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.


Blogger Kulbir Singh said...

What a touching Bangalore experience of 2004! I thought you will tell us that old man was again with you in 2008 as Pooran Gursikh Amritdhari; just like happy ending Indian film.
Yes, you are write, the absence of a knowledgable tbla players is very annoying. Wrong Taal takes the life out of Gurmat Sangeet.

May 23, 2008 at 8:03 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 14, 2010 at 3:18 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Very nicely described!!
This is the first time i read something of this sort and that too i found randomly when i tried searching for the bangalore gurudwara sahibs location.
I myself love the violins music and its not so much popular in India anymore, but still there are many ppl who can play it really well.
Todays Vaisakhi as well... Wishes to Ev1 on the great occasion of Vaisakhi!!

April 14, 2010 at 3:21 AM


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