In any oral tradition, some songs travel further than the name of those who wrote them. But an unintentional error in crediting the end title song of the widely watched Amazon Prime Video series Paatal Lok points to a case where the writer deserves to be as widely known as the song, especially since he happens to be a prominent representative of an entire tradition of Dalit Bhakti poetry in Gujarat.

The credit roll is accompanied by a superb rendition of the bhajan Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje by Prahlad Tipaniya, famous for singing Kabir in the Malwi folk tradition. Tipaniya is named in the credits for the song and composition, while the lyrics are attributed to Guru Nanak. This attribution is an error, understandable in the context of the identification of the name Nanak with the founder of Sikhism.

Sakal Hans Mein Raam Viraje.

It is easy to see the reason for the misattribution. In the convention of Bhakti poetry, the last lines register the poet’s name. The bhajan says:

“Guru janhoye to heri lo ghatmein
Bahar sheher mein bhat ko mati
Guru pratap Nanak sahkevarne,
Bhitar bole koi dujonahin”

If you seek the guru, search in your body,
don’t wander aimlessly in the city,
Nanak speaks of the guru’s power:
it speaks within, there’s no other.

(Translation: Linda Hess)

But the rendition of the bhajan did not sound like a verse from the Gurbani and my curiosity led me to try to find out more about the song.

When I asked Madan Gopal Singh, a singer and professor well-versed in Sikhism, about Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje, he confirmed it was not a Guru Nanak composition, nor was it part of the Guru Granth Sahib. In turn he directed me to Shabnam Virmani’s Ajab Shahar – the wondrous city – an online exploration of Kabir and other poets from the Sufi-Bhakti tradition.

A documentary filmmaker and singer, Virmani has for the past 20 years been exploring Kabir and his verses, discovering their resonances in the lives of people. Her site attributes Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje to Nanak Saheb and notes that while little is known about the poet, “he belongs to the Ravibhan Sampradaya, a stream of the Kabir Panth with a large following in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat”.

Virmani told me she had learnt the composition from Prahalad Tipaniya and believed it to a verse of Guru Nanak till she sang it in Gujarat. Hemant Chahuan, a well-known singer from Saurashtra, who was in the audience corrected her and told her about Nanak Das.

“Fifty years ago, everyone in my village Kundani, in the Jasoda taluka, would sing this bhajan and with the same melody as I sing it today,” said Hemant Chauhan, who was given the Ratna Award by the Sangeet Natak Akademi for his contribution to Gujarati music. Chauhan, who comes from a family of singers, says he learnt many Nanak Saheb compositions from the elders in his family.

Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje by Shabnam Virmani.

Another name in the chain that originated with Virmani, Dr Nathalal Gohil, filled in the biographical details on Nanak Saheb. Gohil, a professor at Keshod College in Junagarh, has written extensively on Gujarat’s tradition of “sant-sahitya” (literally poetry by saints, a term used frequently for the Bhakti-era poetry) including a two-volume work titled Gujarat ni Antarchetna.

Nanak Das was born in a village called Digsar in Surendranagar district in 1794. His followers believe that he took samadhi in 1901 at the age of 107. His parents were Krushna Das and mother Amrit Ben, his wife was Gauri Bai, his guru Gang Das. Nanak Vani Vilas is the collection of all the verses attributed to Nanak Das, including Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje.

Context and sociology, Nathalal Gohil felt, were important to understand the significance of poets like Nanak Das, as he led me through another manifestation of the unending hierarchy and complexity of caste. “I come from the same Dalit community as Nanak Saheb, we are the Guru-Brahmins or more commonly achoot-Brahmins [untouchable Brahmins],” he said. It is a term that has persisted even decades after untouchability was declared illegal. The Guru Brahmins, he told me, were so called as their role was to perform the religious rites for some section of the Dalits.

Nurturing a sense of community

Gohil pointed to the centrality of poets such as Nanak Das in creating a sense of self for the community. “For Dalit communities, poets like Nanak Das were a rallying point, bringing a sense of pride and hope, which is why so many Dalits became part of the Ravibhan Sampradaya,” he said. While the followers of this sect cut across castes, the prominence of Dalit saint-poets like Trikam Sahab, Dasi Jeevan, Bhim Sahab and Nanak Sahab in the tradition speaks for itself .

According to Niranjan Rajguru, a scholar and professor of Gujarati literature at Saurasthra University, “Few of Nanak Das’s compositions have been heard outside Gujarat, Sakal Hans is an exception as it was picked up by Prahlad Tipaniya who adapted it into Hindi.”

Rajguru has worked extensively on Gujarat’s folk tradition, and has accumulated hours of recordings in his archives. His home in Ghoghavadar village, in Rajkot district, boasts of a reference library with several books on Gujarat’s sant-sahitya or literature of the sages.

But the lack of recognition of this tradition outside worried him less than what is happening within Gujarat, “In Gujarat, the sant-kavi tradition itself is getting swamped by rigid, more narrow forces.” He feared the meaning of verses themselves was under threat.

“Do remember this bhajan speaks of Ram not as you hear of him today, reduced to being the king of Ayodhya, the son of Dashratha, this is the all-prevailing Ram of Kabir and of the nirgun poets” who were devoted to a formless god, he said.

Sankal Haans Main Shyam Meera Naam Vina Koi Tham Nah.

It was a sentiment repeated by everyone I talked to, and Chauhan, whose voice continues to keep these verses resonant among the public, was no exception. He now lives in Rajkot, and is emphatic about the importance in Gujarat of Nanak Das’s poetry and the larger sant-kavi repertoire, which owes much to Kabir.

“When Nanak Saheb speaks of Ram, or of Chitrakoot, he is not talking of a king, or a pilgrimage spot, he is distilling the message of the nirgun as that which is everywhere but has to found within,” he said.

For Prahlad Tipaniya, the importance of Sakal Hans Mein Ram Biraje lay in this very message, but he was not too concerned with the question of authorship. Speaking of his attribution of the song to Guru Nanak, he said, “I’d heard it sung somewhere, it stayed in my mind and as it said Nanak, I felt it was his.”

Authorship is often a fluid concept in the oral tradition of Bhakti poetry, with songs wandering from region to region, changing notes, words, with verses often hard to authenticate. But everyone I spoke to in Gujarat who identified with the sant-kavi tradition felt that if a poet’s text exists it was important to acknowledge it.

Sakal Hans Ma Ram Hamara by Hemant Chauhan.

For both Gohil and Niranajan Rajguru, the question went beyond the issue of authorship, it was more about acknowledging a tradition, especially at a time when both the poet and the essence of the song were being marginalised.

“I have been invited often by Prahlad ji to sing Kabir and other sant-kavis,” Hemant Chauhan said. “I have sung Sakal Hans for him as well.” He agreed that the composition has become known because of its adaptation by singers like Tipaniya. “The richness of the oral tradition means that compositions would be sung in different ways with different words,” Chauan said. “We sing Sakal Hanse Mein Ram Humara, Tipaniya sahib has made it Sakal Hans Mein Ram Viraje.”

However, he felt, the name of the poet should be remembered. “I wish more people across the country could hear Nanak Sahab in his own language,” Chauhan said. “Such poets ought to be better known, which is why I feel it would be nice to see Sakal Hans attributed to him.”