The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 6, 2003
Lead Article

Punjab’s silent musical revolution
Reeta Sharma

Balwant Singh Namdhari was decorated with the Punjab State Award this year
Balwant Singh Namdhari (extreme right) was decorated with the Punjab State Award this year

HE is 84 and the religious head of lakhs of Namdharis all over the world, including India. Besides being a spiritual leader, Satguru Jagjit Singh has given birth to a parallel religion — the religion of music.

In the history of music, he will always be credited with unmatched passion that sowed the seeds of a silent musical revolution in Punjab, which of late has had little to boast of in the field of classical music. Although age is catching up with him yet his thirst for music remains insatiated. It was as early as 1959 that Satguru Jagjit Singh had foreseen the dearth of talent in the field of classical music in Punjab. He was taken aback to learn that only two ragis, Darshan Singh and Khazan Singh, were using Indian classical vocal forms while reciting Gurbani. What will happen in the future, he asked himself. "People of Punjab had not realised that this fine art was being eroded in the state. I desperately wanted classical music to thrive in the state," reminiscences the Satguru.

His resolve soon witnessed the initiation of young talent into the world of music. Satguru Jagjit Singh, who himself excels in Indian classical vocal and instrumental music, started imparting knowledge to boys and girls, aged between 5 and 10 years. Soon the number began to multiply. The untiring, unrelenting and consistent devotion of the ‘guru and his disciples’ over a period of 10 to 15 years began to bear fruit.


Vocalists Sukhdev Singh and Mohan Singh
Vocalists Sukhdev Singh and Mohan Singh

Beyond the fast-paced lifestyle of the Punjabis and unnoticed by the powers that be, in a remote village called Bhaini Sahib, known as the seat of the Namdhari sect, the foundation of Indian classical vocal/instrumental music was being laid. Though it takes a long time for any such serious forms of music to gain recognition, Bhaini Sahib saw the rise of Mohan Singh Namdhari and Sukhdev Singh Namdhari, who have carved a niche for themselves in the world of music. They have performed not only at Haraballabh, held annually in Jalandhar, but also at various other functions in other parts of the country and even abroad.

Satguru’s legacy

Satguru Jagjit Singh’s contribution to the Namdhari sect can be gauged from the following diktats issued by him:

Marriage ceremonies should be kept simple. There should be no indulgence in extravaganza. Both the groom and the bride must dress in plain white. No jewellery must be worn and no dowry must be given. Marriages must not take place in hotels or lavish pandals but only at nearby Namdhari temples.
No morsel of food to be wasted, as overwhelming poverty marks the lives of millions.
Crackers must not be burst on Divali because the ensuing pollution not only harms the environment but also brings into focus the wide disparity between the haves and have-nots.
Lohri must not to be celebrated on the birth of a boy, as that would speak of gender discrimination.
Loud speakers should not to be used in Namdhari temples, for they add to noise pollution and disturb the people living around.
One should not possess too many clothes, as such belongings generate materialistic desires besides creating disparity.
Watching of films on TV or cinema halls are not allowed but children are encouraged to watch news, sports or any other educative programmes.

That Satguru Jagjit Singh did not restrict his teachings to his followers alone but imparted his knowledge of music to others too speaks volumes for his dedication and zeal. Once in Gwalior, when he heard budding Indian classical vocalists Rajan and Sajjan Mishra, he immediately took them under his wing. When he learnt that the two brothers were earning their living as petty clerks, he immediately offered to pay them double the amount they were earning from Namdharis’ offerings. He wanted them to devote themselves totally to riyaz without worrying about their bread and butter. Today, the Mishra brothers are the pride of India and they do not get tired of acknowledging the role played by Satguru Jagjit Singh in promoting their career.

Once again, led by his farsightedness, he consciously decided to revive many dying musical instruments of Punjab. As a result of his efforts, rabab, dilruba, saranda, sarangi, santoor and sitar have been popularised by his disciples, who play them oblivious of any consumerist or materialistic pressures. Hundred of children in the age group of 8 and 15 years are today learning to play these instruments and are also being trained in classical vocal. A stream of students, including Mohan Singh and Sukhdev Singh, have been making waves at various musical performances in India and abroad.

Two young boys, Balwant Singh Namdhari and Harjinder Singh Namdhari, are being taken note of music circles in India. Balwant is not only being acknowledged as one of the most promising players of santoor, sitar and tabla but is also a name to be reckoned with as a classical vocalist. On this February 27, he was decorated with the Punjab State Award for Indian Classical Vocal and Santoor Vadan at a state-level function in Kapurthala by the Punjab Chief Minister, Capt. Amarinder Singh.

