Kids Corner


Bhai Santa Singh Raagi:
The Great Bard of Divine Music





As a child I was used to waking up between 6 and 7 am. But on one cold early winter morning of 1948, my mother woke me up at about 4:30 am, gave me a bath and made my joorrah. After I was dressed, she took me to the family radio and asked me to operate it. I pushed the on-button and the light came on. Soon the sound appeared. The sign-on tune of All India Radio looked like a great achievement. Then a sweet voice announced the time 5:00 am and the start of a special one-hour morning service on the airwaves of All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar in honour of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

The announcer said that we would be taken to the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar for a direct transmission of the recitation of “Asa di Vaar”. In a split second the beat of the tabla, the sound of the harmonium and the high pitched voices of a group of musicians could be heard. It seemed that the musicians were invoking Guru Nanak to once again bless this earth with his physical presence in human form.

The special recitation of the hymns of the Guru sounded genuinely emotional and appeared rather impressive. At that young age I did not understand as to what was being sung, nevertheless, I felt highly impressed by the melody, tone and texture of the music. I had no knowledge as to who was singing, nor did anybody announce it specifically.

For a number of years the voices heard on that day were shrouded in mystery, but my curiosity was always there to unravel it.

Several years later, I had a chance meeting in America with Sardar Jodh Singh, the retired Assistant Station Director of All India Radio Jalandhar. He happened to be the announcer of the programme in the sanctum sancrorum of the Golden Temple on that auspicious day. He revealed for the first time that the group of musicians performing the shabad kirtan during the first ever live transmission was indeed led by Bhai Santa Singh, the then senior most raagi at Harmandar sahib.

I knew it all along that it was somebody special, somebody highly accomplished.

A number of shabads recorded on 78 RPM gramophone records by Bhai Santa Singh and his group were available in the market for decades and different stations of All India Radio including Delhi, Jalandhar, Jammu and Lucknow, used to play these records.

Bhai Santa Singh had the God-given unique capability to sing in very high notes, which most other musicians could not replicate.

His exact date of birth is not known, but according to recorded information he was born in the walled city of Amritsar in 1904. During those days very few Sikhs used to sing even in the gurdwaras and those who did sing had to hone their skills in  classical music under the strict guidance of Muslim or Pundit professional classical teachers.

Bhai Santa Singh was no exception. He enrolled at a very young age as a learner of Sikh classical music in the music department of the famous “Yateemkhana” (orphanage) in Amritsar. The head teacher was a renowned trainer in classical music - Bhai Sain Ditta. Several of Sain Ditta’s students served as huzoori raagis at the Darbar Sahib.Other famous students of Sain Ditta included Bhai Taba, Bhai Naseera, Bhai Darshan Singh Komal and Sain Ditta’s son, Bhai Desa.

But Bhai Santa Singh was exceptional among them all. Soon after completing his education at the Yateemkhana, Bhai Santa Singh was employed as a hazoori raagi at the Darbar Sahib during the 1920s. His group included, among others, another famous personality, Bhai Surjan Singh.

Both were bestowed with very sharp and melodious voices and could sing in unison. The democratically elected governing body for the Sikh shrines, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), replacing the old institution of “Mahanthood” took control of all the historic Sikh shrines in Punjab and North West Frontier Province in 1925.

A very high standard of gurmat sangeet was maintained at most gurdwaras, at least during the first three decades after the inception of the SGPC.

During those days the Darbar Sahib was known for employing highly accomplished musicians for performing chaw(n)kis of shabad kirtan in its sanctum sanctorum. Recommendations by the influential and the powerful were never a factor for recruitment of staff.

Other great musicians in service at the time included the legendry Bhai Lal, Bhai Chand, Bhai Chanan and Bhai Hira Singh. Before long, Bhai Santa Singh had carved a niche for himself. He was very hard-working. As a first step he used to grasp the meaning of the shabad to be sung. He modulated his voice to convey the true meaning of the shabad without the need of explaining it through discourse. At times he used to slow down the beat so much that the meaning of each word was understood clearly even by the layman.

While reciting the bir ras bani (martial hymns) of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, he used to convey the atmosphere of battle by increasing the pace of the musical composition.

On special occasions, the Darbar Sahib and Gurdwara Janam Asthan at Nankana Sahib, the two most sacred gurdwaras, used to exchange their leading musicians. Bhai Santa Singh used to go to Nankana Sahib on those occasions.

All India Radio (Lahore) came into being in 1936, the full fledged production facilities were added the following year. That was the year when Bhai Santa Singh was also approved as a casual radio artist. During those days the line up of the classical vocal radio artists of All India Radio (Lahore) included, among others, Dalip Chander Vedi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Master Rattan of Phagwara, Master Madan, Dina Qawaal of Jullundur, Mubarik Ali Fateh Ali of Jullundur and Harish Chander Bali. The leading Sikh religious musicians included Bhai Santa Singh of the Darbar Sahib and Bhai Samund Singh of Nankana Sahib.

