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

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Vaisakhi in Bangalore

Vaisakhi in Bangalore


April 14, 2008

It always annoys me intensely to have to travel during Vaisakhi or the major Gurpurbs. Over the years, celebrating these events at either the Milford or Millis Gurdwara Sahibs, in the Boston Area has been a wonderful experience. Weeks before the event, a feeling of pleasurable anticipation sets in. The kids are busy working on new shabads; our practice schedule becomes more intense, causing parents to grumble at the mid week trips to our home in Hopkinton or the Milford Gurdwara sahib. Then the day of the event approaches; everyone invariably runs late, much to my chagrin. Every major event probably results in my neck becoming at least a quarter of an inch longer as I crane it repeatedly, searching for stragglers, whose time-slot to sing is approaching!

This year however, I am in Bangalore, traveling on business. My neck probably appreciates the rest but, I am ill at ease, missing the celebration in Milford. Sunday, the 13th of April dawns. I make my way to the main Bangalore Gurdwara sahib in Ulsoor.

I have been traveling to Bangalore on business for several years now. As I am wont to do whenever I travel, I always go to the Bangalore Gurdwara Sahib. I have fond memories of visiting Gurdwara Sahibs in many places. Visits to Gurdwara Sahibs in Singapore, Oslo, Kobe, Hong Kong, Toronto, London, and of course various other cities in the US and India have yielded a plethora of rich experiences and interactions with the local sangats, whose uniform kindness and warm welcome, I shall always cherish.

Bangalore has always been special. If memory serves me correctly, my first visit to the Bangalore Gurdwara was in early 2004. Somewhat serendipitously, I was staying at a hotel on M.G. Road, which was literally a few hundred yards from the Gurdwara Sahib ! It was early February; Basant was in the air. I remember contacting some of my relatives who live in Bangalore and asking them to arrange for a slot for me to sing at the Gurdwara Sahib, which they proceeded to do with some difficulty. (As a Prabhandak, I do realize that last minute additions to the Kirtan program on a Sunday can be annoying and somewhat difficult to accommodate !) That said, I am a firm believer that singing in the Guru’s Darbar is a great honor, and it is only achieved through Gur Parsad. If the Guru wills it, all barriers fall away; if not, no amount of desire, fueled as it often is with perhaps a covert desire for self aggrandizement, can bring this honor within one’s reach. Trust me on this one; I have experienced it; many times !

Anyway. Back to Basant, 2004. My first visit to the lovely Gurdwara Sahib at Ulsoor. I took my place behind the harmonium and the Bhai Sahib who was to accompany me starting tuning his tabla. Before starting the Manglacharan, my fingers flirted briefly with the harmonium to produce the few strains of Basant. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that an elderly man, sitting by the side of the stage took a seat beside me on the stage. He did not appear to be a Sikh; he was clearly a local. His clothes were shabby, perhaps even a little grimy and in his hands was a somewhat decrepit looking violin.

I sang two shabads that day in my allotted 20 minutes; one in the Purbi variant of Basant and the other in the Marwa variant. The memory of that day is indelibly imprinted on my soul. Rarely have I enjoyed singing so much. For those of you who have read my article on ‘Veerji’ Prem Singh Ji, this was clearly a 10% day. In no small part, the reason why that day was special was the beautiful violin accompaniment, by the elderly stranger. He was for sure a virtuoso, being able to play perfectly by ear with subtlety and nuance. The violin, for those of you that are not familiar with stringed instrument, is fret-less and hence very hard to play; providing accompaniment, with no prior knowledge of the compositions is no mean feat.

Over the years, I returned to Bangalore often, and sang at the Gurdwara Sahib many more times. Each time, my eyes would seek out the old violinist in vain. Singing in Bangalore was always wonderful, but it just wasn’t the same.

During my last trip, in February 2008, I finally went up to one of the Prabhandaks and asked about the old violinist. What I heard was very disheartening; of course I have no way of ascertaining its veracity ! Apparently the old man was an alcoholic; whatever money he would earn at the Gurdwara Sahib was apparently spent on liquor. When he started showing up at the Gurdwara Sahib drunk, he was barred from coming back.

The old violinist would not have been part of the sublime experience of singing in the Guru’s Darbar without His Grace. Why then, did he have to fall so hard ? Truly inscrutable are His ways !

