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The Classical Music of North India:
Dhrupad: Three Papers

Reprinted with permission from the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, Annual Issue of 1999: Perspectives on Dhrupad. © Indian Musicological Society

Number One:
An Introduction

by Deepak Raja

This paper is presented in four parts:

  • A brief history

  • A stylistic background

  • A structural analysis

  • Esthetic perspectives.

To the extent that a genre of music cannot be easily interpreted in isolation, I have used the modern Khayal genre as a reference point for many of my observations. My observations rely inevitably on the volume and diversity of Dhrupad and Khayal music I have heard over the last four decades. I plead guilty to having assumed similar exposure amongst my readers.

The term Dhrupad (Dhruva = immutable/ fixed + Pada = Hymn/verse) refers to a style of presenting Raga based music which dominated Hindustani (North Indian) classical music between the 15th and the 18th centuries. Its distinguishing features are (a) the deliberate, unhurried style of presentation, (b) the sanctity attached to the literary component and the melodic structure of the verses, and (c) a disciplined method of melodic development.

Dhrupad is believed by many to have its origins in an unbroken musical tradition going back into the pre-Christian era. The links of continuity over two millennia, however, remain in the region of conjecture. Contemporary authorities attribute to Dhrupad a link of continuity with a form known as Prabandha Gana (11th century AD). It is therefore safer to describe Dhrupad as a medieval genre.

Contemporary Dhrupad has two distinct manifestations: devotional Dhrupad, which is a resident of the Vaishnava temples, and classical Darbari Dhrupad, which is now resident of the concert platform. Companion papers have dealt, in detail with the devotional form.

The focus of this presentation is on classical Dhrupad, or “Darbari Dhrupad” (Dhrupad of the Royal Courts)

One: A Brief History

In its present form, Darbari Dhrupad, the performing art, is an offshoot of "Prabandha Gana" (Prabandha = organization/structure, "Gana" = song/ singing), which enjoyed great popularity between the 11th and 13th centuries. From the 14th century onwards, Dhrupad replaced Prabandha Gana, reaching its peak of status and popularity between the 15th and 18th centuries.

The history of Dhrupad is inseparably linked with Raja Man Singh Tomar (ascended 1483) of Gwalior (Central Provinces). Raja Man Singh provided patronage to some of the greatest Dhrupad musicians of his time, and commissioned the compilation of the Dhrupad music of his times and the publication of the scholarly treatise, "Man-kutuhal" (lit: King Man's curiosity).

Gwalior and the neighboring principality of Rewa, where the legendary musician Mian Tansen (1491-1583) adorned the Royal Court, were the original centers of Dhrupad music. The Golden Age of Dhrupad commenced when Emperor Akbar (Reign: 1542-1605), invited Mian Tansen from Rewa to Delhi to be one of the "Navratnas" (Nav= Nine, Ratna=gem) at the Imperial Court.

Later, Vrindavan and Mathura (Northern Provinces), originally under Gwalior rule, established their own Dhrupad schools. In the south, the patronage of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, a contemporary of Emperor Akbar, made Bijapur a major center of the North Indian Dhrupad style (Prajnanananda). Dhrupad thus held sway over the whole of non- peninsular India.

Dhrupad experienced a geographical dispersion in the sunset years of the Mughal Empire, when musicians began migrating to smaller principalities in search of patronage. This process created new centers of Dhrupad music, mainly in the fertile Indo-gangetic plains of Eastern India: Bishnupur in Bengal, and Darbhanga and Bettiah in Bihar (Prajnanananda).

According to Parjnanananda, while Dhrupad was still at its peak, Perso-Arabic religious music was influencing some lesser-known streams of Prabandha Gana, to shape the modern, "Khayal" (Persian for imagination/ contemplation) style. Today, it is more widely accepted that the Khayal emerged as a fusion between Dhrupad itself and the Sufi Quawali music.

Two: A Stylistic Background

Because of the poetic bias of the style, the conceptual aspect of Dhrupad music has a strong bias in favor of vocal music. However, instrumental music, mainly the Rudra Veena, dance (Brihaspati, 1989), and even theatrical performances, have been associated with the Dhrupad tradition.

