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
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
© K. L. Kamat
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
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:
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.
|Date of birth
||Bgadra Shukla 8 (Wednesday).
||Pousha Shukla 13 (Friday).
|Place of birth
|Arrival at Brindavana (Vikram
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:
|| No. ofcompositions
|| No. ofcompositions
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.
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.