Musings on Gurmat Sangeet, or Gurbani Kirtan, Sikh Sacred Music

Friday, December 27, 2013

‘Toorks’ in The House of Nanak

He is a slightly built man, somewhat bent with age. The slight quaver in his voice, perhaps attributable to his age, does nothing to detract from the virtuosity that becomes apparent, the second he opens his mouth to sing. It is Nobvemer 25, 2011. This Pakistani doyen of Indian Classical Music, which in his homeland is known as Mousiki, has been invited to the Lahore Music Forum to present his art. With him is an ensemble of musicians, including his son, Qadir Ali and his grandson Muslim Hassan. 

He starts with a short Alaap (an unmetered introduction to the Raga being sung, without rhythmic accompaniment) and then starts to masterfully sing a composition in Raga Malkauns, that grand melody of the night, often associated with the Hindu God Shiva.
But wait! The text that Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shggan is singing is from a spiritual tradition that is not the maestro’s own:

Countless Shastaras and Smritis (ancient Hindu holy texts) have I studied and sifted through
None, however can compare to the Name of The Lord, for His Name is truly priceless

Why is this old Muslim maestro, arguably the greatest Pakistani vocalist of his time, singing the poetry of Guru Arjan, the Fifth Sikh Guru ?

Therein, as you might expect, hides a story. A story five hundred years in the making, but we will pick it up a mere hundred years ago.

Edmund Candler was a British journalist, writer and educator, who in a sense followed in the footprints of Rudyard Kipling, the famous British Colonial man of letters.  The Cambridge University Alumni database yields this somewhat terse biographic picture of Candler :

Candler, Edmund.
Adm. pens. at EMMANUEL, Apr. 27, 1892.
S. of John, Esq. [M.R.C.S.], of Harleston, Norfolk. [B. Jan. 27, 1874.
School, Repton.] Matric. Michs. 1892; Scholar; B.A. 1895.
Travelled widely in the East. Daily Mail Special Correspondent, Tibet Mission, 1904; severely wounded at Tuna.
Principal of Patiala College, Punjab, in 1910.
During the Great War, Correspondent in France for The Times and Daily Mail, 1914-15; in Mesopotamia, 1915-18; mentioned in despatches. The Times Correspondent in the Middle East, 1918-19.
Director of Publicity, Punjab Government, 1920-1. Author, A Vagabond in Asia, etc.
Died Jan. 4, 1926, in France.

In the early years of the 20th century, presumably after Edmund Candler accompanied Sir Francis Younghusband on his expedition to Tibet, which he documented in his book, “The Unveiling of Lhasa” and before he became principal of Mohindra College in Patiala, Candler found himself in Amritsar. Candler’s account of his visit to Amritsar was published in the July 1909 issue of Blackwoods Magazine, and later appeared in a collection of essays he published in a volume called “Mantle of The East”. The book is fascinating! Candler has an eye for detail; his curiosity is inexhaustible and his fascination with the culture and lifestyle of the people he encounters in his travels shines through in his luminous prose.

For now, however, let us content ourselves with this account of his visit to The Sri Harmnadir Sahib, also known as the Darbar Sahib or The Golden Temple in Amritsar:

The Durbar Sahib, or Golden Temple, as we call it, stands now as it was rebuilt soon after it was destroyed by the Afghan, Ahmed Shah, in 1762, only with additions. The story of its making, its disappearances and recrudescences, is, of course, the history of the Sikhs in abstract. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it needed strong defences. That it has stood since 1775 means that the Sikhs have been in the ascendant from this date until they fought the British in 1846 after the death of Ranjit Singh. For all that, they built it as men who needed a wall behind their backs.

The temple rises from an artificial lake of green water, in which the placid reflection of its marble walls and gilded roof and cupolas rests dreamily all day. It is approached by a marble causeway. The walls are inlaid with cornelian and mother-of-pearl, and the doors are sheathed in silver. Iron and brass are " nothing accounted of " in the temple. The tank is 500 feet in length and in breadth. The pavement round it is of marble, 30 feet broad, and is enclosed on three sides by the Bangas, or hostels, which open into it. These belong to the different Sikh chiefs, and are used by them and their retainers when they visit Amritsar. The Ramgharia Banga on the east has two towers where the watchmen kept a look-out for the enemy. For the Durbar Sahib is a soldier's shrine.

One may stand in the gallery on the second storey of the temple and watch the file of worshippers approach along the marble causeway through the Darshani Darwaza, or Gate of Adoration, and from the same spot one may look down on the Granth Sahib within and see the offerings made to the holy book, and read the spirit of a creed in the faces of the worshippers.

