Wasifuddin Dagar is likely the most self-effacing musician on Delhi’s cultural scene, which is dominated by pushy, highly networked cliques. Wasifbhai to all, he carries with convivial ease the weight of the Dagar legacy of dhrupad, a genre that predates all others in Hindustani classical music. His home and music room are famously welcoming of everyone – musicians, music lovers, dabblers and just about anyone seeking respite in music. All of this makes him an immensely likeable man, deeply versed in his art but also happy to dabble in wordplay, calligraphy, and long rambling discussions on philosophy and spiritualism.

Dagar says his life’s motto is defined by his Sufi guru’s words: “Chup ki sabse upar tak jaati hai (Silence reaches the ears of the Almighty first).”

But silence is no longer an option for the ustad.

In late April, he found that the chartbusting title track of Mani Ratnam’s blockbuster Chola dynasty saga Ponniyin Selvan 2, Veera Raja Veera, was distinctly similar to a prized Dagar family composition in raga Adana, Shiva Shiva. Since then he has been insisting on fair acknowledgement from the film’s producers, Madras Talkies, while the producers have maintained that the roots of Veera Raja Veera are traditional.

“The song is loosely adapted from a traditional song and has been accordingly acknowledged as such in the film,” the production team said in an email to this writer. “Mr. Dagar’s allegations are unfounded and not true.”

Veera Raja Veera from Ponniyin Selvan 2.
Wasifuddin Dagar sings Shiva Shiva.

Still, the mild-mannered ustad is not giving up. This is the first-ever battle for intellectual property right in the Hindustani classical domain and likely to be a hard one. The raga, its framework and progression are open-source material and a large bulk of compositions are traditional and beyond ownership. So, the direction this debate takes will have far-reaching consequences for the fraternity.

“I am a small man but my music is huge,” said Dagar. “In this city, everyone knows that we don’t run after celebrity or money. We keep a low profile. But the acknowledgement of another artist’s work is important. In our music, when we name the greats, we touch our ears. That is acknowledgment of their knowledge, wisdom and effort that we are freely dipping into.”

Family heritage

Exactly a year ago, he and his family were thrown out of the government-assigned Asiad Village home that had over three decades become rich with musical memories and collections of the Dagar seniors. The new Dagar home in Gurgaon is well over an hour from the southern tip of Delhi. The family is still settling in, the many prized belongings yet to find a place on the walls and shelves. But the warmth remains intact.

“Students are now learning mostly online, it is too far for most to come,” said Dagar. For a guru who revels in banter and eclectic chatter this must be a loss, but he is not a complaining person.

What does bring a flash of indignation to his face is the feeling that his family’s heritage is being disrespected. The Shiva stuti, Shiva Shiva, had been composed and recorded in 1978 by his gurus, his uncle Zahiruddin Dagar and father Faiyazuddin Dagar, who were popularly called the Junior Dagars. Set in an extra fast tempo that is unusual in dhrupad, it was performed by them at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam and then re-released as a CD in 1996.

The Junior Dagars sing Shiva Shiva.

It is not difficult to notice the similarities between the film composition credited to AR Rahman and the Dagar creation. The dhun, the taal and progression of the bandish are discernibly close. Where they begin to differ is that, in the film composition, all these elements are mounted magnificently on the essential Rahmanian framework: superb orchestra, beautiful arrangements and a medley of pitch-perfect voices.

The case is further muddied by the fact that a part of the Rahman creative team and singers of the Hindi version are Dagar’s own students.

Intellectual property

Kumar Gandharva once famously said that a raga takes birth and dies every time it is performed, never to be sung exactly the same way again, not even by the same singer. The same set of five notes in the same order need not sound the same.

Anirban Mazumder, who heads the intellectual property rights department at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata, had conducted a series of workshops last year on Indian performing arts and the copyright law regime with Unmute, an arts collective comprising Kri Foundation, Artsforward and Sruti Performance Troupe. Traditional music, he says, was based on a loose system of ownership that encouraged greater community participation.

“The idea was always to enrich and develop the art with the passage of time,” he said. “But the formal IP system works on the idea of monopoly, exploitation and control. These are opposing belief systems. But the consent of the original creators is essential, followed by an appropriate acknowledgement of the source, not just a quick reference, and there should be benefit sharing as well.”

Uday Bhawalkar sings Shiva Shiva.

When Dagar first alleged plagiarism in May, the producers of Ponniyin Selvan 2 responded with a sharp putdown, calling it a “fishing expedition for monetary gain and publicity”. They maintained that the original composition their song drew on was traditional, composed by a 13th-century pundit, and thus a legal source for inspiration. Days later, a terse addition was made to the song description on YouTube: “Song composed, produced and arranged by Traditional Dagarvani Dhrupad/A.R. Rahman.”

For the ustad and his students, the acknowledgement is an afterthought, too little, too late.

Besides, Dagar has another grievance. Is the melodic composition now the copyright of the film’s composer and producer? Can he sing the stuti again on stage or record it and not be accused of copyright infringement? To the chagrin of his fans, he raised the issue at a concert that is held annually in the memory of the Dagar greats.

“Our music is so evanescent,” he said. “It is immense like an ocean but it has the delicacy of a dew drop. It cannot be snatched without respect. I am standing up for that respect.”

The Shiva stuti is a favourite among dhrupad singers. This includes the Gundechas, Uday Bhawalkar and Nirmalya Dey, for instance. Such sharing of music is quite the norm within the classical music fraternity, but that ecosystem is different – it does not involve big money or market stakes.

“I have no problems with other dhrupad musicians rendering this, even those from other schools and styles,” Dagar said. “I am proud they do. But this was done with an out-and-out commercial intent.”

Gundecha Brothers sing Shiva Shiva.

Film songs have long borrowed from the traditional classical repertoire. Lata Mangeshkar’s Eri Jaane Na Doongi from Chitralekha is a transparent reworking of the short 18th-century bandish of Sadarang, Kaare Jaane Na Doongi. Her Ae Ri Aali Piya Bina for the 1952 film Raag Rang is a much-loved raga Yaman staple of unknown authorship. There is Anokha Ladla in raga Darbari Manna Dey sings for Basant Bahar.

But all these compositions are either of unknown provenance or the work of legends, well beyond the realm of contestation. Dagar’s allegation is different. He is claiming that, for the first time, a film has made use of a relatively modern classical composition.

Whatever the strength of his claim, establishing copyright infringement will be challenging in this instance, says Mazumder. “In the case of both classical and folk music, it is very difficult to prove copyright in the formal IP system,” he explained. “The composition can be just used as a foundation, an idea that is already in the public domain and this can be claimed as a cultural heritage and out of the purview of the copyright law. Technologies are so advanced today that it is very easy to improvise over the root composition and claim originality. In the West, plagiarism charges are now defended by musicologists.”

Dagar says he is not giving up the fight. From his endless bag of anecdotes, he pulls out a story about Tansen. At the court of Akbar, two imposters landed up seeking to usurp the royal musician’s place. Every time Tansen would present a composition, they would say, “This is precisely what we composed”, and proceed to recreate it flawlessly. But the master musician was also a master strategist. He arrived at the court one day and proceeded to sing two lines of a brand new composition. When the duo jumped in with their usual claim of authorship, Tansen shot back: “But I have composed two more lines to follow. Why don’t you tell the court what those are?”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.