“So kyon visre meri maye” was a Shabad being rendered on radio in a highly emotional tone and texture by an unheard of but extraordinary singer.
This highly cultured voice completely mesmerized me when I tuned into All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar one day way back in 1952. Later on, a voice-over announced: “You have just heard the voice of Bhai Samund Singh Ragi singing a Shabad”.
My father, during the years of his college education, had heard this
magical and emotive voice for the first time in the mid-1920’s at
Gurdwara Janam Asthan Sri Nankana Sahib, during the marathon
celebrations of the Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak. Since that moment,
my father, the Late Sardar Sochet Singh, became a lifelong admirer of
Bhai Samund Singh. With extreme reverence, my father would refer to Bhai
Samund Singh as a Samundar of Gurmat Sangeet (an ocean of Sikh Religious Music).
In my case, too, from that ominous morning of 1952, even I became a big fan of the sweet, melodious and enchanting voice of Bhai Samund Singh. Whenever he happened to visit the studios of All India Radio Jalandhar, he was accorded the respect he amply deserved.
The authorities of All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar fixed Friday of every week for Shabad Kirtan programmes at the radio station. Bhai Samund Singh was invited at least once every fortnight to perform live at Punjab’s only radio station.
This radio station had a large number of its own musical instruments, including several tanpuras (a string instrument which accompanies every Sikh and sub-continental classical musician during the rendition of classical numbers).
Bhai Samund Singh and Master Rattan of Phagwara were always requested to choose any one of the tanpuras for accompaniment, while most other musicians had to bring their own tanpuras.
One of the staff artists, an accomplished clarinet player, had become a big fan of Bhai Samund Singh. He was always insistent of accompanying Bhai Sahib during his Shabad Kirtan. Similarly, a violinist also was always eager to play his instrument with Bhai Sahib.
These facts and several others were told to me by the late Sardar Jodh Singh, retired Assistant Station Director of All India Radio Jalandhar. During the twice-a-month visits to the radio station, Sardar Jodh Singh almost invariably invited Bhai Samund Singh to have lunch at his residence. They remained very good lifelong friends.
Sardar Jodh Singh also told me that the ancestry and relatives of Bhai Samund Singh hailed from the districts of Sheikhupura, Gujjranwala, Lyallpur and Montgomery. Sardar Jodh Singh himself belonged to Gujjranwala district but, before independence and the tragic Partition of Punjab, he served as a head-master at Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) in West Punjab.
According to him, strict spiritual discipline (nitnem) and regular riyaz (practice) of the raags was a hallmark of Bhai Samund Singh’s lifestyle from childhood onwards.
Bhai Samund Singh was born in 1900 in a relatively unknown village called Mulla Hamza in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) district of West Punjab.
This district was famous for its wealthy Sikh farming community and was one of the favoured districts of the British rulers. Although the Sikhs constituted barely ten percent of the population of that district, yet financially they were very well off and controlled the economy of the area.
Sikhism was thriving in this area of Multan division. Several Hindu families of the area used to convert their elder son to Sikhism. One of the role-models for the Sikh community of the area was the family of Bhai Huzoor Singh, the illustrious father of Bhai Samund Singh.
When young Samund was still very young, between the age of six to ten, Bhai Hazoor Singh had set a vigorous training regime for him. He was made to learn Japji Sahib and Rehraas by heart by the time he turned ten.
By the age of twelve, Samund Singh had learnt at least a thousand Shabads from the Guru Granth by heart. He had also undergone a proper introductory training in several commonly sung Gurmat and other ragas by that age.
Thenceforth, training in the raags and mastering their technique became a lifelong obsession for the young musician. Even while lying in bed, he would have his tanpura by his side. He experimented with singing each Shabad in several raags and taals (beats). Some of the raags were prescribed in the Guru Granth, others were similar in “thath” and some were purely based on the time of the day and mood when the verse was being sung.
The family lived and served in the historic shrines at Nankana Sahib (the birth place of Guru Nanak, located in the Sheikhpura district of Lahore Division) and the neighbourhood. At the age of twelve, Samund Singh would perform at least one of the several “chowkis” of Shabad Kirtan performed every day at Gurdwara Nankana Sahib.
The then hereditary managers of the shrine were called “mahants”. They had a host of failings which have been highlighted in several written documents and several weaknesses in their opulent lifestyles, but they had something good also to their credit. They were quite knowledgeable about Sikh religious music.