The Granth rests on a low stand, the Manjhi Sahib, and is covered with wrappings of silk, and protected from the offerings of pigeons by a silk awning above. Behind it sits the Granthi, a priest of the old type, grey-bearded, keen -eyed, with an oval face, and an old-fashioned turban lying flat on the head in coils. As in the Hindu temples, men, women, and children drift in a stream towards the priest, throw offerings of flowers, sugar, or copper coins on the object of veneration, and receive consecrated ones in return. All coin of the realm, in silver or gold, is sonorously announced, dropped in a jar before the book, and withheld for temple funds. All unvalued things receive the currency of sanctity by contact with the Granth, and are passed on to newcomers. The Sikh offerers approach with the respect that well-bred men bear to a temporal lord, with a certain love and a certain ease withal. There is less awe than in Hindu temples, because there is less superstition. In the place of distorted images and emblems there is the holy book. The temple is called the Durbar Sahib, because the ceremony is a Durbar in the literal sense of the word. The book is carried to the shrine with all circumstance and pomp. It is the deputy, or vicar, of the Gurus who have passed away, and the disciples approach in an unending stream to pay honour to their lord.

One is struck most with the gentlemanliness of it all there is no other word for it. In Anglo-Indian slang the place would be called " a Sahib's temple." One is not dunned, or jostled, or insulted, or fawned upon there as one is at Benares or Brinda Ban or Lashkar, or the temple of Kali in Calcutta, where a mob of brazen - tongued, cadging, ill - conditioned, noisily-extortionate rascals surround one's carriage before one is a hundred yards from the gate, and are allowed by the temple authorities to palm themselves off as priests. Instead there is a rich simplicity in this as in all Sikh shrines. The Gurus abhorred idols, priest- craft, ritual, superstition, tamperings with the supernatural, and all attempts to localise, personify, or insist upon special attributes or manifestations of the divine being. The highest building in the precincts of the place is a nine -storied monument to the opposite idea. The Baba Atal is an elegy in stone to the son of the sixth Guru, who was chid by his father for restoring a playmate to life. " Two swords cannot be put in one scabbard," his father said, and bade the boy set his heart on pure living rather than vain meddling and display. The boy made good his mistake as well as he could by lying down on the spot and giving up the ghost. It would have been better if he had laid violent hands on himself like a man of ordinary passions ; for the record is marred by that commonest of human weaknesses, the boast by inference. Anyhow, that was the Sikh attitude towards miraculous pretensions. The whole story is illustrated in frescoes on the entrance-gate to the shrine.

What a sensitive and nuanced description! In a few short paragraphs, Candler elegantly captures the zeitgeist of the Sri Harmandir Sahib. His observations are spot on. It is almost as if he has intuited the ethos of the Sikh devotee at the Harmandir Sahib in one short visit!

But I fear we digress from the story we set out to unearth!

Candler goes on to say :

All through the day the worshippers flock to the Granth. There is no service from the time of the short reading, when the book is borne in on a palanquin an hour before dawn, until the evening prayer. Only the musicians are constantly in attendance, singing hymns to the rebeck and the lute. These are the Rababis, the descendants of the Muhammadan fakir, Mardana Mirasi of Merawat, who loved Nanak, and set his hymns to music nearly five hundred years ago. As Mardana sat by Nanak's side and ministered to him, yet kept his own faith, so his family have made music for the Gurus or for their deputy, the Book, these five hundred years, and served the Khalsa and held to Islam through generations, when to be a Sikh meant to slay " a Toork " at sight or be slain by him. What were these Muhammadans doing in the shrine ? I asked. When I was told they were the children of Mardana, I understood.

Ghulam Hussain Shaggan, whose rendition of Guru Arjan’s Slok has so captivated me, is a descendent of the very children of Mardana that Candler saw in attendance, singing hymns to the rebeck and the lute during his visit to Sri Harmandir Sahib !

I would like to offer this brief biography of Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan, from the excellent website :

Born in 1928 in Amritsar, Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan is one of the great exponents of the austere Gwalior style of khayal singing.  The ustad was initiated into classical music at the age of five by his father, the late Sangeet Sagar Ustad Bhai Lal Mohammad, a leading vocalist of the Punjab during the early part of the last century. Ustad Bhai Lal received many titles and awards but the title of Sangeet Sagar awarded at the Shikarpur Music conference in 1927 was associated with him the most. Ustad Shaggan’s debut performance came at the age of seven at SPSK Hall in Lahore at a concert presided by the Maharaja of Poonch. He performed a khayal in raag Malkauns before a distinguished line of musicians which included his father Ustad Bhai Lal, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Pandit Krishan Rao Shankar, Khansahab Fayyaz Hussain Khan, Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan, Pandit Dilip Chandar Vedi, Pandit Narayanrao Vyas and Bhai Nasira Pakhawaji, some of the greatest musicians of the era.

Despite being a child prodigy, Ustad Shaggan's early childhood was dominated by education. His father wanted him to have basic educational grounding before concentrating on classical music. Ustad Shaggan received a scholarship for outstanding achievement in his school when aged six. His talented elder brother Nisaar Hussain, was groomed as Ustad Bhai Lal’s musical successor, however, Nisaar tragically died of tuberculosis at the young age of 23. Following the death of his eldest son, Ustad Bhai Lal Muhammad stopped performing for a number of years, it was during this period of mourning that he began to focus his attention on the young Ghulam Hassan. Ustad Shaggan started to perform regularly from the age of ten, regularly providing vocal support to his father as well as performing solo. 

