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

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Stopping to smell the roses

Hopkinton, MA
March 30, 2005

It’s a little after 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning in the Milford Gurdwara. It’s early, but there are a handful of people in the Durbar Hall already. I am sitting in my customary spot, whenever we have an accomplished Ragi Jatha visiting the Boston area, my stuff around me, mike in position, MP3 recorder, digital camera. (This dear readers, is the field office of the Gurmat Sangeet Project!)

The singing of the Asa Ki Var has begun; several paudis in Raga Asa have already been sung. The atmosphere is serene. A new Shabad is begun. And then, I feel my ears playing tricks on me. I catch strains of Gunkali. Was that really Prabhati floating past? That sounded like Bhatiyar! And wait wasn’t that Ramkali? The Shabad only lasts a little over five minutes. My mind is in a whirl. Don’t believe me? Here…. Listen for yourself:

This article is really out of sequence! I should be writing about the Basant Kirtan Durbar in Toronto, which was perhaps one of the highlights of this year’s Gurmat Sangeet calendar. I most certainly will because that was indeed an event worth writing about!

For now, let’s go back to Sunday morning.

The rest of the Asa Ki Var is equally mesmerizing. Chhants sung in many Ragas and Talas. Soulful Alaaps. Beautiful shabads. Puratan (ancient) compositions:

The magnificent singing continues. On Monday and Tuesday in the evening, I am playing the Tanpura, enjoying every moment. The Shabad begins in Raga Malkauns. It morphs into Multani, Hamir, Bageshri, Durga, Jaijawanti and many other Ragas of the night. Seamlessly. Elegantly.

Gurmat Sangeet is a ‘Shabad Pardhan’ tradition in which the text is clearly and unequivocally the most important aspect of the music. Gurmat Sangeet is definitely not about the display of musical virtuosity. There is really not much of a place in Gurmat Sangeet for extensive Alaaps, Tankari and other pyrotechnics.

However, sometimes, it’s really nice to stop and smell the roses!

Whenever I hear Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant in full flow, my heart swells with pride. It is wonderful to see a Guru Ka Kirtaniya who is so ‘Tayyar’. Clearly, someone who has spent his life perfecting his command over Raga and Tala. Every crystal clear note attests to years and years of rigorous Riyaz. Watching him sing, it is very obvious that this is more than a profession. It is love. It is passion.

I first met Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant at the Gurdwara Sahib at Bridgewater, New Jersey. It was 1998. The turbulent times at Bridgewater had conspired to drag me back into serving in the management committee. It was my responsibility to organize the weekly Divans and to book Ragi Jathas. I had never heard of Gurmeet Singh Shant until Bhai Harbhajan Singh, who plays Tabla with Bhai Parkash Singh in New Jersey, gave me a scratchy tape. The Kirtan sounded decent, not exceptional. I decided to invite Gurmeet Singh Shant and his Jatha to sing at Bridgewater.

The next six or seven weeks, the Bridgewater Sangat was treated to a feast like they had never experienced before. Accompanied by his brothers, Kuldip Singh on harmonium and Manjit Singh on tabla, Gurmeet Singh Shant spun a magic web of some of the finest singing that I have experienced in the Gurmat Sangeet context. In one particular program, at our home in Neshanic, he sang two memorable shabads, one in Raga Bhairav and the other in Raga Asavari in Rudra Taal. Seven years have passed but I can hear each note clearly in my head to this day!

If Bridgewater was a feast, Boston mostly has been famine! The Sangat is small and we are unable to attract many ‘popular’ Ragis. Over the years I have had the pleasure of listening to Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji, Bhai Dilbagh Singh Gulbagh Singh, Bhai Surjit Singh, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh and a few other stalwarts in Boston, mostly for very short durations.