April 13th, 2008. I am back at the now familiar Bangalore Gurdwara Sahib. For the umpteenth time, I am incorrectly introduced as Sarbjit Singh, jehde Amreeka ton aaye ney. But that hardly matters. I start to sing the shabad, ‘Jagat Jot Japai Nis Basur’, the very definition of a Khalsa. It is a lovely composition in Tintal, composed by my first Ustad Bhai Sahib Nazar Singh Ji, in Raga Ahir Bhairav. The Bhai Sahib accompanying me insists however on playing Keherva. Even so, singing in the Guru’s Darbar is always uplifting, even on a ‘90%’ day. I am inspired and want to sing the next shabad in Vilambhit Jhaptaal. A beautiful composition in Raga Gunkali, that was part of Bhai Sahib Dharam Singh Zakhmi Ji’s repertoire. When I ask the Bhai Sahib if he can play Jhaptal, he sheepishly mutters in an undertone : “Sabh Phull Phall Gya Ji; Keherwa, Dardra Hi Theek Hai”.

I nod and switch to ‘Deh Shiva Bar Mohe Ehe’ in Raga Brindabani Sarang. The composition is in Tintaal too; but today, Keherwa will have to do.

In the meantime, celebrations continue in Boston. The kids manage fine without me. Reliable sources tell me that some of them even sang a Partal in Todi. The whole nine yards with Chartaal di duggan and parmans.

I guess it doesn’t really matter where I am. It feels good to be in the sangat on Vaisakhi.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Rapture in Toronto

Rapture in Toronto

Swarna Shatabdi Express

April 7, 2008

As the swift Shatabdi Express carries me from Delhi to Amritsar, I sit back to reflect on the fourth annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar, that concluded last week at the Mississauga Gurdwara Sahib in the Toronto area. Was it really just a week ago? It has already become an indelible part of my kaleidoscope of impossibly heady Gurmat Sangeet related experiences!

The energy was amazing, to the point that it had to be experienced and truly cannot be described in words. Several of us who returned from Toronto to Boston last Sunday are still suffering from palpable signs of withdrawal!

The Gurmat Sangeet Darbar was conceived in 2004 during a Boston visit by Harinder Singh of The Sikh Research Institute. After his talk to the Sangat, he and I were sitting, chatting in the empty Darbar Hall, both of us expressing joy at the near renaissance that was starting to become apparent in the world of Gurmat Sangeet. Interestingly, this renaissance seemed to have started not as one might have expected in the cradle of Gurmat Sangeet, but rather in the West, where determined young men and women, often with no musical background were intrepidly picking up stringed instruments, conquering their extreme degree of difficulty and deploying them for accompaniment in Gurmat Sangeet. After almost six to seven decades of neglect and backsliding, it appeared that traditional Gurmat Sangeet was ready for a comeback!

Several individuals deserve mention here. Professor Surinder Singh, of the Raj Academy in London had mounted a successful effort to teach traditional Sikh stringed instruments on a large scale to a huge number of students. After a hiatus of nearly fifty years Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji had embraced the Taus again. Visionaries such as Dr. Gurnam Singh, Chair of Gurmat Sangeet Studies at Punjabi University, were slowly starting to have an impact on the practice of Gurmat Sangeet at institutions such as the Sri Harmandir Sahib, where the odd stringed instrument was starting to make its appearance. Harpreet Kaur, a young Sikh film-maker was in the process of producing a documentary, ‘The Saz of Gurmat Sangeet’ in which she was profiling mostly young men and woman who were living the revival of Gurmat Sangeet.

It was this fecund and exhilarating environment that led us down the path of brainstorming about an annual event that would travel to multiple North American cities, and would focus on young practitioners of Gurmat Sangeet, who were truly the torch bearers of this renaissance.

As we brainstormed further, we decided to add another key element to this program. Even during the darkest years, when pandering to popular taste and the unabashed pursuit of fame and money were insidiously diluting the tradition, there always had been some individuals who had been completely steadfast in their adherence to the Gurmat Sangeet tradition. This annual event would also be a forum for honoring such individuals for their lifetime of Seva to the Panth and Gurmat Sangeet.

