Saturday, April 13, 2002
S I T E S   A N D  S C E N E S

Finally, Punjab’s musical tradition finds a home

Aditi Tandon

A rabab placed below the portrait of Baba Mardana          Photos by Manoj Mahajan
A rabab placed below the portrait of Baba Mardana

THE land of five rivers has not been much in touch with its musical tradition. Perhaps that is why a significant portion of its folklore has become obscure. Some of the most celebrated folk instruments like taus, saranda and rabab, which were once an integral part of Punjab’s folk music, have vanished into thin air.

And this for reasons not far to seek. Despite being blessed with a rich cultural heritage, the arts and artists of this land have been largely left to fend for themselves. So much so that until March 25 this year, the region could not boast of any institution labouring to preserve its art tradition. There are some collections in the Replica House of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, and the Sheesh Mahal, Patiala, but they hardly serve to safeguard our musical tradition. Some hope for preserving the state’s heritage, however, surfaced last month when the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi realised its long-cherished dream.

March 25 saw the inauguration of Sangeet Shala (music gallery), which is now home to some very rare folk music instruments that ever dotted the musical scene of Punjab. Located in one humble corner of the Punjab Kala Bhavan compound in Chandigarh’s Sector 16, the music gallery stands as a symbol of Punjabi exuberance. Housing the famous dhol of Bhanne Ram Dholi, the inimitable tumbi of Lal Chand Yamla Jat and the spirited dhadd of Dhadi Amar Singh Shaunki, Punjab Sangeen Natak Akademi’s Sangeet Shala documents the musical history of Punjab with great sensitivity.


Algoze, wanjhli and flute are a part of the Sangeet Shala’s collection
Algoze, wanjhli and flute are a part of the Sangeet Shala’s collection

A brain child of Prof Rajpal Singh, the illustrious secretary of the Akademi, the gallery has been structured at four levels which deal extensively with four aspects of Punjab’s folklore. At the first level, the gallery houses rare folk music instruments that were once used by legendary folk performers of the region like Bhanne Ram Dholi and Yamla Jat. At the second level the gallery offers respectable space to portraits of people who shaped the destiny of Punjab by enriching it with their arts. This section comprises over 20 portraits of legends like Balraj Sahni, Samund Singh Ragi, Kavishar Karnail Singh and others. Also housed here are portraits of all performers whose instruments form a part of the gallery’s collection.

In the third section lie the enchanting folk music blends of Punjab. Made available here are two audio cassettes which feature certain melodies of the region which are no longer heard. One of the cassettes has songs that are sung while performing various cermonies and rituals, while the other has a string of popular folk tunes on traditional instruments. The fourth level deals with publication related to the folk heritage of Punjab. Life sketches of the greatest folk performers of Punjab form the rich content of Hardyal Thuhi’s book Tumbe naal jodi vajdi. The book is available for sale.

The first level, which has a sitar-shaped panel, is designed by Rafi Mohinder Singh. This section documents the rich tradition of folk music of Punjab. The collection begins with a portrait of Baba Mardana playing the rabab. And below it you can see the specific instrument. Likewise as far as possible, the portraits of performers and the instruments they played have been arranged together so as to offer visual coherence. The most significant detail is that most of the rare instruments housed here are the ones which folk performers used during their presentations. Tracking down the wards of legendary performers who are no more was, in itself, a challenging task for the Akademi. Even more challenging was the task of asking them to part with their parent’s favourite saaz.

Professor Rajpal, however, confessed that it was not such a difficult task to procure the instruments as it had earlier appeared to be. "When I went to Lal Chand Yamla Jat’s son Jasdev Yamla and told him about the purpose of my visit, he was more than happy to part with his father’s revered tumbi for preservation in the gallery.

"Similarly the famous dhadd of Amar Singh Shaunki was also happily offered to us by his family which lives in Bhajjal in Hoshiarpur district. His son Pargat just said one thing: ‘Until today this dhadd belonged to one family. From tomorrow it will belong to the whole Punjab’."

