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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Namdharis and Gurmat Sangeet

Hopkinton, MA
November 15 2012

December 2002. A cold winter's night in Jalandhar. The seeds of The Gurmat Sangeet Project have been sown through my interactions with a feisty group of young students after my move to Boston a couple of years ago, but it has not been born yet. Today, I am running late. The drive from Preet Nagar has taken longer than expected and my driver, a young lad from Lopoke is unfamiliar with the streets of Jalandhar and takes forever to get me to the Devi Talao Mandir. For many years, I have been hearing about the legendary Harballabh Music festival, which draws the finest  Hindustani Classical musicians to Jalandhar, of all places!

Many delights are in store. I have heard that N. Rajam Ji will be performing that night and that the grand finale will feature Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, ironically, a Bengali stalwart of the Patiala Gharana performing in Jalandhar! It is  rumored that his young daughter, the brilliant Kaushiki will also be performing. I enter the grounds and feel a familiar surge of anticipation and excitement, which I inexplicably experience only when I attend Hindustani Classical concerts in India. As I make my way to the jam packed tent, I savor the music. It is about seven in the evening and dark already. A little early for Malkauns I think, but it doesn't prevent me from enjoying the spirited rendition by the duo on the faraway stage.

As I get closer, I can't believe my eyes. The duo, singing on stage, dressed in spotless white, sports white turbans. With the exception of Sardar Sohan Singh Ji, the Agra Gharana stalwart, who is long gone and the Singh Bandhu, who are surely much older than this duo, I have never heard 'Sikhs' singing like this. I find a spot close to the stage and lose myself in the music.

This is my first exposure to the musical virtuosity of the Namdharis. I later learn that the singers are Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh, prominent Namdhari kirtaniye, who have been studying with Pandit Rajan & Sajan Misra for several years. The next hour is pure bliss. After their rendition of Malkauns, Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh sing two short compositions, one in Raga Kedar and the other in Raga Bahar. (I am happy to share these hitherto unpublished recordings with my readers)

Sukhdev Singh and Mohan Singh

I am somewhat aware of the Namdharis, having studied the Namdhari and Nirankari movements in the context of the history lessons that I have been teaching for several years and I have heard a few commercially released recordings by Baljit Singh and Gurmeet Singh, which frankly didn't do too much for me. This is my first, up close and personal encounter with the musical prowess of the Namdharis and I am completely blown away. Kaushiki, as expected is delightful and Dr. N. Rajam, as always is sublime. I leave Harballabh in the wee hours of the morning, very satisfied. The highlight of the visit, clearly has been the scintillating performance by Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh.

When I return back home, I bring back the memory of Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh's performance with me. I am eager to hear more music by this duo and  Namdhari musicians in general. I have, of course been exposed to Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari (Pinky) who has accompanied prominent artists such as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, but my real passion is vocal music and I am eager to discover more. I poke around on the web and find very little. Then, serendipitously, I stumble upon an obscure website, run by Kirpal Singh Chana from London, which promises to open a window into the musical world of the Namdharis. I email him. We exchange phone numbers and chat. My business travels take me to London and I arrange to meet him. Kirpal Singh Chana turns out to be a warm and wonderful person. We meet at my hotel and he takes me to Southall to eat, after which we visit his house. Paydirt! Kirpal Singh has been recording Namdhari musicians and kirtnaiye for years and has an enormous treasure trove of recordings that he generously shares with me. I come back laden with CDs and discover the likes of Ustad Harbhajan Singh, Harbans Singh Ghula, Balwant Singh and many others. To my delight, there are many recordings by Mohan Singh Sukhdev Singh. I am very impressed by the musical virtuosity of the Namdhari kirtaniyas and I note that many compositions they sing, in their own inimitable style, are traditional Gurmat Sangeet compsitions that I have heard before, sung by otrher stalwarts from the Gurmat Sangeet Tradition.

 Fall, 2003. The Gurmat Sangeet Project is up and running. In the summer, I hear from Surinder Singh of the Raj Academy in London, whose activities in the world of Gurmat Sangeet,I am somewhat aware of. He expresses a desire to visit with us in Boston and we roll out the welcome mat! Surinder Singh and his Jatha stay with us and what a treat it is! In the Jatha are two outstanding Namdhari musicians, who make this visit truly memorable!

Surjit Singh Aulakh is a senior student of the legendary Pandit Ramnarayan Ji. A quiet, unassuming man he lets his Sarangi do the talking! We get along well and I have the opportunity to meet an listen to this gentle master many times after our first meeting. One of these days our plans to arrange a Sarangi performance in Boston will materialize, Insh'Allah!

