The Intangible Heritage Of Sikh Music | Sikh Philosophy Network
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The Intangible Heritage Of Sikh Music


Jun 1, 2004
Twenty years ago, 19-year-old Baldeep Singh was sitting through an interview at the Air Headquarters in New Delhi. Since his early childhood, he had dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot, and even an astronaut.
At some point during the interview, his eyes closed and he had a vision of travelling in a train on a dark night. As the train thundered along, he saw the lights of a station, which he thought was his destination, flash past. Instead of slowing down, the train switched tracks and kept boring into the night.

And the realization dawned on him: his destination was elsewhere.

He got up and left. While the dream of a career in the Air Force was abandoned, some of the skills he had picked up as an aero-modeler were to be invaluable to him later. Since then, Bhai Baldeep Singh has been in relentless pursuit of another quest: to revive and preserve the disappearing and lost traditions of devotional and other genres of music.

As the 13th generation exponent of the Sikh kirtan maryada, he may have found his métier, but not yet his destination.

The seed of the passion for music was probably sown in him when, as a baby, he was rocked to sleep in his mother's lap while she sang lilting shabads in time with the dholak. Baldeep started playing the tabla himself at the age of three or four.

The flame was fed by his grand-uncles, Bhai Gurcharan Singh and Bhai Avtar Singh, the 11th generation exponents of the tradition, under whose tutelage he learnt the highly evolved and complex heritage of shabad-reets.
Over the years, Bhai Baldeep Singh has devoted himself to mastering all aspects of kirtan: the melody (raag), the rhythm (laya), mystical poetry (bani), and expression (bhav). The eternal song, he says with a faraway look in his eyes, is "the symbiosis of the four intangibles".

Even as he talks about history and his own research, he bursts forth into song to explain a subtle point of a raag or the rhythm.

According to Baldeep, the holocaust of the partition of India in 1947 dealt the severest blow to the oral intangible heritage. Centuries of invasions by the Afghans, Turks, French, the British and others, did less damage than that single event. It uprooted tribes amongst whom were the most talented bearers of musical heritage and forced them to migrate to safer havens. Legendary figures, such as the saintly Rabābī of Śrī Anandpur Sāhib, Bhāi Kalu, were murdered by members of their own Muslim community while on their way to the newly formed Pakistan. Their crime: they sang Gurubānī!
Reconstructing ruined buildings or broken objects is easier than bringing back to life the intangible arts and recreating lost skills. And yet, without knowing why a particular instrument was used by a long gone master, and what that instrument was made of, or what were its dimensions, how can one revive an art or a tradition?

It is this pursuit of the intangible that took Baldeep to some of the remote back-roads of the country, where he met craftsmen whose knowledge and skill would have died with them had Baldeep not codified it.
After giving up all hope of getting any of the well-known musical instrument companies to make some of the instruments used by the Sikh gurus, his research led Baldeep to Gyani Harbhajan Singh "Mistry" in Ludhiana (Punjab), who had made instruments, until the late 40's, for legendary musicians such as Ustad Bhai Batan Singh of Mehli, Kapurthala .
"I am the one you are looking for", said Gyaniji, when Baldeep explained his quest. But, Gyaniji added "Meri kamani dhay gayi hai!", meaning "My bow had no strength left in it". Baldeep convinced the master craftsman that Baldeep's strength, combined with Gyaniji's knowledge, was the combination that could bring the past to life.

Over the years, amongst the instruments that have been resurrected by the duo are the taus, the saranda and the rabab. Thanks to Baldeep's aero-modelling prowess, he has documented every dimension and detail of many instruments and has hand-crafted many to designs dating back to the times of the Sikh gurus.

Even tools such as chisels and gouges have been recreated to fashion the musical instruments. To institutionalize the perpetuation of this knowledge, a workshop has been established to revive the instruments and the craft, and has begun training the next generation of instrument makers.
Baldeep himself has carved by hand the nomadic rabab (also known as the dhrupadi rabab), saranda, taus and dilruba. He has also designed a new tanpura and recreated the jori and the pakhawaj-mridang of the Punjab.
The taus (meaning pea{censored} in Persian) is made in the shape of a pea{censored}, has 28-30 strings and is played with a bow. Very similar to the dilruba in construction and in playing technique, it has a bigger sound box and, therefore, produces a much more resonant and mellow sound. Guru Hargobind created this instrument, which is probably why it is so big, given his own physical size.