The brainstorming resulted in the First Annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar that was held in Boston in 2005. The first individual honored was S. Harbhajan Singh Ji, son of the legendary Bhai Sahib Samund Singh Ji, arguably one of the finest Ragis of the 20th Century. S. Harbhajan Singh Ji, all his life had remained steadfast in his attempts to preserve his father’s legacy through the simple mechanism of constantly singing the great traditional compositions that he had learned from him. In addition the occasion was graced by young non professional Kirtaniyas whose enthusiastic contributions were tremendously appreciated by the Sangat. (Recordings from this event can be found here)

The Second Annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar was held at Chicago. It was similarly an inspiring event during which, Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, arguably the greatest musicologist the Panth has ever produced, was honored. Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, in addition to serving as Principal of the Rakab Ganj Kirtan Vidyalay for almost 40 years, had authored at least 6 books on Gurmat Sangeet and had been instrumental in the musical annotation of hundreds of traditional Gurmat Sangeet compositions, which had been published as the text Gurbani Sangeet, by Gian Singh Ji ‘Abbotabad’ in the 1950s. (An article that talks about this seminal effort can be found here). (Read more about Gyani Dyal Singh Ji here) (Recordings from this event can be found here)

The Third Annual Gurmat Sangeet Darbar was a low key event held at the Millis Gurdwara Sahib in the Boston area in 2007. Attempts to hold the event in Los Angeles or New Jersey didn’t quite work out because of various logistical issues. (Recordings from this event can be found here)

On December 12, 2007 I received a brief email from Harvinder Singh, who I had never heard from before, from Toronto, expressing interest in hosting the 2008 Gurmat Sangeet Darbar in Toronto. Having had some exposure to the richness of the contemporary Gurmat Sangeet experience in Toronto, I jumped at the opportunity and planning for the 2008 Darbar started in earnest. Harvinder Singh’s chief co-conspirator was Gurmit Singh, who is a sevadar in the managing committee at the Mississauga Gurdwara Sahib in the Toronto area.

Gurmit Singh & Harvinder Singh, Conspirators in Chief

The next few months were spent in planning the logistics, picking a theme and contacting the young Kirtaniye, who the program would center around. The other significant question was whether we could find a deserving person from the world of Gurmat Sangeet to honor at the program.

The theme of the 2008 Gurmat Sangeet Darbar was:

jau supnw Aru pyKnw AYsy jg kau jwin ]

ien mY kCu swco nhI nwnk ibnu Bgvwn ]23]

Evanescent, like a dream, know this world to be

All of this is unreal, O Nanak, without Waheguru. ||23||

In addition to featuring young Kirtaniyas, the program was to include:

· Gurmat Sangeet Learn-a-Shabad workshop, in which Kirtaniyas, young and old, would have the opportunity to learn a new Shabad. A range of material from basic shabads to Partaals would be covered according to the needs of each student

· Gurmat Sangeet Appreciation presentation, in which the unique aspects of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition would be discussed

The honoree was an easy decision, over the past few years, on numerous occasions; I have had the opportunity to hear several young Kirtaniye from the Toronto area. The hard work that the young men and women and their teachers had put into their training was clearly evident from the tayyari, from the second they started their Mangla Charans. Whenever I asked these young men and women, who their teacher was, the answer was always ‘Uncle Ji’. Uncle Ji, as it turns out, was Professor Purshottam Singh Ji, who for several decades has quietly and unassumingly been introducing numerous young men and women to the rich traditions of Gurmat Sangeet. Professor Sahib has always eschewed fame and publicity, embodying true Nishkam Seva. Almost to the point of being reclusive. Picking him was easy; getting him to attend was quite another matter, particularly as ‘recognition’ was involved. Fortunately, Dr. Amarjit Singh Ji of Buffalo, who has consistently encouraged our humble efforts by attending several of these events, turned out to be close friend of Professor Sahib’s and was instrumental in making him feel comfortable about the event.

In a flurry of activity in the last month and a half, Dr Amarjit Singh Ji helped pick several shabads consistent with the theme of the program and Professor Sahib proceeded to generate multiple new compositions, which he then taught to 16 of his Jathas, to be presented at the program! The effort put in was enormous and the result was the sublime Kirtan that we had the good fortune to hear in the Gurmat Sangeet Darbar.

Professor Purshottam Singh Ji, speaking after being honored at the Darbar

In addition to having the pleasure of hearing so many students, who have been studying with Professor Sahib, we got a glimpse of his humble and erudite personality, during his very brief but highly impactful remarks, after he was honored.