Surjiit Singh Aulakh playing Raga Shree

Surjeet Singh Aulakh at my home during his 2003 visit.

Ranbir Singh, on the other hand is the most chulbula Namdhari musician I have ever met! He is a bundle of energy, a stream if irreverent jokes spontaneously escaping his mouth accompanied by a grin that would put a Cheshire cat to shame. Ranbir's instrument is the Taus and he is a decent singer as well. At one point, before Bhai Sahib Avtar Singh Ji picked up the Taus after a hiatus of sixty years, Ranbir was one of the few Taus players in the world! This picture taken during the same visit has graced many a presentation where I attempted to introduce the Taus to far flung sangats. This was before the modern renaissance Gurmat Sangeet is enjoying, which has resulted in an abundance of young people playing instruments like the Taus again! 

Ranbir Singh, during the same visit.

Here is a recording of Ranbir singing Sub Bachan Bol in Raga Brindabani Sarang during a visit to Boston in 2008 :

Also on Dilruba was the very talented young Kirtaniya Jasdeep Singh (Jolly) from the UK and young Gurpal Singh on Jori (who at that time would be constantly ribbed for having trouble lugging his very heavy instrument around :-))

I can't resist telling a Ranbir story, that all of his friends will enjoy for sure :-) During the 2008 visit, we decide to take the Raj Academy Jatha, including Ranbir out to dinner to our favorite Chinese restaurant, the Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham. Now the Sichuan Gourmet is an authentic restaurant and the food there is as spicy as the food I have sampled in any Sichuan restaurant in China! After we finish our meal, there is food left on the table including plain rice. Ranbir summons the waiter and asks for .... milk. Much giggling ensues among the children; they think this is probably Ranbir being Ranbir...messing with the waitress! The waitress obliges by bringing a glass of cold milk, which Ranbir proceeds to pour into the bowl of rice. Several packets of sugar follow and Ranbir enjoys some improvised kheer at the Sichuan Gourmet! We are all in splits!

It is  early 2009. A winter evening. My protege, Amrit, who is like a daughter to me, approaches me at the Milford Gurdwara excitedly (which used to be her natural state in her teens :-)) and tells me about this Namdhari 'kid' from Toronto, who is just amazing. Over the years, Amrit has become one of the most enthusiastic mainstays of the Gurmat Sangeet Project Jatha and my main talent scout. A natural 'connector' in Malcolm Gladwell parlance, she has developed a large network of Gurmat Sangeet enthusiasts and she is always helping me scout new talent to add to our growing community. The 'kid' in question is Rattan Singh Bhamrah, one of the most talented young musicians, without question in the world of Gurmat Sangeet today.

 Rattan Singh Bhamrah at the 2010 Atlanta Gurmat Sangeet Darbar

Amrit brings me many recordings by Rattan. The young man is a joy to listen to! He sings and plays the Tar Shenai; doing either well is difficult ! Doing both together is quite a feat! We talk on the phone and several months later one winter's morning Rattan shows up at my doorstep with two other talented young kirtaniye from Toronto, Raviraj Singh and Karanjit Singh! The young men are here for our annual Basant Darbar. The next few days are filled with jams late into the night and some fabulous music. 

Here is Rattan singing Gun Nad Dhun Anand Bhed in Raga Bhoopali  (Karanjit Singh on Tabla) :

Rattan and I become close and soon he is a regualr fixture at our Gurmat Sangeet Darbars, joining us the same year in DC and Atlanta. Musically, he starts making tremendous strides as a vocalist under the able guidance of Pandit Vinayak Pathak of the Gwalior Gharana and on the Sarangi, working with Aruna Narayan Kalle, Pandit Ram Narayan Ji's daughter.