Namdhari children being initiated into the music tradition
Namdhari children being initiated into the music tradition

Harjinder Singh has won a name for himself as a noteworthy rabab player. The sparkle in the eyes of Satguru Jagjit Singh cannot be missed as he hears his disciple Harjinder Singh, the only other player of rabab besides himself, weaving a raga on this majestic instrument. Harjinder Singh has already adopted two young Namdhari children to train them to play this instrument. Interestingly, Harjinder is also equally comfortable with the bansuri, dilruba and sarod.
It may be mentioned here that in 1930, Bhai Taba, the last rababi of that era, was forsaken by his employers. Likewise, Bhai Naseer, the pakhawaj player of the time, found no patrons. It was at this juncture, when both these artists were finding no patronage, that they were adopted by Guru Partap Singh of the Namdharis. The duo thus became the hazoori musicians of the guru.

Satguru Jagjit Singh has ensured that all students at Bhaini Sahib should learn both vocal as well as instrumental music. So while you have Devinder Singh who not only excels at playing the dilruba but also sings classical numbers, there are others like Satwant Singh, Jagjit Singh and Harpreet Singh who are enthusiastically learning the finer nuances of music under the guru-shishiya parampara.

Satguru Jagjit Singh’s name, as a renowned musician, would also be remembered for having evolved new maatras like paune aath (seven and three-fourths), paune pandhran (fourteen and three-fourths), sava chaudhan (fourteen and one-fourth), saade staran (seventeen and a half) and teran sahi satt bata aath (thirteen and seven-eights).

Though lakhs of Namdharis all over the world and within India revere and look up to Satguru Jagjit Singh, this humble religious head, in turn, has a lot of respect for his musicians. The musicians who perform sit on a higher platform than the seat reserved for the guru of Namdharis.



Namdharis from the pages of history

Satguru Jagjit Singh playing the rabab
Satguru Jagjit Singh playing the rabab

Guru Ram Singh, the founder of the Kuka movement, rose to fame after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1939. He proved to be not only a religious philosopher but also an unparalleled patriot. Aghast at palace conspiracies and intrigues and degeneration of fellow Indians of the time, he vowed to build an army of puritanical Sikhs who would fight for the freedom of the country.

A great visionary, he mixed religion with politics of the time in such a manner so as to motivate the Kukas to fight for the freedom of their country. The residents of the tiny village of Bhaini Sahib, where Guru Ram Singh and his followers lived, made the British spend sleepless nights. The desperation of the British was evident from the Malerkotla massacre of 1872. A clash between the Kukas and a Sikh zamindar was used by the then Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, L. Cowan, to not only teach a lesson to the Kukas but also to send signals to all other anti-British forces. He arrested 68 Kukas and without trial and blew up 66 of them by tying them to the mouths of canons.

Guru Ram Singh and 11 of his followers were arrested and deported to Burma and all Kuka assemblies were banned. For the next 13 years, Guru Ram Singh led an isolated life and eventually died in Rangoon in 1885.

Guru Ram Singh was succeeded by his younger brother, Hari Singh. The British did not allow Guru Hari Singh to leave Bhaini Sahib village, near Ludhiana, which was to be the main base of the Kukas for the next 21 years. On his death in 1906, Guru Hari Singh was succeeded by his son Guru Partap Singh, who in turn was succeeded by the present Satguru Jagjit Singh.

The Namdharis and their gurus are credited with many firsts. Besides making several outstanding contributions to society, Guru Ram Singh had issued edicts, both political and social, to his followers:

1. As many as 62 years ahead of Mahatma Gandhi, Guru Ram Singh advocated the practise of non-cooperation with the then ruling British as a way to free India.

2. The Namdharis were asked not to accept any government service offered by the British.

3. They were also told to boycott all educational institutions opened by the British.

4. They were forbidden to use any foreign-made goods.

5. The Namdharis were asked to disobey and resist the laws and orders that their conscience abhorred.

6. They were to boycott the law courts started by the British.

7. They were also not to use the British postal services.

Guru Ram Singh’s instructions to Namdharis in the social context were also amazingly progressive for his times. Some of them are as follows:

1. Do not indulge in infanticide or trade in female children.

2. Do not practise child marriages.

3. Do not lie or steal or indulge in adultery.

4. Abstain from intoxicants like alcohol, tobacco or any other drugs.

5. Do not give or take dowry. (He had forbidden his followers from spending more than Rs 13 at a wedding).

6. Do not borrow or lend money on interest.

7. Do not indulge in casteism. All human beings are born alike.

In fact, Guru Ram Singh also gets the credit for having set up a system similar to the present Panchayati Raj. He had adopted and evolved this system for his followers. When the Kukas boycotted the British courts, the panchayats settled all their social disputes.