Kids Corner


The Melody Maker of Jalandhar:
Gurdial Singh





A winter’s day. December, 2009. I walk the crowded streets of an old bazaar in Jalandhar, Punjab.

I am here to attend the Hariballabh Music Festival, held every year in Jalandhar at this time of year. For more than a century, the greatest musicians of the subcontinent have converged to this unlikeliest of places to present their art in all of its glory.

This trip has been very rich, musically speaking.

I have just arrived here from Melbourne, Australia, where I had been invited to speak about Gurmat Sangeet, (Sikh Sacred Music) at the World Parliament of Religions.

In Melbourne, I have had the good fortune to enjoy the company and singing of Bhai Kultar Singh and his jatha, as well as the very energetic and inspiring trio of young Sikh musicians known as ‘The Chardi Kala Jatha.’

More treats await me when I reach Delhi. I go to the Rakab Ganj Kirtan School to meet with the redoubtable Gyani Dyal Singh, who has become very close to me over the years, and I take him with me to visit Bibi Jaswant Kaur Ji, a precious link to the Rababi tradition of gurmat sangeet.

Gyani ji and Bibi ji both share a deep connection with Bhai Taba ji, one of the legendary rababis who sang at the Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar before the partition of Punjab and India in 1947. They have both lived in Delhi for 40 years, but strangely enough, have never met!

We spend hours chatting about the rababis and raagis of yore and Bibi ji, at the advanced age of 90, is kind enough to sing several compositions she learned from Bhai Taba ji, for us.

My good friend from Delhi, S. Kanwal Jit Singh has organized a special event at the Jungpura Gurdwara. For the first time, I meet Bhai Baljit Singh, unequivocally the finest Namdhari vocalist of his generation, record him, and listen to him live.

When I leave Delhi, my elation is tinged with a tiny sense of disappointment. Surely, nothing else that I will experience during this trip will compare with the wonderful conversations and singing that I have enjoyed these past few days.

It turns out that I am wrong!

It is a few hours before the start of the festival. I check into my hotel and start making inquiries.

For several years, I have heard of an old instrument maker called Gurdial Singh who has a little shop in Jalandhar. Old timers have told me that he is a maker of fine instruments and an expert of Sitar Jowari.

The term ‘Jowari’ is used both as a noun and a verb and is commonly used to refer to the bridge on which the strings of a sitar rest. Jowari is a compound word, a combination of ‘jivan’ or life and ‘savari’ or saddle.  The true meaning of ‘jowari’ is to mould and set the bridge of a sitar in a manner designed to produce the overtones, which are the life blood of a sitar’s sound.

It is a delicate art and it is said that Gurdial Singh is one of the finest artists alive!

After wandering around for quite a bit, I finally find Gurdial Singh‘s shop.

There is a faded sign above. There are no display cases. On a worn looking mattress in the front of a shop sits a slim and aging Sikh, squinting at the neck of a Dilruba as he adjusts the frets.

Several instruments in various stages of production are scattered about. In the back of the shop, two apprentices are hard at work, planing wood, one a boy in his early teens and the other a young man who is deaf and mute.

Gurdial Singh is a cordial, affable man. He orders steaming hot tea and we talk.

Of late, several entrepreneurs have awakened to the great commercial potential of gurmat sangeet and some have built large, successful businesses around it. Several others are still struggling.

What is common, however among all of these entrepreneurs, successful or not, is the tendency to make lofty claims about the rare and exclusive knowledge that they claim that they alone possess about the tradition. These claims encompass musical theory, singing, instrument making; the list goes on and on. The claims are always unaccompanied by un-verifiable references to the line of musicians or instrument makers that they belong to, inevitably stretching back many generations!

It is refreshing to see that Gurdial Singh, who has been making fine instruments for at least six decades, is completely free of all such pretensions.

His line of apprenticeship can be traced back a mere two generations to Lala Rakhi Ram, the master instrument maker of Lahore, who was the master teacher that Gurdial Singh’s maternal uncle, Mohan Singh, studied with. After Partition, Mohan Singh moved to Jalandhar, right around 1949, and opened the shop that Gurdial Singh and his son now run.

It was a different era when the area was home to many superb craftsmen like Lal Singh and Gurbachan Singh, who Gurdial Singh remembers with great fondness.

Gurdial Singh holds forth about his art and his craft, and in the process, opens a window into his soul. He is not a wealthy man. His craft hasn’t brought him much money over the years. He does not mass-produce instruments. Everything he sells is made painstakingly by hand in this little workshop.

To this son of a simple farmer, whose father had a passion for gurmat sangeet, the process of crafting an instrument is no different from worship. Others would sound fake or pretentious saying this, but when Gurdial singh simply states that “every instrument has a soul; it is like a living thing and it must be crafted with love and care“, it makes perfect sense and clearly comes from the heart.

There are times, he says, that he gets to the point of frustration, when a new instrument intransigently refuses to let him tune it. At that point, Gurdial Singh says, the only recourse is the Ardaas, a direct plea to the Creator!