Ustad Shaggan's childhood and youth were spent in Amritsar. He comes from a distinguished family of musicians known as the Rubabis who were mostly settled in Amritsar before partition. The city holds a special place in his heart. “Amritsar was a centre for music, everything was classical, everybody loved classical music. There were plenty of music clubs in the city, regular conferences and mehfils used to take place and there was healthy rivalry between musicians. Senior musicians were open hearted in imparting their knowledge to juniors and greatly encouraged them” he nostalgically told this scribe.

The maestro hails from the Kapurthala gharana but sings in the style of the Gwalior gharana and is well versed on the repertoire of other gharanas. The ustad explained “My father Ustad Bhai Lal ji received his initial training from his father Bhai Ata Muhammad. Bhai Ata Muhammad was a disciple of Mian Bannay Khan of the Gwalior gharana, Mian Banne Khan hailed from a village near Amritsar called Nangli-Nowshera and learnt from the Gwalior stalwarts Ustad Haddu and Ustad Hassu Khan. Mian Bannay Khan was responsible for introducing khayal into Punjab. After the death of my grandfather, Bhai Lal ji came under the influence of Mian Mahboob Ali, a distant relative who was a great sitar player belonging to the Kapurthala gharana and was associated with the states of Kapurthala and Patiala.  He was a disciple of Mir Nasir Ahmed Beenkar and Saeen Ilyas. Despite being a sitar player, Mian Mahboob Ali was also familiar with vocal techniques and knew many rare bandishes. He taught my father these bandishes and the technique of meerkhand and moorchna. In 1921 Ustad Bhai Lal became a disciple of the illustrious Pandit Bhaskar Rao Buwa Bakhle. Pandit ji had received tuition from a variety of ustads belonging to different gharanas, including Ustad Bande Ali Khan (Kirana), Ustad Natthan Khan (Agra), Ustad Faiz Mohammad Khan (Gwalior) and Ustad Alladiya Khan of Kohlapur (Jaipur)".

Following the creation of Pakistan, Ustad Shaggan and his family settled in Lahore. The family struggled to adapt to the harsh conditions facing classical musicians, most of the wealthy patrons had migrated to India and the long standing tradition of music conferences had not yet taken shape. During this period, many classical artistes disillusioned with classical music started to experiment with light classical genres such as thumri and ghazal, but the ustad did not lose heart and pursued his passion for classical music.

The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 is one of the greatest tragedies of modern times and one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Colonialism. Millions lost their lives and many more had their way of life, which had often been preserved for generations, completely destroyed.

The ‘children of Mardana’ suffered greatly too.

In December, 2009, I was in Delhi after presenting on Gurmat Sangeet, the Sikh Musical Tradition at the World Parliament of Religions in Melbourne. As I was wont to do whenever I visited Delhi, I went to the Rakab Ganj Gurdwara to pay my respects to the doughty Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, the Principal of the Rakab Ganj Kirtan Vidyalay (school). Gyani Dyal Singh was a stalwart, who as a young man, had rubbed shoulders with the Rababis of Sri Harmandir Sahib, when he was a Dilruba (a bowed string instrument, traditionally used in Gurmat Sangeet) player, employed there. Over the years I rembered having had many conversations with Gyani Dyal Singh about the Rababis, particularly Bhai Taba, a contemporary of Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan’s father Bhai Lal, who was also employed at the Sri Harmandir Sahib.

Both Bhai Lal and Bhai Taba had a vast repertoire of ancient Gurmat Sangeet compositions that had been passed down from generation to generation within the families of the ‘children of Mardana’. Both Bhai Lal and Bhai Taba migrated to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. Sardar Gian Singh Abbotabad, who was a wealthy businessman in Delhi and a purveyor of arms and ammunition (!), was an ardent practitioner of Gurmat Sangeet. Over the years, he too had collected a large repertoire of traditional compositions that he wished to record and document for posterity. Sardar Gian Singh Abbotabad was inspired to write a book documenting old compositions and not being much of a theoretician, he was advised to employ a young Dyal Singh to actually parse the compositions and document for what eventually became the canonical work, “Gurbani Sangeet”.

Bhai Taba was asked to return to Delhi, where he spent many hours in sessions with Gyani Dyal Singh, who would ask him to sing and then capture the melodies using the format invented a few decades ago by Pandit Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande. Bhai Taba much appreciated the employment. All the Rababis had to live in much reduced circumstances after leaving Amritsar. The Sikhs had left Pakistan and there was no patronage or support for their art. Furthermore Bhai Taba had been blessed with a large family and had, I believe nine young daughters, whose marriages and their attendant expenses were a cause of constant worry for him. He also found support and patronage at Bheni Sahib, where he spent considerable time teaching Namdhari musicians innumerable old compositions that had been passed down in his family. Thus a large part of the repertoire that the ‘children of Mardana’ had preserved, were propagated and documented for posterity.

In the days when Bhai Taba lived and sang in Amritsar, he would often be invited to the homes of prominent Sikhs to teach their children. A young woman called Jaswant Kaur was one of his students, who spent sixteen years studying with him. After he left for Pakistan, the young woman got married and made a career in the police. Bibi Jaswant Kaur was widowed and after ensuring that her daughters were wells settled, she took up residence in Delhi at Gobind Sadan, the Dera of Baba Virsa Singh.

