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

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Basant in Toronto

The International Dateline

April 4 2005

I am in the middle of a long long flight from Los Angeles to Taipei. I can’t sleep. The VoD system has many movies, but my head hurts and I don’t feel like watching any one of them! I have a grueling week ahead of me before I head back to participate in the Basakhi celebrations in Boston, starting on the 10th. I am fiddling with my laptop to pass the time and I come across a bunch of photographs taken around three weeks ago in Toronto. The photographs cut through my stupor and I am transported!

A couple of years ago in the early days of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, we organized a Kirtan Darbar around the theme of Basant in Boston. We were fortunate to have Bhai Sarbjit Singh Rangila, a fine Kirtaniya, Bhai Surjit Singh (Long Island), one of Gyani Dyal Singh Ji’s senior most students and the Boston based Khayalia (and my Ustad) Warren Senders, in the Kirtan darbar. In addition most of the children from the Milford Sangat, who sing, learned new shabads in Basant, Bahar and other Ragas of the spring for the Kirtan Darbar.

The Darbar was a resounding success. The Sangat enjoyed the program tremendously. Last year as well as this year, I had numerous requests to organize a similar program again. In 2004, we were all fully occupied preparing for the Sikh Youth Symposium. This year, I have had an insane travel schedule and just could not pull a major program together in March. (BTW, we will have three major Gurmat Sangeet related events in Boston this year, one each in May, September and December)

Even though we were not planning on organizing this event in Boston this year, I had been discussing such an event with my good friend Inderpreet Singh, who now lives in Toronto. He was trying to get an event together in Toronto and I was egging him on. I had hoped that we might be able to take a bunch of children from the Boston area to Toronto over the weekend to participate in the event.

As it turned out, Inderpreet got connected with several enthusiastic young folks in Toronto and got good support from the management of the Mississauga Gurdwara sahib. The Basant Darbar was on! March 12 had been selected as the date. The Boston contingent was definitely not ready! Because of my travel, we had really not picked up momentum. There were no school vacation days around the 12th. Logistically it would be pretty difficult. I called Inderpreet and told him that the Boston team would not be able to make it.

I am grateful to Inderpreet for prodding me and not taking no for an answer easily. Since I was one of his co-conspirators, he would simply not accept my not being there. Plan B was to try and find air tickets as opposed to driving. To cut a long story short, on Friday, March 11 I was on my way to Toronto with my family (my wife Ritu and our two children, Mehr & Aman). Also with us was Amrit, one of my first students in Boston. Amrit and Mehr have been singing together as a team now for more than three years.

Somewhat serendipitously, I had started Mehr and Amrit on a Partal in Raga Basant Bhar, obtained from Gyan Singh Ji Abbotabad’s book, Gurbani Kirtan. As it turned out the Partal was destined to be sung at the Toronto Basant Kirtan Darbar!

We arrived incident free in Toronto on Friday night... The Kirtan Darbar was in the evening on Saturday; we decided to do a little bit of sightseeing in the morning, despite the bitter cold. While the kids greatly enjoyed their visit to the CN Tower, the highlight of the day for them was a Punjabi radio program we discovered as we drove downtown. The rustic voice promising ‘Jacktan’ (jackets) for ‘Chowdan Dallar Nadhenveh Cent” kept them in splits the rest of the trip!

(Amrit, Mehr and Aman, dutifully posing at the Toronto Convention Center)

There was one more thing we needed to attend to. This was the first time that the girls were singing a Partal. We did not have a tabla player with us. All of our practice so far had been with two electronic tablas to help them navigate the difficult transitions from the Asthai, sung in Chartal to the antras in Iktal, Soolfak and Tintal, and back!

We drove to Inderpreet’s home where the girls managed to practice the transitions in particular, with young Nampreet Singh, a fine musician and kirtaniya, who was to accompany them in the evening.

The Darbar in the evening was magnificent. To think! We had come so close to missing it entirely! It would have been a shame for sure! The arrangements were excellent; interspersed with the Kirtan was commentary in the form of a presentation. The content of the commentary could have been tighter, but this represents an excellent start and in a certain sense establishes a great format for future use.