Malika Pukhraj, Bhai Chhaila of Patiala, Mohammad Rafi, Noorjehan, Zeenat Begum, Shamshad Begum, Dilshad Begum, Mukhtar Begum, Parkash Kaur and Surinder Kaur were considered much junior Punjabi song and ghazal singers.

Occasional singing on All India Radio (Lahore) made Bhai Santa Singh very famous. During those days the Genophone Recording Company opened its modern recording studio in Lahore. Master Ghulam Haider was hired as its music director. He developed a special liking for the voice of Bhai Santa Singh and persuaded him to record some shabads.

The tunes were either traditional Sikh religious reets handed down from generation to generation or Bhai Santa Singh’s own highly melodious creations. The orchestra with special preludes and interludes was, of course, Ghulam Haider’s.

Eight shabads were recorded on four discs of three minutes each and each became very popular. These recordings were made in 1941-42, but their 45 RPM extended play discs were available till the 1970s. Other Sikh musicians whose recordings of Sikh religious music are among the earliest available on records include Bhai Budh Singh Taan, whose rendering of Asa di Vaar was available on 12 discs in 78RPM.

Asa di Vaar by the group of Bhai Sudh Singh Pardhan Singh was also recorded during the forties. One or two records of shabad gaayan in the voices of Bhai Gurmukh Singh Sarmukh Singh Fakkar of Nankana Sahib were also available in the market. In addition one disc of shabad gaayan in the voice of child prodigy Master Madan was also recorded during the nineteen forties. This recording, after disappearing from the market for several decades, is once again available.

Some shabads sung by Bhai Budh Singh Taan and Surinder Kaur were also available. Bhai Samund Singh, though he sang regularly for the radio, did not record his shabad gaayan on discs until the nineteen sixties, when during the Quincentennial celebrations of the birth of Guru Nanak a set of five long playing records was published.

After the creation of Pakistan, Bhai Samund Singh also joined Bhai Santa Singh in the service of the Darbar Sahib. They had very different styles of performing shabad kirtan. Bhai Samund Singh used to perform a modified version of khayal gayaki. He used to leave the alaap, jorh alaap and the vilambhat lai, as well as the climax dhrut lai, and sing the entire shabad in madh lai.

On the other hand, Bhai Santa Singh either sang in the traditional reets handed down from generation to generation or he created his own reets by improvising new tunes from the source raags and raaagnis. He used to rehearse the tunes for hours at a stretch to the accompaniment of a tanpura.

Bhai Santa Singh lived a simple life. He used to ride a bicycle on his way to perform shabad kirtan. One day an admirer presented a car to him, which he retained for a few days before giving it back to him. The reason given for spurning the offer was that he used to recite paatth while riding a cycle and he used to complete the paatth during the journey. But when he started being driven in the car the same distance was traveled in 5 minutes and he could not complete the paatth. Such was the simplicity and lack of greed in Bhai Santa Singh.

Once the famous Bhai Chand was supposed to perform last of all in a special kirtan divan in pre-partition Lahore and Bhai Santa Singh was the penultimate singer. But Bhai Chand was so impressed with the shabad gaayan by Bhai Santa Singh that he requested to skip his own turn and requested Bhai Santa Singh to finish the divan” by singing raag Darbari Kanra. Bhai Santa Singh completely mesmerized the audience with his soulful rendition. This story was narrated to me by Bhai Gurdip Singh, the head granthi of New York’s Richmond Hill Gurdwara.

In or about 1949, Bhai Santa Singh abruptly left the service of the SGPC and temporarily moved to New Delhi. Soon, he tried his hand at becoming a building contractor in Assam, but business did not suit his temperament and he took employment in Gurdwara Sees Ganj in Old Delhi.

Delhi was fast becoming a city of refugees from West Punjab. Some of his most ardent admirers had moved from Lahore, Gujjranwala, Lyallpur, Montgomery, Sialkot and Sheikhupura to Delhi. For them it was a pleasure to listen to his shabad gaayan. On hearing about Bhai Santa Singh’s joining the service of Gurdwara Sees Ganj, the crowds at that historic gurdwara started swelling each morning.

The refugee sangat of Delhi got so hooked to listening to Bhai Santa Singh’s shabad kirtan at Gurdwara Sees Ganj at Chandni Chowk that they insisted that the early morning chaw(n)ki of Asa di Vaar must always be performed by Bhai Santa Singh and his group. The only group allowed to perform the service in the absence of Bhai Santa Singh was the group of Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh and Swaran Singh, formerly of Sultanpur Lodhi in Kapurthala District.