Professor Purshottam Singh Ji, accompanying Baljit Kaur, one of his very accomplished students

I have had other pleasant experiences related to Gurmat Sangeet at the Mississauga Gurdwara Sahib. I had attended a program here in 2005 in celebration of Basant and had several wonderful memories of my last visit. (Read more here) (Listen to recordings here)

Veer Gursev Singh on the Taus

One of my fondest memories from the program was the extraordinary warmth with which Gursev Singh met me, then a complete stranger. During this visit, it was wonderful to see Gursev Singh, with several other Singhs, thoroughly enjoying himself as he played the Taus, accompanying multiple Kirtaniye during the program.

I am not going to talk a great deal about the wonderful Kirtan; the best way to experience that is to listen to the recordings, which will be up on soon. Suffice it so say, listening to the Guru’s bani sung with such spirit, by young Kirtaniyas was truly a memorable experience. I would like to in this blog post, to introduce all of my readers to some of the truly admirable young men and women I had the privilege to meet and interact with.

Dr. Onkar Singh is a well known figure in Gurmat Sangeet circles. Blessed with a mellifluous voice, he is an outstanding exponent of Gurmat Sangeet, having grown up in a musically rich environment, interacting with the likes of Bhai Shamsher Singh Zakhmi Ji and Bhai Dilbagh Singh Ji.

Dr. Onkar Singh, accompanied by Rupinder Singh and Gursev Singh (Taus) and Gurpreet Singh (Tabla)

Gurpreet Singh Chana, also known as ‘The Tabla Guy’ is a very well known percussionist in the Toronto area. Trained on the table by Professor Purshottam Singh JI, he is known for his innovative and imaginative playing.

The Tabla Guy innovates on the Hang, a contemporary Swiss percussion instrument

Lakhpreet Kaur, and her siblings Sirjaut Kaur and Paramveer Singh were featured guests and invitees at the Gurmat Sangeet Darbar. Lakhpreet Kaur, who was featured in the ‘Saz of Gurmat Samgeet’ had picked up the Dilruba and Taus, largely on her own, with encouragement from Bhai Nazar Singh of Milwaukee, who was also responsible for introducing me to Gurmat Sangeet when I was a young man in Milwaukee almost two decades ago.

Paramveer Singh (Rabab), Lakhpreet Kaur (Taus), Sirjaut Kaur (Dilruba), S. Mohan Singh

Rupinder Singh has been a leading figure in the Gurmat Sangeet renaissance in the Toronto area. Making tremendous strides as a Taus player and a vocalist, he has gathered around him a dedicated group of young Kirtaniye totally committed to preserving and propagating the Gurmat Sangeet tradition.

Gursev Singh, Harman Singh, Manraj Singh, Rupinder Singh, Bhavpreet Singh & Jaswinder Singh at the 2008 Gurmat Sangeet Darbar

The Gurmat Sangeet Project Jatha being the youngest featured Jatha in the program, probably worked the hardest, getting Ready for the program. Amrit Kaur and Mehr Kaur have been studying Gurmat Sangeet and singing together for almost seven years now. Jaspreet Singh provides tabla accompaniment and Amandeep plays the Tanpura / Swarmandal. Rupinder Singh and Harman Singh were kind enough to accompany them on Taus during the program.

Rupinder Singh, Mehr Kaur, Amrit Kaur, Jaspreet Singh, Harman Singh, Amandeep Singh

The adventures of the Boston Jatha probably need a whole new blog post ! For now these photographs should suffice :

Everyone including Aziza, the family Lab pitches in

More practice

Amandeep gets his first Taus lesson

Downtime at the Falls

The local (Toronto) Jathas were all very impressive. Guneet Kaur, was probably the most impressive vocalist of all the participants in the Darbar. Her tayyari was absolutely superb. She sang ‘Ghol Gumai Lalna’ beautifully in Raga Tukhari with Jagjit Singh providing stellar accompaniment.

