On the highway leading to Ludhiana, when you turn on the road leading to Bhaini Sahib, the view on both sides is the typical scenery of Punjab – mustard flowers and green fields. It is the sound that sets it apart.

Residents of this town, the headquarter of the over 150-year-old Namdhari sect, awaken to the melodious strains of musical instruments. Asa ki Baar, or the time of hope, is when early morning prayers are recited from the Guru Granth Sahib, sung to the accompaniment of the dilruba, rebab and tar shehnai. Both the dilruba and tar shehnai have frets, like sitars, but are bowed, while the rebab is plucked.

Loudspeakers are not used in Bhaini Sahib, but each occasion is celebrated with the music prescribed for that particular time – births, weddings, even deaths. People respect the subtleties of sound because of their reverence for music.

Punjab, known for its rambunctious bhangra-pop numbers, offers fine-tuned notes in this small commune, where the sanctity of music is preserved in its classical form, as a means to attain the sublime. At any time, about 70 young and not so young students can be seen practicing an instrument or classical vocal music at the music academy. Satguru Jagjit Singh, the late head of the Namdhari sect and an accomplished musician himself, ensured that each Namdhari developed an ear for music, by encouraging the talented ones and sending the gifted ones to live with maestros across world, so they may excel.

“If I had to struggle for my bread and butter, I wouldn’t be pursuing such intricacies of music,” said Rajesh Malaviya, a student of Ustad Zakir Hussain, who has been teaching tabla and pakhawaj at Bhaini Sahib since 1992. His 16-year-old daughter Ratna is deft at playing the sitar and six-year-old Ragini is learning to play the dilruba, on an instrument customised to suit her size.

Malaviya is a Hindu – students come to Bhaini Sahib across castes, creeds and classes, some travelling long distances. Everyone is offered the gift of music, free of cost, and free meals from the community kitchen. Food, shelter and other needs of the gifted musicians are taken care of by the community. In December 2012, Sadguru Jagjit Singh passed away, leaving behind a bitter feud for succession, which some say led to the tragic murder of his wife Chand Kaur in April 2016. Despite all the turmoil, the music goes on.

“There are things that surround us from all sides,” said Gurdayal Singh, a vocalist and sitarist who recently became a shagird, or disciple, of Ustad Shahid Parvez. “Music consoles us, but his genius is missed. The tradition has to go on.”

A young girl plays her customised sitar. Image credit: V Dikshit
A young girl plays her customised sitar. Image credit: V Dikshit

A musical light house

The community at Bhaini Sahib has had to strive to preserve the musical symphony of the land. It held strong as all the four major gharanas of Punjab – Kapurthala, Sham Chaurasia, Haryana Dhunga and Talwandi – disappeared with few traces after Partition.

These gharanas had flourished when the stalwarts of music migrated from Delhi, after the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century. They sought patronage in the riyasats of Punjab region (which spread from Rawalpindi to Shimla), ruled by the Sikh kings. The Gurbani kirtan was performed in pure ragas and talas, as prescribed in the Guru Granth Sahib, mostly in dhrupad style, to the accompaniment of stringed instruments like the rebab, dilruba, sarod taus and pakhawaj for percussion. Hence, gharanas in Punjab developed an acumen, not just in vocal renditions, but also in stringed instruments and percussion which evolved to reach an inimitable level of perfection.

Kirtan played a vital role in the propagation of dhrupad gayaki or singing, but the Partition caused an irreparable loss to the traditions of dhrupad gayaki, Gurbani kirtan, stringed instruments and Punjab pakhawaj.

Around Partition, when communal tensions had engulfed the region, the most well-known musicians were Muslims and their patrons the Sikhs. The communal mass migration harmed artists, causing damage to traditional music.

In the tumult that followed, priorities changed. When sheer survival was a challenge, all arts took a back seat. The governments of both nations could not pay attention to the rich traditions of music, unique to the now-divided land, even once things became normal.

The Green Revolution turned Punjab into one of the most prosperous states, but the cultural impoverishment, caused due to the Partition, never received the attention it deserved. The loss of musical traditions of Punjab is the sad tale of brilliance earned through generations of hard work and dedication turned to naught.