While in Delhi Bhai Santa Singh became the staff artist of All India Radio (Delhi) and his live performance of shabad kirtan became a regular feature of its Punjabi program. Some years after 1947, one of the most important members of his group, Bhai Surjan Singh, parted company and formed his own group.

This incident affected Bhai Santa Singh badly, but he trained his brother Bhai Shamsher Singh to sing alongside him. This did not diminish the popularity of his group.

In the meantime, Bhai Surjan Singh’s newly created group also became very popular. To this day the best selling records of Asa di Vaar” are Bhai Surjan Singh’s.

On the death of India’s First Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1964, Bhai Santa Singh was the only Sikh religious musician who was especially invited to perform shabad kirtan during the period of mourning at All India Radio (Delhi). Some of these recordings are still preserved in the archives of the Delhi Station of All India Radio. At one time or the other every great maestro, be it a vocalist or an instrumentalist of India, had the honour of singing at one or the other stations of All India Radio.

Some of those artists were recorded and many others were not. Even those whose performances were recorded, their recordings were destroyed later on due to the callousness of the authorities. If all the recordings of Bhai Santa Singh and Bhai Samund Singh would have been preserved, we would have had at least 300 hours of recordings of each. Such musicians are not born every day. We are sorry to lose their historic moments.

Late Bhai Harbhajan Singh Yogi was a great admirer of the kirtan shelley of Bhai Santa Singh. In order to train his group in the art of performing shabad gaayan, he wanted to bring one of the students of Bhai Santa Singh’s school of music to America. Bibi Amarjit Kaur, who had honed her skills under the guidance of Bhai Santa Singh was brought over for the purpose. She now works in the World Bank and lives in Northern Virginia, in one of the suburbs of the American Capital.

By listening to her you can get a glimpse of her great mentor. The way she modulates her voice, it appears that she is coming true on the teachings of her great mentor.

In 1965, Bhai Santa Singh’s former companion, Bhai Surjan Singh suddenly left for his heavenly abode. Although they had parted company years ago, but still Bhai Santa Singh took this loss to heart. For several days he felt very dejected. But according to the Gurus' message, life must go on and Bhai Santa Singh did not miss his kirtan schedules.

A few of Bhai Santa Singh’s shabad compositions were used in an All India Radio programme produced in 1969 by Professor Harbhajan Singh, the poet, on the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

According to Dr Madan Gopal Singh, the singer and son of Professor Harbhajan Singh, the recording is in the archive of Manjit Bawa, the painter. He adds: 

1  The nearly one-hour long feature, broadcast on the National programme, was written in Hindi as a tribute to Guru Nanak and was part of the year long focus to mark the 500 birth anniversary. The feature was subsequently published in Punjabi as a booklet by Faqir Singh & Sons, Amritsar.

2 Some of the compositions which I remember distinctly (their melody is permanently etched in my memory and I can reproduce at least the skeletal version):  i) suni pukaar daatar/ miti dhundh ii) saajan mainde rangle iii) gagan mai thal  iv) jagad jalanda rakh lai ...

3 I have no idea if Bhai Sahib was specially commissioned (if it was 1969, this couldn't have been possible) to do these recordings or these were excavated from the AIR archives. In case these recordings were taken from the AIR archives, it does indicate that the AIR has possibly a rich collection of Bhai Sahib's renditions.

4 Bulk of the gurbani rendition in the feature was in the voice of Bhai Santa Singh. There were two other raagis and if I am not mistaken, these two were Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Amrik Singh.

5 Bhai Sumand Singh was not part of the programme. His rendition of "bhujbal deejai" is part of the achival material that existed on the spool I had handed over to my painter friend, Manjeet Bawa. Bhai Sahib had come to the main gurdwara in Karol Bagh, New Delhi and had participated in a kirtan darbar (attended by many other luminaries). The recording was made by my second cousin and a sound-technician with the AIR, the late Santokh Singh, and subsequently transferred onto our spool.

Bhai Santa Singh was in great demand for his unique style of shabad kirtan all over India, but he seldom stepped out of Delhi. Once in 1966, on the persistent request of the sangat of Bombay he was allowed to go to Bombay for a couple of weeks. On hearing this welcome news, the knowledgeable sadh sangat of Bombay was electrified. They had the once in a lifetime experience of listening to Bhai Santa Singh live. They requested for more of his time, but the management of Gurdwara Sees Ganj in Delhi refused to extend his stay, because the sangat in Delhi also wanted to listen to his shabad kirtan.

On the day of his departure for Delhi big crowds gave him a tearful sendoff from Bombay. On his way back to Delhi, while still in the train, he suffered a massive heart attack. Before any medical care could be administered, he had already left for his heavenly abode, at the feet of his divine master.

Bhai Santa Singh’s funeral saw the community in deep mourning.

This story was narrated to me by his pupil Bibi Amarjit Kaur.