Karanjeet Singh, Bhavpreet Singh, Guneet Kaur, Jagjit Singh

Jagjeet Singh, holder of the Guiness Book Record for percussion

Tabla maestro Jagjit Singh is a student of the late Ustad Alla Rakha Ji’s and is now under the guidance of Ustad Zakir Hussein. Jagjit Singh, who recently set a new world record, playing the tabla continuously for several days ! As humble as he is talented, Jagjit Singh was a wonderful presence at the Darbar. He pro-actively took Jaspreet Singh under his wing and proceeded to teach him some exciting tabla improvisations.

One of the highlights of the Darbar was a Tabla Ensemble under the guidance of Jagjit Singh

It was truly inspiring to see this level of talent and virtuosity. For a moment, one was transported to the Darbar of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, replete as it was with all forms of musical and artistic talent !

I would be remiss, if I did not mention several other young Kirtaniyas, whose presence and enthusiasm was so inspiring.

Karanjeet Singh is an accomplished Sarod and Rabab player; I first had the opportunity to hear him play with Onkar Singh, when we visited Toronto in 2005. He has made tremendous strides as a musician and has been instrumental in establishing a monthly youth oriented Gurmat Sangeet program in Toronto.

Diljot Kaur , Jaspreet Kaur and Simrann Kaur are students of Rupinder Singh’s. Their beautiful rendition of shabds by the Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib in nirdharit ragas, was truly inspiring.

I do not have a lot of information on Gurmeet Singh and Jagjit Singh, who did an outstanding job singing three beatutiful shabads in nirdharit ragas; their tayyari was evident in their very melodious singing.

Jaswinder Singh is a flamboyant and accomplished Tabaliya; he has been accompanying Rupinder Singh and other Kirtaniyas for several years and is also responsible for organizing the monthly darbars.

Harman Singh is an up and coming Taus and Dilruba player. He was kind enough to accompany the Boston Jatha, mastering the fairly difficult material very quickly and providing outstanding accompaniment to several Jathas.

Raviraj Singh, a young kirtaniya is a student of Professor Purshottam Singh Ji’s. During the workshop I encountered him singing a very nice rendition of the short khayal ‘Phaagwaa Brij Dekhan Ki Chalo Ri’, which is one of the seminal Basant compositions from the Hindusatani tradition.

Many excellent young kirtaniyas, who have been studying with Professor Sahib, sang beautiful shabads.

Jora Singh, accompanied by his brother Gagan Singh on Tabla

Manvit Kaur, Pawandip Kaur, accompanied by Professor Sahib

Four Sisters : Gurleen Kaur, Jasleen Kaur,Tanveer Kaur,Gurbans Kaur

Prabhjot Kaur, Devinder Kaur Monique Kaur, Ivpreet Kaur, Pavneet Kaur, Manjot Singh

The Malton Khalsa School jatha sang a beautiful composition in the rababi tradition in Shudh Malhar; the shabad was Har Jas Bolat Sri Ram Nama.

As Harvinder Singh and I were working through the logistics leading up to the 2008 Gurmat Sangeet Darbar, we realized that we had let one important piece fall through the cracks. We had not made arrangements for recording the program though Amritpal Singh of had very kindly agreed to webcast the program live. Literally as this occurred to me, I received an email message from. Ajit Singh a young Kirtan premi and audiophile from the Toronto area, offering to shoulder the responsibility for recording the entire program. What serendipity ! Or more appropriately the grace of the Guru. Ajit Singh spent hours and hours at the program, painstakingly recording each kirtaniya, constantly adjusting the mics and striving to produce top quality recordings for the Sangat.

A personal high point of the program for me occurred early on Sunday; fortuitously we ended up with a gap in the program as one of the scheduled Jathas could not make it. That gave me the opportunity to sing a shabad as well; unprepared as I was, I sang a shabad in Basant, which didn’t really align well with the theme of the program. It was a humbling and uplifting experience for me to participate in the program in this manner, and I do not have words to describe the profound joy I experienced, singing in the Guru’s darbar, surrounded by young Kirtaniyas, such as Karanjeet Singh, Rupinder Singh, Gursev Singh, Harman Singh and the Boston Jatha, who are the very embodiment of Chardi Kala !

The 2008 Gurmat Sangeet Darbar was a heady experience indeed. Most likely the Gurmat Sangeet Project will work with all of these inspiring young men and women to commit to an annual event in Toronto. The Gurmat Sangeet Darbar, as originally envisioned will continue to rotate through various North American cities. However, we are all eager to experience the warmth of the Toronto experience over and over again.