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.
Journalist.
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 sadarang.com :


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.

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