After Bhai Santa Singh’s death, his brother Bhai Shamsher Singh took over his group. Bhai Shamsher Singh could sing in all the tunes of Bhai Santa Singh, but he lacked the range and modulation. After the death of Bhai Shamsher Singh about two decades ago, Bhai Santa Singh’s nephews, Bhai Harjit Singh and Bhai Gurdip Singh, are keeping his tradition alive. They cannot match the dexterity of Bhai Santa Singh, but they have kept all his reets alive.

Today they are the leading musicians of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee and are held in high esteem. Life may not be perfect but it is, nevertheless, going on.


[Courtesy: APNA. Edited for]

July 13, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Manbir Singh (Ludhiana, Punjab), July 13, 2012, 2:49 PM.

Thanks, Harjap Singh ji, for documenting all this information. Wish we had preserved the invaluable work done by these great kirtaniyas.

2: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), July 13, 2012, 11:43 PM.

This comprehensive writing has pleasantly reminded me of my school days in Khalsa High School in Qila Raipur where I saw and heard the radio for the first time. Some lines of shabad singing by Bhai Santa Singh in his inimitable voice as 'tein kee dard na aaiya' became a valuable part of my cherished memory.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 14, 2012, 1:49 PM.

It was in Jakarta of 1954/55 where I was doing a stint. A borrowed hand cranked HMV gramophone with a couple of 78 RPM records of Bhai Santa Singh and Bhai Surjan Singh. No volume of Amrit Kirtan then and no means of finding the shabad sung so captivatingly by Bhai Santa Singh - "saajan des vidaysee-arhay saanahrhay daydee mundh nain bharaydee gun saaray dee ki-o parab milaa pi-aaray" [GGS:1111.16] - "I cherish and remember that Friend, the eyes of this soul-bride are filled with tears, I dwell upon glorious virtues so I can meet my beloved Waheguru." The other one was "Asa di Vaar" sung by Bhai Surjan Singh which to this day remains unparalleled. I think I wore off those two records by listening to them practically every morning. The day I missed because of the need to change the needle, I would get a complaint from the next door neighbor, a Sindhi: Why I didn't I hear those shabads this morning?" Those two records were my only borrowed capital that I miss to this day.

4: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), July 14, 2012, 2:46 PM.

I remember when Bhai Santa Singh was fired by Darbar Sahib in mid 40's and the gurdwara in Khalsa College, Amritsar would invite him every Sunday. I was in collegiate school then. One time he recited "ta-o sah charnee ..." [GGS:520]. Bhai Sahib developed his own tune and music. I used to copy him the way he recited, and have been doing it for a long time. I recently had to discard the "His Master's Voice" record of this shabad.

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 14, 2012, 6:02 PM.

Please click the following site for Bhai Santa Singh Ji's kirtan: Also Google for some more.

6: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), July 16, 2012, 2:44 AM.

I too as a child used to wake up usually at 4 am to prepare to go to the local gurdwara known as Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha. I was only six years old when I started listening to Bhai Santa Singh. We lived in Haripur Hazara in the North West Province, now in Pakistan. There, whenever an out-of-town raagi jatha visited to perform kirtan, some satsangis organized a parbhat pheri. The procession sang gurbani with dholak and other folk musical instruments, and went from door to door to urge the residents to get ready and reach the gurdwara. Whenever Bhai Santa Singh visited our town, it was a special occasion. He electrified the town with spiritual energy so that everyone in town reached the gurdwara at amrit vela. People were eager to listen to Guru Arjan's shabad - 'bhinni rainarriye ...' - [GGS:459]. It is translated as - "When the night is soaked with dew, and the stars twinkle in the heavens, spiritual people are wide awake in the love of the Creator." I still hum the gurbani hymn in the same tune that Bhai Sahib sang. Every Sikh - most of them were sehajdharis - Hindu and some Muslims too, all together thronged to the gurdwara to listen to Bhai Santa Singh's Asa di Vaar which included his famous shabads, included the aforementioned, which the congregation wanted to hear under the star-studded sky. When he concluded his visit and left Haripur, the sangat deeply missed him and continued to listen to him on 78 RPM gramophone records. Thanks to my friend, Sardar Harjap Singh Aujla, for reviving those good old memories.

7: Harjap Singh Aujla (Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, USA), August 17, 2012, 10:34 PM.

By penning down this piece I have made a humble attempt to fulfill my responsibility towards this selfless bard of the Guru's hymns.

8: Harjap Singh Aujla (Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, USA), September 13, 2013, 4:00 PM.

When I visited Pakistan in 1969, some records of Bhai Santa Singh ji in 78 RPM were still in their library. I don't know if they still have these records or not. The accompanying orchestra was that of music director Master Ghulam Haider.

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The Great Bard of Divine Music"

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