The program began with Kirtan by Toronto area children. They were generally very adept and covered an excellent range of Ragas such as Shudh Basant, Bahar and Basnt (Poorvi). Among other children we heard from Jora Singh and his brother, who had visited Boston, last year during the Symposium and among other things had presented a spirited Gatka display. We also had the pleasure of hearing Gurleen and Jasleen Kaur sing. All of these children are students of Professor Purshottam Singh Ji of Toronto. We did not get the opportunity to meet him, but during the Symposium, I remember listening in awe to his young students as they sang brilliantly.

In particular, we were all taken by the excellent tabla playing by Jalseen. It is so rare to see young girls on the tabla. Jasleen is simply outstanding! I remember listening to her and thinking that her playing, in some way, reminded me of the playing of the redoubtable Hariqbal Singh Zakhmi Ji.

It was time for Mehr and Amrit to sing. The girls looked fine, but I was nervous. The girls have sung at various events before, but this was the first time that they would be attempting a Partal. Also, through the efforts of Amritpal Singh, the program was being webcast live.

I need not have worried! The girls did an excellent job and exceeded my expectations, with Nampreet Singh providing very adept accompaniment on the tabla. Jasleen accompanied them on the second shabad, sung in Basant (Marwa) and sent to Iktaal.

(Mehr and Amrit, singing a Partaal accompanied by Nampreet Singh)

(Mehr and Amrit, accompanied by Jasleen)

The highlight of the evening was superb Kirtan by Nampreet Singh, Rupinder Singh and Jaswinder Singh. This young kirtani jatha from Toronto is doing an excellent job reviving the traditions of Gurmat Sangeet by embracing stringed instruments such as the Dilruba and the Taus. It was a moving and stirring experience and the best way to understand what I am talking about is simply to listen !

(Nampreet Singh, Rupinder Singh, Jaswinder Singh

S. Jagdish Singh Virdi Ji, who followed sang two beautiful shabads, displaying great virtuosity, obviously built over years and years of practice. Very robust Kirtan by a Jatha of young women from Javadhi Kalan followed. The final Jatha was led by Onkar Singh, accompanied by Gurpreet Chana, popularly know as ‘The Tabla Guy’. Both Onkar Singh and Gurpreet Singh are students of Prof. Purshottam Singh Ji, who I am extremely eager to meet, having seen the fabulous job that he has done with his students. This segment was particularly interesting because of the Sarod accompaniment. It provided a brief glimpse into what Kirtan might have been like, with Rabab accompaniment.

(S.Jagdish Singh Virdi Ji)

(Onkar Singh and his Jatha; Inderpreet Singh in the background)

Over the years, after the Gurmat Sangeet Project went live, I have had the good fortune to connect with many Premis of Gurmat Sangeet. Meeting some of the people with whom I had been corresponding via email was one of the highlights of the visit to Toronto. I met S.Didar Singh Chana Ji, who is a dedicated listener and lover of Gurmat Sangeet, as well as his son Sukhi Chana. This is a family that is deeply rooted in Gurmat Sangeet. Sukhi Ji’s Brother, S.Balbir Singh Ji, who lives in the US is also deeply connected to Gurmat Sangeet.

Similarly it was a pleasure to meet S.Gursev Singh, who had generously sent me a large number of MP3s of some magnificent Kirtan from his collection, which I will host on the Gurmat Sangeet Project website soon. The warmth of the brief meeting and short conversation was truly beyond description! Similarly it was a pleasure to meet Onkar Singh and several other Kirtan Premis from Toronto that I had been corresponding with.

The next morning, Mehr and Amrit were to sing at the Scarborough Gurdwara. After a few shabads in Basant, it was time to go home ! Due to some incredible ineptitude on our airline’s part, our return flight was from Buffalo. S.Manjit Singh Parmar, who is part of the Scarborough Sangat, and with whom we share many common friends was kind enough to drive us to Buffalo.

The Toronto Basant Darbar was truly a magnificent experience. I am hopeful that it will become an annual feature. Perhaps we can alternate between Toronto & Boston each year. (God knows that both Toronto and Boston could use some help accelerating the arrival of spring !)