Four years before my visit with Gyani Dyal Singh at Rakab Ganj, I had learned about Bibi Jaswant Kaur and had gone to visit her at Gobind Sadan. I met a sprightly eighty five old woman, who had spent the last thrity five years of her life singing the sublime compositions that she had received from the ‘children of Mardana’ at Gobind Sadan. She regaled me with anecdotes about Bhai Taba, Bhai Chand, Bhai Lal, Bhai Nasira, Bhai Santu and other Rababis that she had listened to in her youth and spoke of them great great love and affection. She was also kind enough to sing several old compositions that I recorded and published on the Gurmat Sangeet Project website.
When I went to visit Gyani Dyal Singh in 2009, I mentioned to him that my next stop was to be Gobind Sadan to pay my respects to the last living link to the great Rababi tradition in Gurmat Sangeet. Gyani Ji’s ears perked up when I mentioned the name of Bibi Jaswant Kaur’s Ustad. It seemed incomprehensible to me that these two stalwarts, both intimately linked to the tradition of the Rababis, both sharing a deep sense of affection for Bhai Taba, had lived in Delhi for the last forty years and never met! Gyani Ji got into my taxi with me, and with Bhai Kavinder Singh, one of his students who played the table and had visited Gobind Sadan with me four years ago, in tow, we proceeded to visit with Bibi Ji.

Bibi Jaswant Kaur was now almost ninety years old, but still as sprightly as ever. She insisted on serving us fruit and fussing over us. What a treat it was, to breathe the same air as these giants and listen to them talk about the great Rababis if yesteryear and their art! Bibi Ji, though gracious and hospitable, was not cowed down one bit by Gyani Ji, who had quite an intimidating personality was quite capable of being a curmudgeon! The conversation got around to the departure of the Rababis from Amritsar and their fate in Pakistan. Both of them expressed great sorrow at the fact that the Rababis, who had once been the pride of Amritsar, were largely reduced to penury after the partition of India. There was no patronage or support for their music and gradually many of them were forced to take on low paying menial occupations just to survive.

Bhai Lal, the father of Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan, who had a solid grounding in Classical Music as well as Gurmat Sangeet, was one of the few exceptions. He continued to sing, albeit not primarily his Gurmat Sangeet repertoire and music survived and thrived in his family. The others were not so fortunate and their art atrophied and crumbled, though in recent years, we have had the pleasure of listening to some of their descendants sing Gurmat Sangeet compositions. The glory days of the ‘children of Mardana’, alas, will never return.

On one topic, there was sharp disagreement between Bibi Ji and Gyani Ji. Gyani Dyal Singh held to the opinion that the Rababis left Amritsar, largely because they were somewhat bigoted Muslims, who felt that their palce was in the Islamic nation of Pakistan. Bibi Ji, who was there, and was very close to Bhai Taba Ji had a completely different perspective. According to her the horrific events surrounding the partition of India in 1947, when innumerable innocent Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lost their lives in a frenzy of communal bloodletting, created an environment in Amritsar that was very hostile to the Muslim Rababis. The Sikhs had suffered too, at the hands of Muslims in what was going to become the nation of Pakistan, and there was intolerance and bigotry in the air. In this new polarized climate, Sikhs would simply not tolerate the presence of ‘Toorks’ in the holy precincts of Sri Harmandir Sahib anymore. The Rababis had reason to fear that their livelihood and indeed their lives would be in jeopardy. 

The ‘children of Mardana’, whose presence at the Sri Harmandir Sahib, Edmund Candler had written about a scant five decades earlier, collected their belongings and left to embrace an uncertain future.
As I watched the video recording of Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan singing the Slok, over and over again, I was impelled to share my thoughts about my personal, albeit tenuous connection to the ‘children of Mardana’. I cannot but help admire them. For to me, the notion of devout Muslims, generation after generation, offering devotions at the most prominent place of worship in Sikhism, bespeaks the catholicism of an era long gone. 

Something that Guru Nanak, the preceptor and master of Bhai Mardana, would have perhaps appreciated and been proud of.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Behosh Baash K Hangaam Naubahaar Aamadh : A meandering journey through Basant in the Gurmat Sangeet Tradition

February 9 2013

Winter storm Nemo hasn't quite exited the Boston Area yet. I wake up to a sea of white. In, what is perhaps a futile gesture of defiance, given the more than 2 feet of snow we are buried under, I decide to sing Jaap Sahib and Savvaiye in Raga Basant during my nitnem. (Yes Yes ! I KNOW that Basant is an intimidatingly difficult Raga to sing and I know that robustness is the only virtue of my rendition, but hey! that's the nice thing about singing without an audience; NOBODY cares how besur you are:-))

It *is* that time of year again! From Magh Di Sangrand to Holla Mohalla, notwithstanding the heaps of snow and the subzero temperatures, we will celebrate Basant by singing Bani, revealed to the Guru Sahibaan in Raga Basant, in the various delectable flavors of the Raga as well as other Ragas associated with the spring such as Bahar, Hindol, Basant Hindol, Sohni....

