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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Vajjan Taal Mridang Rababa

An Unexpected Find

Hopkinton MA
October 18, 2008,
(Completed on a recent flight on November 17)

It is a damp fall morning in Massachusetts. Not really cold yet. Still lovely. The magnificent fall foliage looking a little faded, a little subdued. It is very early and there are no cars yet on the road. Our dog Aziza, straining at her leash, I walk up and down the winding, hilly, ebb and flow that is Saddle Hill road.

As is usually my habit, there is a morning Raga playing in my ears. I listen, a little absently to the magnificent Dhrupad Alaap unfolding. The Raga is Bairagi, a close relative of Ahir Bhairav and Gunkali. The Dhrupadia is very very adept. His voice has a little rasp to it but it sounds very pleasing. To my admittedly amateurish ears, the Alaap sounds less polished than the fabulous renditions of the contemporary princes of the Dagar Gharana, The Gundecha Bandhu, or Wasifuddin Dagar or Uday Bhawalkar.

But magnificent and powerful it is. This is not Dagarvani; this is Dhrupad in the Dharbhanga tradition and the singer is Pandit Vidur Mallick. The recording is on an obscure French label called Makar Records, which unfortunately seems to have gone out of business ! I have sampled many unexpected delights from the small but elegant Makar Records catalogue, but that is the subject of a different post. Back to Pandit Vidur Mallick singing Bairagi.

The Alaap is much shorter than the elaborate 50 minute wonders that I am more used to listening to, given my love for the Dagar tradition. The singer now launches into a very robust composition in Chartal, the regulation Dhrupad 12 beat Taal, which is also used extensively by knowledgeable practitioners of Gurmat Sangeet. The accompanist on the Pakhavaj is in his element. After singing the entire text, the singer unleashes a dizzying array of rhythmic variations and flourishes. Dugans (double speed), Chaugans (quadruple speed). A series of electrifying tihais leading to a dramatic conclusion !

But wait ! Were my ears deceiving me or did I just hear ‘Nanak’ ? I stop the shabad and move the slider back. Unmistakable. He did say Nanak ! Whats’ going on ? Is he singing Gurbani ?

I know nothing about the Dharbanga Dhrupad tradition. Perhaps because of the towering genius of Nasir Aminuddin, Nasir Moinuddin, Nasir Fiyazuddin, Nasir Zahiruddin, Zia Mohiuddin and the other luminaries of the Dagar Gharana, Dhrupad today is largely synonymous with Dagarvani. The Makar catalogue has given me a few teasing glimpses into some of the other Dhrupad Vanis but they are largely a mystery to me.

Many questions run through my mind. Where did this composition come from ? Dhrupadiyas, at least according to my meager knowledge, are traditionalists rather than innovators. It is highly unlikely that Pandit Vidur Mallick just picked out a shabad from Gurbani, set it to Chartal in Bairagi and decided to sing it during the Maker Records recording session ! A much more likely explanation is that this is an ancient composition from the Dharbanga tradition that he acquired from his teachers. Which begs another question. What is this ostensible link between this obscure Dhrupad Gharana and Gurbani ?

Unfortunately I have just questions. No answers. Perhaps some day I will run into Pandit Vidur Mallick and ask him. Perhaps he will shrug. Perhaps he will know! For now I will just enjoy this serendipitous find!

As you can well imagine, the next several days see me going back to the magnificent Dhrupad over and over again. The Shabad being sung is ‘Ram Simer Ram Simer Yahi Tero Kaj Hai’ from the Bani of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. The style is clearly not traditional Gurmat Sangeet; this is a rendition squarely in Pandit Vidur Mallick’s own tradition as shown by the similarity with the other pieces on the CD.

(At the risk of digressing I have to stop and share a pet peeve, actually two that I have with Hindustani Classical Musicians singing Gurbani. :-) The words ‘simer’ and ‘simran’ occur often in Gurbani. I have never encountered a Hindustani Classical musician who can sing these words correctly. ‘Simer’ mutates into ‘Sumir’ and ‘Simran’ into ‘Sumiran’. Each time I hear this distortion I wince as if I have been struck. :-) The second pet peeve; Pandit Jasraj is probably the worst offender here. A lot of Hindustani Classical vocalists, draw upon Gurbani text, but often render it in ‘Bhajan’ style, usually set to a particularly insidious ‘Bhajani’ variant of Keherwa. This causes the rendition usually to migrate into the territory of film music inspired Kirtan, which my dear readers, you often find me ranting about :-))

But enough complaining ! Let us then visit what we do know about the intersection of Dhrupad and Gurmat Sangeet.

We are all aware of the genius of Guru Nanak Dev Ji; his starting of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition; his unique contributions. His unprecedented embrace of Hindustani, Carnatic and Folk Music to create a new form or Shayli. There are a few important clues that shed light on the importance of Dhrupad in the Gurmat Sangeet tradition.

The first clue emerges from Bhai Gurdas Ji’s writings :

Gang Banaras Hindua
Mussalman Mecca Ka’aba
Ghar Ghar Baba Gaviye
Vajjan Taal Mridang Rababa

Aha ! We all know about Bhai Mardana Ji and his Rabab ! But what is this Mridang that Bhai Sahib refers to ? The Mridang (or Mridangam) is the other name for the Pakhavaj or the unevenly sided drum that is used for percussive accompaniment in Dhrupad !

