Verghese on how Rev. Barakat Ullah used Christmas carols
in Punjabi to bring together the rural and urban members of his
IT was the
December of 1933 when a young Punjabi priest and his beautiful
Pathan bride, both fresh from the academic world of Lahore and
Delhi, came to serve in the towns of rural Punjab.
During the years
that followed, their problem was, how to bring together the
largely illiterate rural and urban members of their varied
congregation into an integrated community.
The more Barakat
Ullah and Sarah wrestled with this puzzle, the more elusive
remained the answer.
extensively through the disparate and large parishes in their
tonga, drawn by a almond silky mane horse Rakhsh named after the
steed of Rustam, the fabled Persian hero, they soon discovered
that their area of work was spread over a number of far-flung
villages. To bring a meaningful cohesion among these seemed an
almost impossible task.
One day, when he
heard a shepherd sing to his flock, it struck Barakat Ullah that
music might be the answer. He got together an enthusiastic group
of friends to deal with the task. Local singers were
rediscovered, small groups organised, simple words put to the
beat of the rural dholak and the plain, slim, yard-long
musical tongs, the chimta, which emphasised the beat of
the dholak. A number of familiar local tunes emanating
from the gurdwara and the mosque were adapted. Familiar
Urdu ghazal forms and qawwalis were used to form a
corpus of easy music to follow.
The lively verses
composed by Rev. Rahmat Masih Waiz, and a number of many
compositions by other friends and local singers furnished a
veritable library of memorised songs. Groups of wandering
minstrels began to sing with others, adding zest to the powerful
beat of the dholak and the rhythm of the long slim iron chimta.
Before they realised it, a miracle began to happen. So much
so that Bishop S.C. Bannerjee touring the area in November 1931
wrote, "I was struck by some very good bhajan mandalis
(local hymn singing groups) organising kathas and nagar kirtans
in good singing."
On the Christmas
Eve, despite cold weather in Fatehgarh Churian, then a small
town in Punjab, Rev. Barakat Ullah, dressed in his thick black
cassock, stood against the mission gate ready for the results of
a yearís hard work. He waved a kerosene lantern above his head
ó a shining bright welcome at the open gate of the mission
compound in Fatehgarh Churian.
The beat of the dholak
and the rhythm of the chimta heralded one village troupe
after another throughout the night. Some families walked 15
miles throughout the night, their children on menís shoulders,
and young mothers with babies at the breast.
Wrapped in a
homewoven khes, their children cuddled closer to their
motherís body for warmth.
The lead singer
sang a line in Punjabi, a musical homegrown drone, not yet
accepted as a Christmas carol in Punjabi which sounded a little
like a melody from the Sikh kirtan from the gurdwara next
door. This would be repeated enthusiastically though not always
tunefully by his shivering followers.
aaya aap ghafaar, keeta jiss nay bayra paar!"
(On this great day, the one who has steered our lifeís boat
across the turbulent ocean has come into our world in human
vajdee o piyarayo, aa jao Masih day nayray!"(Can
you hear the music announcing the coming of the king? Come
quickly to Him!)
All shoes were
left outside the priestís house. Shivering in the winter
chill, they stepped into the warmth of a large drawing room with
its fireplace blazing a welcome. Tea was served in metal
glasses by the padriís wife and the three of us
children, straight from the glowing hamaam in the open
verandah. Peanuts and oranges were the main dish of welcome,
and were taken thankfully and place was found for them in
the voluminous thick cotton kheses (wraps).
There they all
sat, on the warm durries, holding the metal glasses, frozen
fingers thawing and tingling with the warmth. They relished the
hot tea allowing themselves the liberty of savouring
each mouthful with a contented roll until it reached the
throat and was swallowed with satisfied slurps, making room for
the next toli of villagers from a neighbouring village,
15 miles away.
warmed by great crackling fires, was dotted with tents for the
guests, making room for the next group. Tomorrow, they nodded
drowsily, will be the Bara Din, the great day, our Vadda