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Bibi Jasbir Kaur Khalsa: Tribute to Doyenne of Gurmat Sangeet

Dr. Pashaura Singh



Bibi Jasbir Kaur Khalsa [1947-2011]


Bibi Jasbir Kaur Khalsa, Chairperson of Sri Guru Gian Parkash Foundation, New Delhi, India, and a member of the Punjabi University Senate, passed away on Thursday, February 10, 2011, at her residence in Ludhiana, Punjab.

The final moment came when she was offering ardaas after suffering a massive heart attack.

She was born on July 5, 1947 at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh, where her father, Sardar Harbans Singh, was serving in the Indian army. Her mother, Sardarni Narinder Kaur, was a devout Sikh lady and the President of Bebe Nanaki Istri Satsang, a Sikh women's group which was responsible for building a beautiful gurdwara in Model Town, Ludhiana, to celebrate the memory of Bebe Nanaki.

Right from her childhood Jasbir Kaur was endowed with a spark of spirituality. She was greatly inspired by the life of a mystic, Sant Attar Singh (1866-1927) of Mastuana, who was the most charismatic figure in Sikh circles in the early twentieth century. It is no wonder that she had early on learnt the devotional singing of gurbani kirtan and memorized the five liturgical prayers by heart.

Jasbir Kaur received the Khalsa initiation at a ceremony organized by the Akhand Kirtani Jatha of Bhai Randhir Singh at Delhi when she was still in high school at Ambala. After earning her B.Sc. degree in 1969, she joined the newly established Gurmat College, Patiala, where she completed her M.A. in Religious Studies in 1971. She received her first appointment as a Gurmat Scholar-cum-Missionary at Guru Nanak Foundation, New Delhi.

It was there that I first met her in 1973 when I joined Guru Nanak Foundation as a research scholar after completing my M.A. degree in Religious Studies from Gurmat College, Patiala. I was truly impressed by her exemplary Sikh way of life. She was respected as a universal sister (‘Bhain ji') at Guru Nanak Foundation.

After two months, I was appointed as Head of the Divinity Department at Guru Harkrishan Public School in July 1973. Bhain ji was so influential in my life that she arranged my marriage with her younger sister, Baljeet, on 25 December 1974.

During our stay at Jangpura Extension in New Delhi, Bhain Ji encouraged the Sikh youth of the local area to attend early morning devotions at the Gurdwara. It was because of her charisma that more than 500 of them received Khalsa initiation on April 16, 1976 at the Baisakhi celebration. Principal Satbir Singh honored both of us for our role in the transformation of the Sikh community at Jangpura Extension.

In the beginning of 1977, ‘Bhain ji' accompanied Bhai Jiwan Singh's group (Ragi Jatha) to preach the message of the Gurus in England, Canada and the U.S.A.. Instantly, she became an international celebrity among the diaspora Sikhs. She was much sought after in Sikh congregations.

During her first tour of North America, she organized Sikh youth camps, kirtan programs and delivered lectures in the Sikh congregations. Thereafter, she returned to India.

Meanwhile, Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh ji Yogi was quite impressed by Bibi Jasbir Kaur's sincerity and missionary zeal. He was thinking of bringing her again to North America to teach Punjabi language and Gurbani Kirtan to the newly converted American Sikhs of the 3HO (‘Holy, Healthy and Happy' Organization). With his sponsorship, Bibi Jasbir Kaur reached New Mexico and started teaching her new students from a completely different cultural background. It was quite an experience for her.

Not surprisingly, SatSundri Kaur fondly remembers Bibi Jasbir Kaur's role, when she learnt about her sudden death, on the facebook as follows: "She had such a big role of helping establish Khalsa in the West. In Espanola, many events to remember her gifts this weekend."

Bibi Jasbir Kaur returned to India from New Mexico in 1981 with new experience and excitement. Having seen the ‘world', she was back ‘home' to search for a new project in the service of the Sikh Panth. For the next four years she stayed at home with her parents, spending most of her time in naam simran and reflection.

