From what we know, dhrupad originated as devotional singing in Hindu temples and is commonly thought to have a very long history, traceable back to the Vedas themselves. From the Vedas evolved the "Udatt" and "Anudatt" forms of music, which later on evolved into Dhrupad, possibly around two thousand years ago. Under the Islamic Mughal ("Mogul") rule, it was appropriated as court music.
However, dhrupad may also be no older than the 15th Century. There is no reference to Dhrupad in Bharat's Natya Shastra, commonly dated to the 1st Century AD, nor even in Sangit Ratnakar, a 13th Century text, taken as authoritative.
The Yugala Shataka of Shri Shribhatta of the Nimbarka Sampradaya in Vrindavan, written in 1294 CE contains poems to be sung expressly in this fashion. It is credited as the first work in Vraja Bhasha, the language of the area of Vraja, and the Yugala Shataka, describing the devotion to Radha and Krishna became very famous. Swami Haridas, the famous Guru of Tansen was also in the Nimbarka Sampradaya and the famous Dhrupadas sung by him are world renowned. This style of singing certainly has its roots in the Vrindavana landscape, at a time when Mathura was the cultural capital of India.
Dhrupad, as we know it today, has a repertoire of short songs (dhrupads) which are performed by a solo singer, or a small number of singers in unison, to the beat of a double-headed barrel drum, the pakhawaj. The songs are mostly in praise of Hindu deities, but in recent centuries, Islamic or simply regalist lyrics have been written and added to the repertoire. The text is preceded in performance by a wholly improvised section, the alap, without accompaniment of the drum. The alap in dhrupad is sung without words, using instead a set of syllables in a recurrent, set pattern: a re ne na, té te re ne na, ri re re ne na, te ne toom ne (this last group is used in cadences to reach the tonic or the end of a long phrase). They are popularly thought to be derived from a sacred mantra. The singer uses the syllables like the colours on a painter's palette.
In most styles of dhrupad singing today, alap comprises the greater part of the performance. It can easily last an hour, with a slow tempo and gradual, controlled development of melody (raga). It is broadly subdivided into alap (unmetered), jor (with steady rhythm) and jhalla (speeding up) or nomtom. In this last part, the syllables are sung at a very rapid pace, sometimes incorporating very special-sounding ornamentation techniques (gamaka), and the nomtom has become one of the most popular parts of dhrupad concerts.
Traditionally, the only instrument used for playing dhrupad was the been, which is technically a fretted stick zither with strings set along a bamboo or wooden neck with a large gourd mounted at each end. The word "been" is a colloquial form of the Sanskrit "veena", the generic word used for plucked-string instruments all over India. To differentiate the been from the different south Indian veena, the latter is often called Saraswati Veena and the former Rudra Veena.
Some players have used other instruments for dhrupad. Preferably, such instruments should have a deep bass register and long sustain. As in all Indian classical playing, the instruments must support bending of the note. The vocalist is usually accompanied by two tanpuras, the players sitting close behind, with the pakhawaj player at the right of the vocalist, facing him. As a rule, no other instruments are used in performance.
As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th Century khyal was all-pervasive, along with the new instrumental style of classical music, and dhrupad was becoming all but extinct. Only a few families carried on the tradition.
Almost single-handedly, one of these families, the Dagars , brought about the dhrupad revival. The noted French ethnomusicologist Alain Daniélou invited the brothers Nasir Moinuddin and Nasir Aminuddin Dagar (the senior Dagar-Brothers) to come and perform in Europe in 1960. Initially booked for two performances, they ended up doing over twenty in a month. Their younger brothers, Nasir Zahiruddin and Nasir Fayazuddin, upon the untimely demise of Nasir Moinuddin in 1966 continued to make the family heritage known and appreciated. The Dagars toured widely and the first recordings issued forth. Soon, this was to coincide with the growing foreign interest in Indian music. Starting in the 1960s, dhrupad was to become almost more popular outside India than at home. Perhaps it is that the style falls easier on the Western ear, but, as it is the older style, it was also seen as the most "genuine" and traditional. The Dagarvani-revival also helped breathe new life into a few other families of dhrupad singers.
Today, dhrupad enjoys a place as a well-known, respected but not widely popular genre on the north Indian classical scene. It is no longer on the brink of extinction.
How the gharanas relate to the vanis is a debated question. At any rate, the most well-known gharana is that of the Dagar family, who of course sing in the Dagar vani. The Dagar style puts great emphasis on alap, and for several generations, their singers have been known to perform in pairs (often pairs of brothers). The Dagars are Muslims, but in a spectacular display of Indian unity sing Hindu texts and of Gods and Goddesses. Dagar family lore speaks of twenty generations of dhrupad singers in an unbroken line. Some of the best dhrupad singers outside the Dagar family, such as Pt Ritwik Sanyal, Uday Bhawalkar, Gundecha Brothers and Nirmalya Dey belong to the Dagar vani. As the family repertory and all details are passed down orally by father to son or uncle to nephew, the elders were vieuwed first and foremost as Guru (teacher). In the Dagar-family it is usage to place the fathers' name before the personal name, to which -uddin is added. Note as example: Nasir Fayazuddin, whose father was Nasiruddin. Nasir and Fayaz are the personal names. N.Fayazuddin Dagar's son is called Wasif, thus Fayaz Wasifuddin Dagar.
From Bihar state come two other gharanas, the Malliks (Darbhanga Gharana) and the Mishras (Bettiah Gharana). The Malliks are linked to the Khandar vani, and emphasize the composed song over improvised alap. Pt. Ram Chatur Mallik was a famous exponent of Darbhanga Gharana in the last century. Today the famous Dhrupad performers of Darbhanga Gharana are Pt.Abhay Narayan Mallick and Pt.Vidur Narayan Mallick.
The Mishras practice Nauhar and Khandar vani, with some unique techniques for nomtom alap. This gharana flourished under the patronage of Kings of Bettiah. The most famous exponents of Bettiah Gharana today is Pt. Indrakishore Mishra and Pt. Falguni Mitra.
The form of Dhrupad prevalent in Darbhanga and Bettiah is also known as Haveli Style of Dhrupad.
In Pakistan, dhrupad is represented by the Talwandi gharana, who sing in the Khandar vani.
Alongside the classical performance tradition, the practice of singing dhrupad in temples continues to this day. Only a very small number of recordings of this singing has been made. It bears little resemblance to concert dhrupad: there is very little or no alap; percussion such as bells and finger cymbals, which are not used in the north Indian classical setting, are used, and the pakhawaj used is a smaller, older variant called mrdang, quite similar to south Indian classical mrdangam.
Compositions exist in time-cycles (talas) as tivratala (7 beats), sultala(10 beats) or chautala (12 beats). A composition set to the 10-beat jhaptala is called Sadra, and one set to the 14-beat dhamar tala is called a Dhamar. The latter in particular is seen as a lighter musical form, and associated with the Holi spring festival of colours.