Bahauddin Dagar and a range of disciples across the world bear this mantle.

A film from the 1970s on the Dagar Brothers.

Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar (1932-1994) and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar (1934-1989) were the students and brothers of the Senior Dagars. Wasifuddin (b.1968) is the son of Faiyazuddin Dagar and has learned both from his father and uncle. Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, a cousin of the Senior Dagars, was another stalwart who lived in Delhi. Since the 1970s, the Dagar Saptak became a force to be reckoned with. The saptak, representing the seven notes that make a raga, comprised Nasir Aminuddin Dagar of Kolkata (his brother Moinuddin Dagar had passed away in 1966), the junior Dagar Brothers of Delhi, their cousins Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar of Mumbai, and the other cousin Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, and Hussain Sayeeduddin Dagar (1939-2017), who lived first in Jaipur and later made Pune his home.

Considering all the Dagars and the different ways in which they kept the flame of their art burning will require another longer exercise. Today, as Wasifuddin Dagar comes to terms with a life far from the city he loves, we think back to some history.

– S Anand

Raga ’n Josh

Starting from the late 1980s, for a sizeable and growing community of dhrupad students and music lovers, 379, Asiad Village, became the place where we experienced some of the happiest and most peaceful moments of our lives. It was the dhrupad address of the capital. You rarely rang the doorbell. You just walked in from the front or the rear – and the doors led not just to the music room but to every room. Everyone in the family became your friend and intimate. Food, banter, music, love – each was indispensable.

At the Dagar House, the kitchen was as important as the music room – something was always cooking in both. Mehmooda Dagar, Wasifuddin’s mother, was Mummyji to everyone. You either saw her sitting in the drawing room or the bedroom. Once in a while, she would raise her voice to call things to order. But, mostly, her eyes – sharp and alert – did the talking. She and her daughters – Neelu, Meenu, Guddu and Raju, whom we called Bajis – ensured that everyone in the house, family and guest alike, were made to feel welcome, looked after and engulfed in warmth.

The Dagar Brothers had, and have, a large, extended global family – relatives, students, well-wishers, dhrupad lovers, scholars, fellow musicians, leading lights of the cultural and literary world, some from India, others from abroad – all eager to drink in the music. We would hear about their encounters with legends like M Balamuralikrishna and MS Subbulakshmi, Kumar Gandharva and Ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. Or how, after a concert in Bangladesh, the women in the audience were so enraptured that they kneeled down, bowed, spread their hair in front of them and asked the brothers to walk on this novel corridor as a mark of respect.

A 33-1/3 RPM record of the younger Dagar Brothers – Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar, the gurus of Wasifuddin Dagar. Credit: S Anand.

No one who came to 379 Asiad would be allowed to go without a meal – kebabs, keema, kofta, bhindi or gobhi gosht, daal and hot rotis. And, if you wanted to stay the night, there was always a place made available to you. The house never turned anyone away.

In case, as a student, you thought that Mummyji or the Bajis were not listening to you sing – the door to the music room almost always remained closed – you were wrong. Their razor-sharp ears could tell when you were off. All the Dagar women were adept at playing the tanpura, and many could hum ragas well, although they did not sing on stage.

Sitting in her room and reflecting on the nature of evening ragas, Mummyji once told me: “Beta yeh shaam ke raag cheenti se bhare kebab jaise hotey hain. Agar kebab khana ho toh cheention se bachna padega…” Son, these evening ragas are like a delicious kebabs with ants around them. To savour the kebab, you should know how to see the ants off. This was Mummyji’s way of explaining how the evening ragas tend to be rather tricky – you could slip from Puriya to Marwa to Sohini, or from Shree to Puriya Dhanashree and so on. You had to be careful and skilled to enjoy these ragas.

For the world, it may be difficult to imagine the Dagar Brothers or Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar without Dhrupad. That is true. What is also true, though, is that it would be difficult to imagine the ustads without Mummyji and the Baajis – they have been the bedrock of their musical quest. For decades, the entire household has fed the music lovers of Delhi in every sense.

Wasifuddin Dagar performs Ahir Bhairav in London.

