Kids Corner


Scholar & Musician Mrigendra Singh





The Raja of Kishangarh was not amused.

The proud monarch of the small kingdom in Rajasthan was entertaining in an elegant salon in Calcutta, the center of British India. In attendance were several noblemen and the connoisseurs of the arts of Calcutta, a city known for its cultural sophistication.

The main performer that evening was Angelina Yeoward, the daughter of William Yoeward, an Armenian engineer and Victoria Hemming, his Jewish wife. Angelina, popularly known as Gauhar Jaan was the most celebrated courtesan in all of India, the first recording artist ever from the subcontinent and the toast of every soiree from Calcutta to Mysore, having performed even at the 1911 Delhi Durbar held in commemoration of the coronation of King George V!

The Raja of Kishangarh was not only a patron of the arts, he was also a very decent Sitar player. Angelina’s performance was over and the conversation inevitably turned to music and musicians. All of a sudden, Angelina dropped a bombshell! In her opinion, nobody could play the sitar like Imdad Khan, grandfather of Vilayat Khan, a sitar player from Etawah, close to Agra, who had settled in Calcutta.

Much chagrined, the Raja vigorously disputed Angelina’s claim, saying that his own teacher, Mahboob Ali of the Kapurthala Gharana had no equal. Angelina’s haughty disbelief only fanned the flames and set the stage for a showdown.

The Raja sent a telegram to Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of the Sikh Kingdom of Patiala, in whose court Mahboob Ali resided, informing him that the honor of the Kapurthala tradition was at stake.

The Maharaja of Patiala promptly dispatched Mahboob Ali to Calcutta, and the Raja of Kishangarh lost no time setting up a contest between his ustaad and Imdad Khan. Another soiree was arranged and all the notables who had attended Angelina’s performance and witnessed her haughtiness were invited.

Imdad Khan entered the soiree with the air of a conquering hero, dressed in elegant robes. It is customary in Indian classical music circles to this day, for the senior-most musician to perform last in any gathering. Imdad Khan, the toast of Calcutta, was offered the honor and Mahboob Ali was asked to play first.

Mahboob Ali reverently unwrapped his instrument. And what a fine instrument it was! It was a magnificent Surbahar, an instrument that is like a sitar, only with a much deeper and more resonant sound, and very suited to the slow and elaborate presentation of an alaap, a leisurely exploration of a raag, with its origins in the very austere Dhrupad tradition, with the ethos of the ancient Veena, an instrument dating back thousands of years.

Mahboob Ali started a very slow elaboration of the Raag Darbari Kanhra, a grand and majestic raag which, according to popular tradition, was invented by the legendary musician Mian Tansen in honor of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, whose court he adorned.

In the next 45 minutes Mahboob Ali did not progress beyond four notes from the low register, using that meager musical space to create a beautiful tapestry of sound, dazzling in its originality and sophistication.

Imdad Khan, a great musician and a man of courtly demeanor knew that he was in the presence of a master. He politely declined to play after Mahboob Ali and through his gesture acknowledged the brilliance of the maestro from Kapurthala.

I sit back enraptured, listening to the distinguished looking man who has just recounted this story. He is in his eighties, but his eyes sparkle and his excitement is palpable as he holds forth. His body is starting to feel the ravages of age, but the air of authority that surrounds him is not diminished an iota by his advancing years.

He is Raja Mrigendra Singh, a scion of the house of Patiala in more ways than one.

The story he has just shared is not apocryphal, for Mahboob Ali, who he knew as Bhai Booba, was his ustaad (teacher) and the man who sent the maestro to Calcutta to face off with Ustad Imdad Khan, was none other than his father, the Maharaja of Patiala.

Raja Mrigendra Singh instructs his son, Karmendra Singh, who has graciously invited us to his home in Long Island today, to fetch the 'big saaz’ (instrument). Karmendra Singh smilingly obliges and we are face to face with an instrument of great antiquity and beauty.

It is the Surbahar of Mohammad Shah Rangila; the very instrument that Mahboob Ali played in Maharaj Kishangarh’s soiree in Calcutta!

The instrument had passed to Nasir Ahmad, a great musician in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor. Nasir Ahmad made his home in Kapurthala after the fall of Bahadur Shah and his son, Mir Rahmat Ali, became a musician of great renown as well. One of his most famous disciples was Mahboob Ali or Bhai Booba, who was appointed court musician at Patiala.