They knew the correct structure of the raags and they could quickly distinguish between an accomplished raagi and one who wasn’t. One such manager discovered the extraordinary talent in young Samund Singh and offered him a permanent position as “hazuri kirtania” at the famous Sikh shrine.
Before the Partition of Punjab, two historic shrines were especially known for their fine traditions of Gurmat Sangeet. One such shrine was the Durbar Sahib in Amritsar and the other was Nankana Sahib.
The Dhrupad style of Gurmat Sangeet, prevalent during the time of the Gurus, attained its peak in the Durbar Sahib during the time of Guru Arjan and the decades following.
The Khayal Shelley of Shabad Kirtan started taking shape during the time of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, but in Punjab it attained its peak during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Bhai Samund Singh was essentially an exponent of the Khayal Shelley school of Shabad Kirtan. He did sing some Dhrupads too, which, due to his great voice and easy modulation, were considered masterpieces.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of the rababi kirtanyas had mastered the Khayal Shelley tradition, but somehow they had the tendency of extending the khayal format too long and wide by starting with a long alaap (without starting the drum beat) and gradually going into jorh alaap (including drumbeat), before starting the rendition of the Shabad in vilambhat lai (slow tempo) and then warming up to madh lai (medium tempo) and finally going into the fast climax tempo called dhrutt lai.
While doing the dhrutt lai, many times the wording of the Gurbani became less unclear.
Bhai Samund Singh, on the other hand, gave utmost importance to the clarity of the words of Gurbani. He mastered a new format. After a short alaap, he used to go directly into the madh lai and completed the entire Shabad in the same tempo.
Most of the time, he completely omitted the dhrutt lai. This resulted in a marked clarity in the words, which was also the aim of the Guru Sahibaan. Bhai Samund Singh’s style of rendition was named Chhota Raaga Shelley. In spite of his innovation, the rababi kirtanias continued to follow the longer Khayal Shelley format.
The rababis would indulge in a lot of unnecessary exhibition of their skills during rendition. This was called taan paltas. But this kind of practice was alien to Bhai Samund Singh. For him, his ultimate master, the Guru, was supreme and the raag was subservient to the Guru’s message.
From 1912 onwards up to August 1947, Bhai Samund Singh served as a hazoori ragi. After 1935, he became the leading hazoori raagi at the Janam Asthan.
During his service at Nankana Sahib, he came in contact with a number of kirtanias of fame. A number of them were rababis – descendants of Bhai Mardana, who accompanied Guru Nanak on the latter’s far-flung travels, with a rabab – who were considered masters of the art of North Indian Classical Music. His interaction with them was extremely useful to him, as well as to them. Each one was learning something new from the vast reservoir of knowledge attained by the other.
Among some of his contemporary rababis were Bhai Tana Singh, Bhai Gurmukh Singh Fakkar, Bhai Sarmukh Singh Fakkar, Bhai Pall Singh and Bhai Jaswant Singh, to name a few.
Some rababis had retained their Islamic names and were not practicing Sikhs. They included Bhai Naseera, Bhai Sudarshan and Bhai Rashida. On special occasions, some rababis used to come from Amritsar to perform at various gurdwaras in Nankana Sahib. They included Bhai Chanan, Bhai Mehar, Bhai Faiz, Bhai Lal, Bhai Chand and Bhai Taba.
In 1925, through British-Indian legislation, the duly elected Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) came into existence. It was headquartered in the Darbar Sahib Complex in Amritsar and it had jurisdiction over most of the historic Sikh shrines located in the Provinces of Punjab and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), including Nankana Sahib.
The new committee quickly went to work and made several changes, including the rotation of raagi jathaas from one historic shrine to the other. During this time, Bhai Samund Singh also started traveling a lot. The rich Sikh sangat of Lyallpur, Sri Ganganagar and Montgomery was always pleased to invite Bhai Samund Singhi to perform Shabad Kirtan in the local gurdwaras at Lyallpur, Montgomery, Sri Ganganagar, Tobha Tek Singh, Samundri, Okarha, Mandi Burewal and Gojra, to name a few.
There were some very staunch Sikhs living in far-flung areas of North West Frontier Province, Balochistan and Sindh. They would also invite Bhai Samund Singh to their gurdwaras. This spread his name and fame in far away places. Members of the Sikh community wherever he went gave him a lot of love and respect.
