Westerners aren’t the only ones with artists and aficionados devoted to early music. Although we think of the raga as a timeless tradition, there are older and more modern manifestations of the classic Indian musical form. Tuesday evening, we heard vocalist Uday Bhawalkar in a performance of Dhrupad, the oldest existing form of vocal or instrumental Indian classical music, whose origins are traditionally ascribed to the court of Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior (1486–1516). Accompanied by Manik Munde on pakhawaj (a two-headed drum similar to the tabla but larger, with a deeper tone), Bhawalkar demonstrated a type of music, similar in structure to the classic raga, but older and closer to the original recitation of the Samveda and the sacred syllable “Om.” The Samveda contains the melodies or music for the chants for the Rigveda and is considered the origin of Indian music The Samveda helped train the musicians, functioning as a hymnal for religious rites.

Dhrupad is a kind of musical meditation. The singer vocalizes on syllables, derived from a Sanskrit mantra, that help him express the essence of the music but which have no semantic meaning. Like the more familiar ragas, the Dhrupad has two parts, beginning with a slow non-metric section, called the alap, for the singer accompanied only by the tanpura (drone). This section very gradually becomes faster and faster until finally the pakhawaj joins the singer in the second section, called the bandish, in which the singer now chants a short poem of a religious or philosophical nature. As in the classic raga, Dhrupad is built around a specific scale – including quarter-tones – and strict metrical structure for the faster section.

Despite our familiarity with Indian classical music, we had never heard Dhrupad. The syllabic chanting has a definitely hypnotic effect – even though had Bhawalkar been singing in Sanskrit or Hindi the syllables would, of course, have been devoid of meaning for us. He has an enormous range and great flexibility and expressiveness, yet he sings “naturally” without affectation or vibrato. He accompanies the notes and syllables with gestures, soaring and diving with his hands, as if he were molding the phrases in clay. And he has incredible endurance, holding a single note or phrase long enough to make the audience uneasy and singing non-stop for over 90 minutes.

The first, and main, raga of the evening was called Yaman, an evening raga that lasted nearly one hour. It was followed by two shorter pieces, one seems to have been the bandish section of a raga for the rainy season, Megh, based on a poem by the Indian poet Tansen, a singer from the court of Gwalior, and Sunini, a poem sung by a woman waiting for a rendezvous with her lover; it did not matter whether you understood the words or not, the music said it all. This last piece, an encore, was clearly of a more modern and popular type, using a refrain with a syncopated, almost jazzy rhythm.