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

Sunday, May 27, 2007

In Search of Almast

In Search of ‘Almast’

London, Feb 22 , 2007
(Completed on May 15, 2007)

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 Milford. The Sangat is slowly trickling in to attend a lecture-demonstration by the very talented Sikh musician, Baldeep Singh. As we wait, Baldeep Singh plays a recording of a Shabad, sung in Darbari Kanada. The depth and emotion in the singing is astounding. To my ears, it is as beautiful as listening to Khansahib Abdul Wahid Khan, or the more contemporary Ulhas Kashalkar, sing Darbari. I am enraptured. I ask Baldeep Singh about the singer and learn that it is none other than S. Thakar Singh, the reclusive, mysterious son of Gian Singh Almast !

Raja Mrigendra Singh, scion of the house of Patiala is visiting Boston. He has just delivered a lecture during Baisakhi celebrations at the Millis Gurdwara; we are in my home, chatting about various aspects of Gurmat Sangeet, particularly Sikh musicians and Kirtaniyas. Raja Mrigendra Singh fondly speaks of the legendary Gajjja Singh Ji and his research into Gurmat Sangeet. When I ask about Almast, I am in for a bit of a shock. He is dismissed as inconsequential, an eccentric and quirky musician. I am puzzled, because this doesn’t at all square with the portrait of Almast that is starting to emerge. A few years later, when I sit down with Gyani Dyal Singh Ji to talk about Almast, I finally understand.

August 2004. The Sikh Youth Symposium has come to Boston. Among the many visitors is a family from Atlanta, very involved with Kirtan. Even with all the distractions that come with organizing the event, I vividly remember their teenage daughter singing some beautiful shabads and their son being very adept on the tabla.

In August 2005, we visit Atlanta for the finals of the Symposium. It is banquet night. The family is on stage. S. Paramjit Singh Sarin plays the Sitar, his daughter Soni Kaur, plays the Dilruuba, Gurpreet Singh excels on the tabla and all of them including Archana Kaur sing. I wonder if my ears are deceiving me. The composition, a Guldasta or Ragmala sounds very familiar. It is indeed by Gian Singh Almast !

(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 Boston. The Gurmat Sangeet Heritage Recordings project is in full swing. Bhai Kanwarpal Singh and his Jatha are also present to support and assist Gyani Ji. We spend many many hours, documenting Gurmat Sangeet compositions and gratefully drinking at the fountain of wealth of Gurmat Sangeet lore, that Gyani Ji is!

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 Boston. We are in the middle of an impromptu, informal Kirtan Diwan at my home in Hopkinton. Gyani Ji has started by singing a mesmerizing Shabad in Shivranjani. Shivranjani is one of my least favorite Ragas, largely as a result of the abuse meted out to it in Hindi Film music, and popular music sung under the guise of Kirtan! But Gyaniji’s rendition in Shivranjani is truly beautiful.

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........

Our Own Bhatkhande

Paris, October 9, 2006

(Completed 5/17/07)

Our own Bhatkhande

As the frequency of my travels has diminished, so have my blog entries. Being trapped in a plane for many hours has certainly resulted in some upside for me! Finding myself with forced leisure once again, I open my laptop and start writing down, thoughts that have been swirling in my head for several weeks.

The very first entry in the Gurmat Sangeet Blog was about Gyani Dyal Singh Ji; regular readers do not really need an introduction! The catalyst for my thoughts, prompting me to write about Gyani Ji again was a diatribe, whose author shall stay nameless, in reaction to the announcement of the Second Annual Gurmat Sangeet Durbar in Chicago in August, in which Gyani Ji featured as the honoree.

Who is this Gyani Dyal Singh, my nameless friend wanted to know. And why is he worthy of recognition? What has he done in the field of Gurmat Sangeet, whose very existence the nameless one questioned as a Sangeet Shayli in its own right !

My first reaction was mild anger, which gave way to amusement. This is not a riposte to the angry and mean-spirited utterings, rooted no doubt in a deep seated lack of self esteem, which were very hurtful to those of us whose lives have been profoundly enriched by the Guru's Sangeet. The purpose is much more to share with the Sangat at large, a sense, albeit fleeting, of the personality and essence of Gyani Dyal Singh Ji. Over the past year or so, I have had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with Gyani Ji, record him extensively and enjoy his never ending reminisces about the titans of Gurmat Sangeet of the last century, who he rubbed shoulders with and observed very closely.

