In Search of Almast
In Search of ‘Almast’
Of late, the Gurmat Sangeet Blog has been somewhat dormant. Much more so because of inertia rather than a dearth of ideas or topics! Somewhat paradoxically, as I travel less, I have been writing less often, whereas one would think that I should actually have more time to write!
In any event, I find myself on the road again, with many hours until my next flight at Heathrow. The familiar urge resurfaces and I open up my laptop…..
Over the years, I have caught fleeting glimpses of an apparently brilliant, but relatively unknown figure in the world of Gurmat Sangeet. His name is Gian Singh ‘Almast’. The name itself is intriguing! It hints at an irreverent, radical intoxication. Rebellion. Immersion. Gian Singh ‘Almast’’s personality however, remains tantalizingly obscure. He surfaces briefly when old school Kirtaniyas get together and reminisce about a bygone era, but by and large he remains very elusive!
During an intimate, sparsely attended Friday evening Diwan at the Milford Gurdwara Sahib in 2003, Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant is singing. The Shabad is ‘Pati Tore Malini’. The Bandish, or melody, is not the well known composition in Raga Kafi, popularized by the late Bhai Bakshish Singh Ji, which Gurmeet Siingh Shant is known to sing. It is a dazzling, fluid, enrapturing melody in Raga Kalavati that I have never heard before.
During langar, I find myself asking Gurmeet Singh Shant about the beautiful composition. He tells me that it was a composition by Almast Ji. An outline begins to emerge! I ask Gurmeet Singh Shant to sing more compositions by Almast. In subsequent Diwans, Gurmeet Singh Shant obliges. Every composition is more beautiful than the previous one. The outline now has more definition and the essence of Gian Singh Almast’s art and the sheer magnitude of his talent slowly starts to become apparent.
I go back home and frantically search through my archive of recordings by Gurmeet Singh Shant, recorded during many meetings over the years. I discover many other gems that for sure, reflect the musical genius of Almast Ji.
Saturday morning in
Raja Mrigendra Singh, scion of the house of
August 2004. The Sikh Youth Symposium has come to
In August 2005, we visit
(Here is the same Guldasta sung by Bhai Gurmit Singh Shant : :)
The Sarin family at the 2005 Sikh Youth Symposium in Atlanta
We congratulate S. Paramjit Singh and his family after the fine performance. We are told about the speed with which Soni Kaur has picked up the Dilruba, literally in a matter of months, which I treat at first as parental pride asserting itself ! The next day, the Sarins graciously host us. We sit together and share our passion about Gurmat Sangeet. We sing and share precious old compositions. We learn more about each other’s families and their interest in Gurmat Sangeet. During the conversation, I discover the secret of Soni Kaur’s almost magical progress on the Dilruba. Gian Singh Almast’s blood runs through her veins! The speed which she picked up the Dilruba is no surprise at all ! Her mother, Archana Kaur is the granddaughter of Gian Singh Almast!
Soni Kaur on the Dilruba; Atlanta 2005
It is 2006. Gyani Dyal Singh Ji is visiting with us in
I finally strike gold in my quest for Gian Singh Almast. Gyani Ji is a contemporary of Gian Singh Almast’s son, S. Thakur Singh and has known Gian Singh well, as a young man. In his inimitable style, Gyani Ji holds forth talking freely and colorfully about the musical phenomenon that was Gian Singh Almast. Sometimes so colorfully that his words cannot be reproduced here!
The picture that emerges is of an unconventional, iconoclastic musical genius, with a penchant for showmanship and confidence in his musical prowess, almost bordering on arrogance. A larger than life personality with many appetites and the boldness to fully indulge in them. A composer, singer, instrumentalist and musician of incredible talent, the likes of whom has probably never been seen again in the Sikh Panth. A genius who lived life to the fullest and left the world, largely unsung.
His legacy, however, continues to live on. In his compositions, that are sung so beautifully by Gurmeet Singh Shant and Devinder Singh Shant. In the highly talented musicians among his descendants.
I cannot resist recounting a quick anecdote shared by Gyani Ji. The time: around 50 years ago. The young Dyal Singh is a Dilruba player at Sri Harmandir Sahib. He accompanies Bhai Samund Singh Ji and other legendary exponents of Gurmat Sangeet. It is evening. He sits in his room, lost in Riyaz, playing his Dilruba. His concentration is broken by a shadow that falls across his doorstep. He looks up. Sees the tall, imposing figure of an impossibly handsome man. Dressed rather dramatically in a long black, heavily embroidered Choga or cloak. Big Pagri on his head with a very elaborate fan or Turla. He stands in the doorway and listens to the young musician playing. The sound of a ‘Wah’ escapes his lips. It is none other than Gian Singh Almast! Later as he sits with Gyani Ji and they talk, he says: “Main kadey kisse @#&^%^&* nu vee Wah nahin kehnda !”
It is the last day of Gyani Dyal Singh Ji’s visit to
For years, Gyani Ji has been threatening to sing a Thumri composed by S. Joginder Singh, the teacher of Gian Singh Almast. Today he is in his element. His eyes are twinkling as he finally gets ready to deliver.
The Thumri is breathtaking! It is a composition by S. Joginder Singh Ji in Veer Ras in praise of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. “Danka Ki Dhamak Sunn” It is in Raga Hindol, set to Soolfak, if memory serves me correctly. The cadence of the composition is amazing. It can only be appreciated by listening to it. Every musician I have played it for, since, has been completely enraptured.
Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, Hopkinton 2006
There is more to come. Gyani Ji goes on to sing “Dhoom Pari Jagat Me Tumri”. Another Thumri in Raga Nayki Kanada, also in praise of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. The words and the composition are by Gian Singh Almast.
Here at last..... is the ephemeral essence of the genius of Almast........