December 2009. I have just arrived in Delhi from Melbourne after making a presentation on Gurmat Sangeet at the World Parliament of Religions. A special treat is in store! My friend, S. Kanwal Jit Singh, who lives in Delhi,  has arranged for Bhai Baljit Singh and Bhai Gurmeet Singh to sing at the Jangupura Gurdwara Sahib. I have warmed considerably to the music of Baljit Singh in the years that have passed. The Kirpal Singh Chana treasure trove doesn't include anything by Baljit Singh, but my trusty protege has been finding fabulous live recordings by Baljit Singh and sharing them with me. The live recordings present a facet of Baljit Singh's music which is very different from the rather sterile studio recordings. Amrit informs me, rather cheekily, that she and Raviraj, a talented young kirtaniya from Toronto have decided that they really like Baljit Singh, despite the fact that I haven't been very impressed by his commercial recordings. I am of course a complete convert by now. Recordings such as this magnificent Tilang Dhrupad in Chartal (with Pinky on Jori) leave no room for doubt. Baljit Singh is a virtuoso. A master.
As an aside, here is a short montage from the 2009 Youth Gurmat Sangeet Darbar in Boston, where Amrit and Mehr sang the same shabad with Nihal Singh on tabla. The clip also features Raviraj and amny other brilliant young kirtaniye including the fabulous Guneet Kaur, who has studied with Baljit Singh.

Back to the Jangpura Gurdwara Sahib. Bhai Baljit Singh is in his element. He is accompanied by his brother Gurmeet Singh on vocal and dilruba and his very talented son Fateh Singh on tabla. It is absolute joy to listen to them live. I cannot even behin to imagine how difficult it must be to both sing and play the Tar Shenai with such virtuosity!

Gurmeet Singh, Baljit Singh and Fateh Singh Delhi, December 10 2009
And here is the kirtan from that night in its entirety, never publushed before; The first two shabads are in Raga Bihag; the third is based on Raga Tilang:

Later, I spend some time with Baljit Singh. He is a quiet and dignified man; somewhat reserved. We have a pleasant and cordial conversation, but real bonding will have to wait for another occasion. I tell him how much I love his kirtan, but omit the fact that I am often wont to sing extremely pale imitations of his sublime renditions at our local gurdwara :-) *Even* his studio recordings :-)

The rather jetlagged author with S. Kanwal Jit Singh, Baljit Singh & Gurmeet Singh
The rest of the trip is also very eventful, musically speaking. I invite Gyani Dyal Singh Ji to go with me Gobind Sadan to pay a visit to one of the grandest kirtaniyas alive, the ever youthful Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji. The story of that visit, and their fond memories of Bhai Taba Ji, however, will have to wait for another day!

With Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji, both of whom are, alas no more

I am visiting with my parents at our farm in Sarsawa, close to Saharanpur and I decide to make a one day dash to Jalandhar to attend Harballabh, where Bhai Baldeep Singh is scheduled to perform, accompanied by a stellar ensemble that is to include Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari (Pinky) and my favorite Taus virtuoso, Ranbir Singh of Sichuan Kheer fame. Ranbir never makes it and is replaced by the very talented young Sarangiya, Murad Ali. The Harballabh story will alas, have to wait as well, as my focus today is on Namdharis and Gurmat Sangeet. I cannot however, resist sharing this priceless photograph of Pinky durign his percussive face-off with Ravishankar Upadhyay, where he gets so animated that a strong Namdhari lad has to climb up to the stage to hold his Dhama steady! No I am NOT kidding!

An animated Pinky with ballast!
(For Completeness :-)) A no less animated Ravishankar Upadhyay

My meeting with Pinky is very brief; once again the bonding will have to wait! I also run into many Namdhari musicians including Dharamvir Singh, the well known sitar player and Surjit Singh Aulakh and I get gracious invitations to visit the Namdhari center at Bhaini Sahib, which I resolve to, some day. My ever resourceful protege, Amrit, several months earlier has connected with Mohan Singh on Facebook. Yes the same Mohan Singh, whose singing so enraptured me years ago, that chilly night in Jalandhar. He is visiting Vancouver and I call him. Our phone call is cordial but inevitably awkward as we have never really met. We politely resolve to meet, but are unable to connect as he does not have a visa to travel to the US. I ask Surjit Singh after him and am informed that he is still on Canada.

The trip to Harballabh, overall,  is very fruitful. Anong other things I fall in love with Raga Jog, which I have until now tended to give a wide berth to, after listening to a fabulous hour long rendition by Ustad Shahid Parvez, accompanied by Ustad Akram Khan on the tabla :-)  I am also able to sneak a quick visit with the well known Namdhari luthier Sardar Gurdial Singh, a lovely man and a convivial presence, brimming with anecdotes about music and musicians. Once again, a story for another day :-)

S. Gurdial Singh Ji, a well known maker of traditional Sikh instruments, at his workshop
March or April 2011. An unfamiliar country code flashes on my caller ID. An unfamiliar voice greets me. On the phone is Didar Singh from Bangkok who is hot on the trail of Bhai Taba Ji :-) He has read one of my articles about Bhai Taba Ji and his role in the documentation and preservation of Puratan Gurmat Sangeet compositions. He somehow digs up my phone number and calls me to talk about Bhai Taba Ji, who apparently spent considerbale time at Bheni Sahib back in the day! It is then, hardly a surprise that many of the compsitions preserved in Gian Singh Abbotabad Ji's book, transcribed by Gyani Dyal Singh Ji and contributed by none other than Bhai Taba Ji are so close to many of the compositions that the Namdhari Ragis sing!! I mention to Didar Singh that I plan to visit India in May. I am promptly invited to visit Bhaini Sahib.