Through hours of conversations with GyaniJi, I have come to experience the aura of Gian Singh Ji Abbotabad, Bhai Samund Singh Ji, Bhai Taba Ji, Bhai Lal Ji, Bhai Chand Ji, Sardar Bahadur Dharam Singh Ji, Gian Singh Ji ' Almast', Bhai Dharm Singh Zakhmi Ji and countless others, who to me, before I met Gyani Ji were just names. Names, sometimes on book covers, or scribbled on the jackets of scratchy tapes, or mentioned fleetingly in conversations about an era long gone! I write this article, primarily to share this precious gift that I have received from Gyani Ji; a gift that rightfully belongs to every Gurmat Sangeet Premi !

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji was probably a very unlikely candidate to take on the mantle of the leading musicologist in the Sikh Panth ! He belonged to a family of farmers and Zamindars in the predominantly Hindi speaking area around Hapur in UP. He had not inherited any connection to the Guru's Sangeet from his family. As a child however, he saw the respect that the few Sikh Pracharaks who could be found in that part of India, received. That prompted him to leave home in search of his destiny.

Sardar Bahadur Dharam Singh Ji, was a prominent Sikh businessman in Delhi. He made his fortune in the construction business and was involved in building much of the government infrastructure in Imperial Delhi under the British. He was also a visionary and truly committed to Seva and Parchar. Recognizing that need for Parchar and the sharp lack of qualified Parcharaks in the Hindi belt, where Sikhs had settled for more than a hundred years and had a significant presence, he formed the Guru Nanak Vidya Bhandar Trust and established the Rakab Ganj Kirtann Vidyalay.

In service at the Vidyalay was Gyani Hardit Singh Ji, a student of Pandit Nathu Ram Ji's. The young Dyal Singh sought out Gyani Hardit Singh Ji as his teacher and spent many years with his Ustad learning the nuances of Raga, Tala and Stringed Instruments.

Gyani Ji even today, is in awe of Sardar Bahadur Dharam Singh Ji's vision as well as his commitment to Seva. He recounts several incidents witnessed by him or his Ustad Gyani Hardit Singh Ji, which are worth recounting. Khalsa Colleges were sprouting in the Punjab. A charter had been established and enlightened Sikhs all over were attempting to set up educational institutions. One such group of Sikhs from the North West Frontier Provinces paid a visit to Sardar Dharam Singh Ji. They needed a lakh of rupees (1,00,000) to get a college going; they had a vision, much enthusiasm but no funds. A lakh was an astronomical sum of money in those days ! Upon receiving the delegation and hearing of their plans, on the spot Sardar Dharam Singh Ji instructed his munshi to turn over a payment he had just received of seventy thousand rupees as funding for the college !

Generous as he was in his support of Panthic causes, Sardar Dharam Singh Ji believed in a very frugal existence. Gyani Ji recounts another very interesting anecdote. Another delegation of visitors came to meet Sardar Sahib to seek funds for a Panthic Project. Sardar Sahib's servant was asked to make tea for the visitors, upon which he declared that the kitchen was out of sugar, prompting a rebuke from Sardar Sahib ! The delegation, seeing this domestic quibbling on the consumption of sugar, got up to leave. When Sardar Sahib pushed them on their reason for wanting to leave, even without stating their purpose, somewhat reluctantly the petitioners told him that they were seeking money, but upon seeing him upbraid his servant on the trifling matter of how much sugar was being consumed, felt that they had come to the wrong place. Sardar Sahib gave them the funds they were seeking and remarked - "If I or my family spend money in a wasteful manner, how will we fund Panthic projects ?" Such was the nature of Sardar Bahadur Dharam Singh Ji, whose vision resulted in the establishment of the Rakab Ganj Kirtan Vidyalay, which has produced and continues to produce some of the best Ragis in the Panth !

After his studies with Gyani Hardit Singh Ji were complete, Gyani Dyal Singh Ji sought employment at the Sri Harmanndir Sahib as a Dilruba player. He accompanied many Ragis such as Bhai Sahib Samund Singh Ji, one of the pre-eminent Ragis of the last century.