The last few days however, we have been feasting again. Bhai Gurmeet Singh is here and it feels like those magical weeks in Bridgewater in the summer of ’98 again! An even more improved Manjit Singh is on the tabla. Kuldip Singh has settled down in the UK. Vocal accompaniment is being provided by the young Manjit Singh, older son of Bhai Amarjit Singh of North Carolina. (I first met this young man’s father in 1994, when he visited Bridgewater as part of Bhai Gurmej Singh’s Jatha; there is a poignant story that goes with that visit which I will share another time)

Manjit Singh is a very talented, if slightly diffident young fellow. His talent is obvious in the clean Alaaps that you can hear him sing, while accompanying Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant. It is truly heartwarming to see Gurmeet Singh mentoring this young man and helping him grow. This is very atypical behavior! Traditionally, Ragis have been very secretive about and protective of their art. After all it is linked to their livelihood! Instruction, in the vaunted Guru-Sishya tradition is often reserved for students related closely by blood. The fact that Gurmeet Singh is willing to share his art so generously speaks to his maturity, confidence and dedication as a Kirtaniya.

During most small Divans, I sit behind the Jatha and exercise my newly developed Tanpura playing skills. The first time, last Sunday, in hindsight, I attacked the Tanpura with more gusto than skill, approaching it more like a jazzman playing his Bass ! The net result was that the poor instrument was hopelessly out of tune by the end of the Divan! The next day Bhai Sahib taught me how to caress the strings to produce a rich, vibrant sound and keep the instrument from going out of tune.
Manjit Singh, Gurmeet Singh Shant, Manjit Singh March 28,2005

Late in the evening after most of the Sangat has left, we hang out and chat. Gurmeet Singh Shant regales us with anecdotes from a childhood and adolescence spent in the company of legendary Ragis such as Gyan Singh Ji ‘Almast’, Bhai Bakshish Singh Ji, Bhai Devinder Singh Ji Gurdaspurwale and the redoubtable Bhai Balbir Singh Ji. We also hear apocryphal stories about Bhagwan Ji Kinnar (Gyani Harnam Singh Ji Kinnar), who taught Bhai Kishan Singh Ji Shant, Gurmeet Singh’s father. Invariably the stories are about the conjuring up of rain-clouds in the heat of summer by a particularly well executed Miyan Ki Malhar or white sheets changing color to Saffron under the onslaught of Bhagwan Ji’s Basant !

In the seven years that have passed since our first meeting at Bridgewater, I have had a few other unexpected meetings with Gurmeet Singh Shant. Towards the end of last year, on a whim, hearing that he was in the New York area, I invited him to Boston, where he participated in a couple of memorable Kirtan programs. In 1999 on a hurried trip to Darbar Sahib I chanced upon him, singing outside the Akal Takhat Sahib. We could barely exchange a Fateh ! as he was singing and I was in a rush. Another wintry day, a couple of years ago, I chanced upon him at the Harballabh music festival in Jalandhar, where we sat and listened to a dazzling young Kaushiki Chakraborty and other Hindustani musicans.

Over the years, we have developed a bond. I am greatly inspired by Bhai Gurmit Singh Shant. I often learn his compositions and teach them to my children. Every time his Kirtan moves me, I lavish heartfelt praise upon him. I know I will sound vain, saying this, but sometimes the artist is inspired by his audience as well ! When appreciation is genuine, nuanced and appropriate, it has a tangible impact on the performer and enables him to ascend to new heights.

The roses, at that point, smell particularly sweet.


Blogger Ravneet said...

Did you know that there's a young sikh tabla maestro from Canada, named Rohan Singh Bhogal? I saw him perform a solo recital for an hour in India at prestigious "Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan". What a brilliant fourteen year old wizard! He's trained by Ustad Zakir Hussein. He's blessed with sweetest hands i've heard in a long time. The clearity, speed, creativity and layakari of this boy amazed even established tabla players present at the time. you could see their faces after he finished. This site should show those musicians also.

May 11, 2005 at 4:24 PM

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February 6, 2006 at 12:55 AM

Blogger Harjasleen said...

I absolutely agree with you.. Shant saab is so passionate and dedicated towards his kirtan.. I have had this golden opportunity to watch and listen to him when he was doing riaz at 3am in the morning and i felt i was sitting in some sachkhand..
I am his very fortunate neice living in UK.. I am bhai Kuldip Singh's daughter.
Bhai saab is in Thailand at the moment and flying to Canada next month.
As I was reading your blog my dad was sitting right next to me.. he said how pyar wale you are..
It's my birthday today and shant saab called me to wish me Happy birthday.
My dad would like to speak to you if he could have your tel number please..
Many thanks

August 15, 2010 at 5:18 AM


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