Monday, 21 November 2011

Bhai Jawala Singh: Icon of Ancient Kirtan

Half a millennium ago, what at present is a small sleepy midsized town called Sultanpur Lodhi used to be a flourishing garrison town of the Lodhi Muslim Dynasty that ruled Northern India prior to Mughal Emperor Zaheer-ud-Din Babar's conquests of Northern India. This small place was the seat of a provincial capital and was also a decent sized business centre. During those days the present day big urban agglomerations of Punjab like Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar were in existence, not as mega cities, but just in the form of small nondescript villages.
The Ancient city of Lahore was the biggest and most important city and a regional administrative centre of the area North of the capital city of Delhi. After Mughal invader Babar defeated the Emperor of Northern India Ibrahim Khan Lodhi in 1526, in the famous Battle of Panipat, Sultanpur Lodhi governed by his kin Daulat Khan Lodhi also fell on bad days. The subsequent Mughal rulers paid virtually no attention to Sultanpur Lodhi. Sarhind became the most favored town of the Mughals in the middle of Delhi and Lahore. But prior to the Mughal Army's invasion and conquest of Northern India by Babar, Guru Nanak blessed Sultanpur Lodhi with his holy stay exceeding a dozen years. The spiritual foundation of the modern religion called Sikhism was laid by Guru Nanak in Sultanpur Lodhi and now, after five decades, this town is a sacred center of Sikh pilgrimage. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Nawab Jassa Singh Ahluwalia of Kapurthala annexed Sultanpur Lodhi. After that several Gurdwaras associated with the memory of Guru Nanak were built in this town.
Sultanpur Lodhi is surrounded by several small villages and Saidpur is one of these. In ancient days it used to be a predominantly Muslim village with a small sprinkling of Sanatan Dharam Hindu population. Later on most of the Hindu families in Saidpur became the followers of Guru Nanak. And during the period of the tenth master Sri Guru Gobind Singh and afterwards most of the Sikhs in the area grew unshorn hair and got baptized as Amritdhari Sikhs.
One ancestor of Bhai Jwala Singh and a follower of Guru Nanak learnt the original Sikh religious music (Gurmat Sangeet) from the court of the Tenth Master Guru Gobind Singh from the finest traditional "Rababi Kirtanias" of the time. Later on this meticulously trained Sikh religious musician moved back to his native village Saidpur. Bhai Jawala Singh (or Bhai Jwala Singh) was proud to be a descendent of the same blesses musician. Bhai Jwala Singh mastered almost all the ancient Taals (played on Tabla and Pakhawaj) and more than five hundred tunes in all the thirty one Raagas mentioned in the Sikh holy book, "Sri Guru Granth Sahib" and as learnt by his ancestor from the accomplished Kirtanias present in the court of the tenth master Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji. The Sikh religious music of ancient times was precisely composed in Dhrupad/Dhamar style. The most commonly followed Taals (Rhythms) of those days were Dhrupad, Dhamar, Panj Taal, Chaar Taal, Roopak, Jhap Taal, Deep Chandi, Chhotti Teen Taal, Waddi Teental, Ek Taal (Yakka), Dadra, Kehrwa and several more. Some of these "Taals" are sadly getting extinct now. In some musical compositions of those days, a number of Taals were used in sequences while rendering the same "Shabad". This unique style of music is called the "Partal Format" and was very effective in conveying the message of the "Guru". Knowledgeable listeners, especially the professional singers, used to appreciate the intricacies of this unique format. Unfortunately "Partal Format" is fast becoming extinct these days.
Both big cities of the area Amritsar and Lahore became the leading centres of evolving or experimental music, which means that newer forms of classical music were being experimented and evolved in these cities. Evolution of Khayal format of classical music, which is most popular these days, was underway since the days of Guru Gobind Singh ji more than three centuries ago, but it was not accepted in the historic Gurdwaras until the beginning of the twentieth century. At present even the Sikh classical musicians render "Gurbani" in "Khyal Format".
There were some places like Goindwal Sahib, Khadoor Sahib, Tarntaran and Sultanpur Lodhi, where "Khayal Gayaki" came into prominence after the 1947 division of Punjab, when "Rababi" and other "Kirtanias" from Nankana Sahib and other Gurdwaras on both sides of the Radcliffe Line spread their favourite form of "Khayal style" music in East Punjab. While Bhai Jwala Singh's contemporaries based in the bigger centres of music like Amritsar, Lahore and Nankana Sahib adopted "Khayal Gayaki" during the beginning of the twentieth century, Bhai Jwala Singh never abandoned the ancient "Dhrupad" style. He was so unique that some of the "Rababi" singers of Kapurthala, Goindwal Sahib, Jalandhar and Tarntaran used to sit amongst the audience to listen to the renditions of "Gurbani" when Bhai Jwala Singh was singing. Later on, after listening to him, the Rababi Kirtanias used to personally express their appreciation of the unique nostalgic style of this icon of "Dhrupad Shalley". In real life Bhai Jwala Singh was a highly contented man. He never ventured after big bucks and his diet was very simple like that in a typical "Guru Ka Langar".