As a side-note, the 2013 Boston Basant Gurmat Sangeet Darbar will be held at the Milford Gurdwara Sahib on Sunday, February 24. Anchoring the program will be Guneet Kaur, one of the most luminous talents in the world of Gurmat Sangeet, accompanied by Gurmeet Singh Jagdev. But, as is often the case, in these ramblings, I digress :-)

Today, my mission is to share some of my favorite Basant recordings :-) which I shall procced to do without further ado. I have had the good fortune to record all of these shabads personally over the years. Each recording is swathed in many memories and rich interactions with some of the finest talents in Gurmat Sangeet. There are many stories and anecdotes that go with these recordings, to be told another day, perhaps. For now, please enjoy my little journey through Raga Basant, in the uplifting company of these brilliant Kirtaniye, young and old.

The first recording is by the redoubtable Bhai Sahib Gian Singh Jogi Ji, recorded in the early 90s at my then home in New Jersey. Bhai Sahib was a sprightly 90 when he sang this scintillating shabad in Raga Basant :

Rut Aile Saras Basant Mahe by Bhai Sahib Gian Singh Jogi Ji 

Bhai Sahib Gian Singh Jogi Ji and his Jatha, many many years before this recording

As a side note, this shabad is in the Prachalit, modern version of Basant, which sits squarely in Purvi Thaat territory. Deftly avoiding the polemics around the kosher flavor of Basant in the Gurmat Sangeet tradition, I shall share reordings in other flavors as well :-)

The second recording is not in Basant at all! It is a composition in Raga Bahar from the Rababi tradition of Gurmat Sangeet, sung by the late Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji, as taught to her by the legendary Rababi Bhai Taba Ji . Bibi Ji was 85 years old, when I recorded this at her home in Delhi in 2005 :-) On tabla was Bhai Kavinder Singh, a student of Gyani Dyal SIngh Ji's who I brought with me to her home. Gurmat Sangeet lost one of its hidden gems, when Bibi Ji, one of the last links to the great Rababi tradition passed away in early 2010 :

Dekh Phool Phool Phholai in Raga Bahar by Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji 

Bibi Ji in December 2009 with Gyani Dyal Singh Ji

Its back to the standard Purvi flavor of Basant for the third recording. Bhai Gurmej Singh Ji was a huzoori Ragi at Sri Harmandar Sahib when he visited Bridgewater, NJ in early 2004. There are some kirtaniye, who transcend musical virtuosity and sing with such Tikaav, that every member of the sangat is completely mesmerized. Bhai Sahib's visit can only be described as magical. Accompanying him on tabla was Bhai Iqbal Singh Ji, who is no more. Also accompanying him was a young, very melodious Kirtaniya whose name was Bhai Amarjit Singh. I vividly remember the Sunday morning diwan in which Bhai Sahib sang this shabad. By my side was my good friend Charanjit Singh Jutla, who is a sitariya and connoisseur of Gurmat Sangeet. Both of us were so taken with Bhai Sahib's beautiful rendition; I remember we mucked around with a Vajja after the diwan trying to parse the bandish! I have NEVER heard anybody sing Raga Basant like Bhai Sahib Ji :

Dekh Phool Phool Phool Phoolai ; Raga Basant By Bhai Gurmej Singh Ji

Bhai Sahib Gurmej Singh Ji

As a bonus :-) here's a beautiful rendition of Holi Kini Sant Sev by Bhai Sahib Ji in Raga Kafi :

Holi Kini Sant Sev Raga Kafi by Bhai Sahib Gurmej Singh Ji

As an interesting side-note (yes there is always one :-)) I was once talking to Gyani Dyal Singh Ji about the various forms of Basant and asked him about a form, interestingly called 'Buddha Basant', which a knowledgeable Kirtan Premi had claimed this shabad was sung in! When  I observed that this sounded like a regulation Kafi Ki Hori to me, Gyani Ji chuckled and said that by Hola Mohalla, after Basant had been sung for two months, old Ragis if yore would say that Basant 'Buddha Ho Gya Hai' and sing shabads in Kafi, which was also called Budha Basant. I would love to hear other thoughts on this.  Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan SIngh Ji also document Buddha Basant in their book and upon an admittedly cursory examination, it seemed different form Kafi!

Professor Ranjit Singh Ji is clearly one of the most colorful personalities I have encountered in the world of Gurmat Sangeet. After retiring from service as a professor of music in India, several years ago, Professor Sahib has made his home in the LA area where he runs the Bhai Mardana Institute of Music. Professor Sahib as had the distinction of learning from a veritable who's who of Gurmat Sangeet. He studied Tabla with the Ustad Bahadur Singh and Sant Nihal Singh Ji. His vocal training was at the hands of Sardar Sohan Singh Ji, student of Ustad Faiyaz Khan Sahib of the Agra Gharana and one of the greatest classical vocalists the Sikh world has ever produced.He had the added distinction of studying with the legendary Gian Singh Almast Ji, whose ghost makes a frequent appearance in my musings on Gurmat Sangeet.  Professor Sahib is easily the most flamboyant Kirtaniye I have ever met ! His sartorial eloquence is matched only by his huge heart and his warm, friendly and generous nature. I feel blessed to have met him and become close to him. The Gurmat Sangeet Project honored Professor Sahib for a lifetime of contributions to Gurmat Sangeet during our annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar held in DC in 2010. This recording is from the 2011 Boston Basant Darbar. Professor Sahib sings Maha Maha Mumarkhi in a flavor of Basant that owed allegiance to the Marwa Thaat, using the Shudh Dhaivat as opposed to the prominent Komal Dhaivat that is used in the more common Purvi variant. The shabad starts in Chartal and has echoes of the Rababi composition that has been sung by Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji, which is sung in Ektaal in a faster tempo. Professor Sahib is accompanied on Tabla by his star pupil, young Tabla star Jasmeet Singh Chana. Also accompanying him are Hardeep Singh Chana on Taus and Bhai Iqbal Hussain, another student on violin :

