Obituary: Pandit Ramakant Gundecha

Category Dhrupad 24 November 2019

Darbar laments the passing of Pandit Ramakant Gundecha, a master vocalist of the Dagarvani Dhrupad tradition. Earlier this month he suffered a heart attack while waiting for a train in his home city of Bhopal, and sadly died en route to hospital. Today - 24th Nov 2019 - would have been his 58th birthday.

Pandit Ramakant Gundecha first rose to prominence in the 1980s as one half of the Gundecha Brothers, performing hypnotic vocal duets with his elder brother Umakant. Often accompanied by their younger brother Akhilesh on the double-headed pakhawaj drum, they quickly became known for their near-telepathic musical interplay and powerful command of mandra saptak (lower octave).

After a musically-inclined childhood in Ujjain, Ramakant and Umakant moved to Bhopal to study under another pair of brothers, vocal master Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, a modern pioneer of the 7-string rudra veena. Born as 19th-generation Dhrupad musicians, the elder brothers led the Gundechas through the patient textural elaborations of the Dagarvani idiom, imparting a vast shared vocabulary of slow, syllabic ornaments.

Dhrupad is India’s - and perhaps the world’s - oldest surviving style of classical singing. But the music’s ancient roots do not indicate any deficit of sophistication - instead, they have enabled it to become, in the eyes of Dhrupadyas, one of the world’s most highly evolved art forms.

Neither should its long history be taken to suggest a lack of innovation. Its core elements may have remained largely unchanged for millennia, but there has always been ample room for exploration within their bounds.

Gundechas & Dagars
The Gundechas learn from Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar

Ramakant ably demonstrated this commitment to ‘bounded innovation’, contributing a range of fresh ideas to his genre without ever straying too far from its deeper foundations. While rarely inclined to bend the rules of the great ragas, he found countless new ways to breathe new life into their existing phraseologies - such as through greatly developing the art of singing complementary, overlaid melodies with his brother.

They also turned to the past to take their music forward, augmenting the traditionally Islamic Dagarvani repertoire with the work of Hindu poets such as Kabir, Meera, and Tulsidas. But for Ramakant, reflective, lyrical meaning was always secondary to the immediate, textural power of sound itself. He described his music as a form of nada yoga, the ancient Sanskrit premise that all creation consists of and arose from nada - sound vibration. 

The brothers went on to win the Padma Shri (India’s fourth-highest civilian honour) and also founded their own academy in Bhopal, the Dhrupad Sansthan, hosting an annual festival there. They have taught thousands of students across the world as well, including a long, fruitful association with the Seattle-based Dhrupad Music Institute of America.

Alongside classical performance Ramakant worked with filmmakers and choreographers, and in 2017 the brothers wrote a book collecting in-depth conversations with their fellow musicians (Sunta Hai Guru Gyani).

Soundchecking with the tanpuras at Darbar Festival 2019

The Gundechas performed at Darbar Festival less than a month before Ramakant’s passing (listen to the video embedded at the end), enrapturing the Barbican Centre audience with a special morning performance of Raag Gujri Todi on 12 Oct, as well as an additional demo lecture on the role of the tanpura. To some, Gujri Todi is associated with funeral rites and reflections on mortality - but their take was sombre and contemplative rather than foreboding. 

After the concert, Ramakant remarked to me how beautiful it was to see hundreds of Londoners turning up to an hour-plus Dhrupad performance on a Saturday morning. This occurrence perhaps came as less of a surprise to me - I’ve never really understood Dhrupad’s reputation for being ‘hard to like’, or ‘a bit much for beginners’, etc.

In fact, the Gundechas' Tears on a Lotus was the first Indian classical CD I ever heard, lent by an open-minded electronic music professor down the road when I was a young teenager in Somerset, England. This was the first step on a path that has encompassed studying sitar and tabla under Pandit Shivnath Mishra in Benares, and now becoming a full-time musician and writer in London.

Things could have transpired very differently if I’d never come across their rendition of Raag Gaoti all those years ago. I’m honoured to have had the chance to tell Ramakant all this in person, and will never forget laughing with the brothers at the festival while seeking (and failing) to find them some good-quality falafel in nearby late-night London. He seemed in excellent health.

The Gundechas out in London with other 2019 Festival artists

And I take great heart from hearing that Umakant has no plans to stop performing, feeling that music is the best way to honour the legacy of his brother and come to terms with his own loss. He will be joined in upcoming concerts by Ramakant’s 22-year-old son Anant, a talented vocalist who has already performed internationally (still, spare a thought for the various pressures on this young man right now).

Pandit Ramakant Gundecha’s last rites were carried out at Bhopal’s Bhadbhada Cremation Ground the day after his 8th Nov passing, in the presence of his brother, wife, son, and other family members. He will be greatly missed by all the Darbar team as well as countless Indian music aficionados from around the globe.

—Written by George Howlett. Also see Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music.

"We sing the notes in their pure form. Both the performers as well as the listeners experience the life energy in these notes. Dhrupad is therefore really about going deep into the essence of everything, including oneself. You can see yourself through Dhrupad." (Pandit Ramakant Gundecha, 1961-2019)

Also see our Artist Page for the Gundecha Brothers - one of over 100 pages in our new Artist Database, containing short bios, quotes, and videos of each Darbar performance.

Darbar Arts & Heritage believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. To find out more, get the Darbar newsletter, explore our YouTube channel, or sign up to the Darbar Player to watch extended performances in pristine HD quality.

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Founded in 2006, Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust (Darbar) believes in the power of Indian classical arts to stir, thrill and inspire. Through digital connectivity, shared experiences and enrichment we ensure that one of the finest art forms reaches the widest possible audience.

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