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Swami Haridas and Dhrupad Music

by Mohan Nadkarni
First Written: 1978
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

This article is in commemoration of the 500th birth anniversary of the great saint-musician, poet and composer of Brindavan.

Probably in no other country is music so delicately interwoven with the fabric of life as in India. Music in India has evolved through the centuries in the perspective of its religious, social and cultural history, with a record of development which is truly unique. Religion, in fact, formed the very nucleus of India's artistic activity in ancient times. The art of music (as also other performing arts) was therefore conceived as sacred rite and a symbol of religious expression. Ironically, one of the tragedies besetting our age-old musical tradition is the woeful lack of authentic biographies and accounts of its great musicians, musicologists and composers. Nor has any concerted attempt been made to assess the significance of their individual contribution to the enrichment of the art down the centuries. The extent of neglect of this vital aspect of its evolution and development is appalling. Worse, much of whatever has been handed down from time to time is largely based on imagination, folklore, legends, miracles and superstitions. Indeed, if we look at the history of ancient music, how many names have come down to us? Very few. And these few also happen to come from the period of the Mughal emperor Akbar, during whose reign dhrupad-and with it the tradition of contemporary Hindustani music came into vogue.

© K. L. Kamat
Swami Haridas (1478-1573)
Swami Haridas (1478-1573)

Age of 'Dhrupad'

The dhrupad style is rightly regarded as the great dispensation of the past when virtues like simplicity, dignity, beauty and restraint were upheld with a severity which was tempered with classical grace. Although the innovation of dhrupad is credited to Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior, it was Swami Haridas who really gave a new elan to the singing style which was, till then, a mere medium of entertainment in the royal courts. He was one of the early giants of this period of creative flowering during Akbar's reign. A great ascetic scholar, musician and composer, Swamiji offered his prayer to God only through his music. Immersed in the worship or Shyama Kunj Bihari, the Lord of Brindavan, and his consort, Radha, he burst into song only before God. But he also taught music magnanimously to those who came to seek it. Even today, in almost all the Vaishnava temples, the music that is sung's that of Swami Haridas. It is only the dhrupad composed by Swamiji that are sung every day at the Nathdwara temple-and all other prayers and bhajans are taboo.

Versions galore

Yet, paradoxically, we do not have full and authentic details of the life and personality of Swami Haridas, while legends abound. There are versions galore, often at variance with one another, regarding the date and place of his birth, his lineage, his parentage and significant events of his life. So much so, that it is pretty difficult if not impossible, to separate fact from fiction. Amid this welter of confusion, we find reference to two schools of votaries who owe spiritual allegiance to Swamiji: the virakta (sanyasi) school and the goswami (householder school. Each school furnishes its own bio-data of Swamiji as detailed below:
Date of birth..Virakta's versionGoswami's version
(Vikram Shaka)..1537 1569
..Bgadra Shukla 8  (Wednesday). Pousha Shukla 13        (Friday).
Caste..Sanadhya Brahmin..Saraswat Brahmin.
Mother/Father..Chitradevi/GangadharjiGangadevi Ashudharji
Guru..AshudharjiAshudharji
Place of birth..Rajpur(Brindavana)Haridaspur(Aligrah)
Spiritual lineage..Nimbarka..Vishanu Swami
Arrival at Brindavana   (Vikram Shaka)..  15621594
Samadhi(Vikram Shaka)..16321664
The above chart provides some evidence of unanimity among both the schools on the point that Swami Haridas was initiated by one Ashudharji. There is also fairly reliable evidence to show that Swamiji was born and brought up in an atmosphere of intense piety and devotion and that he took to sanyas When he was still in his twenties. Leaving home, he spent the rest of his life in the holy Brindavan, the center of the Krishna cult on the banks of the Yamuna river.

Swamiji's Contribution

Tradition credits Swami Haridas with 128 dhrupads compositions. Eighteen of these are known as Siddhanta dhrupads and 110 called Kelimal dhrupads. While the former extol devotion to God and detachment in worldly life, the latter depict the eternal romance of Radha and Krishna. It is significant that Kelimal dhrupads depict no viraha. Nor is there any reference to the heroic exploits of Krishna as a warrior in any of these compositions. The names of ragas and the number of dhrupads Swamiji composed and set to these ragas are:
``Siddhanta dhrupadi'' ``Kelimal dhrupads''
``Raga''      No. ofcompositions ``Raga''      No. ofcompositions
Bibhas four Kanada Thirty
Buaval One Bibhas Ten
Asavari Seven Basant Five
Kalyan Six Kedara Twenty-two
Bilawal Two
Gouri Six
Kalyan Tweleve
Malhar Eight
Nat Two
Sarang Eleven
Goud Two

Swamiji's dhrupads, known as Vishnupads, contain the very quintessence of bhakti and moksha. They are rich in their melodic and rhythmic virtues as they are profound in their poetic import. For this reason they merit assiduous study by our contemporary musicians. Legend attributes miraculous powers to the music of Swami Haridas. We may or may not feel inclined to lend credence to the stories associated with Swamiji. But there can be no two opinions in regard to his eminence as one of the greatest musicians of his time.

Swamiji And Tansen

The story of Tansen's first encounter with his future guru, Swami Haridas, is interesting. A naughty but precocious boy, Tanna Mishra (as he was known before his conversion to Islam) loved wandering into the forest along with his cows. Soon he cultivated the extraordinary ability to imitate the cries of a variety of birds and animals, including those of the lion, the tiger and the like. Once Tanna saw, from a distance, a group of tired travellers resting under the shade of a tree in the forest. Intent on fun to scare them away, the boy started roaring like a lion from behind a tree, to the consternation of the travellers who could not find any evidence of the lion around them. Tanna was soon found and caught by a member of the group and brought to the venerable leader, who was none other than Swami Haridas. Swamiji spotted the boy's uncanny talent and, treating him gently, asked to see to his father. Swamiji, after meeting Tanna's father, took his consent to have his son under his care for shaping his musical genius.

Akbar's Discomfiture

Swamiji is said to have taught, besides Tansen, seven other pupils, namely, Baiju, Gopal Lal, Madan Lal, Ram Das, Diwakar Pandit, Som Nath Pandit and Raja Shaur Sen. But Tansen became the most celebrated of his disciples and came to adorn the durbar of Akbar. There are a number of stories which go to show that Swami Haridas never sang to please or impress fellow-mortals. 

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