Mrigendra Singh studied sitar and surbahar with Mahboob Ali, and the magnificent instrument I behold was a gift to him from his ustad.

Mahboob Ali, of course, had many disciples, including his own nephews and extended family members, but he chose the young Mrigendra Singh, of all his students, to receive the priceless instrument, in recognition of his diligence and commitment as a pupil.

Mrigendra Singh has two passions: classical music and Gurbani, and for the next few hours we are regaled with anecdote after anecdote as he reminisces about the greats of both traditions that he has rubbed shoulders with. He is clearly a scholar, having taught for many years and having written several books on classical music.

The depth of his knowledge of gurbani is humbling as well. He has studied Gurmat Sangeet with the legendary Mahant Gajja Singh, who was the custodian of the historical Gurdwara Ber Sahib at Sultanpur Lodhi. 

Gajja Singh was also a student of Mir Rahmat Ali; both he and Bhai Booba learned classical music as well as traditional gurmat sangeet from Rahmat Ali. Bhai Booba was known to be a direct descendant of Bhai Farinda who, it is said, was commissioned by Guru Nanak to build a Rabab for his beloved disciple, Bhai Mardana.

There is a tradition that suggests that Bhai Farinda might have been the ustad or teacher of Bhai Mardana as well.

The highlight of the visit is yet to come.

Mrigendra Singh asks his son to bring his Tanpura and instructs him to tune it to ‘doosra kalaa’ (E Flat).

My little party includes other musicians with notable pedigrees. I have been invited to the Glen Cove Gurdwara to organize a Gurmat Sangeet program featuring young singers from Boston and the New York area. I have also invited from Washington, DC, the Raag Rattan Jatha, which consists of the descendants of Gian Singh Almast, the legendary Sikh musician and composer.

The jatha includes the multi-talented Gurpreet Singh Sarin, who many readers would know as The Turbanator of American Idol fame, and his sister Soni, who is one of the most remarkable vocalists of her generation in the world of gurmat sangeet.

Gurpreet sits at the Tabla and Soni plays the Harmonium as Mrigendra Singh gets ready to sing for us.

He starts by telling us about the lost tradition of uthanka (context) in Gurbani, citing reference works that describe in great detail the context in which every shabad in the Guru Grant Sahib was uttered.

On my request he decides to sing a shabad (hymn) that he had learned from Gajja Singh and he picks ‘tu sultan kaha ho miya teri kavan vadaaee’ in Raag Bilaval.

First he explains the context of the shabad and then informs us authoritatively that there are twelve variants of Raag Bilaval. He will sing the shabad in Raag Sarparda Bilaval, a flavor of the raag that is seldom heard.

The next several moments are pure joy as Mrigendra Singh starts playing the tanpura and begins to sing. His voice reflects his age but he sings with the air and authority of a maestro. He pauses to point out nuances in the shabad or the composition and indulges in a lengthy digression on the traditional way of teaching gurbani and studying the Guru Granth Sahib.

He talks about his own studies in gurbani, which were conducted in the ‘Gurgam’ tradition, as practiced at the Damdami Taksal. The Taksal, the oldest of the Sikh seminaries, according to him was protected from British influence by the fact that it fell in the princely states of Punjab that were not directly annexed by the British after the fall of the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and was thus able to adhere to traditional methods for the study of gurbani.

I am greedy for more shabads from the repertoire of Gajja Singh, but Mrigendra Singh has other plans.

He asks for his sitar to be brought to him, which he painstakingly tunes. He asks us what we want to hear and he gets bombarded with requests, some of which make his brow darken.

Kalaavati, Tilang, Bageshri. Mrigendra Singh is a purist. It is late afternoon and he will not play a raag meant to be played at night, in the afternoon! I ask him to play a ‘Sandhi Prakash’ raag, a melody of the gloaming, but that doesn’t please him either for it is not yet twilight. I suggest Multani, which is not one of my favorite raags, but perfect for the time of day and he nods regally.

He starts a slow alaap and then begins a gat (melody) accompanied by the tabla, but stops in a few minutes. Perhaps he doesn’t ‘feel’ Multani today! He decides to switch to a different raag and announces that he will play Shyam Tilak, an evening raag that I am not very familiar with.