Mama Maha Mumarkhi Chadiya Sada Basant; Basant Marwa Ang Professor Ranjit Singh Ji

Professor Ranjit Singh Ji with Bhai Iqbal Hussain, Hardeep Singh Chana and Jasmeet Singh Chana; Boston 2011

As a bonus,  here is a scintillating rendition of the first Paudi of Basant Ki Var fromt he same program by Professor Sahib :

Basant Ki Var Professor Ranjit Singh Ji Basant Marwa Ang

An additional bonus :-) the same shabad renderd by Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji :

 Maha Maha Mumarkhi Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji Basant Marwa Ang

Bibi Amarjit Kaur Ji, who has a big voice and a heart to match, has made her home in the DC area for several years. She credits Harbhajan Singh Yogi Ji for bringing her to the US to teach Gurmat Sangeet. Bibi Amarjit Kaur Ji is also a link to one of the great Kirtaniyas of yesteryear, having studied with the legendary Bhai Santa Singh Ji. She has faithfully preserved his repertoire, which she redners in her own inimitable style. The Gurmat Sangeet Project honored Bibi Ji for a lifetime of contributions to Gurmat Sangeet during our annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar held in Salt Lake City in 2009. This recording of Basant Ki Var is from the 2009 Boston Basant Darbar. On Tabla was Jashon Singh, one of the rising stars of Gurmat Sangeet, who often accompanies Bibi Ji. Also accompanying her were her daughter Sahiba Kaur and Raviraj Singh on Esraj.The Shabad is in Shudh Basant, which according to vidwns is the traditional form of Basant :

Basant Ki Var Bibi Amarjit Kaur Ji Shudh Basant

Bibi Amarjit Kaur Ji with Jashon Singh, Sahiba Kaur, Raviraj Singh; Boston 2009

The next shabad was recorded in Boston on March 8, 2003 during the first Boston Basant Gurmat Sangeet Darbar. Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila is a hugely accomplished Ragi with an outstanding voice and great vocal technique. Here he renders Basant Chadiya Foolie Ban Rai, in what I believe is Basant Hindol. The Jhaptal bandish is superb and rendered with great beauty and aplomb :

Basant Chadia Foolie Ban Rae Raga Basant Hindol Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila

Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila and his Jatha; Boston 2003

Warren Senders is a well known figure in Shastriya Sangeet circles in the Boston Area. He studied vocal music in India for several years, most notably with Pandit Shriram Devasthali Ji of the Gwalior Gharana. In 2003, when we had the first Basant Darbar in Boston, Warren was my vocal Ustad. Upon my request, Warren came to the Milford Gurdwara Sahib and sang this slok in Raga Basant :

Nanak Tina Basant Hai Warren Senders Raga Basant

Warren Senders with Vijaya Sundaram and Amritpal Singh Boston 2003
After listening to some of the greats of yesterday and today, lets listen to some younger Kirtaniye. Shraddha Agrawal is a regular fixture in the Boston Area classical scene. Several years ago, by a happy coincidence, Shraddha was invited to my home to sing at an informal event. Shraddha is under the guidance of Smt. Kumkum Sanyal's, who in turn studies with Pandit Vinayak Torvi. To cut a long story short, Shraddha became a good friend; when I learned that she had learned a few shabads while studying Shastriya Sangeet in Bombay, I suggetsed that she add some  more shabads to her repertoire. One thing led to another and much to the Boston Area sangat's delight, Shraddha became a regular fixture at our Gurmat Sangeet Darbars as well ! This recordign is form our 2010 Basant Darbar in Boston. Table acompniment is provided by the hugely telented Rohit Mukumdar, who is a student of Pandit Suresh Talwalkar's and who used to teach Tabla at the MIlford Gurdwara Sahib. The bandish is in the Purvi variant of Basan; providing Sangat on Harmonium was our own Mehr Kaur.
Shraddha Agrawal with Mehr Kaur and Rohit Mujumdar at the Boston 2010 Basant Darbar

Young lovers of Gurmat Sangeet, particularly those who visit Toronto often, need no introduction to Dr. Onkar Singh, who is one of the finest kirtaniye of his generation. This recording is from one of our visits to Toronto in 2005 for a Basant Darbar that was organized at the Dunwin Drive Gurdwara Sahib. Dr. Onkar Singh is accomnpanied by Karanjeet Singh on sarod and Gurpreet SIngh Chana, also klnown as the Tabla Guy :-) :