At Nankana Sahib, the longest and the most demanding Shabad chowki was for the singing of the morning’s Asa di Vaar. Starting well before sunrise and ending at dawn, it lasted at least two hours. After 1935, Bhai Samund Singh was accorded more slots each month to perform it.
He discharged this duty with utmost devotion and reverence. He mastered the technique of the rendering of “Asraje Tunde Di Dhuni” to perfection. I have heard Asa di Vaar sung by Bhai Santa Singh, Bhai Samund Singh and Bhai Budh Singh Taan. As far as the “Asraje Tunde Di Dhuni” is concerned, all three are quite identical. Bhai Santa Singh’s tempo was slightly faster. If we listen to the present-day kirtanias at the Darbar Sahib, we see that there is no standardization of “Asraje Tunde Di Dhuni” anymore. Bhai Samund Singh was very particular about the timing of the raag. He rarely made a variation from the strict time regime of the raags.
All India Radio Lahore, the then sole radio station in Punjab, opened in a state of the art studio complex in 1937. This radio station needed a host of artists of all kinds. In the religious category they needed “Muslim Naat” and “Qawali” singers, “Sikh Gurmat Sangeet” singers and “Hindu Bhajan” singers. Bhai Samund Singh of Nankana Sahib and Bhai Santa Singh of the the Darbar Sahib were approved as the staff artists in the very first year.
Soon they both attained the “A Class” in their category. These two stalwarts had contrasting styles. Bhai Santa Singh sang invariably in very high notes, but Bhai Samund Singh always sang in a completely relaxed style in all kinds of notes, and seldom went into the highest notes. Bhai Santa Singh mostly sang in Kehrwa Taal and laid most stress on his highly cultured voice, but Bhai Samund Singh used most of the taals used by the contemporary and old Sikh musicians.
Through prolonged riyaz, Bhai Samund Singh had developed such a fine murki in his voice that he could render the most difficult modulations with perfect ease. A lot of musicians tried to imitate him, but could not.
At All India Radio Lahore, Bhai Samund Singh came in contact with all-time great maestros like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, Dalip Singh Bedi, Barqat Ali Khan, Din Mohammad, Kallan Khan, Harish Chander Bali and Master Rattan. Between performances and afterwards, they used to run into each other. Each one of them was not afraid of asking the other about the finer points of classical music. These discussions sometimes led to heated discussions, too, but soon every difference of opinion used to be resolved amicably.
Bhai Samund Singh used to commute at least once every month to Lahore from Nankana Sahib. In the same way, Bhai Santa Singh used to commute from Amritsar to Lahore. Bhai Sudh Singh and Pradhan Singh were also later on approved as radio singers. A local artist, Bhai Budh Singh Taan was the only approved radio singer, who used to perform Shabad Kirtan as a solo artist.
While in Lahore, Bhai Samund Singh used to stay overnight at Gurdwara Dehra Sahib and used to perform a chowki there. Whenever Bhai Samund Singh’s voice was heard over the airwaves, the evening crowds at Dehra Sahib would invariably swell to several times the normal attendance.
Among the listeners would be a large number of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Music Director Vinod was one of the Christians who used to listen to Bhai Samund Singh at Dehra Sahib.
In order to stay within their time constraints, All India Radio Lahore used to determine the time limit of the Shabad to be sung. Bhai Samund Singh, during rehearsal, used to sing each stanza at least once and if he could not complete the entire Shabad within the stipulated time slot, he would refuse to sing that Shabad for the radio. It principle was to not leave any part of a Shabad unsung. His strict Gurmat principles were always his strength and the authorities of All India Radio never defied him.
On the radio, Bhai Samund Singh would utilize the minimum possible time for singing Shabads, but while performing in the gurdwaras, he was more relaxed and he took more time to sing the same Shabad, doing full justice to each elahi (Godly) word.
He was against having katha (a lecture or discourse) while doing kirtan. Bhai Vir Singh, the great poet laureate of Punjabi, was very much opposed to katha by kirtanias. He (Bhai Vir Singh) believed that katha should be the domain of the kathakars (interpreters of the Guru’s word), as much as the kathakars should leave the art of singing of the Shabad to the kirtanias. Each can do a better job in his/her field of specialty.
Bhai Samund Singh agreed with Bhai Vir Singh’s advice.
Thumri is a semi-classical form of classical music. It took concrete shape during mid-nineteenth century. It conveys, in a most effective manner, the subtle emotions of love, devotion and the pangs of separation from the lover.