There is nobody that Gyani Dyal Singh Ji remembers with greater fondess than Bhai Samund Singh Ji. He speaks often of Bhai Samund Singh Ji's virtuosity, his vast repertoire and his luminous personality. Gyani Ji, a harsh critic of anyone who preaches Sikhi, but does not practice it, remembers Bhai Samund Singh as a man of principle. Jiwan Vale !

He recounts an incident that occurred during a Kirtan Durbar at Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Delhi. It was an evening Diwan. Bhai Samund Singh Ji had just finished singing the shabad Jai Jai Jag Karan Srist Ubaran Mam prit paran Jai Tegang, set to a magnificent bandish in Raga Malkauns in Iktaal. (Incidentally this Shabad was recorded as part of the Heritage Recordings project and will be made available on the Gurmat Sangeet Project website). Right in the Diwan, one of the Prabhandaks stood up before the enraptured Sangat and announced that Bhai Sahib Samund Singh Ji was to be offered employment at Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Even as the roar of the Jakara was subsiding, Bhai Samund Singh Ji was asked to announce his acceptance, at which Bhai Sahib, with folded hands requested some time to consider the offer.

Later after hearing that Bhai Sahib had turned down the offer, Gyani Ji went up to him and asked him why he had turned down such a prestigious appointment, which would have only benefited the Sangat of Delhi. Bhai Samund Ji’s reply was perceptive, and unfortunately almost oracular. “Bhai Dyal Singh” he said. “The world has changed. When I was in service at Nankana Sahib, I was empowered. Given respect and authority. I was responsible for arranging Diwans; determining who would sing and when. I worked with the support of dedicated and enlightened Gurdwara Management. I see dark days ahead when our institutions are run by politicians, whose interest is not Dharam Parchar or Seva, but personal aggrandization. It will be impossible for me to serve in such an environment. After leaving Nankana Sahib, I have resolved never to serve under a Management Committee.

Gyani Ji served the Panth with distinction and dedication for almost forty years as the Principal of the Rakab Ganj Kirtan Vidyalay. He was appointed to this position in 1967 upon the passing away of Gyani Hardit Singh, after the unanimous nomination of his peers, fellow students of Gyani Hardit Singh. He spent a lifetime at the institution, living frugally, teaching the principles of Gurmat and Gurmat Sangeet to mostly very poor children from the Saharanpur/Dehradun area. Most children would spend 4-5 years at the Vidyalay in a rigorous program under Gyaniji’s watchful eye. The result was the enrichment of the Panth through outstanding Kirtaniyas, rooted in the Gurmat Sangeet Tradition such as Bhai Surjit Singh, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh, Bhai Parkash Singh and numerous others. In addition he served as a lifelong mentor to several of his peers such as Bhai Chattar Singh, facilitating their continued progress in the world of Gurmat Sangeet.

The wealth of anecdotal, oral history of Gurmat Sangeet that I obtained from Gyaniji is too vast to be documented in its entirety in this short article. I did record my conversations with Gyaniji as well, which someday will be posted on the GurmatSangeetProject website. (Albeit after significant editing, to purge the conversations of some of Gyaniji’s colorful language, which at times can make a Punjabi truck driver blush)

The title of this article refers to Pandit Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande, a scholar and musicologist, who was instrumental in helping Hindustani Classical Music emerge from the closed world of the courts of Kings and the havelis of Jagirdars, into the mainstream, making it accessible to the masses. Bhatkande rendered a huge service to Hindustani Classical Music by creating a script for the notation of musical compositions, from a tradition that had largely been oral and jealously guarded to boot ! Bhatkhande spent many years, single mindedly pursuing Gharanedar musicians, who had in their possession, age old compositions passed down to them by their ancestors. Coaxing, cajoling, often bribing, Pandit Bhatkhande collected a vast repertoire of compositions that he learned, and then recorded in a series of volumes on musicology that he published. In the world of Hindustani Classical Music, Pandit Bhatkhande is truly a colossus !

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, in the world of Gurmat Sangeet, occupies a position very similar to Pandit Bhatkhande’s in Hindustani Classical Music !

