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

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Sage of Rakab Ganj

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji (1934 - 2012)

Hopkinton MA
March 3, 2012

Monday February 27, 2012. My flight from Istanbul touches down in Boston and I turn on my phone. We've been away for several days and there are messages waiting. As I sift through my messages, I get the news. Gyani Ji is no more.

My mind goes back more than two decades. I receive a phone call from Bhai Surjit Singh (LI) informing me that 'Ustad Ji' is here in case I wish to see him. I drive from New Jersey to Long Island for my first meeting with Gyani Dyal Singh Ji. I meet an irascible, energetic man in his mid 50s. He is impatient. He almost seems to mock my earnestness when I share my passion for Gurmat Sangeet with him and express my dismay at the sorry state of affairs and the dilution of the tradition. When I ask him about what might be done to stem the decline of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition and bring about a renaissance, he is cynical as he points to the broad indifference of the leaders of the Panth towards the Guru's music, and decries the quality of kirtan at our most prominent institutions. I have already become aware of Gyani Ji's contributions to Gurmat Sangeet. I have listened to Bhai Surjit Singh and Bhai Kanwarpal Singh, his senior-most students. I have been introduced to the books he has written on Gurmat Sangeet. This is clearly an impressive and dedicated individual , but as I drive back home, I feel a vague sense of disappointment and discouragement at the meeting.

I do not know it then, but that is just his personality. He is a bit of a curmudgeon! He does not suffer fools gladly. He doesn't warm up to anyone quickly. He is completely bereft of the polish and social graces that many of our senior kirtaniye carefully cultivate, to survive and thrive in a culture that values sycophancy over substance. He is blunt. Opinionated. He is a person who never hesitates to speak his mind. Rare qualities all!

The years pass. I start teaching Gurmat Sangeet at the Bridgewater Gurdwara Sahib in New Jersey and then get involved with gurdwara management, particularly when it comes to arranging for Jathas and organizing kirtan programs. I build strong relationships with several of Gyani Ji's students; Bhai Surjit Singh, Bhai Kanwarpal Singh, Bhai Parkash Singh, inviting them to special programs and encouraging them to present the gems in their repertoire that they have from Gyani Ji. I suspect that word of the high esteem that his senior students are held in, at Bridgewater, starts filtering back to Gyani Ji.

Our next meeting is very different. Gyani Ji accompanies Bhai Surjit Singh on a visit to Bridgewater. After the kirtan program, we sit down to talk at the home of my good friend, Dr. Gurparkash Singh. Gyani Ji seems like a different person altogether. We talk at length. He holds forth on the state of Gurmat Sangeet and talks about the Gurmat Vidyalay at Rakabganj, which he has been leading now for more than two decades. He answers every question I ask him frankly, often displaying his characteristically acerbic wit. (The conversation was recorded and will be published soon)

Over the years, my relationship with Gyani Ji deepens. I visit him at Rakabganj and get a close look at the Gurmat Vidyalay. I get a sense of Gyani Ji's commitment to the young men, drawn from the poorest families in the of UP, who over four to five years of grueling instruction he turns into Ragis, ready to serve the Panth and capable of earning a living for themselves. He arranges for some of his best students to sing Asa DI Var at Rakabganj, the morning I visit him. I am completely enchanted by this gruff and unpretentious man, a father figure to so many, who has dedicated himself so unselfishly to the Panth, living in conditions of poverty, identical to those of his poor wards, without seeking fame or recognition, often fiercely fighting the impassive bureaucracies that our Panthic institutions have become, to keep the vidyalaya going.

Years pass, Gyani Ji visits us in Boston, where his student Bhai Gopal Singh is in service at the Milford Gurdwara. We spend many memorable hours together. Gyani JI holds forth on every subject related to Gurmat and the Panth. He has me in splits with his blunt, rustic and iconoclastic sense of humor. He is comfortable enough with me to lapse into his normal expletive- laden manner of speaking, which would make many a Punjabi truck driver blush ! What stories he has to tell ! Of the great Panthic figures of the past, particularly the Kirtaniye. He has rubbed shoulders with all of them. Stories tumble about the legendary and colorful Gyan Singh Almast Ji. Gyan Singh Abbotabad Ji, who recruited the young Dyal Singh to annotate and transcribe the hundreds of traditional compositions he had . Bhai Taba Ji, the legendary Rababi, who would be summoned frm Pakistan to work with Gyani Ji on Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji's seminal book on Gurbani Kirtan. Bhai Samund Singh Ji, with whom he played Dilruba at Sri Harmandir Sahib as a young man, and who he seemed to esteem above all other Ragis. Bhai Santa Singh, the brilliant Ragi with a quirky personality. His teacher Gyani Hardit Singh and his Ustad Pandit Nathoo Ram. The mysterious and brilliant Gian Singh Almast!