Gurbani, too, has numerous Shabads conveying similar emotions; the only difference being that in Gurbani, love and devotion are directed towards The Almighty.
The thumri had not been a form of music in Punjab until the second decade of the twentieth century. In fact, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, a contemporary and a good personal friend of Bhai Samund Singh, perfected the Punjabi version of singing of thumri during the nineteen thirties and forties. He recorded his best renditions of thumris in the 1940s.
Bhai Samund Singh selectively adopted the thumri style, and this innovation found its acceptance by the Sikhs in overwhelming numbers. Some of such Shabads were originally sung at All India Radio Lahore. During those days, tape recordings and transcripts of programmes were not made by All India Radio, hence none of them are available any more.
Bhai Gurmeet Singh Shant of Jalandhar has in recent years adopted the thumri for some of his tunes and the Sikh community has welcomed them.
It was the communal frenzy and bloodshed of horrific proportions at the time of creation of Pakistan that led the family of Bhai Samund Singh to leave their ancestral homes and hearths for good and migrate to the holy city of Amritsar. Such decisions are rather tough to make, especially when you have spent your entire life serving at the birthplace of the founder of your faith.
Soon after independence and the Partition of Punjab into Indian (East) Punjab and Pakistani (West) Punjab), Bhai Samund Singh camped in Amritsar, where he took on the position of Hazuri Raagi at the Darbar Sahib. Another brilliant contemporary of his, Bhai Chand (a Rababi Muslim kirtania) was still serving at the Darbar Sahib, but was ready to leave for Pakistan.
After going to Pakistan, Bhai Chand became a lonely and disgraced person, who eventually could not adjust to his new circumstances. Eventually frustratyed and financially broken, he tragically committed suicide.
Within a couple of years, Bhai Samund Singh decided to become a freelance raagi and shifted his residence to Ludhiana, where he lived for the rest of his life.
He became an “A Class” artist of All India Radio Jalandhar-Amritsar, when this newly established radio station was commissioned in 1948. Most of the staff at this radio station had migrated from West Punjab and some had already served at All India Radio Lahore.
For a short while, Sardar Kartar Singh Duggal, a veteran from All India Radio Lahore and Peshawar, served as a top official at this radio station. Sardar Jodh Singh, a refugee from Lyallpur and Gujjranwala, also joined as a producer of programmes in Punjabi at this new radio station.
Bhai Samund Singh was the most revered religious and classical musician at this station. Occasionally, he was also asked to perform at the Delhi and Lucknow stations of All India Radio.
Once while at the Delhi radio station, his talent caught the attention of the experts of classical music in the nation‘s capital. On their recommendation, Bhai Samund Singh got the unique distinction of becoming the first Sikh religious classical musician to perform a one and a half hour long live programme in the prestigious “Weekly Akhil Bharatiya Programme of Classical Music” on a Saturday evening.
This special had a record listenership. He performed so well and with such a remarkable ease that at the end of the programme, he was given a big ovation by all. After that, he started performing more frequently at All India Radio Delhi and other regional stations.
The Chief Khalsa Diwan in Amritsar, the premier institution that established the Khalsa College Amritsar and several other Sikh educational institutions, used to hold annual Sikh Educational Conferences. Bhai Samund Singh was always an invitee in those conferences and he invariably was the official kirtania.
During the 1969 quincentennial celebration of the birth of Guru Nanak, a set of five long-playing records were released and Bhai Samund Singh was the most prominent singer featured on this one-of-a-kind set of records.
While serving in Nankana Sahib and singing in Lahore, Bhai Samund Singh was reluctant to allow cutting of gramophone discs of Shabads rendered by him, but during the 1960s, his voice was featured prominently on several 33-rpm LP (long-playing) records. Some of his All India Radio performances were also recorded on professional fast-speed tapes.
During the 1960s, Prof. Taaran Singh, one of the heads of departments at the Punjabi University in Patiala, wanted to record Shabad Kirtan in original vintage tunes by the great masters of Sikh religious music. He got especially worried after the untimely death of Bhai Santa Singh ji at age 62 in 1966.
After obtaining due permission from the then Vice-Chancellor of the university, he got the project going. Among the first raagis he requested to record in their original reets was Bhai Samund Singh ji. Others included Bhai Dharam Singh Zakhmi.