A swami and his disciples

Swami Haridas, a saint musician of the 16th century, said to be a disciple of Bhai Mardana, the rebab player who accompanied Guru Nanak, was a great dhrupad singer who trained great musicians like Baiju, Tansen, Diwakar Pandit and Somnath Pandit. Of these, Diwakar Pandit (Suraj Khan) and Sudhakar Pandit (Chand Khan) settled in Punjab and gave birth to four gharanas: Talwandi, Sham Chaurasia, Kapurthala and Haryana Dhunga.

Late Satguru Jagjit Singh holding a class.
Late Satguru Jagjit Singh holding a class.

Unfortunately, the dhrupad kirtan of Talwandi gharana is almost defunct, sustained only by the few who practice it at Bhaini Sahib. At the time of Partition, the gharana was headed by the great dhrupad singer Malikzada Mian Mehar Ali Khan. Along with his uncle and father-in-law, he had migrated to Lyallpur (now in Pakistan), at the invitation of a wealthy Sikh patron. But when the patron, Sardar Harcharan Singh, migrated to India, the family of the great dhrupad singers was left to eke out a living by doing odd menial jobs.

The now almost-forgotten tradition of Kapurthala began in 1858, when a descendant of Mian Tansen was brought to Kapurthala by Kanwar Bikrama Singh, a patron of the arts. In an interview, the late Ustad Vilayat Khan once said: People are ignorant of the fact that there is a mazaar of Mir Nasir Ahmed, the founder of Kapurthala tradition, in the town. The mazaar is hard to locate now.

The name Shamchaurasi comes from a small town in Hoshiapur district. Like the artistes of Talwandi gharana, the Shamchaurasi gharana also claims its descent from the founder of Talwandi gharana, Ustad Suraj Khan and Chand Khan. Though the roots of these two gharanas were the same, they developed into two distinct streams.

While Master Ratan of Phagwara made a name for himself, the gharana could never get over losing the legendary jugalbandi singers Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali, whose effortless rendering of khayals was unparalleled, to Pakistan. Shamchaurasi gharana lost its identity for want of representatives, on this side of the border.

The gharanas that survived the violent times, had to adapt to changing tastes.

The singers of Sham Chaurasia gharana, and Patiala Kasoor (Kasoor, in Pakistan) gharana, for instance, adapted to khayal with the changing times, as against the dhrupad gayaki that had been the norm for so long. Founded by Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Ali Baksh Khan at Kasoor (now in Pakistan), and patronised by the royalty of Patiala, the Patiala Kasoor gharana still retains its distinct identity in public memory. The popularity earned by late Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, though, has not been touched by his descendants, who also rendered semi-classical genres like thumri, tappa and dadra with equal élan. The style known for its rich embellishment gained popularity for the rendering of intricate but effortless taans.

Sounds of peace

“If music was taught in each household, such violence would not have taken place during the partition,” the late Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had observed. Khan chose to settle in Bombay and later Calcutta, when he returned disillusioned from Lahore in 1957.

Professor Arvind Sharma, from the Department of Music at Panjab University, Chandigarh, said that several artistes left the state after Partition, because there was no opportunity for their artistic growth. Artistes from other states did not come to Punjab either, to contribute to its cultural growth, the way late Kumar Gandharva had chosen to live in Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh, and enrich the cultural landscape of the state.

Traditional festivals that had strengthened the cultural fabric of the region were usurped by politicians for hosting political rallies. Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan is the only festival of classical music in Punjab and manages to invite young and old artistes in equal measure.

Children performing on stage, most of them play the dilruba. Image credit: V Dikshit
Children performing on stage, most of them play the dilruba. Image credit: V Dikshit

When you see nine- to twelve-year-olds play taal in quarter and three quarter beats (pauna and savaya matra) with ease, or watch their effortless rendering of rare ragas on instruments thought to be extinct at Bhaini Sahib, a flicker of hope returns.

Harjinder Singh, a disciple of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who plays the sarod and five different types of rebab, doesn’t take credit for his art. “Traditional kirtan was done on the accompaniment of saranda and rabab, our Satguru took great pains to get the rebabs made in their original form,” he said. “He tracked down old rababis and pakhawajis in Pakistan, who helped us preserve the art. We hope to carry it forward.”

When a group of young girls dressed in white struck a note before rendering raga Megh, it gives you goosebumps.

A class in progress, girls practising the dilruba . Image credit: V Dikshit
A class in progress, girls practising the dilruba . Image credit: V Dikshit