It was also a favourite of Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Sikh Master) who always welcomed any rabab or taus player into his court. This saaz (instrument) was a favourite with the late Bhai Avtar Singh, one of Baldeep's teachers.

Guru Amar Das (1479-1574), the third Sikh Guru, also had a great passion for folk music. Legend has it that the saranda was born from his passion for music. The prevalent saranda, which was played in the outdoor - tribal and war-time - settings, was modified by making it about five inches longer and half an octave lower to make it appropriate for the classical music. It is a large bowl-shaped string instrument and is played with a bow. The saranda produces a hauntingly beautiful deep tone quality to accompany the human voice.

Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606), was a master musician and musicologist. He is said to have given us the jori by splitting the mridang into two.
While an acknowledged vocalist, Baldeep is actually a master of percussion. He was anointed "khalifa" in 1995 by Bhai Arjan Singh ‘Tarangar' from whom he learnt the 400-year-old silsila (system) of the jori and pakhawaj.
Pakhawaj is essentially a north Indian version of the mridangam and is the most common north Indian representative of the class of barrel-shaped drums known as mridang.

The Pakhawaj is an elongated wooden drum with skin stretched over both ends and is the most traditional percussion instrument of North India. Pakhawaj compositions are passed down from generation to generation. Like those of the tabla, they are taught through series of mnemonic syllables known as bol.

Once common throughout North India, the pakhawaj has been replaced by the tabla over the last few generations. Baldeep's younger son, Leonardo Amar Dhyan Singh, all of ten years old, is showing promising talent on the pakhawaj.

Baldeep's tireless pursuit of reviving our priceless intangible heritage is not confined to Sikh devotional music alone. He is bringing the lesser known genres of music to the world through his World Music Heritage Series.
In 2001, on one of his occasional visits to the Sangeet Natak Akademi, he discovered a three-minute recording of Sakar Khan, a singer of the Manganiar tribe of Rajasthan. The acoustics, the playing style (including the bowing and the harmonics) reminded him of the jap, dhyān and simran modes used in the mārgī sańgīt and were so alluring that he began searching for Sakar Khan.

Two years of effort finally bore fruit. Through the renowned ethno-musicologist Komal Kothari, Baldeep found Sakar Khan. What blew him away, however, was the discovery that the instrument that Sakar Khan plays was actually the lost bowed rabāb, hidden innocently under its folk name of kamáycha, which simply means an instrument played with a kamān (bow).

Even more gratifying is the fact that the technique that Sakar Khan had retained will now live on, hopefully further evolve and, perhaps even be reinstated in Indian classical music. A CD of Sakar Khan's music (his four sons are proficient musicians and perform all over the world) is being brought out by Bhai Baldeep Singh's World Music Heritage Series.
For a brochure to accompany the CD, Bhai Baldeep Singh needed some photography done. He asked me to accompany him to Jaisalmer to shoot pictures of Sakar Khan and his family. It was a most pleasurable, in fact an elevating, experience.

Apart from indulging my passion for photography, I was enthralled by three generations of outstanding musicians. Sakar Khan, his four sons and many grandchildren, played and sang their hearts out for us in Hamira, their village near Jaisalmer.

But Baldeep's journey is a lonely one. As he says, "When I look into the mirror I ask, who am I? What do I do? Am I a revivalist? If so, of what? Am I a musician? Am I a researcher? Am I a conservator? Am I an instrument maker? A poet? A percussionist? A cultural activist? Then, I hear silence! Every few weeks, I enter a new incarnation."

In fact, Bhai Baldeep Singh is a representative of the historical and geographical Punjab (which is much larger that its political boundaries). His inspiration comes from the GurBani. His mentors are the Sikh Gurus whose tradition he is trying to keep alive. He does not belong to any area or genre. He is proud of the fact that he is a trustee of a tradition that includes in its etymology 36 authors (whose writings are quoted in the Guru Granth Sahib), more than twenty languages (also in the same holy book) and enlightened beings from Kabir to Namdev, from Guru Nanak to Bhakti and Sufi saints, whose wisdom and spirituality is the essence of the Sikh Kirtan maryada and parampara.

His is an unending search for the soul of the raag. Is it in the melody, or the shabad or the taal? And then, he admits, that all these questions leave him "avaak", i.e., speechless with wonderment and awe.

I have to confess that I have the same feeling after a session with Bhai Baldeep Singh.

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