Riyaz with the master

Zahiruddin Dagar’s music studio was a small room, overlooking the garden at the back. Riyaz would start at dawn. Some of us would reach a little later, coming as we did from different parts of the city. Ustadji would be catching the headlines in the newspaper, sipping his morning tea and gently humming raag Bhairav. In the beginning, you would hear him herald the shadaj, the foundational note, Sa. The note was never struck – I could swear that I had never heard its beginning or point of origin. It felt like it manifested itself or emanated from a continuum – one had only just become aware of it and been drawn in.

As the riyaz progressed, he got into the mood – soon there was nothing else but the notes of the ragas dancing to his tune. We struggled to sing to his expectations. We invariably fell short. On occasion, he was upset and he expressed his displeasure: “Kya kar rahe ho beta?” What are you doing, dear? In our heart, we knew it was his love as a guru that drove him. He was a genius so deeply attuned to each and every shruti (as the microtones are called) that anything even mildly off pierced him like a knife. The privilege – to be taught by him and to produce a single note that half-pleased him – was all yours. It was for us to make the most of it.

One of Wasifuddin Dagar’s calligraphic drawings: during class, he often pulls out his drawing pad and special pens. Credit: S Anand.

Under the watchful eye of Zahiruddin Dagar, I discovered the greatest instrument in the world – the tanpura. In my excitement, I once gushed to him: “Guruji, I can hear the gandhar coming out of the tanpura.” He told me, “Yes, you can hear many other notes coming from it. As you practice more, you will find that when you sing to the tanpura, it will sing back to you. Once that starts to happen, it will be you and the tanpura – nothing else in the world will matter”. It took me a while to understood what he meant. Of the four strings of a tanpura, as a rule, three are tuned to the tonal Sa, one string is set to the stable fifth, Pa or pancham. A well-tuned tanpura can harmonically produce other notes, especially the third-placed gandhar.

Every now and then, the other brothers of the Dagar Saptak would drop by at 379 Asiad. When they joined the morning riyaz, it was a sight to behold and a feast for the ears.

My introduction to Dhrupad was at Delhi University, where I was an undergraduate student in Economics. I attended a concert by Aminuddin Dagar in 1981 and I was dumbstruck. Many years later, in 1990 or 1991, when I got the chance to come face to face with him at 379 Asiad I told him about it and recalled the words of the composition. He said the raga was Puriya and the composition was a Shiva Stuti.

In this journey of unending learning, we were helped and supported by the much younger version of the man who is now known as Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar. He was Bacchu Saheb for everyone back then. I went for my first lesson in 1987 when I was 24. Bacchu Saheb was just 19 then and yet my guru. It was at 379 Asiad that Bacchu Saheb gave his first public performance. He was 21 and had spent years at his masters’ feet. This is also the house where the artist as a young man practised rigorously, often for eight hours a day. It was here that he transformed into a dhrupad dynamo and became the renowned teacher he is today.

Inextricably woven into the life at 379 Asiad are two persons who were very dear to me. One was Laurence Bastit, who left her home and life in Paris in 1978, discovered Dagarbani in 1979, was spellbound, and soon became an inseparable part of the family – becoming one the bajis. She devoted herself to spreading the joys of dhrupad across the country and the world. In 1984-’85, Dhrupad Society was founded with Laurence as founding member and secretary. In 2020, she passed away at 379 Asiad, her home. The other person was Chotu, whose real name was Mujib-ur-Rehman, a cook who had come from a faraway village in Bengal. He fed us some of the most delicious mutton and chicken and held a key portfolio in Mummyji’s cabinet. He died young.

The Dagars have left Delhi. For now. Most of us wish it were not so. With the warmth and the music now vested in all of us, it is possible to try and feel a little larger inside, a little more generous and a little kinder as a human being. I am sure all his students and those who have come close to the Dagars echo this feeling. It makes one believe that good things do exist and it is possible for human beings to come together and bond very simply. All this will now happen in another house, somewhere in Delhi or nearby. Dhrupad and life will pulsate again. There’s much to look back on and so much to forward to.

– Pramathesh Ambasta