It is 2006. Gyani Ji is visiting the US. The Gurmat Sangeet Project is asked to organize a Gurmat Sangeet Darbar in the Palatine (Chicago) Gurdwara Sahib. Young Kirtaniye from all over North America are invited to the program, in which Gyani Dyal Singh Ji is honored for a lifetime of service to the Sikh Panth. Gyani Ji, accompanied by the Jatha of Bhai Kanwarpal Singh graces the event. The same year, we invite Gyani Ji to Boston and spend many hours recording and documenting the Puratan compositions that he has preserved in the many books that he has written.

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji, being honored at the Palatine Gurdwara Sahib

Gyani Dyal Singh Ji was born in April 1934 in the village of Badla Singha, His Father's name was S. Ujjagar Singh. At the young age of twelve, Gyani Ji, left the village school he attended, to join the Gurmat Vidyalay at Rakabganj Sahib in Delhi, which had been established by Sardar Bahadur Dharm Singh Ji. For the next five years, under the guidance of Gyani Hardit Singh Ji, the young Dyal Singh studied Kirtan, Katha and Path, with a heavy focus on stringed instruments like Dilruba and the Saranda.

In his early career, he spend time with the Jatahs of Sant Ram Singh Ji, Baba Sohan Singh Ji and Ali Ji. A highlight of his early career was the time he spent with Bhai Sahib Samund Singh Ji, who he accompanied on Dilruba. In December 1954, he started service at Gurdwara Bala Sahib, at the behest of Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji, who had requested an accompanist on stringed instruments. Inspired by Gyani Hardit SIngh Ji, Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji invited Bhai Taba Ji, who had by the migrated to Pakistan to visit Delhi and for the next four years the young Dyal Singh spent many months with Bhai Taba Ji, documenting more than two hundred compositions in over 60 ragas, including Partals and Guldastas, that had been preserved in the rich Rababi tradition of Gurmat Sangeet.

In 1959, Dyal Singh started serving at the Sri Harmandir Sahib as a Dilruba player, and in 1960, he was instructed by the Shiromani Committee to proofread and organize the material that Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji had , prior to the publication of Gurbani Sangeet. In 1964, Dyal Singh resigned from his service at the Sri Harmandir Sahib and returned to Delhi at the behest of his Ustad Gyani Hardit Singh Ji and started working on the second edition of Gurbani Sangeet, adding alaps and details of the Ragas to the volume.

Just before the passing of Gyani Hardit Singh Ji on January 25, 1967, Dyal Singh was requested by S. Narinder Singh Ji, a member of the trust that managed the institution to start teaching students there because of his Ustad Ji's failing health. On February 6, 1967, most of Gyani Hardit Singh Ji's students gathered at Rakab Ganj Sahib to pay their respects to their departed teacher. On that day, The Secreatry of the Guru Nanak Vidya Bhandar Trust, Sardar Kahn Singh Ji sought the advice of all the assembled students of Gyani Hardit Singh Ji on the future of the Vidyalay, who unanimously nominated Dyal Singh Ji. At the age of thirty three, he embarked on the Seva that he would continue for the next forty five long years.

The Sage of Rakabganj is no more. he will be sorely missed. But he will live on. In the books he wrote. In the compositions he preserved for posterity. Most of all in the memories of the hundreds of young men, to whom he was Teacher, Father and Mother in their formative years.

The author with Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and a young student in the background Rakabganj late 2009


Blogger Lou Fenech said...

Thank you for this. A sincerely beautiful essay.

March 7, 2012 at 6:37 AM

Blogger Sarbpreet Singh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 7, 2012 at 7:40 AM

Blogger Sarbpreet Singh said...

Thank you Prof Fenech !!!! Loved your article !!

March 7, 2012 at 7:42 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Thank for sharing this veerji.

I was listening to this shabad & ideas here & was crying at the loss of our panth.:

March 19, 2012 at 5:05 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I wish I can get some recordings of his guru , Giani Hardit Singh Ji (my grandfather)..

July 24, 2014 at 7:03 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

great post shared here.

yo can also get on to kirtan sewa for free downloading punjabi shabad gurbani kirtan at no cost and also without no buffering.

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April 7, 2016 at 11:06 PM


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