This was also the time of turmoil for the Sikh Panth, including the tragic events of 1984.

Meanwhile, she came in contact with a Sikh ascetic, Sant Sucha Singh, in the hilly areas of Baru Sahib and brought him to Ludhiana to establish Gurdwara Gur Gian Parkash at Jawaddi Kalan. Instantly, it came to be known as Jawaddi Taksal (‘Mint', i.e., ‘School of Sikh Learning at Jawaddi'). It became the center of activities to revive the original and tradition modes of Sikh spiritual music.

The first Aduti Gurmat Sangeet Sammelan (‘Unique Event to Promote the Gurus' View of Music') was organized in 1991 at Jawaddi Taksal, in which all the classical raags of the Guru Granth Sahib were performed by various raagis.

Ancient tunes of various raags were discussed by a panel of judges who tried to identify the original traditions of singing. There were, of course, some disagreements - for example, on the character of Maru raag. Nevertheless, since then, the performance of the raags of the Guru Granth Sahib, along with ancient folk tunes, has been given a new lease of life

After Sant Sucha Singh's death in 2002, Bibi Jasbir Kaur became the Chairperson of Sri Guru Gian Parkash Foundation, New Delhi, a socio-religious organization which signed a Memorandum of Agreement on March 23, 2003 with Punjabi University, Patiala, to establish the world's first Gurmat Sangeet Chair, with a view to rejuvenating ancient Sikh musical traditions, particularly the revival of the Kirtan Chaunki system at the Darbar Sahib, Amritsar.

In the beginning, the Foundation released a grant of Rs 600,000 out of a total of Rs 9 million, to be mobilized in 15 years for the purpose. Foundation member and University Music department representative, Dr Gurnam Singh, said that "the Chair would start classes in ‘Gurmat Sangeet Kirtan Tradition' up to the post-graduate level. It will impart diploma courses for the kirtan performances in gurdwaras under various teaching programs and research.

On June 20, 2004, the Vice-Chancellor, S.Swarn Singh Boparai and Bibi Jasbir Kaur, jointly laid the foundation stone of the Gurmat Sangeet Bhavan on the Punjabi University campus. Prominent among those present were Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian, Dr. Dalip Kaur Tiwana and Dr H.K. Manmohan Singh, ex-Vice-Chancellor.

In 2006 Bibi Jasbir Kaur organized the biggest Kirtan Darbar at Taran Taran to mark the 400th anniversary of Guru Arjan's Martyrdom. She edited a Simiriti Granth in commemoration of this mega-event. For her selfless service she was honored jointly by the three wings of power structure within the Sikh Panth - the Akal Takht, the S.G.P.C. and the Shiromani Akali Dal. It is no wonder that this honor itself reflected the rise of her status from a ‘Dera Bibi' to an exalted person (‘Bhain ji')

There is a long list of honors she received in her life. She was widely respected by various Sikh sants, Nihang orders, and Sikh academics. At the recommendation of the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Jaspal Singh, she was appointed a member of the Punjabi University Senate in 2008. More recently, the Punjab government honored her on October 31, 2010 with a state award at the "Heritage Festival of Daughters" (Virasati Mela Dheeaan Da) organized jointly by the Punjab Culture Department and Punjab Arts Council of Chandigarh at Ludhiana. This was a public acknowledgement of her unique services to the Panth.

No wonder, lofty tributes were paid to her at her funeral by a long string of the 'high and mighty' of Punjab politics and Sikhdom, along with hundreds of grieving friends and family members. Bhai Nirmal Singh performed the kirtan, while Singh Sahib Giani Tarlochan Singh, Jathedar, Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib, Anandpur, offered the final ardaas. 

In life, Bibi Jasbir Kaur was an inspirational figure to many people across the globe. Her commitment to teaching the ways of the Sikh Gurus to many of us in Asia, Europe, and North America was based on her own endless devotion. Her interest in propagating the original devotional music of the Sikhs (Gurmat Sangeet) inspired the creation of her brain child, the seminal Aduti Gurmat Sangeet Sammelan at Jawaddi Taksal already described above.