May 20, 2011. I arrive in Delhi from Chennai, where I have spent a few days on business. Waiting for me are two young Namdharis, who have driven all the way from Bhaini Sahib to pick me up! I had asked Didar SIngh if there was a guest house of some sort at Bhaini Sahib that I could stay in. I was told that Mohan Singh has kindly offered to host me at his home. It is late by the time we leave Delhi and it takes forever to navigate the snarl of traffic that paralyzes the city in the evening. It is past 1 a.m. when we arrive at Bhaini Sahib. The little town is deserted and looks no  different from countless dusty towns in Punjab and Haryana. I am mortified that we are arriving so late at the home of people that I dont even know! Within minutes I am surrounded by warmth. I am greeted like an old friend by Mohan Singh, who is tall and has quite a presence. A couple of young men, his shagirds, take my luggage and show me to my room. I am told that Asa Di Var will start in a little over an hour, at 3 a.m. and asked if I woudl like to attend. Jet lag is my friend and my sole purpose for coming here is to listen to Namdhari musicians. I happuly agree to go and get ready.

A few minutes before 3 a.m. Mohan Singh and I step into the dark, deserted street and make our way to the large hall at the center of the Bhaini Sahib complex. The hall is dark. I see shadowy figures in white enter and silently find places to sit. There is an eerie calm about the hall as a group of young Namdhari kirtaniye take the stage and start Asa Di Var.

Young Namdhari Kirtainye offering Asa Di Var at Bhaini Sahib; May 21 2011

Asa Di Var by young Namdhari Kirtaniye at Bhaini Sahib

I am very impressede by the talent that these young musicians display in abundance. Later, Mohan Singh tells me that theres are just a few of the younger generation of Namdhari Kirtaniye who have immersed themselves in Raga and Tala. I have no doubt that there are many budding Baljit Singhs and Mohan Singhs and Pinkys in their ranks!!

Mohan Singh gives me the grand tour of the Bhaini Sahib complex. It is a serene and beautiful palce. Music seems to lurk everywhere!

Mohan Singh, by the sarovar at Bheni Sahib

We go back to Mohan Singh's house and after a robust Punjabi breakfast, I fall into an exhausted slumber. I am told that there is an afternoon diwan in which some of the Namdhari stalwarts will participate, which I am eagerly looking forward to.

Mid afternoon finds us making our way back to the main Hall, where the featured kirtaniya is Balwant Singh.

Balwant Singh, accompanied by Harpreet Singh Sonu, Mohan Singh and several others

Name Preet Narayan Lagi; Raga Kedara by Balwant Singh recorded at Bhaini Sahib in May 2011 :

Balwant Singh, who is Mohan Singh's nephew and shagird, is one of the stars of the generation of Namdhari kirtaniye that folows Baljit Singh and Mohan Singh, Accompanying him on tabla is Harpreet Singh Sonu, another rising Namdhari musical star, who is a student of Pandit Ramji Misra of the Banaras tradition. They present a fabulous shabad in Raga Kedara. I feel a little out of place; an obvious outsider in 'western' clothes with my camera and recorder, but i am put at ease by the warmth of the Namdharis. I'm sure being Mohan Singh's guest doesnt hurt either, because of his stature in the community but I suspect that every visitor is welcomed with equal warmth!

With Balwant Singh, Harbans Singh Ghula, Mohan Singh and other senior members of the community
I am introduced to Harbans Singh Ghula Ji, one of the senior Namdhari Ragis, whose very unique voice I have enjoyed in many a recordign I have collected over the years! I am told that he will be leading the Asa Di Var, the following morning; somethign that I am looking forward to hearing!

