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Bursts of Song and Music Help Revive Bhai Baldeep Singh's Qila Sarai





The edifice of the historical Qila Sarai made of Nanakshahi bricks is crumbling. So is the famous Lahori gate within, despite its unimaginative Public Works Department kind of restoration, which lends it a strange hybridized identity.

The qila (fort), caught in the maze of bureaucratic files and delays, needs a retaining wall - not of cement and concrete but of a strong and resilient will to revive and retain its cultural legacy.

The qila resonates with history and a legacy of traditional music. Despite political apathy, it turns out that people of the town and adjoining villages have taken it upon themselves to turn the endeavour of a cultural revival, initiated by Bhai Baldeep Singh's Anad Conservatory, into a success.

Harbhajan Kaur and over a dozen other Sikhs who have travelled from different continents, have been living inside the qila for the last two weeks. They feel they are receiving music in a completely cultural context.

“Most of us who have been fortunate to receive lessons in traditional gurbani kirtan twice a year from Bhai Baldeep Singh in U.S.A. or Canada for the last 15 years, have discovered so many other cultural dimensions of this music here,” says Nirvair Kaur from Arizona.

She plays the taus, until recently an almost extinct stringed instrument, originally played by the Sikh Gurus. Geographical distance from her cultural moorings does not deter her.

“I do my riyaaz everyday, and sing kirtan with the community,” she says.

Her daughter, Niranjan Kaur, a Fulbright scholar, who is working on Dagarbani for her Ph D at the University of Michigan, U.S.A., is among the few women who have ever played the Amritsari pakhawaj.

She has come with her toddler daughter. The locals have made room in their homes for women with young children.

“We have eaten 30 meals that have come from 30 different homes, from far off villages - it’s a cultural immersion for us, one that is musical,” says Nirvair Kaur

Siri Ram Kaur Khalsa, a Sardarni of Italian origin, sings gurbani kirtan with her two young daughters, Dev Swarup Kaur and Sant Kaur, 13 and 10, who also play the pakhawaj.

Ram Kaur began getting lessons in naad yog in Italy and gradually discovered, she explains, “the energy of singing kirtan”.

Her daughters are drawn to the music and sing kirtan of their own volition.

Harbhajan Kaur says she never felt like a Catholic, the religion she was born into. She had been an opera, rock and jazz singer and played the guitar, but fell in love with kirtan the moment she heard it first.

“I liked the poetry of shabads. There is no duality in this literature. We began by singing translations of the kirtan, and moved on to transliterations,” she says.

For senior musicians like her, learning another discipline of music has not been a cake-walk.

“Moreover Bhai Baldeep Singh ji did everything to instil in us humility, so we could sing kirtan,” she adds.

Sat Kirtan Kaur from California agrees. She too had been a piano and violin player. First, the religion changed her, under the very exacting Bhai Harbhajan Singh Yogi who made them believe in the virtues of going through hardships, and then music. Then, the two blended. “It’s a musical religion for us,” she says with a smile.

But Harbhajan Kaur finds herself especially blessed. Her teacher, Bhai Baldeep Singh, is going to gift her a rebab, handcrafted by him, at the same venue where Guru Nanak had blessed Bhai Mardana with the gift of strings to help him blossom in the music of his soul.

But that was five centuries ago.

In the jet age, Harbhajan Kaur and other devotees of Sikh devotional music have travelled from Italy, U.S.A., Canada and the U.K. to discover the source of the musical fountain they so love.

“A renaissance is happening here because everything is musical; the trees, birds and people, who overcome barriers of language with hugs and love. Where else would such music have originated?” wonders Harbhajan Kaur.

For his part, Bhai Baldeep Singh says musical talent is of secondary relevance to him. Though all of them are musicians trained in western music, what matters to him is seriousness of the quest and purity.

“The purpose of this music is not to turn one into a fine musician alone. The purpose is to help one evolve into a better human being,” he says.

His students agree. And they feel the place is meant for “finding possibilities”. As if to echo their thoughts, a bird begins to sing, perched on a unique tree in the sarai, which has both neem and peepal sprouting out of one stem.


On Saturday, February 18, 2012, the students of Bhai Baldeep Singh and his Manganiar proteges presented gurbani kirtan in a programme titled "Reviving The Spirit" at an open air theatre, Naya Sudhaar Ghar (New Prison) at Kapurthala.

The jail houses  1733 inmates, mostly those awaiting trial. About 100 of them are women.

The inmates had never had such an experience and listened to the introduction of the musical instruments and the intricacies of Sikh classical music, as explained by Bhai Baldeep Singh, with rapt attention. They were coaxed by him to join in the singing and they obliged, albeit hestitatingly, from time to time. The Deputy General of Police (Prisons), Shashi Kant, said: "Music sublimates, and this music certainly does so to the entire place."    


[Courtesy: Tribune. Edited for]

February 22, 2012


Conversation about this article

1: Raj (Canada), February 22, 2012, 10:57 AM.

Yesterday, the same DGP Shashi Kant was "taught" a lesson by the "Sikh Akali" Minister by removing his security cover for making a statement that an evil axis of drug mafia and politicians are responsible for drugs in jails.

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