Throughout her life, she encouraged us with her wisdom and experience to live with devotion to an honest and spiritual life, imbibing the spirit of the Guru Granth Sahib into our lives.

Bhain ji! You may have left us physically; but your memory lives on forever. We celebrate your life with the spirit of Chardi Kalaa. May Akal Purakh Waheguru bless you with the gift of eternal union and provide comfort to all of us.

dehu dehu sajjan aseesarriaa(n) jiu hovai sahib siu mel ...
"Give me, O give me blessings, dear friends! So, I may have union with the Divine Sovereign!" [Guru Nanak]


The author is Professor and Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of California, Riverside, U.S.A.

Website of Gurmat Sangeet Chair:

February 13, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Baljit Singh (Delhi, India), February 13, 2011, 12:58 PM.

Today I spoke to Dr. Shamsher Singh, Patiala, who was her classmate in Gurmat College. He was all praise for her. She was one of the few ones who was active in promoting Gurmat Sangeet at an academic level.

2: Satkirin Kaur Khalsa (New York, U.S.A.), February 13, 2011, 5:17 PM.

My dear sister of devotion to the Raags of the Guru Granth Sahib: how I will treasure the memory of your service to WaheGuru. And I will miss all the translations that Sri Singh Sahib ji had wanted you to do ... now the work is for others to pick up. God bless your soul in your travels.

3: Gurrinder Singh Atwal (Danville, California, U.S.A.), February 13, 2011, 7:08 PM.

Very inspiring.

4: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), February 13, 2011, 9:24 PM.

For years I have admired the kirtan recordings from Sant Sucha Singh and the Javaddi Taksal but I have to admit my ignorance about the great service and devotion of Bibi Jasbir Kaur to the promotion and tradition of kirtan. Clearly Jasbir Kaur was a pioneer and central figure - indeed had a defining role - in the revival of kirtan. She and her vision will be missed. Dr. Pashaura Singh, thank you for a very informative and inspiring article.

5: Sukhvir Singh Chohan (Canada), February 13, 2011, 11:29 PM.

I met her first at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of the Gurmat Sangeet Chair in Punjabi University, Patiala in 2004. She was indeed a role model and will be remembered by all of us, whom she helped, inspired and taught. She helped our family in very difficult times and gave us moral support after the loss of some one very special to our family. May Waheguru bless her with eternal union.

6: Sukhdev Singh (Portland, U.S.A.), February 14, 2011, 3:41 AM.

Very inspiring and heartfelt thoughts by Prof. Pashaura Singh ji about Bibi Jasbir Kaur ji's life-long devotion to the cause of Guru Gobind Singh ji. Dhan Guru dhan Guru pyaarey.

7: Louis Fenech (Cedar Falls, Iowa, U.S.A.), February 15, 2011, 10:49 AM.

A beautiful eulogy, Prof. Pashaura Singh. I met Bhain ji a number of times and was thoroughly impressed by her. She was a wonderful role model.

8: Gurpreet Singh (London, United Kingdom), February 18, 2011, 4:13 AM.

My family knew you all in Jangpura. You may remember me as the son of 'Doctor Sahib'. Sincere condolences to you all on your loss. I hope her soul will find the peace it deserves.

9: Siri Dartar Singh Khalsa (Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A.), March 01, 2011, 2:05 PM.

I knew, and was one of many that studied with, Jasbir Kaur during her stay in New Mexico. Our paths always crossed in my travels to India. She touched so many people not only in Punjab, but on the western side of the world as well. She touched my life in a big way and was a great inspiration. I was shocked to just now hear of her passing and will miss her greatly. WaheGuru, WaheGuru, WaheGuru ...

10: Gunita Sahni (New Delhi, India), February 09, 2015, 11:34 AM.

Very inspiring and beautiful thought-out and written by Prof Pashaura Singh ji. Whenever I hear the name of our dear Bhain ji, my heart melts. She was truly an inspiring role model. She touched so many hearts. You'll always be in our prayers, Bhain ji.

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