More clues.

Despite the backsliding that we suffered for several decades in Gurmat Sangeet, that we have just started to reverse now, even in the darkest years there were always a few Kirtaniye who valiantly and obstinately defied the mainstream an stuck to their guns in their embrace of traditional Gurmat Sangeet. Included in this august list would be some very famous and not so famous names such as Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh Ji, Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and some of his students, Bhai Dharam Singh and Bhai Shamsher Singh Zakhmi Ji, Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji.

Kirtaniye such as these kept the ancient tradition alive by continuing to sing compositions in Chartal, Dhamar, Ada Chautala, Slow Jhaptal, which are all Dhrupad staples. The traditional Sikh percussion instrument is not the Tabla but the Jori, which is a descendant of the Pakhawaj.

The structure of many old compositions that can be found in Gurbani Sangeet by Gian Singh Ji Abbotabad or Prachin Reet Ratnavali are in the form ‘Sthai, Antra , Sanchari and Abhog’ which are typical Dhrupad arrangemets.

Another small but relevant digression :

All of us who listen to Gurmat Sangeet have experienced what I am about to describe. Even those Kirtaniye who do not sing Dhrupad compositions will often launch into percussive pyrotechnics, usually towards the end of a shabad, where the Tabla player will energetically play the table in a very ‘different’ style, usually with flat palms, usually at speeds that are multiples of the basic rhythmic underpinnings of the composition.

This is called ‘Saath’. I first heard the term when I visited Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji in Delhi a few years ago. I had heard ‘Saath’ being played on the tabla, pretty much forever, but I certainly did not know what it was called. Bibi Ji recalled fondly the times that she had heard the legendary Rababi percussionist Bhai Nasira Ji, playing Saath with Bhai Chand and Bhai Taba Ji, in the days of her youth when they were established Rababis at the Sri Harmandir Sahib.

Saath is one of the three forms that is played on the Jori in the Gurmat Sangeet tradition. The other two are ‘Gat’ and ‘Jat’. Gat is the most familiar. I am on exceedingly thin ice here but I will venture that Gat is the ‘typical’ style of Tabla playing that we encounter whenever shabads are sung set to Raga. I have a very poor feel for ‘Jat’ so it shall remain the subject of another post.

It is worthwhile here to recognize and acknowledge the efforts of Bhai Baldeep Singh, a noted Sikh musician, percussionist and instrument maker. In addition to studying the Dagarvani tradition, Bhai Baldeep Singh has mastered the Jori, learning from the redoubtable Arjan Singh Tarangar, the last great percussionist representing the Amritsari Baj (style of drumming). Bhai Baldeep Singh has also been training Parminder Singh, an immensely talented and hard working young percussionist, who I had the occasion to meet during his recent visit to Boston. We spent a few hours together as he initiated my son Amandeep into the mysteries of the Jori. This young man is bound for greatness and he will spearhead the revival of the Amritsari Baj, which has been dormant for so long.

Another fount of wisdom in this context is Bhai Sahib Gurcharan Singh Ji, the older brother of the late Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji. Bhai Sahib has a treasure trove of ancient Jori and Pakhawaj compositions that are the essence of traditional Gurmat Sangeet percussion. The young Jori player from Toronto, Jaswinder Singh, who is an important part of the vibrant Toronto Gurmat Sangeet scene has been learning at Bhai Sahib’s feet, preserving and continuing the tradition.

I have to pause here and describe another delightful encounter with the ghost of the legendary Bhai Nasira Ji. This happened during the recently concluded Gurmat Sangeet Darbar at Stockton, organized by the Gurmat Sangeet Project in collaboration with the World Sikh Council, American Region, to commemorate the 300th Gurta Gaddi Diwas of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Singing in the Darbar were Bhai Devinder Singh, Bhai Gulbagh Singh with Bhai Iqbal Singh providing Tabla accompaniment. After taking their position on stage, Bhai Iqbal Singh askes me to come closer and whispers, asking if he can play two handed Bols, obtained from the legendary Bhai Nasira Ji. What follows is probably one of the most flamboyant performances I have ever experienced on the Tabla. Words cannot even begin to describe the energy and artistry of Bhai Iqbal Singh in that performance !

(As an aside, the Jatha just arrived in Boston today, November 24; they will be here for two weeks ad will participate in the November 28 Rain Sabai)

But I digress. Lets us get back to the topic at hand !

Slements of the Dhrupad Ang such as Saath continued to persist widely !

All these things together shine a light on the profound connection between Gurmat Sangeet and the Dhrupad tradition.

Pandit Vidur Mallick’s rendition of a shabad in traditional Dhrupad style then is no surprise after all.

Here’s what I really want to discover. Is it not possible that just as Pandit Vidur Mallick had this jewel in his repertoire, there are many many others waiting to be discovered ! I have resolved to ask every Dhrupadiya I meet about any Gurbani compositions that may have been passed to them. And what they know about their history.

In the meantime let me enjoy the virtuosity of Pandit Vidur Mallick. (Since this is a commercially released, copyrighted recording, I cannot upload it to I will try to seek permission to do so from the owners of the Makar Catalogue. In the meantime if you can get your hands on ‘Pandit Vidur Mallick – The Lyrical Tradition of Dhrupad on the Makar label…..enjoy !)