Another historical figure that Gyani Ji remembers with near reverence is the redoubtable Gian Singh Abbotabad. Gian Singh Ji came from a prominent family in modern day Pakistan. From an early age he had a deep interest in Gurmat Sangeet, pursuing every opportunity to learn old compositions from the various Kirtaniyas he encountered. After Partition, he moved to Delhi where he established an extremely successful Arms & Ammunition business, while continuing to indulge in his passion for Gurmat Sangeet. Gyaniji speaks of Gian Singh Ji as a one of a kind visionary, whose personality combined tremendous intellectual ability, generosity and practicality.

Gian Singh Ji had the vision to realize that traditional Gurmat Sangeet had started to decline and that the vast repertoire of Gurmat Sangeet compositions he had acquired over the years was a Panthic treasure that was now critical to preserve. However, he was no theoretician or musicologist ! Gyani Dyal Singh, who was a young Dilruba player at the Sri Harmandir Sahib at that time was recommended to Gian Singh Ji as someone with the musicological expertise to help facilitate his task. He was employed by Gian Singh Ji and asked to come to Delhi to begin the task of preserving old Gurmat Sangeet compositions.

Recognizing the richness of the Rababi tradition within Gurmat Sangeet, Gian Singh Ji thought it judicious to document its compositions as well. However, after Partition all of the famous Rababis such as Bhai Chand, Bhi Lal, Bhai Taba and others had migrated to Pakistan. Bhai Taba Ji, a member of Bhai Chand’s Jatha and one of the finest musicians in the Rababi tradition was invited to return to Delhi. Bhai Taba made several trips to Delhi from Lahore, often staying three months at a time, working with the young Dyal Singh to document his repertoire. This was a legendary collaboration that resulted in hundreds of Rababi compositions being incorporated into Gurbani Sangeet, that work that was created by Gian Singh Ji and his team.

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji expresses tremendous love and respect for Bhai Taba Ji, who according to him was a musical genius. He recounts several instances, when Bhai Taba Ji would sing a certain composition, which to Dyal Singh’s trained ears would not be true to the Raga it was being sung in. It has to be remembered that the Rababis were extraordinary musicians, but were in no way musicologists or theoriticians. All of their learning was in the oral tradition, where the master teaches the student by singing compositions and asking him to reproduce its nuances, eventually taking the training wheels off and encouraging the student to improvise. Thus several subtle errors had crept into the versions of the compositions Bhai Taba Ji had learned. Gyani Ji, recounts with astonishment, how Bhai Taba could effortlessly render a new variant of a composition, instantaneously, with a note added, or dropped or modified from Shudh (pure) to Komal (flat), upon receiving Gyani Ji’s feedback !

According to Gyani Ji, Bhai Taba Ji did all the musical heavy lifting in the well known Bhai Chand’s Jatha. While Bhai Chand was a good Kirtaniya, he did not possess Bhai Taba Ji’s musical genius. His unique talent was his astonishing command over Gurbani and his ability to deliver very well thought out Parmans while singing shabads. That according to Gyani Ji was the real reason for his immense popularity. Gyani Ji believes that Bhai Chand was the originator of the practice of singing excerpts from another shabad, relevant to the theme of the shabad being sung, as Parmaans.

All this talk of the Rababis and their talent, primpted me to ask GyaniJi a question that I had often pondered in the past. The Rababis, were Mulsims, and kept their Muslim identity. However, they sang, beautifully and movingly at Sri Harmandir Sahib. Was the singing of Gurbani merely their profession ? Or did they bear deep, abiding love for the Guru in their hearts ? The true, complete answer to this question probably died, along with the old school Rababis. Gyani Ji’s view on this question was, a little saddening. According to him, Bhai Lal, the cream of the crop of the Rababis of his day, after singing Gurbani, would quietly rinse his mouth, to cleanse it, having sung the unclean verses of the infidels. Depressing for sure ! Perhaps it was just a quirk of one Rababi’s personality!

The time I spent with Gyani Ji was truly enriching. The very personal, anecdotal view he provided into the world of Gurmat Sangeet and the hearts and minds of his contemporaries is a rare treasure. May Waheguru bless him with a long life and Chardi Kala! May he continue to regale lovers of Gurmat Sangeet with his rich reminiscences. May Waheguru send forth more like him, who will keep the flame of this wonderful tradition burning bright forever.