Dhrupad music is characterized as "Swarashrit" (Swara = tones through which the self shines forth, Ashrit = sustained by) and "Padashrit" (Pada = Hymn/ Verse, Ashrit = sustained by). The Dhrupad style, is therefore anchored to the melodic-poetic axis, in contrast to the "Khayal" style which revolves around the melodic-rhythmic axis giving the literary component only a subordinate, and even negligible, role.

Another distinguishing feature of the Dhrupad style is its rigidity, and the consequent tendency towards becoming a genre of “Nibaddha” (pre-composed) music. Dhrupad enthusiasts resist this suggestion. Relative to the Khayal style, however, Dhrupad does fall closer to the “Nibaddha" (pre-composed) end of the spectrum than the Khayal, which places a high premium on improvisation, and positions itself close to the "Anibaddha" (improvised) end.

Having evolved from a relatively inflexible stream of Prabandha Gana, the basic character of Dhrupad derives from the principles of melodic organization and a correspondence between the melodic structure and the poetic form.

For melodic organization, the Dhrupad tradition prescribes a four-stage development. In contemporary terminology, they are called: 

  • Sthayi

  • Antara

  • Sanchari

  • Abhog

Each step has a well-defined esthetic function. The musical idea stretches its wings in the Sthayi, soars up in the Antara, traverses the distances in the Sanchari, and finally, with a broad sweep of notes in the Abhog, furls down its wings (Jaydev Singh).

Although this principle of melodic organization pertained initially to the composition of the melodic-rhythmic shell of the poetic form, it has been accepted as a general principle, valid also for the elaborate alap that precedes the presentation of the composition in contemporary Dhrupad.

Following this principle of melodic development, Mian Tansen laid down the criteria of eligibility for the "Pada" (the melodic-poetic composition). A Pada, according to him:  

  • should have four rhyming stanzas

  • should have been composed by a learned Guru

  • can represent any of the nine Rasas or primary emotions

  • the emotional content of the poetic element should be consistent with that of the Raga in which the Pada is composed (Brihaspati, 1989)

The majority opinion amongst 15th and 16th century scholars favored a three-stanza Pada (Ibid.). In more recent times, the Pada, as performed, has shrunk to just two stanzas (Mukherjee, JIMS,1993) -- the Sthayi, and the Antara.

The literary component of the Pada-s has been predominantly in praise of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Many Pada-s were written on musicological themes. As Dhrupad became a resident of the Royal Courts, Pada-s also came to be composed in praise of emperors and princes. (Prajnanananda).

While the poetic shell of the Pada has undergone a shrinkage over the centuries, the Alap part of the Dhrupad presentation has apparently retained, and even enhanced, its elaborate complexity, in its vocal, as well as instrumental, manifestations.

Vocal music and the Rudra Veena have been the two mainstays of the North Indian musical tradition. Dhrupad music was frequently accompanied by the Rudra Veena, while both also had their independent performing domains.

Dhrupad inherited a tradition of very elaborate alaps (“ragalapti”). Later, it went through a stage of featuring a very cryptic Alap, called the Auchar, rendered in "Aakar" (the "aa" vowel), which did not conform to the four-part melodic development, and was followed by an elaborate presentation of the Pada. Even during the era of cryptic alaps, Pada rendition, along with its embellishments, could last upto an hour (Mukherjee JIMS 1993). The durational balance between the alap and the pada rendition has, since then, changed again in favour of the alap.

The stimulus for the restoration of the elaborate alap in vocal music is believed to have come from Rudra Veena music. The Rudra Veena, being a fretted and plucked instrument, could develop an elaborate Alap traversing three octaves, conforming to the four-step Prabandha discipline, and rendered at three or more different tempi -- Vilambit (slow), Madhya (medium) and Drut (fast) corresponding to the contemporary terminology of Alap, Jod and Jhala.

At some stage, it would appear, vocalists wanted to match the elaborate sophistication of the Rudra Veena in Alap rendition. They had two obstacles: the difficulty of descending into the lower octave, and the absence of consonants in their vowel-based Alap vocabulary which would permit them to step up the tempo. (Ibid.).