(L to R) Dholak, nagara and dhol: The main rhythmic instruments of Punjab             Photos by Manoj Mahajan
(L to R) Dholak, nagara and dhol: The main rhythmic instruments of Punjab

Interestingly, tumbi was popularised by Lal Chand Yamla Jat, who started playing it during his performances. Earlier this instrument was played only by beggars.

Amar Singh Shaunki, who was known for singing Sikh dhadis and Sufi dhadis, became famous for his soulful rendition of legends like Heer-Ranjha and Mirza-Sahiba.

His wife Pritam Kaur, who became a widow 20 years ago, came from Hoshiarpur for the inauguration of the gallery. She paid homage to her husband, whose portrait now hangs in the gallery. The third instrument in the line is Bhanne Ram’s dhol. A pioneer in drumming, Bhanne Ram was part of the first bhangra troupe that was formed after Partition. This troupe comprised bhangra sensation Manohar Deepak and instrumentalist Mangal Sunami, the famous algoze player. After playing dhol for the troupe, Bhanne Ram soon found himself in the film industry, courtesy Devika Rani.

There he went on to play the Punjabi dhol in famous films like Naya Daur and Jaagte Raho. Prof Rajpal Singh got the dhol from Bhanne Ram’s son Bahadur Ram, who lives in Sunam. From the same place he procured Mangal Sunami’s algoze.

The Akademi also requested Surinder Kaur for her ghungroos and Gurdas Mann for his dafli. Both the instruments now adorn the gallery. Prof Rajpal Singh mentioned, "Surinder came from Delhi to offer her ghungroos, while Gurdas offered his dafli wrapped up in a holy chaddar given to him by Peer Ghulam Shah of Nakodar."

While a wanjhli and been have been displayed, the instruments which Jogi Kashi Nath used to play are yet to be procured by the Akademi. Prof Rajpal Singh asserted, "Jogi Kashi Nath, who excelled at playing the snake charmer’s flute, still has no parallel. His son has promised us his been."

Other rare instruments in the stringed category are saranda and israj, which have been especially made to order. Already extinct, these two instruments have been created by a carpenter in Sherpur village near Barnala. In the category of wind instruments are been, algoze, bansuri, and wanjhli. Finally come the rhythmic instruments, which always dominated the Punjabi musical scene. In this section fall the dhol, dholak, nagara, bagdu, daru, dhadd, damru, daria, khadtaal and manjira.

Another visual delight offered by the gallery is the collection of portraits of great artistes. Created with precision by Rafi Mohinder Singh, these portraits will shortly be accompanied by introductions of the artistes. This visual line begins with a beautiful portrait of Baba Mardana playing the rabab. Then come the portraits of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, the greatest exponent of Kasur Patiala Gharana, Dhadhi Amar Singh Shaunki, Surinder Kaur, Lal Chand Yamla Jat and Bhanne Ram Dholi. Also exhibited are portraits of Samund Singh Ragi, who gave a purely classical dimension to Gurbani singing, and Karnail Singh Paras, the famous kavishar of Punjab. Other portraits are those of Balraj Sahni, Sohan Singh Seetal and Sardar Gursharan Singh. Recorded audio cassettes mentioned earlier are available on sale. Rendered by Kulwant Kaur, Karamjit Kaur and Manjit Kaur, the ritualistic songs remind the listeners of the long singing sessions during marriages in Punjab villages. The festivity begins 21 days before the wedding. The other cassette lists popular folk tunes on traditional Punjabi instruments.

The Sangeet Shala is a fine example of how living traditions can be captured for the knowledge of future generations. Conceived by Prof Rajpal Singh who made a porposal to this effect way back in 1999, the gallery draws inspiration from the Blits Hill Museum in England. After a visit to the museum, which recreates the nostalgia of the Victorian age in letter and spirit, the professor returned to India with a dream of creating a heritage village in Punjab. The Sangeet Shala can said to be a humble beginning in that direction.