He delivers an elegant mini performance in the next 25 minutes, giving us a glimpse of the rich musical tradition that he is immersed in. I can only imagine what magnificent musicians his teachers like Bhai Booba must have been, having dedicated their entire lives to the art!

The hours race by. Mrigendra Singh is an erudite man. I find it somewhat surprising that the scion of a royal house -- not exactly known for moderation -- who grew up in the lap of luxury, would have developed such deep passion for pursuits such as classical music, gurmat sangeet, gurbani and philosophy.

He wears his erudition lightly. As he talks about a variety of subjects with authority, there is not even a hint of arrogance. The passion is very real.

We leave his home enriched.

*   *   *   *  *

Raja Mrigendra Singh passed away a week ago.

He was born on July 21, 1928 at the Rajgarh Vilas Palace in Chail, where the Patiala royal family spent its summers. He was the 12 son of Maharaja Bhupendra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, one of the most colorful monarchs of his time.

His mother was Rani Chandra Bhaga Devi, one of the Maharaja’s wives.

As was the tradition in his family, Mrigendra Singh was given an English name as well, apparently for concern for the English governesses and guardians, who had difficulty pronouncing the children’s Punjabi names! Consequently, he was also known as Prince William.

He grew up in the company of numerous siblings. The young men were under the guidance of an English guardian, Mr Cells, who was quite the martinet! The children, as young as five or six, would rise at 6 am and after bathing would proceed to the gurdwara in the palace for their daily morning nitnem (prayers).

In the evenings, after the children came back from school, they would go back to the gurdwara and recite Rehras followed by instruction in gurmat (concepts based on the Sikh scripture) imparted by scholars of the Nirmala tradition.

Mr. Cells would make sure that all his young wards, in bed in their night suits, would cover their heads and recite the Sohila before turning off the lights and letting them go to sleep. This routine, according to Mrigendra Singh, was sacred when he and his siblings were children.

When the young prince was 13 or 14, he was initiated, according to the traditions of the Patiala royal family, into the fold of the Khalsa through the Amrit ceremony. According to him, the tradition dated back to 1705, when his ancestor, Baba Ram Singh, the father of Ala Singh who founded the state of Patiala, was initiated by Guru Gobind Singh himself.

The lad grew up in an environment where both classical music and gurbani loomed large.

Patiala was home to ten burjs (towers) with the Guru Granth Sahib enshrined in each. An 11th burj, known as the Burj of Ala Singh, also housed the Scripture.

In attendance at each burj were five raagis (minstrels). Thus the city had a large group of well trained professional practitioners of gurmat sangeet. Their unquestioned leader was Gajja Singh who was well known for his erudition and
deep knowledge of the Sikh musical tradition.

Patiala was also a renowned center of classical music; the court was home to more than a hundred musicians of the finest caliber.

Along with his secular education, which started in the Palace under the eagle eye of Mr. Cells, the young Mrigendra Singh immersed himself in the study of Sikh music as well as classical music, eventually under the tutelage of Bhai Booba.

Later on, Mrigendra Singh with several older siblings was sent to Bishop Cotton School in Simla and then to Lahore where he resided at Patiala House and completed his education at Aitchison College.

Subsequently he studied world religions and ethnomusicology at Yale University's Divinity School, obtaining a Master of Arts in Religion. During this time he taught Indian music at Yale. He received a Ph.D. in world religion from Guru Nanak University, Amritsar.

He taught at New York City University (CUNY), where he was Associate Professor and at The State University of New York at Mount Vernon and Purchase. In addition he taught numerous students privately over the years, generously sharing the priceless wisdom that he received from masters like Gajja Singh and Bhai Booba.

In 2011 Mrigendra Singh was honored by the Sangeet Natak Academy of India with the Tagore Akademi Puruskar for Overall Contribution / Scholarship in Performing Arts.

Over his academic career he published numerous books on Music and Sikhism.

He was a man from another era. Regal, erudite and passionate, he will be remembered by many. We met only twice; once when he visited my home in the Boston area in 2005 and the second time when I went to his home in 2008. I did not know him well, but the richness of the experience of interacting with him and getting a glimpse of the depth of his learning, will stay with me forever for he belongs to a select group of elders who have enriched my life by generously sharing their experiences with me; a group that includes the likes of Gyani Dyal Singh, Bibi Jaswant Kaur, Gyani Darshan Singh Sohal and Sardar Gurdial Singh.