They broke through the lower-octave barrier with Pranayama (breath control exercises). To emulate the medium and fast paced Jod and Jhala movements of the Rudra Veena, they adopted a consonant-based vocabulary in the form of religious concepts, and names of Gods and Goddesses, such as Ananta, Hari, Om, Narayan, Tatsat .The distorted remnants of these original Sanskrit words can be heard, to this day, as the meaningless consonants Ta, Na, Ri, Nom, Tom. Hence the contemporary description of the Dhrupad Alap as a "Nom-Tom" Alap.(Ibid.).

The Pada being common to vocal and instrumental renditions, the chasm between the vocal and instrumental expressions of Dhrupad was thus bridged.

In Pada rendition, orthodox Dhrupad apparently permitted only such forms of melodic improvisation, as would protect the integrity of the poetic element. Rhythmic embellishments of the Pada such as its rendition at different multiples of the tempo are a later development. Dhamar presentations, however, permitted Dogun, Tigun, and Chaugun renditions of the compositions.

In recent times, probably in an effort to compete with the Khayal form, Dhrupad apparently veered way from the melody-poetry axis and towards the melody-rhythm axis. By late 19th/early 20th century, Pada rendition and elaboration had acquired a strong rhythmic bias, provoking some commentators, like Prof. VN Bhatkhande, to describe it as a wrestling bout between the vocalist, or instrumentalist, and his percussion accompanist.

This unkind view of Dhrupad could have arisen from a variety of factors. For one, the rhythmic obsession could be an aberration to which Dhrupad succumbed as it was resisting extinction. Alternatively, this criticism may have limited validity, appropriate only to some of the Dhrupad schools practicing a markedly aggressive style of rendition (Brihaspati, 1989). For, the Dhrupad mainstream did, indeed, incorporate different sub-streams called "Bani-s" (Lit:languages/ dialects) with their own stylistic biases.

The “bani-s” ceased to retain their formal identities in the 16th century after the death of Mian Tansen, and merged into the new “seni” gharanas. However, such a political realignment could not possibly have obliterated the stylistic diversity that existed at that time, nor prevented its proliferation in different parts of the country.

Raja Man Singh Tomar's treatise Raga Darpan (Man-Kutuhal) mentions the four "Bani-s". In his time, these classifications were based on the language/ dialect in which the Pada (Verse) was written: "Gaurhar" from Gwalior, "Dagur" from the Dangar region near Delhi, "Khandar" from the Khandar region, and "Nauhar" from the dialect spoken by the Nauhar community. (Brihaspati,1989). In later years, the four Banis have come to signify stylistic distinctions.

Gaurhar has come to be known for its exceptional demands on breath control, its dependence on "Meend", and two-stanza Padas -- against the traditionally prescribed four or three -- of relatively weaker literary content.(Mukherjee, JIMS,1993) Its emphasis is on the "Shanta Rasa", the peaceful sentiment.

Dagur is characterized by a superior literary content, specialization in slow and medium-paced compositions, along with embellishments.(Ibid.) Dagur is also described as the music of the "Madhur" and "Karuna" Rasa-s, pathos, and its sweetness.

Khandhar is known for the "Vakri Chalan" (zigzag phraseology), and its emphasis on "Veer Rasa", the spirit of valor and heroism.

Nauhar specializes in the "Chhoot" (leaping from one melodic center to another, distant, melodic center) melodic phraseology, the infrequent rendition of slow-paced compositions, and a bias towards medium-paced compositions.(Ibid.). These features have classified Nauhar as music of the "Adbhut Rasa", the element of surprise.

In contemporary Dhrupad, this variety of distinctive features is not clearly discernible. This could be so because Dhrupad, as a genre, has a very small share of the performing and pre-recorded music market --- a share so miniscule that it cannot permit each of the different Banis to be adequately represented.

Three: A Structural Analysis

Recent, and contemporary, raga presentation in the Dhrupad format consists of (i) an elaborate three/ four tiered alap in “aakar” and “nom-tom”, unaccompanied by percussion; followed by (ii) a Pada in chautal, accompanied by the pakhavaj.

A durational analysis of Dhrupad performances (Thielemann, 1997), establishes the three/four tiered alap as consuming over 60% of the duration of a raga presentation.

This structure can be interpreted in two different ways:

Firstly, the Dhrupad format represents a sequential separation of the melodic from the poetic-rhythmic. The alap is pure melody. It has laya but no tala. The Pada, on the other hand, is dominated by poetry. The manipulation of the melodic and the rhythmic elements, beyond the confines of the basic frame of the composition, is severely restricted.