Bhai Samund Singh recorded several Shabads in his inimitable style. Later on, he suggested that Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, the illustrious sons of the late Bhai Jawala Singh of Sultanpur Lodhi, had a vast reservoir of Gurmat Sangeet in ancient Dhrupadand Dhamarstyles, and recommended that it deserved preservation.
On this suggestion, Prof. Taaran Singh requested Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh, who were at that time serving in various historic gurdwaras of Delhi, to record in their original tunes for the Punjabi University Library at Patiala.
Both Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh told me that they recorded over five hundred vintage tunes of Shabad Kirtan in their voices, accompanied by tanpura.
To the best of my knowledge, neither the recordings of Bhai Samund Singh nor the recordings of Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh are now available with the university. Such is the pathetic state of storage and preservation in our Indian universities today!
Sohan Singh Misha, a brilliant poet of Punjabi and an academician, served All India Radio Jalandhar in various capacities. Due to his brilliance, he rose to become the second senior-most official at this capital station. He was a blunt talker, too. Once he told me that he shuns religious activity in any form, but when Bhai Samund Singh sings, he (Sohan Singh) is transported into a world of ecstasy and romanticism rarely experienced otherwise.
He also told me once that it would have been better if Bhai Samund Singh would have been a Ghazal singer, too, and he (Sohan Singh) would have composed some very soulful verses for him. I advised him not to share these thoughts with Bhai Samund Singh, since he is a deeply pious man, and would be hurt by his “frivolities”.
Those Pakistani Muslims who had heard Bhai Samund Singh over the airwaves before the Partition of Punjab used to tune in to All India Radio Jalandhar to especially listen to his seasoned voice. All India Radio Jalandhar used to receive hundreds of letters from his fans from both sides of the new border.
A famous music director from Bollywood, Mohinder Singh Sarna – popularly known as “S. Mohinder” – told me that he owed his career as a music director to Bhai Samund Singh. When he (Mohinder) was a child, his father was posted as a prosecuting inspector in Lyallpur, where he was initiated into classical music by the late Sant Sujan Singh, a decendant of Baba Nand Singh. Later on, his father was posted at Sheikhpura and he came into contact with Bhai Samund Singh at the nearby town of Nankana Sahib.
Here, young Mohinder became a pupil of Bhai Samund Singh, who taught him the basics of several commonly used classical raags. They became a stepping stone for S. Mohinder in becoming a full-fledged Bollywood music director later in life.
The Punjabi film, Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai, was made in 1969 and was accorded the President of India’s All India Gold Medal for excellence in film music. Although Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle also sang for this film, the most revered singer in the award-winning film was undoubtedly Bhai Samund Singh. Bhai Samund Singh’s voice in the raags of his choice was most prominently featured in two Shabads sung for this film.
Towards the end of 1971, Bhai Samund Singh was a very sad grand old man of Sikh religious music. Public taste of the Sikh community had deteriorated significantly. Mediocrity had taken hold in popular kirtan and those who had struggled hard to hone their skills in the raags were being short-changed. Even the authorities running the historic Sikh shrines were quite indifferent to the merit of the hazoori raagis.
In January 1972, after a bout with ill health, Bhai Samund Singh left for his heavenly abode.
When Bhai Avtar Singh, Gurcharan Singh and Swaran Singh went to see him during his final days, in frustration Bhai Samund Singh told them that the golden days of good musicians are over. The SGPC is recruiting mediocre raagis and even the sangat is giving more importance to them at the expense of good ones.
All India Radio has been quite irresponsible in preserving Bhai Samund Singh’s voice. Hundreds of hours of his tape recordings were lying unprotected in the storage of All India Radio Jalandhar. Some of these tapes were later erased to be used for recording music of other, new artists.
After his death, when the authorities of The Punjab and Sind Bank approached All India Radio Jalandhar to make available all old recordings of Bhai Samund Singh for preserving his voice on long-playing records, they were given recordings for one and a half hour only. Rest of his music had been destroyed, due to callous negligence and lack of professionalism.
If all his recordings would have been preserved, we could listen to hundreds of hours of his finest renditions. His famous recording of Asa di Vaar by All India Radio Jalandhar has also been lost forever.
On the one hand, the “Hindustan Recording Company of Calcutta” has preserved the entire recording of the music of K.L. Saigal. On the other, Sikhs have lost almost the entire treasure of the voice of Bhai Samund Singh forever.
by HARJAP SINGH AUJLA [Courtesy: South Asia Post]