Bhai Jawala Singh was born in 1872 in Saidpur or some nearby village in Sultanpur Lodhi area. By the age of twelve, he had crammed up the five "Baanis" and several hundred "Shabads" contained in holy Sri Guru Granth Sahib. His first "Ustad" was his own father Bhai Deva Singh, who taught him rendition of "Gurbani" in a number of original "Reets" prevalent in "Gurmat Sangeet" of the times of the "Guru Darbars". Later on his father sent Bhai Jwala Singh to learn the still more intricate points of "Gurmat Sangeet" from another highly accomplished "Dhrupad style Kirtanya" Bhai Sardha Singh. His third "Ustad" was Bhai Wasawa Singh (popularly known as Bhai Rangi Ram). Bhai Rangi Ram was a strict disciplinarian in the application of grammar of ancient music and he mostly stayed in Tarntaran in Amritsar district. All three of his "Ustads" were adept in rendition of the "Gurbani" in its pristine originality dating back to the times of the great "Gurus". By the age of twenty, Bhai Jawala Singh had become an accomplished "Kirtania"of the "Guru's" word in the Guru's own "Shalley" of rendition. He fame spread far and wide and was in great demand in all the villages and towns of the Princely State of Kapurthala and in the neighboring British ruled districts of Amritsar, Ferozepore, Hoshiarpur and Jalandhar.
In addition to culturing his vocal chords for "Dhrupad based Gurmat Sangeet", Bhai Jwala Singh became an accomplished drummer "Tabla Player" and could play two popular string instruments "Taus" and "Saranda". Some times "Mridang" or "Pakhawaj" accompanied Bhai Jwala Singh during his classical renditions. The old guards of "Dhrupad based Gurmat Sangeet" were leaving this world one by one and there were no replacements in the pipeline. By the 1920s Bhai Jawala Singh had been acknowledged as the finest "Dhrupadia Kirtania" alive of the Sikh community. His peculiar rich, vibratory and voluminous voice had a distinct ringing male sound, which made him stand apart amongst all his contemporaries. Some people believe that when the Late Kundan Lal Saigal sang his most memorable numbers for film "Tansen", he took inspiration from the style of Bhai Jawala Singh. K.L. Saigal had in his younger years listened to the "Shabad Kirtan" by Bhai Jwala Singh in Jalandhar or somewhere else in the area.
As early as by 1890, Bhai Jawala Singh had come to be recognized as the leading "Kirtania" in and around Sultanpur Lodhi. He became a regular performer of "Shabad Kirtan" at Gurdwaras Sri Ber Sahib and Sri Hat Sahib within the town of Sultanpur Lodhi. His reputation travelled to the palace of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and the Maharaja, a great lover of all forms of fine arts, loved and admired Bhai Jawala Singh's style of rendition. Several times he was especially invited to perform "Shabad Kirtan" at "Gurdwara Bawian" outside the Shalimar Gardens of Kapurthala. Later on when the magnificent "State Gurdwara Sahib" was built on the Sultanpur Road at Kapurthala, Bhai Jawala Singh was often invited to perform "Asa Di Vaar" and evening "Chowkis" of "Shabad Kirtan" at the State Gurdwara Sahib too. He never served the "Mahant" managers of the historic Gurdwaras or their successor the "Shiromani Gurdwara Prababdhak Committee", but he was often invited to perform "Gurpurb" specials at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sri Darbar Sahib at Tarntaran and the other historic Gurdwaras at Khadoor Sahib and Goindwal Sahib. Bhai Jwala Singh was very popular amongst the Sardars (Jagirdars) of Kapurthala and he was in great demand in Patti, Sarhali, Khemkaran, Bhikhiwind and Kasur. Sham Churasi is a small village known for its traditions of classical music. At one time this village had the distinction of producing some of the finest "Dhrupadia" singers of Punjab, but when its most famous sons Nazaqat Ali - Salamat Ali Khan came on the scene, they made a departure from the past and decided to excel in "Khayal Gayaki", but the knowledgeable old-timers in the village always loved to listen to the "Dhrupads" and "Dhamars" of Bhai Jwala Singh, whenever he visited their village in Hoshiarpur district.
Even iconic "Kirtanias" of his time like Bhai Mehar, Bhai Lal Senior, Bhai Chand and Bhai Santa Singh, all "Hazoori Ragis" of the Golden Temple in Amritsar held Bhai Jwala Singh in a very high esteem and they listened to his renditions with utmost respect and reverence.
When Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala came to know about the unique knowledge of ancient music and other qualities of Bhai Jawala Singh, he decided to use his services to teach "Dhrupad Format" of classical music to the selected musicians of his "Patiala Gharana" of classical music. The "Patiala Gharana of Music" had earned a lot of name and fame in India, but it was precisely a "Khayal" centric "Gharana" with "Thumri" and "Dadra" as the semi-classical side-kicks introduced by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The Maharaja wanted one of his "Gharana's" finest musicians Mahant Gajja Singh to learn vocal "Dhrupad Sangeet" as well as playing of two string instruments "Taus" and "Saranda" from Bhai Jawala Singh. Like a highly motivated student, in addition to mastering the two string instruments, Mahant Gajja Singh learnt the subtle intricacies of "Dhrupad" style of classical singing also from Bhai Jawala Singh. On learning about the new achievements of Mahant Gajja Singh, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala became very happy. As a token of gratitude, the Maharaja showered expensive gifts on Mahant Gajja Singh. By nature Bhai Jwala Singh was a non political person. But at one time, the prevailing unfavorable working conditions for the performers of "Gurmat Sangeet" compelled Bhai Jawala Singh to form a union of the Kirtanias. Being a freelancer "Kirtania" himself, Bhai Jwala Singh fought like a soldier for their rights of his fellow "Gurmat Sangeet" professionals and succeeded in winning a number of concessions from the SGPC. Even the "Kirtanias" serving the numerous Singh Sabhas in the Punjab, the Princely State of Kashmir and North West Frontier Province also benefited from the concessions negotiated by Bhai Jwala Singh.
Just like his predecessors, Bhai Jawala Singh also found it appropriate to teach all that he had learnt from his illustrious father and other "Ustads" to his young sons Bhai Gurcharan Singh and Bhai Avtar Singh. Both brothers leant virtually all five hundred "Gurmat Sangeet Reets" from their famous father. Bhai Jwala Singh's "Raagi Jatha" was not confined to just three musicians. Some- times he had eight to ten musicians performing "Shabad Kirtan". Many times he had one "Taus" and two "Sarandas" as accompaniments. The effect of "Gurmat Sangeet Chorus" of Bhai Jwala Singh and his party was simply mesmerizing. Both his sons were with their father's group from 1930s onwards.
Bhai Jawala Singh had a unique style of all night "Rain Sabhai Kirtan" singing. On several occasions, his large group of musicians will start the rendition of complete "Kirtan of Sukhmani Sahib" around 8:00pm and the singing will keep on till about 5:00am in the following morning. This special "Chowki" of "Shabad Kirtan" was called "Sukhmana". The rendition will start with the "Raagas" appropriate for the "First Pehar of the night" and go on to the "Raagas" of the "Second Pehar" and will continue on to the "Raagas" of the third and the fourth "Pehars". The "Pehar" consists of three hours and the names and the nature of renditions of the "Ragas" changes after each "Pehar". Bhai Jwala Singh always strictly adhered to the proper timings of the "Raagas". During non-stop renditions of "Sukhmana", the lead singer as well as the others could briefly leave the "Chowki" for partaking food and doing other necessary things and the rest of the party will take over. This was a very lengthy and difficult undertaking, but the "Ragis" of those days were quite proficient in completing the entire "Sukhmani Sahib" lasting several hours without interruption. These days, I don't think if any musician can perform complete "Sukhmana", like Bhai Jwala Singh. His sons, Bhai Gurcharan Singh and Bhai Avtar Singh told me that in their younger years, even they used to render complete "Sukhmana" in one night long sitting. But in their old age, they were incapable of performing it.
We have extensively heard "Shabad Kirtan" rendered by Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh. They were both very good. Bhai Gurcharan Singh is too old, in his nineties now and Bhai Avtar Singh has left for his heavenly abode. Those like my father Late Sardar Sochet Singh, who have heard Bhai Jwala Singh claim that his voice was unique and better than that of his sons. But in the absence of any recordings, we don't know as to how great Bhai Jwala Singh was.
It is a pity that there are no recordings of Bhai Jwala Singh. I asked my father as to why "Shabad Kirtan" rendered by Bhai Jwala Singh was never recorded. He told me that "Genophone Recording Company" owned by Janki Nath Kumar and brothers was active in Lahore since early 1930s and the "His Master's Voice" opened its doors in Lahore in 1941. For Bhai Jwala Singh, who was based at Sultanpur Lodhi, it was a four hour journey by rail or road to Lahore and the timings of the trains and buses were unsuitable. There was one hourly bus service between Sultanpur Lodhi and Kapurthala and one and a half hourly service between Kapurthala and Amritsar. The trains were even fewer and at odd times. Most probably inadequate connectivity between Sultanpur Lodhi and Lahore was responsible for his not recording his renditions. The All India Radio in Lahore opened in 1937, but Bhai Jwala Singh never expressed his desire to perform at the radio station. After the division of Punjab in 1947, the first radio station in East Punjab opened in 1948. The Jalandhar studio of All India Radio was less than thirty miles from Sultanpur Lodhi and the connectivity by train and road was also better, but by that time Bhai Jwala Singh had grown very old and his health was also not too good, so he allowed his sons to explore the avenue of singing for the radio, but he himself stayed away from the radio too.
Around 1948, when All India Radio Jalandhar - Amritsar opened, the two brothers Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh applied for audition at the new radio station. It was no surprise that both were approved. Around that time Bhai Jawala Singh started encouraging his sons to form their own independent "Kirtan Jatha". Old age was catching up with Bhai Jwala Singh. Approximately at the age of eighty Bhai Jawala Singh left for his heavenly abode, but his sons and now one of his grandsons Bhai Kultar Singh are carrying out his traditions.

by Harjap Singh Aujla ~ harjapaujla@gmail.com

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