Saturday, September 20, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Wah ustad, wah!

Wadali brothers Puranchand and Pyarelal

The Wadali brothers are a legend in their lifetime. Their canvas is as vast as the ocean. They have won numerous awards, the latest being the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, 2003. Recently, they stepped into the world of films with Pinjar, adding divine dimensions to the pain of Partition depicted in the movie. But more than anything else, they have provided music lovers rare moments to remember and cherish, says Aditi Tandon.

MUSIC, created in moments, sometimes lasts a lifetime by transcending the limits of time and space. The most divine of melodies reside in the treasure-house of the Sufiana tradition, which draws inspiration from the sacred emotion of love and its power to transform the world. As we seek out to unfold the mysteries of this tradition, a world of wonderment reveals itself to us. In this world lies redemption that flows from the divinely inspired verses of the Wadali brothers, who have kept the flame of music alive.


A quest for information about the music background of the Wadalis takes us back to Guru ki Wadali in Amritsar, a village blessed by Guru Arjan Dev, who was himself a great practitioner of music. Born into the fifth generation of musicians given to singing the messages of Sufi saints, the Wadali brothers dabbled in the most unexpected of professions before swaras became their religion. While Puranchand Wadali, the elder brother, was a regular in an akharas for a good 25 years, Pyarelal, the younger one, contributed to the meagre family income by playing the role of Krishna in the village rasleela.

Today, all these interests have been left behind. What remains with the Wadalis is a legacy left by their father Thakur Das, who literally forced music on them. Practising music for years, these unassuming brothers now excel in almost all genres, from Sufi qalaam, qawwali and kaafi to bhajans, shabads and ghazals. They picked up their lessons in music not only from celebrated maestros like Pt Durga Das and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Saheb of Patiala Gharana, but also from the musically inclined kanjaris (prostitutes) of their times, some of whom they visit till today.

The maestros with their family in their ancestral village, Guru ki Wadali, in Amritsar
The maestros with their family in their ancestral village, Guru ki Wadali, in Amritsar. — Photo by Rajiv Sharma

Completely devoted to music, the brothers move on, rendering divine melodies. They have always remained partners in rhyme, except when in May this year Pyarelal contacted the deadly brain fever. The medical team attending to him laboured day and night to save him. Soon upon recuperation, a dedicated Pyarelal sat alongside his elder brother to give a performance at the Shimla summer festival. Little did he know, however, that the fatal fever would relapse. This time the doctors gave no hope. Puranchand took his brother home to Guru ki Wadali and abstained from food for four days. On the fifth day, a Sufi saint from Baba Mastan Shah’s mazaar came visiting. He touched the ailing Pyarelal, sang a few verses and declared, "Shamman nu bol payega." Pyarelal virtually came back from the jaws of death. Ever since, both brothers have been offering music to the Almighty more ardently than before.

With a canvas of music as vast as the ocean, the brothers have grown from strength to strength by first winning the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991, then the coveted Tulsi Award in 1998, and finally the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2003. Recently they stepped into the world of films with Pinjar in which they have added divine dimensions to the pain of Partition, by rendering Gulzar’s soulful lyrics in their "mystical" style. Also on cards is a documentary, which the Discovery Channel is planning to make on them.

Here are excerpts from an interview of the two maestros. Puranchand Wadali takes the lead in answering the queries, while Pyarelal occasionally chips in to supplement the information provided by bade bhaiyya.

Do you think you were destined to learn music?

Our father Thakur Das was a famous musician in Guru ki Wadali, our ancestral village in Amritsar. But he was unhappy because he had no child. I came as a gift of a musical offering, which my father made at the famous mazaar of Data Ganj Baksh Saheb at Lahore before Partition. I was born 14 years after his marriage. I was an impetuous child, always interested in pehelwani. I would go to school but bunk classes after collecting my share of sweets and ghee, which teachers offered us. But as a fakir at the mazaar had prophesised, I had to be a musician. My father would beat me up, sometimes brutally, to force me into music. I, however, kept resisting. Whenever I sat for a session with my father, I would end up crying for hours. I remember my father taking hold of my long hair and dragging me into the rehearsal room. I was so fed up that one day I got my hair chopped off. But even that did not keep me away from music, which was to be my destiny.

How and when did you start enjoying music?

As a 10-year-old I once went to attend a fair dedicated to Baba Sadiq Shah of the Chisti lineage. The air around me resonated with music and I was compelled to pay a full-throated musical homage to God, using Sufi music. When I sang, "Mitti diyaan murtaan ne dil sada moh leya; umraan di kitte nu pal vich kho leya", people showered me with praise, gifts and money. I realised that music was not such a bad deal after all. I asked my father to buy me a gramophone on which I started listening songs rendered by famous kanjaris of our times. I also picked up renderings of Baba Bulle Shah, Baba Farid, Amir Khusro, Sant Kabir and other saints. Later I learnt music under the tutelage of Pt Durga Das and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb of Patiala Gharana. I washed utensils at the houses of many blessed musician saints to earn their guidance.

