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

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A gem discovered

Gobind Sadan, Delhi
July 2005

(Note : I started writing this article in September 2005, but it was completed and published on February 28, 2006)

A warm summer morning in Delhi. The rains are here and Delhi is a giant muddy puddle. After driving for what feels likes hours, I am finally there. We've passed through run down shanty towns. As well as rows upon rows of spotless 'farm houses', gated and somehow intimidating.

Over the years, as my interest in Gurmat Sangeet grows, I inevitably talkto many kirtaniyas and kirtan premis about the great Rababi tradiiton, which is all but dead today. Many wistfully reminisce of the legendary Bhai Lal, and the redoubtable Bhai Chand and Bhai Taba who sang for years at the Harmandir Sahib, before 1947.

Bhai Taba Ji's presence looms large. An outstanding musician. A veritbale repository of traditional Gurmat Sangeet composition. A lovely, humble man. Dedicated.

Young Nampreet Singh, a Kirtaniya from Toronto first tells me about a possible living link to the Rababi tradition. A frail old woman. Once a student of the legendary Bhai Taba Ji. Her name : Bibi Jaswant Kaur. Last known whereabouts ? Nobody seems to know.

Baldeep Singh, the Sikh musician, visits Boston. In a casual conversation he speaks warmly about an old woman, a student of Bhai Taba Ji, who he often visits. Bibi Jaswant Kaur is found !

Tentatively, I send an email to Gobind Sadan and I get a response. I call, and am directed to a neighbor's house, who is kind enough to fetch Bibi Ji. Somewhat tentatively, I ask her if she would be willing to meet me. To my delight she agrees. Emboldened, I ask if she will consider letting me record her. She is willing, but she doesn't really have an accompanist on the Tabla.

It is thus I find myself at Gobind Sadan this muggy monsoon morning. Bhai Kavinder Singh, a student of Gyani Dyal Singh Ji's, who plays the tabla with Bhai Jitender Singh has been drafted. He has been asked to polish his skills, particularly at the lesser known Dhrupad Taals that a student of the great Bhai Taba Ji is likely to play.

Bhai Kavinder Singh hasn't arrived yet. I am clearly expected. A kindly old Gursikh, popularly known as Bhagat Ji at Gobind Sadan, who has been waiting for me, directs me to Bibi Ji's apartment.

Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji

She is the youngest 85 year old I have ever met. She welcomes me with genuine warmth. Slices fruits for Bhagat Ji and me despite my protests.

The next couple of hours are a delight. She remembers everything. Her sixteen years as a student of Bhai Taba Ji in Amritsar. As a seven year old, she remembers listening in as her aunt is taught by the legendary Dilip Chand Vedi Ji. Her father's surprise at her being able to perfectly render a Thumri she hears her aunt sing. Her first lessons in Gurmat Sangit with the Bhai Sahib from the local gurdwara. Her father nurtures her talent by moving to Amritsar after retirement. Engages the services of Bhai Taba Ji to teach his young daughter. Bhai Taba Ji visits their house every day to teach her. His is accompanied by Bhai Nasira Ji, who plays the Jori and specializes in playing Sath (dhrupad bols that in modern times are played on the Pakhawaj)

She talks about Bhai Taba Ji. His humility. Father of nine daughters. Constantly worrying about getting them married. The devastating effects of Partition in 1947, when Bhai Taba Ji, Bhai Nasira Ji, Bhai Chand Ji move to Pakistan. Travellers bring back poignant tales of the Muslim Rababis, once revered keepers of the Gurmat Sangit Tradition, now without an audience or patrons in Pakistan. Their art withering and dying. Heart wrenching portraits of neglect, tears and despair. Driven to desperation. Devoid of any skills other than the singing of Gurbani. Some become quacks and make their living applying leeches to the ill. Others earn their living by beating silver into thin layers of foil for the confectioners of Lahore.

She remembers two and a half hour Kirtan Chowkis that Bhai Chand Bhai Taba participate in. To my surprise I learn that there is no accompaiment by stringed instruments. Both Rababis accompany themselves on harmonimums. They do not use Tanpuras.

She talks about her life at Gobind Sadan. She has been here for thirtyfive years, after the death of her husband, singing for half an hour each morning and another half hour each evening. For the last twenty, Bhagat Ji has accompanied her faithfully every day.

Bhai Kavinder Singh is here at last. I have asked Bibi Ji to sing some compositions in particular, that are transcribed in Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji's books on Gurbani Kirtan.

The next fortyfive minutes I am transported to another era. Shabad after beautiful shabad in the traditional Rabai style, each rendered with joy and love, by this amazing eighty five year old Kirtaniya. A direct link to our hertitage. To the divine message of Baba Nanak and the glorious music of Bhai Mardana.

The renditions speak orders of magnitude more eloquently than my words :

(Har jan bolat sri ram nama; Raga Shudh Malhar)
(Jal jasi dhola hath na lai kasumbde; Raga Suhi)
(Maha maha mumarkhi chadiya sadaa basant; Raga Basant-Marwa ang)
(Man re jap ram nam gopal; Raga Darbari Kanada)

Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji, Bhai Kavinder Singh and Bhagat Ji

Bibi Ji is kind enought to give me some more of her recordings; they are all available at the Gurmat Sangeet Project Bibi Jaswant Kaur Page

Its time to leave. She is tired. I would love to do something for her. Anything. But she is content. She lacks nothing. Wants nothing. She is happy. She is the guardian of a great, priceless treasure. Each day of her rich life, she shares it. Selfelessly. Joyously. Humbly.