Basant Chadiya Phoolee Ban Rae Dr Onkar Singh

Dr. Onkar Singh with Karanjeet Singh and Gurpreet Singh Chana Toronto March 2005

Neetu Kaur Matharu, from Vancouver, is a student of Pandit Jasraaj Ji's. Here she renders a beautiful shabad in Raga Kafi fro our annual 2010 Basant Darbar. Rohit Mujumdar provides Tabla accompaniment; our own Harman Singh on Dilruba; in the picture below, you can see Gyani Dyal Singh Ji in the background :-)

Mai Main Dhan Payo Har Naam Neetu Kaur Matharu

Neetu Singh Matharu with Rohit Mujumdar and Harman Singh
Rattan Singh Bhamra, from Toronto is one of the finest young vocalists in the world of Gurmat Sangeet today and the finest Tar Shenai player of his generation. He is currently under the guidance of Pandit Vinayak Pathak Ji of the Gwalior Gharana.This Shabad in Raga Bahar is from our 2011 Basant Darbar :

Mai Main Dhan Payo Har Nam Raga Bahar Rattan Singh Bhamra

Rattan Singh Bhamra with Bhai Iqbal Hussain and Amritpal Singh

And finally... Mehr Kaur from Boston at the 2012 Basant Darbar singing Mere Sahiba Houn Ape Bharam Bhulani in Raga Basant (Purvi). A student at the Gurmat Sangeet Project for several years, Mehr Kaur is now under the guidance of Pandit Yashpal Ji of the Agra Gharana, who in turn was a student of the legendary Ustad Faiyaz Hussain Khan Sahib and Ustad Yunnus Hussain Khan Sahib. On table was the brilliant Jashon SIngh Bhamra.

Mere Sahiba Hou Ape Bharam Bhulani Mehr Kaur Raga Basant

Mehr Kaur with Jashon Singh Bhamra, Sukhmanjit Kaur and Davejeet Singh; Boston March 2012

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Waho Waho Gobind Singh Appe Gur Chela

January 18 2013

On the occasion of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji's prakash purb, I would like to share with my readers, some of my favorite Dasam Bani recordings.

The first shabad, in Raga Bilawal, is a stirring rendition of Waho Waho Gobind Singh Ape Gur Chela by Bhai Sahib Dharm Singh Zakhmi Ji and his Jatha.

Waho Waho Gobind Singh Ape Gur Chela

An interesting side-note : This shabad is by Bhai Gurdas Ji (the second), who was a Sindhi poet from Shikarpur and a contemporary of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur. The other, better known Bhai Gurdas Ji, Guru Arjan Sahib's scribe passed away before the birth of Sri Guru Gobind SIngh Ji.

The second shabad, one of my personal favorites is also by Bhai Sahib Dharm Singh Zakmi Ji; it is in Raga Chandrakauns :

Kirt Tuhari Kou Na Paar Paiyat Hai 

Chandrakauns is not a Raga that is heard often in Gurdwaras! This variant of Chandrakauns is the more common one; it is close to Malkauns, differing from its better know cousin as it employs the Shuddha Nishad (Ni) as opposed to the Komal. The shabad starts with a masterful Manglacharn in Vilambhit (Slow) Iktaal. It truly makes one yearn for the great Kirtaniyas of yore! Bhai Shamsher Singh Ji, who did the musical heavy lifting in the Jatha, in my view had few equals among his contemporaries. And Bhai Dharam Singh Zakhmi Ji's erudition; his outstanding language skills and his ability to communicate powerfully and succinctly is quite apparent in the short vyakhya that is interspersed with the shabad. Truly a gem!!

Staying with  Bhai Dharm Singh Zakhmi Ji, the third shabad is a masterful rendition in Raga Bihag :

Jagat Jot Jape Nis Basur

Bihag, one of my personal favorites, is a Raga of enduring beauty and nobody sings it like this Jatha. Once again the shabad begins with a majestic Manglacharan that unfolds slowly. The bandish, which to my ears has Dhrupad roots is in Jhaptal. I have been stuck in Bihag for a few months now :-) Not a bad neighborhood to be stuck in, I can assure you :-) and have been enjoying some beautiful renditions by the likes of Thakur Ji, Bhai Baljeet Singh as well as other Namdhari stalwarts.

 Bhai Sahib Dharam Singh Zakhmi with Bhai Sahib Shamsher Singh, Bhai Amrik Singh and Bhai Hariqbal Singh Zakhmi

Since I mentioned Bhai Baljeet Singh, here's a fabulous rendition of a shabad from Dasam Bani in Raga Bihag:

Tum Ho Sabh Rajan Ke Raja (Raga Bihag)

Bhai Baljeet Singh is the crème de la crème of a formidable array of Namdhari musicians, who have been taught old school Gurmat Sangeet compositions by their Ustads, *after* spending years with the great masters of Classical music, where they have painstakingly learned their craft and acquired the tools needed to sing the old compositions with purity and beauty. The recording also showcases Bhai Baljeet Singh's mastery of the Tar Shenai, which he plays while singing! As an interesting side-note, during one of Bhai Baldeep Singh's Boston visits, my daughter Mehr sang for him, this shabad in Raga Nand, to which Bhai Baldeep Singh responded by singing a few lines of the shabad in Raga Bihag; the composition he sang was very similar to the one sung By Bhai Baljeet Singh (above). Of course this is no great surprise! Our great Puratan compositions have been handed down over the generations through multiple teaching lines. The nature of the art is such that each recipient learns the composition and then makes it his own, in the process subtly embellishing it before it is passed on. To hear a familiar Puratan composition unexpectedly is like the delight you feel upon running into an old friend after many many years !!

