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

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A full circle; musings on an extraordinay kirtaniya

June 28, 2005

My eyes are closed. I’m pretty sure I’m smiling. The room is awash in the rich strains of the Taus. Tuesday June 14 2005; our home in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The crisp sound of the Jori bounces off the walls as the melody, a timeless bandish in Raga Bilaval, prances about, seamlessly morphing from one Taal into the next. Powerful voices. Now raspy. Now tender. Crafted and polished over twelve generations of dedication. Total Bliss !

Am I dreaming ?

Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji and his Jatha, at our home in Hopkinton MA, June 13 2005

‘Mohan neend na aaveh, haaveh. Har Kajar bastr abharan Keeney. Udini. Udini. Udini. Kab ghar aaveh ri.’

1990. A small apartment in Waukesha, a nameless suburb of Mulwaukee in Wisconsin. A tape has arrived in the mail from Austin Texas. It is a high quality TDK cassette in a sleek black plastic case. I pop it into my cassette deck.

No Taus. But the same Shabad. The same beautiful, soulful melody. This is the first time that I am experiencing the true Gurmat Sangeet tradition, because the kindness of a new friend from Austin Texas, who fifteen years ago, probably had the same emotions running through his heart when he recorded this shabad, in his home, sung by Bhai Avtar Singh Ji.

This is how my personal journey into Gurmat Sangeet began. Today it’s come a full circle, in a way ! As Bhai Avtar teases the first few notes out of his Taus, my ears prick up ! Hmm ! That sounds like Raga Bilaval ! Maybe its Soohee ! The Manglacharan confirms the diagnosis ! It is indeed Bilaval ! And now the Partaal begins. My delight is complete. Of all the shabads Bhai Sahib could have picked to sing this morning, he has picked this one ! On his own !

The next hour is unadulterated joy ! After the Partal, Bhai Sahib Ji sings a haunting composition in an aprachalit form of Devghandhari, which he later explains is the traditional version sung in Gurughars. He follows that up with another shabad in another version of Devgandhari. Anand Sahib, at my request, is in Ramkali. But not in your garden variety modern day Ramkali which employs both Madhyams and Nishads. Later Bhai Sahib indicates that this is the pristine form of Ramkali, also grounded in the Bhairav scale, but eschewing the Tivar (sharp) Madhyam and the Komal (soft) Nishad.

As my journey progressed over the last fifteen years, I had the good fortune to meet Bhai Sahib Ji many times. Often unexpectedly ! Our first meeting was at the Bridgewater, New Jersey, probably in 1993. By then I had acquired several recordings of Bhai Sahib Ji, from his earlier visits to Bridgewater. I awaited his arrival with a pleasant sense of excitement and anticipation and I was not disappointed ! I still have recordings from the week he spent there. I particularly remember a fabulous rendering of, Har Bin Jeeo Jall Bal Jaoun’ in Shri Rag which particularly moved me. Once again my Sitar playing friend, Charanjit Singh (who I have referred to in earlier posts as well) were not satisfied until we had hacked out the melody on the Vaja ! Later of course, I acquired the magnificent, two volume ‘Prachin Reet Ratnavali’, authored by Bhai Sahib and his older brother Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ji, which meticulously documents hundreds of traditional compositions passed down from the very times of the Gurus.

One of the most interesting memories I have of this visit relates to Bhai Swarn Singh Ji, who has accompanied Bhai Sahib on the jori for decades. I remember the first Kirtan program at Bridgewater. I am sitting at the foot of the stage, very close to the Jatha, eyes closed enjoying the Kirtan. My good friend S.Harjap Singh Aujla nudges me and asks if I am enjoying myself. A little irritated at being disturbed, I mumble Yes ! Harjap Singh Ji says “Jadon Atta Chhat Nu Vajjega, Ohdon Asli Swaad Auna Hai”. I look at him, puzzled. Atta ? Hitting the ceiling ? Here ?

The Shabad is coming to an end. Bhai Swarn Singh is playing Chartaal on the Jori with great vigor. Not the simple Chartaal Theka, but a dazzling array of complicated Bols. The energy is fearsome. His hands rise up high in the air and swoop down on the Jori. Threatening to smash it into bits. And sure enough, as the shabad reaches its climax I see little tan colored pieces of something flying in all directions ! Upon close examination they are indeed specks of now dry Atta ! I am perplexed !

Bhai Swarn Singh Ji, preparing his Jori with Atta

Later I learn that in order to coax the right sound out of a Jori, the playing surface is indeed prepared by applying a thin layer of freshly kneaded chappati dough to its face ! During the current trip, I remember my seven year old, Amandeep coming up to me during one of the divans and whispering in my ear “He’s rubbing Atta on his Tabla !”