In comparison, the Khayal requires the simultaneous manipulation of the melodic, the rhythmic, and the poetic elements right from the beginning.

Secondly, the Dhrupad format represents a sequential separation of the linear progression of music from the cyclical flows.

The progression of the alap, from the lower octave to the higher, from a subtle laya to the explicit, and from a slow tempo towards the higher, is a predominantly linear structure. The sanchari and abhog sections of the alap, as originally conceived, had an element of cyclicity. However, with these two movements having fallen into disuse, the Dhrupad alap has become a linear melodic entity.

While the alap is linear, Pada rendition is totally cyclical in its structure. The poetic-melodic-rhythmic shell of the presentation is cyclical. Improvisations, whether melodic or rhythmic, remain within a restricted periphery of the melodic-rhythmic-poetic frame of the composition, and are therefore largely cyclical.

In Dhrupad, therefore, the alap moves in a well-defined direction, while the Pada goes nowhere. Khayal, in comparison, plunges simultaneously into the linear and cyclical flows of the musical idea. It progresses simultaneously on the melodic and the rhythmic dimensions in terms of density and complexity. The Khayal is therefore continuously going somewhere. Khayal progresses towards a destination that appears to justify the musical endeavor more categorically than Dhrupad.

The notion of “going nowhere”, or “going somewhere”, and the implications of this notion for the build-up and release of anticipatory tension, defines an important structural divide between the medieval Dhrupad and the modern Khayal forms.

Music “going nowhere” is, obviously making a different kind of philosophical statement from “going somewhere”. “Going nowhere” is either nihilistic or has surrendered man’s evolutionary process to the Divine Will. In comparison, music that is “going somewhere” is an expression man’s evolutionary aspirations, in achieving which he ascribes to himself a meaningful role.

This is not the appropriate forum for a discussion on which of these represents superior wisdom. However, these implications are relevant as a backdrop to the esthetics of Dhrupad and Khayal, and to a hypothesis on the “target market” for Dhrupad. .

Four: Esthetic Perspectives

Based on the above structural analysis, I submit a few observations on the esthetics of the Dhrupad genre, again with the Khayal as a reference point. A totally coherent framework might elude us, considering that we are looking at a very sophisticated product of the Indian musical mind struggling to regain a foothold in the mainstream after a long spell of relative neglect. And, yet an attempt to interpret its esthetics must be made.

The architectural metaphor

It is customary for music criticism to use a metaphor from other art forms in order to make itself understood. The literary metaphor is generally considered appropriate for music because literature, like music, is sequentially created, sequentially absorbed, and cumulatively experienced.

By this logic, the architectural metaphor is considered less appropriate because architecture is experienced primarily in a gestalt rather than sequentially. This contention reduces architecture to the level of sculpture, an unwarranted diminution in the complexity of its experience.

Architecture too, although in a different way, is absorbed sequentially upon entry into the various organized spaces, and experienced cumulatively. Pieces of music have often been defined as “magnificent edifices”, and music-criticism has come to terms with imagery such as texture and color. The imagery of the plastic arts in general and the architectural metaphor in particular is, therefore, not totally out of place.

The architectural metaphor might claim substantial validity if we wish to consider the “intent” of the artist in isolation from its “impact”. The “intent” of the artist – whatever his medium -- is always a composite whole, irrespective of the medium of expression or process of absorption. As an understanding of the esthetic intent, the architectural metaphor can have a legitimate place in music criticism.

Dhrupad, as a genre, suggests a highly functional and even clinical approach to design. Le Corbusier (Towards a New Architecture), describes a building as a machine to live in. Nothing more; nothing less. Extending this metaphor, Dhrupad can be described as a machine for the expression of a Raga's emotional content. Nothing more; nothing less.

To Le Corbusier, as it is to Dhrupad, the plan i.e., the functional organization of spaces (a concept perfectly compatible with the meaning of "Prabandha" in Sanskrit) is everything; any element which does not derive inevitably from the plan, is either sculpture or ornamentation, and therefore not architecture, and therefore redundant.

If Dhrupad represents the architecture-dominant facet of Hindustani music, by the same logic, the Khayal style may be described as strong on sculpture, and the Thumree-related genres of Purab (Eastern UP) being strong on ornamentation.