 Bhai Baljeet Singh with Bhai Gurmeet Singh and Fateh Singh on Tabla

Now! Since I've mentioned the Nand version of this shabad, it must be the next one to be presented :-) This rendition is by Guneet Kaur :

Tum Ho Sabh Rajan Ke Raja (Raga Nand)

Guneet Kaur is in my view, the leading female vocalist in her generation in the world of Gurmat Sangeet. She has studied with Bhai Baljeet Singh and is now under the guidance of Pandit Vinayak Pathak of the Gwalior Gharana. Her singing has an indescribable quality that transcends musical virtuosity or technical competence. More than any other Kirtaniya I have heard, with the possible exception of Virji, Prem Singh Ji, her singing moves every listener, naive, or sophisticated. According to ancient Indian aesthetics, the Rasa or aesthetic flavor that is associated with art cannot be described; only suggested and experienced. Time and time again, I have listened to singers of both Shastriya Sangeet and Gurmat Sangeet, who are clearly very adept at their craft, but whose singing leaves me cold. Guneet's singing, is almost always suffused with Rasa. It really needs to be experienced live.

If this Nand recording of Tum Ho Sabh Rajan Ke Raja sounds a little, shall we say, informal; it is :-) It was recorded in 2009 at a private residence in Salt Lake City, when we were chilling in the evening after a Gurmat Sangeet program. Present were Bibi Amarjit Kaur Ji, Dr. Onkar Singh, the Boston crew as well as many of my friend Sher Singh's merry band of kirtaniyas from DC. Upon being asked, Guneet was kind enough to sing this mesmerizing shabad. On tabla was Harnarayan Singh with enthusiastic support from our own Jaspreet Singh.

 Guneet Kaur accompanied by Gurmeet Singh and her students

Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant, is a hugely talented Kirtaniya who hails from Jalandhar. He has studied with Pradeep Singh Ji, who was a student of Thakur Ji, the son of the legenadary Gian Singh Almast Ji, whose ghost often makes an appearance in my musings :-) This shabad was sung by Shant Ji when he first visited the US in the late 90s. I recorded this either at my home or at the Bridgewater Gurdwara :

 Bajat Basant Bhairav Ar Hindol Rag

This is a beautiful Guldasta in eleven Ragas from the Krishan Avtar in the Dasam Granth. The composition is by Gian Sing Almast Ji.

bwjq bsMq Aru BYrv ihMfol rwg 
bwjq hY llqw ky swQ hÍY DnwsrI
mwlvw klXwn Aru mwlkas mwrU rwg
bn mY bjwvO kwnH mMgl invwsrI
surI Aru AsurI Aau pMngI jy huqI qhw
Duin ky sunq pY n rhI suiD jwsu rI
khY ehu dwsrI su AYsI bwjI bwsurI
su myry jwny Xw sB rwg ko invws rI [27]

From the flute of Krishna emanate Ragas such as Basant, Bhairav and Hindol.
Raga Lalita and Dhanasri sound in unison.
Krishna’s flute plays  Raga Malwa, Kalyan Malkauns and Maru in the forest.
All the listeners are completely absorbed in the divine melody.
It seems to me that all of these Ragas live in Krishna’s flute.  

In addition to being an excellent kirtaniya Bhai Gurmit Singh Shant is known for his sartorial splendor, which is exceeded only by our very own Professor Ranjit Singh Ji's :-D He had dressed down when this photograph was taken.

Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant

This can go on for ever :-) but I must bring this to a conclusion with a rendition from one of my favorite Kirtaniyas.

It was early in 2004. Mehr was born later that year in July. We had the the good fortune to host Bhai Gurmej Singh Ji, one of the  Huzoori Ragis from Sri Harmandir Sahib at Bridgewater. When I talk about Rasa in Kirtan, there is no better exemplar than Bhai Gurmej Singh. It didn't matter what he sang.  A shabad, a Reet, a Puratan Bandish. Basant or Sarang or Tukhari. All magnificent and drenched in love. I have never heard anyone sing Basant in particular, like Bhai Sahib.

This final shabad was recorded during that visit :

Pooran Jot Jage Ghat Me

The shabad was sung in Raga Darbari Kanada. On tabla was Bhai Iqbal Singh Ji, who, alas is no more. The other vocie you hear is that of Bhai Amarjit Singh, who now serves the Sangat in North Carolina. I haven't heard this paean to the Khalsa sung with more feeling by anyone!

Enjoy these shabads as we celebrate the Prakash Purb of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Download them. Listen to them. And pelase respond by posting your favorites as well.

Gur Fateh !

Sarbpreet Singh