A couple of days ago, I called his son Karmendra Singh to offer my condolences. Unfortunately, I had learned of his death only after his Antim Ardaas (a religious gathering that marks the passing of a Sikh) had been conducted, and missed the opportunity to pay my respects in person.

Karemndra Singh told me a story about his father’s passing, which is worth recounting.

His father’s overarching passion was the study of Gurbani. Throughout his life he had been immersed in research, having had access to many ancient manuscripts from the Patiala archives.

Of all the subjects he was involved with, he had a particular interest in delving into The Japji, Guru Nanak’s timeless composition which in a sense is the bedrock of Sikh philosophy. Mrigendra Singh had collected, read and digested the works of all the tikekars (commentators) he could possibly find on the Japji.

Forty years ago, he collected all the research he had done into the Japji, incorporated his own commentary and delivered the manuscript to Punjabi University for publication.

It had been his life’s work and it was with great anticipation that he awaited the publication of the work.

36 long years passed. Nothing happened.

Then, four years ago, he was contacted by Dr. Harpal Singh Pannu, a senior Professor in the Department of Religious studies at Punjabi University, who expressed a desire and willingness to revive the project.

Mrigendra Singh, in the autumn of his life seized the opportunity. For the next four years he worked 12 to 16 hours every day, updating and polishing his manuscript, which was then submitted for publication.

He was ill and under sedation when the work was finally published. When the first copies of the work arrived, Karemendra Singh took his father off sedation and showed him his 1200-page opus, Japu Nissan.

Raja Mrigendra Singh was at peace and, according to his son, didn’t wake up again.

His rich legacy will live on.

April 6, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Sarab Iqbal Singh Sokhey (Naperville, Illinois, USA), April 06, 2014, 9:19 AM.

Wonderful. Beautifully done. Thanks, Sarbpreet Singh ji. I had a very negative opinion of the scions of the royal families of Punjab. This was enlightening.

2: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), April 07, 2014, 4:02 AM.

He was a great scholar, well versed in many languages. He knew Braj bhasha as well, and had immense knowledge of the Dasam Granth compositions.

3: Bhav Khandan Singh  (Anandpur Sahib, Punjab), April 07, 2014, 5:38 AM.

Thanks for this wonderful information. Sorry to hear the sad news. My god-mother (his sister) Rajmata Nalagarh used to share his knowledge of gurbani as well. She is now 92+. Sarbpreet Singh ji, you are a perfect narrator and doing a marvellous job. Thanks a lot. May be we meet some day again. And hope to hear from you about my late brother, Maharaj Thakur Singh as well.

4: Reginald Massey (Llanidloes, Wales, United KIngdom), April 07, 2014, 7:03 AM.

Most interesting. Thank you, Sardar Sarbpreet Singh. And let us remind ourselves that the musical giant Barrey Ghulam Ali Khan also hailed from the Patiala Gharana.

5: Manjit Singh (Seattle, Washington, USA), April 08, 2014, 11:25 PM.

Sarbpreet Veer ji, Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories with us. Raja Mrigendra Singh was indeed an invaluable asset to the Sikh Panth. I would love to listen to his kirtan. Please share if you have any of his recordings.

6: Iqbal Singh (Palmerston North, New Zealand), April 09, 2014, 5:47 PM.

Thanks, Harbans Lal ji, for such a deep insight into Sikh history. Is there at all a connection between the Patiala Gharana and the Qawaal tradition of music that also hails from the area?

7: Raj (Canada), April 09, 2014, 11:45 PM.

It's interesting that Patiala has contributed to more than its share for the cause of Sikh Religion and Culture. Punjabi University's research on Sikhi is unmatched. Patiala Royal family's contribution is not little, Patiala Gharana is a prime example. Capt. Amrinder Singh is a military historian with about six books to his credit. I have great interest in gurbani and gurmat music. I wish had met Raja Mrigendra Singh ji.

8: Harsimran (Patiala, Punjab), November 24, 2014, 2:25 AM.

Thanks for this write-up. I also know about other Patiala gharanas (schools) in gurmat sangeet.

9: Opinder Kaur Sekhon (Chandigarh, Punjab), December 05, 2014, 11:53 AM.

Raja Mrigendra Singh was such a wonderful personality which is very difficult to find again. He was a bundle of knowledge. Wish he had lived few years more. Always wished to meet him again and again. He was my 'phuphar ji' (Uncle - paternal aunt's husband.)

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