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Embracing the Timeless Art of Dhrupad: Shilpa Shanker Narain’s Musical Odyssey

Within the realm of classical music, Dhrupad is a timeless gem, and Shilpa Shanker Narain’s journey into its mystical depths is transformative. Inspired by early exposure to classical music and Khayal training, Shilpa’s odyssey is exceptional.

Shilpa’s tryst with Dhrupad began in the early 1990s when her father, a profound sarod player and classical music producer himself, introduced her to dhrupad. Later she became a disciple of the Dhrupad Maestros Padmashri Gundecha Brothers and continued her journey under the able guidance of Shri Sanjeev Jha.Dhrupad, a lifelong journey for Shilpa, merges her academic background in Philosophy and over a decade of artistic pursuits. Her visual artistry complements her music, offering a holistic perspective on this ancient genre.How interesting that from as early as the 14th century, music theory texts have visualized and gendered ragas. In those days, students of music were supposed to learn painting so they could meditate on the raga, evoke its image and then translate their vision into visual art. Shilpa seems to have unknowingly rekindled this ancient practice during her dhrupad journey.

Dhrupad, one of the oldest forms of classical music in India, traces its roots to the Samagaan recitations of the Samveda. It was never meant for entertainment but was always a deeply meditative and introspective musical form that delves into the very essence of sound. A Dhrupad performance begins with a meditative alaap, an invocation that unveils the purest sound, transcending words and emotions. Gradually, the alaap gains tempo and rhythm, leading to a crescendo, all sung through mantra-like syllables, expanding Dhrupad’s impact.

Shilpa embodies Dhrupad’s meditative essence with a unique blend of artistry, balancing musicianship, classicalism, and her distinctive aesthetic. Her exploration of the feminine perspective within this traditionally masculine art sets her apart. Over the years, Shilpa has cultivated her distinct voice, earning acclaim for its fierce independence and profound impact, revealing the genre’s subtle, esoteric dimensions.

Shilpa’s musical journey breaks gender barriers in the traditionally male-dominated Dhrupad world. Despite its historical discouragement of women, her dedication and excellence have shattered the glass ceiling, earning recognition from gurus and the music community. She’s among the few women who’ve not only mastered Dhrupad but also become its ambassadors abroad.

Shilpa’s vision extends beyond her personal journey; she aims to revitalize Dhrupad, transforming it from a tradition confined to textbooks to a living, evolving art form. Her mission is to illuminate Dhrupad in a broad and accepting format, making it relevant in contemporary musical environments, with a focus on pushing boundaries and inspiring other genres.

Shilpa’s modern communication engagement creates her audience and fosters Dhrupad awareness. Collaborating with diverse artists, she highlights Dhrupad’s richness for younger, global audiences. 

Shilpa’s journey has been punctuated by numerous performances, projects, and collaborations that have illuminated the expansiveness of Dhrupad. From the Dhrupad Utsav at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi to the Dhrupad Uray at The WWF Auditorium in New Delhi and the Smaran Music Festival in Bhopal, Shilpa has graced prestigious festivals and venues across India. Her initiatives also extend internationally, particularly in Manila, Philippines, where she resides. She is currently touring Delhi during October-November 2023 and has performances lined up at prestigious venues like India International Centre and Habitat World, as well as various interactions, lecture demonstrations and concerts in NCR, Mumbai and Vrindavan. 

Shilpa’s notable projects encompass the “Women in Dhrupad” concert series, where she earned the Sur Sadhika Samman for her remarkable contributions. In December 2021, her conceptual performance, “A Dhrupad introspective on Tansen,” artfully blending historic literature, music, and anecdotes, became the first live concert of 2022 at the Bangalore International Centre, receiving acclaim from audiences.

Shilpa’s collaboration with Sound Healer Aparna Sundar in July 2022 resulted in “Prana,” a unique performance that explored the connection between Ahat naad sounds and Anahat Naad sounds. The artists ventured into uncharted territory, bringing to life the ancient notion of swara emanating from the universe and the transformation of sounds into ragas and music.

Shilpa’s latest project explores the works of Carnatic saint poet composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, whose compositions resonate with Dhrupad elements. Her new solo album, “Iti-Dhrupad Meditations on Dikshitar,” released in September 2023, aims to connect Dikshitar with Dhrupad, again a space where very few musicians would dare to venture.

Shilpa Shanker Narain’s Dhrupad journey attests to her dedication and her readiness to challenge traditional norms within the artform. Her endeavors hold the potential to rejuvenate Dhrupad, making it relevant to contemporary music and a global audience, thus breathing new life into this profound genre.

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