The nature of appeal

Dhrupad is generally considered more “intellectual”, while the Khayal is considered more “emotional” in its appeal. As an alternative viewpoint, we might consider the proposition that the Dhrupad tends towards the “emotional”, while the Khayal veers towards the “intellectual”.

A significant justification for the description of Dhrupad to being more “intellectual” might rest on the richness and sanctity of its poetic element, relative to the Khayal. Most scholars are agreed that the richness of Dhrupad’s literary content is now history, and its significance too has shrunk substantially over the centuries.

If, on the other hand, Dhrupad is considered more intellectual on account of its structure which is “going nowhere”, the proponents of this view are implying that it requires a superior intellect to obtain esthetic satisfaction from such a musical experience. Here we have a problem. “Going nowhere” is perhaps closer to a “sthita-pragna” (I will not dare to translate this term) level of spiritual evolution, than of intellectual evolution. We are now in a territory beyond esthetics. The equanimity of the “sthita-pragna” might be difficult to reconcile with “emotional” satisfactions. But, it is equally difficult to reconcile it with “intellectual” satisfactions. Neither of them is germane to the definition of “sthita-pragna”.

The Dhrupad genre has been described as “Swarashrit” and Padashrit”. By this description, its soul lies in its melodic and poetic elements, and the relationship between the two. Since a Raga is a melodic vehicle for an emotional statement, and the poetic element of the Pada is required to be in perfect consonance with emotional content (Rasa) of the raga – refer to Tansen’s tenets enumerated above -- the elicitation of an emotional response would appear to be the predominant esthetic intention of Dhrupad as a genre.

Another way of looking at this issue is the level of freedom Dhrupad allows the musician in the different departments of musicianship. The constraints on improvisational freedom -–melodic, rhythmic or poetic – are so great that the only real freedom musicians enjoy is in the soul-power and the emotional intensity with which they imbue their music.

Whatever a genre permits, it encourages. By shutting the doors to freedom in most departments, Dhrupad focuses the musical energies upon the most fundamental dimension of musicality: helping the esthetic impact of tone-delivery to transcend its known psycho-acoustic parameters.

The esthetic ideal of Dhrupad would appear to be the experience of the tone as “Swara” (Swa=the self + Ra = illumination). For achieving this result, medieval musicological texts have defined ideal tone-delivery as a product of two qualities: “anuranan” (the haunting quality) and “deepti” (a resplendent luminosity). Neither of these terms can be satisfactorily translated. Their intent is, however, to relate voice production and tone-delivery to the auto-suggestive and personality-transforming potential of the act of music-making for the musician himself. This deduction appears to support an “emotional” for Dhrupad more than an “intellectual” one.

When Dhrupad enthusiasts wax eloquent over Dhrupad being a “journey into the realm of pure sound”, they appear to emphasize this feature of Dhrupad. As a genre, Dhrupad invests an extra-ordinary proportion of musical energy into the acoustic and esthetic cultivation of voice production and tone-delivery. Consequently, the individual tone becomes as basic a unit of the musical expression as the phrase that it constructs.

The acoustic and esthetic ideals of voice production and tone-delivery in Khayal are, in fact, identical with those of Dhrupad. However, Khayal has a comparative bias in favor of phrasing, and demands a substantial investment of musical energies in other departments of musicianship. Consequently, the Khayal is not perceived to possess this “pure sound” magic to the same extent that Dhrupad is, or even as much as, Khayal itself deserves.

The phrase, as a unit of music, has an element of design in it, which defines the relationship of the expression to a raga. Pattern recognition is largely a cerebral process. When, as in Dhrupad, the individual tone receives focussed attention, it enables its esthetic enjoyment, independently of the phrase and the raga. A tone (Swara) in isolation, by virtue of its momentary isolation from the phraseological context, is a more probable stimulus for an emotional response than an intellectual one.

The comparison with Khayal points towards another esthetic dimension of Dhrupad. Khayal requires the simultaneous manipulation of the melodic, with the poetic, and the rhythmic, and of the linear with the cyclical. A genre requiring the simultaneous manipulation of more than one variable at a time is intellectually more absorbing and demanding than a genre that handles them severally and sequentially. By this logic, again, the structure of the Khayal can be considered more “intellectual” than that of Dhrupad.