When did Pyarelal Wadali join you?

We are four brothers, all musicians. While one of them is with a raagi jatha, the other is a dholi. Pyarelal was destined to sing praises of God with me. He did not go to any guru. I am his mentor and guru. Those days it was a norm for brothers to sing in pairs. So I began signing with Pyarelal.

Pyarelal Wadali adds: As a youngster, I used to dance for Krishnaleela presentations. Das-das gaaon ekatthe ho jaate the. Then one day Baba Mastan Shahji, a Sufi saint, told me to remove my ghungroos and start singing Sufiana qalaam and qawwali. My father felt that by quitting dance, I would be depriving him of a steady income. I, however, chose to devote myself to singing Sufi qalaam. Bade bhaiyya helped me. Together we made many musical offerings at the Durgiana temple, Amritsar. We even held jagratas.

When did people first take note of you outside your village?

Our admirers in the village told us of the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar. Ready to perform, we headed for the concert, where we were disallowed entry due to our appearance. We did not even remotely look like musicians, what with my handlebar moustache and all. We were attired in chadar kurta and had no airs around us. When nothing worked for us, we decided to make a musical offering at the Harballabh temple, where N.M. Bhatia of All India Radio, Jalandhar, spotted us. He said that our voices ‘rang with an inner harmony.’ He took us to the radio station and recorded our first song.

Initially, you disliked the mike. Why?

We were used to paying full-throated homage to God. We thought the mike would suck away our voices. It was when Bhatiaji convinced us that the mike would only embellish our voice that we started using it. We are still not very comfortable with electronic gadgets. We feel spiritual heights can only be attained if you sing unreservedly, in a free atmosphere.

Tell us about your journey to success.

The AIR recording happened in 1975. After that we began performing across the country. Initially, our presentations were restricted to youth festivals in colleges and universities. Then we began frequenting the concert circuit with celebrated musicians. Despite several concerts, we never felt we had perfected the art of singing. Even the awards did not mean anything beyond being signs of recognition. The real blessing is the power to render divine verse. Hamara talluk to chashm-e-shahi se hai. Khuda ka sangeet behta rahe. Bas yehi dua hai. Aur yehi hamara inaam. (We draw from the eternal stream of music. We pray that divine melodies should keep flowing. That would be our real reward).

How would you describe Sufi music?

Sufi means virgin, pure, unadulterated. Sufi saints have sung verses in the praise of God. Sufi music is soaring, healing, and penetrating. It rips the sky open, revealing the radiant face of the Beloved. It elevates us to a totally different level and brings us closer to God. We consider ourselves as mediums through which the preaching of great saints has to be passed on to others, as Baba Shah Hussain said, ‘Man atkeya beparvah de naal, us deen dukhi de shah de naal.’

Your admirers rue the fact that there are very few records of your music. As of today, you have only about four music albums. Why have you stayed away from commercial recordings?

We were never interested in commercially exploiting our popularity. Our recent Music Today release Aa Mil Yaar was also agreed upon through friendly channels. The production company’s young staff persuaded us to leave something for posterity. We have other albums, including Paigham-e-Ishq, Ishq Musafir and Folk Music of Punjab, released by Music Today. In all these albums, the music is traditional and the orchestration minimal. Alaaps and taans dominate.

Many music directors wanted you to sing for their films. You had also been roped in for Ek Chadar Maili Si. Why were you finally not heard in the film?

Believe it or not, we never watched any films, until recently. Hum to bas rab se ley lagate hain. Fakiron ki bani ko sur dete hain. Isi mein hume sukh milta hai (We just interact with God. We give voice to the poetry written by the saints. That keeps us happy). The films you mentioned did not offer enough scope to sing the way we wanted to. After years, we have found something divine in the music of Pinjar, for which we have recorded two songs. We have also recorded for another film called Dhoop.

How did you agree to sing for Uttam Singh in Pinjar? How would you describe his film?

The film explores the tragedies that occurred on our own land. It dwells on Punjab before and after Partition. The music is inspired by pain, so are the lyrics by Gulzar saheb. We accepted the offer because the music director did not interfere with our style of rendering. Rather, he used my technique and Pyarelal’s vivaciousness to weave scores that are hauntingly beautiful.

Tell us something about your repertoire, your children and your disciples.

Trained as we are in Hindustani music under Pt Durga Das and the great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, our repertoire encompasses our guru’s exclusive compositions. Otherwise we sing all forms of music – qawwali, gurbani, kaafi, ghazal, bhajans and Sufiana. My eldest son is in the Army, the younger one sings pop music in Canada. Pyarelal’s son Satpal is picking up our style well. We have many other disciples, from whom we never charge money. We would be happy to pass on our legacy to those who promise to preserve it. We have some very gifted students back home in Guru ki Wadali, where we still live in the same ancestral house where we were born.

How would you describe your journey till today?

Jab tak bika na tha koi puchhta na tha; tune mujhe kharid kar anmol kar diya.