Watch Indian classical vocalist Niloy Ahsan’s incredible performance of ‘Bhairav (Bandish)’


Niloy Ahsan is an incedible virtuosic Dhrupad vocalist from the esteemed Dagar lineage which spans 21 generations, with roots tracing back to Swami Haridas in the 15th century. He is a master of the Alap – characterized by a sophisticated, subtle, and serene presentation that meticulously explores the microtonal nuances, delicately unveiling the intricacies of the raga – elements often overlooked or lost in other musical forms.

On Breathing Raga, Niloy offers a rendition of “Raag Bhairav” – an early morning Raag known for its immense aesthetic depth, its sound symbolizing the drowsy, wandering state of early morning around sunrise. The album’s single, Bhairav (Bandish), features a composition which reflects upon the infinite nature of existence, and the essence of Lord Shiva.

It’s really incredible work of Indian classical music, with agile dextrous vocals floating across the Pakhawaj and twin Tanpura’s.

“Bhairav (Bandish)” is the first single from Breathing Raga and has been issued on Worlds Within Worlds. You can find it here.

In the meantime Worlds Within Worlds label manager kindly Lachlan Dale offered us a short interview he conducted with Niloy, which provides some fascinating context to these incredible sounds:

Lachlan Dale: Provide me a little context for this album. Where are you in terms of your career?

Niloy Ahsan: I have been immersed in learning Dhrupad intensively for the past 14 years. Prior to that, I studied another discipline of Indian classical music known as Khayal. Currently, my career keeps me busy with rigorous practice, learning from my Guru, teaching, performing, collaborating on various projects across genres, and traveling for workshops and masterclasses.

Lachlan Dale: What is your relationship to music? Why is it important to you?

Niloy Ahsan: Music holds profound importance in my life for several reasons. Firstly, it allows me to authentically and genuinely convey my deepest experiences as I sing. As a human being, I find that I can express myself most effectively through music, surpassing the limitations of speaking or writing, or any other medium.

Singing, to me, serves as a powerful method of maintaining health, activity, consciousness, and strength in life. In particular, my discipline of music, Dhrupad, encourages deep breath control while singing, ensuring that the entire body is engaged in the act of exhaling or vocalizing. This practice consciously activates all singing registers, spanning from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, making it a profound yogic experience for me. Moreover, music serves as a conduit for exploring profound questions about life, the universe, and my personal emotions. It allows me to delve into the intricate layers of emotions, associating myself with different feelings and expressions. Witnessing these deep-seated emotions materialize into sound brings me immense joy and fulfillment. Ultimately, music isn’t just a part of my life—it is life itself. It defines who I am and encapsulates my essence.

Lachlan Dale: What is the lineage and tradition that you come from? Please tell us about that.

Niloy Ahsan: Music runs deep in my family’s roots. Originating from the village of Gouripur in what was once East Bengal (now Bangladesh), it was renowned as a center for Indian classical music. This vibrant hub nurtured legendary maestros such as Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ustad Inayat Khan, Ustad Dabir Khan, Pandit Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, and many more, who either resided there or frequented its musical circles. My father inherited his musical legacy from this rich milieu and remains a skilled vocalist to this day. He introduced me to the world of Indian classical music at a tender age. Initially trained in the Khayal style within the Agra and Indore Kirana Gharanas, my musical journey later led me to delve into Dhrupad, igniting a deep passion within me. Under the tutelage of the renowned Gundecha Brothers followed by Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, I honed my craft. Belonging to the illustrious Dagar lineage, which boasts a tradition spanning 21 generations, with roots tracing back to Swami Haridas in the 15th century, I am deeply immersed in the rich heritage of my musical ancestry. The hallmark of the Dagar Gharana lies in its exquisite exposition of the Alap, characterized by a sophisticated, subtle, and serene presentation that meticulously explores the microtonal nuances, delicately unveiling the intricacies of the raga—elements often overlooked or lost in other musical forms.

Lachlan Dale: What can you tell me about your approach to this recording? What is unique or interesting about it?

Niloy Ahsan: The Raag I’ve chosen for this recording is Raag Bhairav, also known as the Aadi Raag. It holds significant importance as an early morning Raag, boasting immense aesthetic depth. Notably, the second and sixth notes, Re and Dha, occupy a subtle position, inaccessible in standard scales, and perpetually oscillate, symbolizing the drowsy, wandering state of early morning around sunrise. These notes exist in a Shruti state, characterized by microtonal oscillation, rather than a Swar state with static frequency. In this rendition, I’ve endeavored to infuse my personal interpretation into this widely recognized melody, delicately pushing the boundaries of this traditionally rigid and solemn art form. While I embrace innovation, I believe it must remain within the realm of reason. Additionally, I’ve strived to cultivate Samvad, or consonance and harmony, within each note and the transitional spaces between them, utilizing the Tanpura as a drone. This concept of Samvad lies at the core of Raag Music and Indian classical music as a whole, encapsulating its essence. Each note must be perfectly pitched and timed to maintain Sur, flowing seamlessly in harmony.

Lachlan Dale: Tell me about your journey to Dhrupad.

Niloy Ahsan: As mentioned earlier, my journey began with Khayal, a form of Indian classical music that ignited my passion. I performed Khayal before delving into the world of Dhrupad, driven by a curiosity about the broader spectrum of Indian classical music.

