Taranjiet Singh Namdhari’s documentary Sangeet Saroop Satgur features an illustrious group of Hindustani classical musicians, from sarod player Amjad Ali Khan to tabla artist Zakir Hussain. But the real star of the 160-minute film is Satguru Jagjit Singh, the spiritual leader from the Sikh Namdhari community who was a patron to several renowned classical artists.
Music meant everything to Jagjit Singh, the documentary informs us. “After independence, music came into the democratic domain and the royal patronage ceased to exist,” santoor player Shivkumar Sharma says in the film. “The government did not take any initiative to safeguard the artists or reassure them, neither motivated students to learn – there was no vision. Under these trying circumstances, Satguru ji emerged.”
The documentary reveals how Jagjit Singh, a talented musician himself, built sustained collaborations with artists, organised concerts for them and helped each of their gharanas flourish. The list of artists he worked with is long and celebrated: among them, Amjad Ali Khan, Shivkumar Sharma, Zakir Hussain, the vocalist duo Rajan and Sajan Mishra, kathak veteran Birju Maharaj and vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty.
Jagjit Singh, who died in 2012, also sponsored music and dance lessons for young men and women from the Namdhari community and sent many of them to the homes and schools of his famous artist friends.
Filmmaker Taranjiet Singh, who also hails from the Namdhari community, initially knew of Jagjit Singh only as a spiritual leader. “It was in 2002 when I visited Bhaini Sahib [the headquarters of the Namdhari sect] hoping to make a small documentary about the place that I came across a vast archive of audio and video material related to Jagjit Singh and his relationship with classical music,” Taranjiet Singh told Scroll.in. “I started to then sift through the unclassified material and even had the opportunity of meeting Satguruji. That’s when I realised that there is so much that I don’t know about him. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this documentary. Most of us easily slot such people in the religious genre, but I wanted to bring out this whole other facet that he had – this deep and enriching connection he had to the classical arts.”
Jagjit Singh’s expertise in Hindustani music is evident in the scenes in which he can be seen throwing musical curveballs at his students and sometimes at the artists themselves.
“It was music that brought these artists and Satguruji together,” Taranjiet Singh said. “It was not about him being a spiritual leader or someone who had the resources to organise concerts. The artists and he were talking the same language of music. What he brought to the table was creativity and an environment that was positive and full of energy.”
Taranjiet Singh also interviews many of the artists featured in Jagjit Singh’s recordings. They speak of what the Sikh guru meant for them, both as a patron and a musician.
“When I went to interview Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, I carried the recording of his concert and interaction with Satguruji,” Singh recalled. “The idea was to play it in front of him and get the conversation going. But Sharma didn’t need the recording to remember his interaction with Satguruji. He said there are two ways we can go about this interview – you can play the tape or you can hear me tell you what is in that tape.”
Taranjiet Singh Namdhari is a film editor by training. His credits include Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Mohabbatein (2000). He is also the director of the 2019 film The Great Indian Escape: Khulay Aasman Ki Oar.
His editing skills came in handy while making Sangeet Saroop Satguru. “Unlike the process where you write a screenplay and then you shoot it, here I had material and I had to, as an editor, put it in the format of a screenplay,” he explained. “What was remarkable was that Satguruji himself had the presence of mind back in the 1970s and ’80s to tape the concerts he organised and even the conversations he had with many of the musicians. So my first challenge was to hear and watch all the material that was in front of me and classify it.”
Sangeet Saroop Satgur will soon be released across select cinemas in the country. In September, Singh plans to release a longer version, comprising five 55-minute episodes, on the video sharing platform Vimeo.
“What I want audiences to take away from this film is the idea that here is a working model of musical patronage and learning that can be adapted to other places as well,” Taranjiet Singh said. “If you look at what Satguru ji from a slightly panoramic point of view, the entire endeavour was also about preserving, documenting and nurturing one’s culture. The concerts were all crowdfunded by members of the Namdhari community. Some of them also funded train trips for some of the students to ensure they could learn music in Bombay and other cities. If one person could make this happen, why can’t the others?”