Gurdial Singh has a faraway look in his eyes as he talks about his passion for stringed instruments like the Dilruba and the Taus, which all but disappeared from gurmat sangeet, starting in the 1940s. He has made many instruments in his time, but he conmsiders himself a specialist of the Dilruba, And the Sitar and the Veena.

He talks fondly about old time exponents of gurmat sangeet like Bhai Jwala Singh, Bhai Mehr Singh,  Bhai Jassa Palla, all of whom were adept at playing stringed instruments. He grins, as he tells me that practical matters influenced their choices as well.

Apparently, jathas who played stringed instruments were rewarded with an extra annual salary of Rs. 5000, which in those days was a princely sum!

Our conversation turns to contemporary raagis. He expresses great admiration for the art and personality of Bhai Narinder Singh Banaras-wale, who in his estimation is the pick of the lot, when it comes to a deep understanding of gurmat sangeet.

A Namdhari himself, he speaks fondly about Bhai Baljeet Singh and Surjeet Singh Aulakh, a fine Sarangi player who has studied with Pandit Ram Narayan. We agree that the revival of stringed instruments in gurmat sangeet is a wonderful trend and he credits Dr. Gurnam Singh of Punjabi University (Patiala, Punjab) with providing much of the impetus behind the return of stringed intruments to the Harmandar Sahib.

Characteristically, his eyes twinkle and he snorts with laughter as he observes that when several of the Harmandar Sahib raagis sing, the poor lads playing the accompanying dilruba or taus are often seated obscurely to the side with no microphones before their instruments!

We fervently hope that the instruments will come back in a very meaningful way some day and agree that just the fact that the Sikh world now gets to see these instruments, that had all but become defunct, at the Harmandar Sahib is a huge step forward! A decade ago, one would have to go to a museum to look at a taus!

The hours fly by. It is time for me to leave and head to the Hariballabh Festival.

I thank Gurdial Singh and take my leave. Towards the end of our conversation, he talks about the subtlety of our music; the graces and the embellishments that truly give it life. When he demonstrates, by singing a few lines of a beautiful thumri in Raag Desh, it is clear that these same graces and embellishments are what truly flow through his veins.


[This article is dedicated to the young Boston musician and producer Michael Dwan Singh, who graciously donated a dilruba to the Gurmat Sangeet Project Instrument Bank. Last night, when I visited his studio in Somerville (Massachusetts, USA) to pick up the instrument, we started talking about instruments and instrument makers; that conversation was the inspiration for this piece. Thank you !]

September 12, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), September 12, 2013, 10:45 AM.

Illuminating and informative article by Sarbpreet Singh. It has kindled my interest in what has been unknown to me to date: the masters of gurmat sangeet.

2: Umang Kumar (Somerville, Massachusetts, USA), September 12, 2013, 6:43 PM.

Michael Dwan Singh is a great soul ... thanks for such a beautiful story, Sarbpreet ji.

3: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), September 12, 2013, 8:19 PM.

"Jin pat andhar baahar gudarh tay bhaly sansaar" [GGS:473.16] -- "Those who have silk on inside and rags on the outside, are the good ones in this world." It is to the credit of and the author of this piece to bring forth the self-deprecating master craftsmen who would otherwise have remained unsung. Bhai Firanda comes to mind who carved and created the original rabab in Sikh history. This blessed rabab of Guru Nanak followed him for 27 years on his udaasis (journeys) around the world and was played by Bhai Mardana who stayed with Guru Nanak for 58 years. The Guru said: "Mardaneya jithey tera vasa uthey mera vasa" -- "I reside where you reside, O Mardana." Bebe Nanaki paid seven rupees for the rabab. When Firanda found that it was for Guru Nanak he refused to accept any payment. Firanda, however extorted a promise from Mardana that he was not to play the rabab for anyone else but Guru Nanak. The rabab was handed to Bebe Nanaki and her husband Jai Ram to formally present it to Bhai Mardana.

4: Manbir Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), September 13, 2013, 1:42 AM.

Very true ... "What is common, however among all of these entrepreneurs, successful or not, is the tendency to make lofty claims about the rare and exclusive knowledge that they claim that they alone possess about the tradition. These claims encompass musical theory, singing, instrument making; the list goes on and on. The claims are always unaccompanied by un-verifiable references to the line of musicians or instrument makers that they belong to, inevitably stretching back many generations!"

5: Harman (Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India), September 13, 2013, 2:10 AM.

Long live Gurdial Singh ji and others who contribute so much to preserving our rich heritage of Gurmat Sangeet.

6: Raj (Canada), September 13, 2013, 10:41 PM.

I had met him in December 2004 when I went to Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar. Such a humble human, his clients come great distances to get musical instruments. Namdharis are indeed the main supporters of such a talent. More Gurdial Singhs will lead to less of the be-suray Maan's and cheap Honey Singhs that infest the local music scene today.

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Gurdial Singh"

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