My fascination deepened when I stumbled upon recordings of the Dagar Brothers. I vividly recall a moment on a bus, listening to Senior Dagar Brothers’ rendition of Raag Todi. The way Moinuddin Dagar Sahab seamlessly glided from Madhyam to Pancham, delicately touching Dhivat, left me entranced by the subtle yet majestic beauty of their execution. This experience compelled me to embark on a journey to learn Dhrupad, if only for a brief period. Initially, I hadn’t planned to forsake Khayal. However, after a few months of learning Dhrupad, I resolved to persevere until I attained a proficient level—a day that has yet to arrive. I remain committed to mastering its intricacies, particularly the pursuit of the right sound. In the early stages, I immersed myself in rigorous practice, dedicating 12 to 14 hours daily. I was intoxicated by the mystery of sound, the harmonic dialogue with the Tanpura, and the profound interconnectedness of musical notes, underscored by the essence and application of Shruti—the microtonal nuances in Dhrupad. Like the revered masters of my Gharana, I firmly believe that true musical greatness hinges upon a thorough understanding and utilization of Shruti. To internalize this, for the initial 2 1/2 to three years, I spent hours daily singing the first note, Shadaj or Sa, uninterrupted for 4 to 5 hours before delving into other practices. Such immersion revealed the vast potential and depth inherent within each note—a revelation reserved for those genuinely immersed in this transformative path of learning.

Lachlan Dale: We are releasing Bhairav (Bandish) as a single. What can you tell me about this composition, its meaning, its inspiration? What about your connection to it?

Niloy Ahsan: This composition holds a venerable legacy within our tradition, having been sung or recorded by all the senior maestros of our Gharana. Set to a 10-beat rhythmic cycle known as Sadra, it encapsulates the essence of Lord Shiva. The theme of the composition revolves around the description of Lord Shiva, reflecting upon the infinite nature of existence, as the word “Shiva” signifies ‘That which is not.’

Lachlan Dale: Is there something else you think people might want to know?

Niloy Ahsan: Indian classical music, particularly Dhrupad, boasts a strikingly unique feature: it diverges from the tempered scale system, rendering its notes devoid of fixed frequencies. Within this framework, the same set of notes undergoes diverse placements, approaches, and timings across different Raags. For instance, in Bhairav, Re and Dha are positioned at a significantly higher Andolit Shruti (upward microtonal oscillation) compared to Todi, where they are labeled as Ati Komal (extreme low). Notably, according to our Gharana, even the tonic, or Sa, remains subject to change for various Raags. Within the octave, each Swar is subdivided into seven subtle microtonal shades, ranging from Komaltama to Teevratama, designed to nurture a refined sensitivity to the nuanced distinctions between sound layers. Remarkably, these subtle layers of sound embody our intricate emotions or Bhava-s, enriching the music with profound depth and meaning.

Lachlan Dale: Why is it important to conserve or continue this tradition?

Niloy Ahsan: Dhrupad, an art form steeped in balance, minimalism, and rationality, embodies the intricate interplay of creativity and logic. At its core, it delves deep into the essence of sound and the ethereal rhythm of breath, challenging the singer to be both profoundly engaged and serenely tranquil. Only then can the spontaneous, unrehearsed melodies of Dhrupad be woven seamlessly. A virtuoso of Dhrupad must embody the roles of composer, musician, and performer simultaneously, crafting poetry through live performance. This ancient tradition, a global treasure, demands relentless dedication and refinement, as my revered mentors often emphasized the necessity of embracing a certain degree of madness to embark on its journey.

In the midst of unprecedented scientific and technological progress, we confront the challenge of harmonizing the extraordinary expansion of the human intellect with the overwhelming influx of information. Even luminaries like Stephen Hawking cautioned about the limitations of our minds in processing the vast knowledge available today. To navigate this complexity, we must cultivate the ability to assimilate information rationally and healthily, fostering harmony with nature and each other. Dhrupad, with its transformative power, holds the promise of guiding individuals toward such equilibrium. It has profoundly influenced my own life, instilling positivity, and I firmly believe it can enrich anyone’s existence, regardless of their origins or heritage.

Lachlan Dale: What would you say to people listening to Drupad for the first time? How should they approach it? How is it different to other types of music?

Niloy Ahsan: Experiencing Dhrupad for the first time requires patience, as it doesn’t immediately reach its climax like a song. It begins with deliberate slowness, emerging from silence and gradually filling the space with evolving sounds, eventually attaining Naad, the pinnacle of musical quality. The journey of Dhrupad is akin to savoring a meal, step-by-step, layer by layer, with each sound revealing its aesthetic beauty in a slow, deliberate culmination. Just as one does not expect dessert at the outset of a meal, an audience should embrace the unfolding of Naad, feeling its flow and observing its interaction with their inner stillness. While Dhrupad allows for experimentation like any other genre, it insists on maintaining stillness and connectedness between Swar-s and Shruti-s.

As my Guru used to say, Dhrupad is not merely music; it is an approach to music. He believed that even Rock music could be sung in the Dhrupad style if the zone could be sustained and the interconnectedness of sound and perfect consonance with the Tanpura maintained. Gradually, performances delve into mastering faster rhythmic movements, with the percussion, the Pakhwaj, improvising rather than adhering to a fixed beat. This total improvisation, rooted deeply in the thread of Naad and Samvad, underscores the importance of sincerity towards every Swar.

“Bhairav (Bandish)” is the first single from Breathing Raga and has been issued on Worlds Within Worlds. You can find it here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.