There are many other chance meetings. One morning, passing through Delhi on my way home to Gangtok, I go to Bangla Sahib. I have the good fortune to listen to Bhai Sahib’s rendition of the Asa Ki Var. The Jatha greets me warmly and asks me to visit their home, but I have a flight to catch.

On a couple of separate trips to Toronto, when I go to the Gurdwara in the morning with my relatives, to my delight, it is none other than Bhai Sahib rendering the Asa Ki Var. The Jatha visits New Jersey again. During one visit, probably in early 1996 my wife, Ritu is in India. I invite the Jatha to visit my home and cook a meal for them, which they graciously consume with many underserved compliments. I sing a shabad for them – ‘Tou darsan ki karo samai’ in Raga Tilang. I am too embarrassed to ask Bhai Swarn Singh to accompany me. Sangat is provided by my electronic tabla. Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji offers many words of encouragement.

During the next visit to Bridgewater, New Jersey, I ask Bhai Sahib Ji, in hindsight, a somewhat impertinent question. I express my delight and joy at the opportunity to listen to an 11th generation custodian of the Gurmat Sangeet Shayli. What of the 12th ? Is this line of Kirtaniyas going to come to an end ? Immediately I regret asking the question. Bhai Sahib Ji’s face reflects a variety of emotions. Some sadness. Maybe a little bit of defensiveness. He explains that he is trying to keep the tradition alive by offering to teach several students.

It is the summer of 2003. We have since moved to Boston from New Jersey. Bhai Sahib is visiting the Milford Gurdwara. I go up to him to greet him. I see Bhai Swarn Singh Ji beaming at me. Bhai Avtar Singh Ji, proudly introduces me to his youngest son, Kultar Singh Ji, who has now given up his professional career and has dedicated himself to the Gurmat Sangeet tradition ! Bhai Sahib Ji has probably forgotten our last awkward conversation. It has been many years after all ! I remind him. And congratulate him.

We enjoy a week of traditional Gurmat Sangeet. The Gurmat Sangeet Project is somewhat in its infancy. I am bursting with pride as several of the kids sing before Bhai Sahib and receive a lot of encouragement. The Jatha visits us at home and I introduce the website to them.

Back to Tuesday, June 14 2005.

Bhai Sahib Ji and his Jatha have been with us for a week. This time they are staying at our home in Hopkinton. We have had many conversations about music and Gurmat Sangeet. It has been a memorable ten days. Ten days that my family and I will never forget.

I had so wanted to host a Kirtan program at our home, but all the evenings are booked. On a whim, I ask Bhai Sahib if we can have an impromptu divan at home in the morning. He readily agrees.

I decide that I would like to sing first. What should I sing ? Bhairav perhaps ? Should I attempt a Partaal ? And Kultar Singh Ji has been encouraging me to avoid the Vajaa and sing with my Tanpura. Should I. Perhaps I should play it safe and sing a simple shabad in Bhairav in Tintaal, using my Vajaa ? I decide to go for broke ! The Partaal it is. Pratpaal Prabk Kirpaal Kavan Gun Ganee. Without a Vajaa. Bhai Swarn Singh Ji graciously agrees to accompany me. The Jatha politely listens.

Bhai Swarn Singh Ji accompanies me; The Jatha kindly listens
Bhai Sahib is complimentary. I am sure undeservedly so ! In particular he is pleased with my using the Gandhar and Nishad as grace notes. (More about this in a separate post !) Kultar Singh Ji askes me to record myself, but I forget to turn on my mic and save myself a lot of embarrassment.

And then Bhai Sahib begins the Partaal in Raga Bilaval.

This post is a tribute to one of the greatest living Ragis today. An expression of my love, respect and affection. In addition to being a fabulous Ragi and singer, Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji is a wonderful human being. Warm. Affectionate. Compassionate. Givng.

We are fortunate. Our home has been blessed by his presence.
Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji with my family; June 14, 2005, Hopkinton, MA

(Note : The recordings from Tuesday, March 14 are NOT on the Gurmat Sangeet Project Website in the usual place. If you wish to access them, please send me email and I will point you to them. In return you have to send your name, location and a one liner that talks about your interest in Gurmat Sangeet to Please also indicate if I can list you in a directory of Gurmat Sangeet Premis that I would like to maintain on the Gurmat Sangeet Project website. I would love to be in touch with ‘my audience’ if it exists ! This is a small incentive )