Considering the totality of these factors, and if we have to assign labels to the two genres, a contemporary view would justify an “emotional” label for the Dhrupad genre, and an “intellectual” label for Khayal. The caveat to any such labeling temptation is, of course, that they represent biases rather than the basis for a mutually exclusive classification.

Dhrupad’s target market

The Dhrupad revival, such as might be taking place, has been contemporaneous with the induction of culturally alienated, and musically un-initiated, urban youth into the classical music market, and the development of a Western (European and American) market for Hindustani music. It may therefore be defensible to assume a relationship between the esthetics of Dhrupad and the characteristics of these segments of the market.

It can also be hypothesized that Dhrupad poetry in Braja Bhasha cannot have any significant appeal for these audiences, who might have a poor level of comfort even with conversational, everyday Hindi. To them, the intelligibility of Dhrupad may, therefore, lie largely in the linguistically abstract alap, and the melodic-rhythmic play in the rendition of the Pada.

The durational dominance of the alap in the Dhrupad format emphasizes the dominance of linearity of the musical flows. This makes Dhrupad, by its dominant feature, more comfortable for the less mature philosophical mind. This proposition is supported by the observation that cyclicity, as a cultural force of archetypal dimensions, is typical of the older civilizations. Linearity and cyclicity are related to the notion of time in every culture.

This has several dimensions. (a) The idea that linearity and cyclicity are simultaneous forces constituting man’s evolutionary spiral, (b) that cyclicity is the ultimate truth, and (c) that linearity is merely an ephemeral and myopic perspective on cyclicity. These ideas are highlighted in the philosophical and theological traditions of India, Greece, Persia, and China.

Kaal, in the Hindu tradition, is personified as Mahakaala, a manifestation of Lord Shiva himself. He has parallels in the Greek god, Aion, and in the Persian god, Zurvan, all representing the cyclical notion of time. The Chinese Tai’ Chi, common to the philosophical foundations of Confucian and Taoist thought, is a similar, though abstract and un-deified, idea.

In comparison, the linear notion of time is predominant in the younger civilizations. Again, here, we are not sitting in judgment over which of them is closer to the truth.

Even at the here-and-now level of the aural experience, the Dhrupad alap is possible to comprehend as a monophonic, soloist presentation of what could have been a symphony or a sonata. This simile refers more to the “logical” sequencing of the movements and its overall linearity, than to its “Nibaddha” tendency, although this, too, is relevant. Extending this line of argument, the Pada can be absorbed comfortably as a piece of raga-based popular or devotional music, slightly more complex than a film song. And, the two are unconnected, except for being in the same raga.

Culturally alienated Indians and “western” audiences can therefore be expected to constitute a soft “target” for Dhrupad. This hypothesis is reinforced by the earlier propositions, if acceptable, that Dhrupad has a tendency towards becoming a pre-composed art-form, is primarily a medium for delivering emotional satisfactions, and is intellectually less demanding on the listener than Khayal.

Concluding observations

The transition from Dhrupad to Khayal represents a huge leap in the complexity of the music, and an exponential enhancement of the range of esthetic satisfactions delivered. The story of any human endeavor is cyclical -- first moving from the simple, to the more complex, and at some stage, setting off a movement in the opposite direction. The signs of a Dhrupad revival may be an indication of this dialectic.

It seems paradoxical that Dhrupad, once a genre servicing the cultivated elite of society, is getting a fresh lease of life from the other end of the audience spectrum. This, too, could be an integral part of the dialectic process.

Contemporary Dhrupad is often ridiculed with the rhetorical question: “How much Dhrupad is there in contemporary Dhrupad?”. This a meaningless question, because the same can be asked of any other genre of music, from any musical tradition. No musical genre can be treated as a museum piece, frozen in time, like the treasures from the tombs of Tutankhamoun.

Dhrupad, as was made available to contemporary musicians, is shaping itself to satisfy the needs of contemporary audiences. It requires no validation beyond the fact that there are musicians finding it creatively satisfying and financially rewarding, and there are audiences who enable them to persist in their practice of the genre.


Deepak Raja

Deepak Raja is a sitar and surbahar player of the Imdad Khan/ Etawah gharana, and an occasional writer on music. He holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, and is a Management Consultant by profession.

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