Dhrupad, across borders: American musician Jody Stecher on learning under ZM Dagar, taking up the sursingar

  • Jody Stecher is one of the very few Dhrupad exponents of the sursingar, the baritone predecessor of the sarod.

  • His collection of instruments also features the beautiful sursingar that originally belonged to Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, his guru.

  • When I discovered Dhrupad and also good khayal, I found out how much there is in one note, says Stecher.

Jody Stecher is a two-time Grammy finalist for traditional American folk music. His home in San Francisco is filled with string instruments, including guitars, mandolins, banjos, ouds — and tanpuras. His collection also features the beautiful sursingar (surshringar) that originally belonged to Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, his guru. Stecher is one of the very few Dhrupad exponents of the sursingar, the baritone predecessor of the sarod. In this conversation he talks about his journey as a student of Indian classical music.

How did you encounter Indian music and what attracted you to it?

It was when I met Carnatic musician KV Narayanswamy. I was already a performer then, playing Blues, Bluegrass and free improvisational music. My mother’s colleague invited me to watch while he learnt from KV Narayanaswamy who was visiting Wesleyan University then. KV was living in a building called India House which was basically a kind of dormitory for visiting musicians. He received us dressed in his sleeveless undershirt and lungi – utterly informal, and his music was passionate and spontaneous.

He was only going through the scale of Maya Malava Gowla, the patterns and basic tala exercises. He sang the scalar patterns as if they were the most important melody in the world – he just gave it everything. I was completely stunned. I was 17 and a professional by then, I had toured the country and I didn’t bother with scales — scales are for beginners. And with KV I saw that there is so much more in scales and patterns than I ever dreamed. I am tearing up just now – it had such a profound effect on me. What is there in that music is there – KV did not discover it. It is there – in the music, inside every human being.

Later when I discovered Dhrupad and also good khayal I found out how much there is in one note. How much you could pull out of one pitch according to your vowel, what you are feeling, what the raga is, what other notes are giving, what the audience gives you back… I was blown away by Fariduddin Dagar, not just by the artistry of microtonal nuances, the srutis, but his spontaneity. In Bihag, the sweetness is in the Gandhara, but he would get it out of the shuddha madhyam – how do you do that! Sa-Ma is very stable, very military, but he would bring out karuna in it. I learnt how much you can get from anything.

 Dhrupad, across borders: American musician Jody Stecher on learning under ZM Dagar, taking up the sursingar

Stecher with ZM Dagar

I wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of this music so that it might help me with my Western music, my general understanding of music. But what happened was that I got pulled into it and I wanted to learn it on its own terms, not to use it for anything else. But that too happened – naturally. The phrasings, intonation, rhythm of my original Western compositions naturally bear the influence of this music.

How did you discover Hindustani music, and specifically Dhrupad?

I met Ustad ZM Dagar too for the first time at Wesleyan, and again a friend had invited me to go with him to watch his lessons. He and I hit it off immediately – there was a natural and spontaneous affection between us.

The first thing that struck me about him was his speed – he was so slow and deliberate. We were New Yorkers and used to speed, and his speed was about a quarter of what I was used to. That was just his way, the way of his life, his music and one had to cultivate a slowing down to be able to absorb this music. Later, as his student, whenever I went to his home for a lesson — and I would have travelled by bus or whatever to get there — he would not start the lesson immediately but talk about other things until I actually arrived and had got off the bus. He would talk about India’s history, of India’s geography, the places mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and where they are in today’s India, he would talk about the fruits and vegetables of India… And finally, when I had calmed down and settled, he would ask me to take out the instrument.

Before Dagar sahib, I learnt from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in his school at California. I learned some gorgeous sarod gats but no alap. I was yearning for alap. Khansahib thought Westerners all read notation. The compositions were given in sargam notation. I had never before involved my eyes in learning music, so it was hard. I played by ear. Finally, in 1982, I learned to read staff notation by looking at a 19th-century printed collection of Scottish fiddle tunes. I knew this repertoire so I worked out what the dots and squiggles meant. I was shocked – is this how they represent it? Dots on lines was problematic. That is not how I thought about pitch and music. A musical tone is not a point, it is an area. Maybe on the xylophone it is a point. But I was a singer and I played string instruments which have so many timbres. It all depends on how hard you pushed, what part of your finger you used, how hard you pressed, how hard you hit the string, whether you go up or go down.

I first tried Indian music on the oud when I learnt from Ali Akbar Khan, but it is rather limited for Indian music and I switched to the sarod which is what I played for a long time, even when I resumed learning from ZM Dagar at Seattle where he was invited to teach. He taught me there for six years, and so well. He suggested I try the sursingar when I was looking for an instrument that would express this music more faithfully.

I came across a piece of writing by my father in which he says, “Teach the student, not the subject”. And that is how ZM Dagar, or Bade Ustad as he is known, dealt with each student — by compassionately entering his or her world of aspirations, capacities, limitations… He would sing a phrase and ask me to repeat it on my instrument — always encouragingly — and much later, he would get in there and tell me what I was doing wrong and how it should actually sound. The general atmosphere was always a Yes rather than a No.

He taught me a few ragas in depth, beginning with Bhairavi because my sarod was tuned to it! At a certain point, I realised, though he did not say this, we get an internal guru and we can learn from that person. Sometimes, when I get an idea, I sing it and then copy it from there because I need a teacher there. He always taught vocally, not through an instrument. He would pose exercises for me; for example, after playing Bhairavi I would have to play Bilaskhani Todi and then go back – moving between phrases of these ragas with the “same notes” but really very different because their srutis are completely different.


How did you take up the sursingar?

I was playing the sarod, but the kind of sound that I wanted and needed to bring out Dhrupad was difficult to achieve with it. Each instrument, even say three different guitars by the same maker, will have different sounds. So one will go 'aaaa', another will go 'eeee' and yet another 'oooo' and so on. The sarod sound comes on at once, it is all bright immediately; the short sustain and quick decay of the wave form of the sarod makes it very suitable for playing with the tabla and it sounds very good too. But the Dhrupad sur has this rise and fall, the broadening out and fading which I wanted to bring out on my instrument. It is possible on the been but that was not an option for me because of the very uncomfortable posture of the arms and shoulder. Dagar sahib suggested that I try the sursingar. He ordered one for me with Kolkata’s Hemen Sen and while it was getting ready he brought his own for me to play on. So what I have here and what I play is Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s sursingar.

What has been the greatest challenge for you, in your learning of Indian music?

Tunefulness, for this music. I was once playing and Ustad Fariduddin Dagar – Chhote Ustad – came by and asked me what I was playing, and I said Jaijaiwanti. He laughed and asked – “Is that what you think? What you are playing is half Sorath, half Desh.” The way Jaijaiwanti is performed in this family is very different, with such complexity of srutis that it is difficult for anyone.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 10:38:35 IST