In the evening, Mohan Singh takes me around Bhaini Sahib, calling on all the kirtaniye whoa re around to introduce me to them. I am struck by the fine homes that the Ragis live in and their comfortable lifestyles. Clearly the Namdharis respect their Ragis a lot and take great pains to ensure that they are well taken care of. Budding ragis are trained by the best professional masters of classical music and I am sure that the levels success and fame that Baljit Singh, Sukhvinder Singh and Mohan Singh have attained serve to motivate young Namdhari musicians greatly. Visiting Bhaini Sahib is quite a revalation. This two pronged approach of training Ragis well and holding them to high standards and compensating them in a commensurate manner is surely worth embracing and emulating!

We visit the home of Malviya Ji, a Tabla Ustad, who is in the middle to teaching a large group of students.

The Tabla Ustad, Malvyia Ji, with his students.

We come upon some young Namdhari boys playing cricket in the street; one of them is Harpreet Singh Sonu's son; the other is Balwant Singh's son; Balwant Singh is married to Ghula Ji's daughter. I can only imagine what heights these young Namdharis will scale, given their genes, the great musical environment thay are being raised in and the terrific role modesl they are exposed to!

The next generation?
We also visit Ghula Ji in his home, probably the largest and nicest home in all of Bhaini Sahib. I am impressed by his earnestness and his obvious devotion to Gurmat Sangeet. Our next stop is the home of Sukhdev Singh, who is Mohan Singh's singing partner. They have both studied with Pandit Rajan and Sajan Misra of the Banaras tradition. Sukhdev Singh is a friendly, affable man. We have a pleasant conversation and he presents me with several CDs of Namdhari kirtan and music.
Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh

More treats are in store for me that evening :-) Since several of the Ragis are away, we are unable to organize a jam in the evening. Mohan Singh compensates me for that disappointment by informally singing many short compositions, some of which I would love to share with my readers; in this bouquet of bandishes we encounter Bageshri Kanada, Kaunsi Kanada and the old war-horse Man Japo Ram Gopal in puratan Kanada, which has also been transmitted throught the Rababi tradition via Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji. Another treat from the Bhai Taba tradition : Tera Jan Ram Rasayan Mata in Raga Patdeep. ALso makimg an appearance is the classic in Jhinjhoti : Tu mero pyaro to kaise bhukha. :

Mohan Singh, singing some sublime Gurmat Sangeet compositions

Mohan Singh, singing in his home that evening
A very special treat is an impromptu performance by yet another budding kirtaniya, his younger daughter : Short bandish in Raga Malkauns

Mohan Singh's young daughter ... a budding kirtaniya for sure !
Its time to head out next morning, but I am back at the main hall at 3 a.m. Today's Asa Di Var will be led by Ghula Ji, treat I have been anticipating. And he certainly doesn't disappoint!

Ghula Ji, accompanied by Harpreet Singh Sonu on Tabla, Mohan Singh (vocal)
Ghula Ji and his Jatha singing Asa Di Var at Bhaini Sahib

I say goodbye to Mohan Singh and his family, thanking them for their gracious hospitality and the priceless gift that the rich musical experience of the past couple of days has has been.

Nine years ago, as I approached the stage at Harballabh, mesmerized by Mohan Singh's singing, I could never have imagined that I would be so enriched by my encounters with these wonderful musicians from the Namdhari tradition.

The visionary manner in which the Namdharis have preserved the Gurmat Sangeet tradition is exemplary. I would call it a great gift to the Sikh Panth at large. I feel that there are profound lessons to be learned from the very successful approach that these gentle and generous people have taken. I wish from the bottom of my heart that these musicians continue to thrive and prosper and enrich the many lives that they touch.


Blogger Gurbaksh Singh said...

Dhan Satguru Jagjit Singh Ji.

December 14, 2012 at 1:10 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Hello Sarbpreet, ssa ji.

I just happened to stumble upon your blog this afternoon and have found it really interesting—it is so nice to hear about your experiences with the Namdhari community, and I am very pleased to see the pictures and recordings you have so openly shared, so thank you for this. I have recently spent some time in Sri Bhaini Sahib and was also well looked after by Ustad Mohan Singh ji and his family, particularly Mukhtiar (the youngest daughter you pictured) whose English is superb. There are many great Namdhari musicians here in the UK also, both young and old who are doing a very fine job of preserving and representing the classical music tradition. I won't go into detail on here but if you would like to discuss this over email I would be very happy to share my own experiences and recordings with you. You can reach me on

Thanks again for your contribution, I hope to hear from you soon.

Kind regards,


March 3, 2013 at 8:13 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Dhan Sri Satguru Jagjit singh ji ...

September 12, 2016 at 3:49 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Dhan Sri Satguru Jagjit singh ji ...

September 12, 2016 at 8:35 PM


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