In Sultanpur Lodhi we met for twelve days to sing kirtan and to support the work Bhai Baldeep Singh is doing there to transform an old fort into a conservatory of music, culture and tradition. The community welcomed us and we visited in many homes in town and in the villages where we were greeted with flowers, fruits, warm hugs and feasts of delicious Punjabi dishes.
We also sang at a television station, a prison, a home program, and a cow shāla. All of these were unique experiences. For the television program, Bhai Baldeep was joined on stage by a diverse group of men and women who came together to sing kirtan. The variety of instruments and headdresses illustrated the presence of Muslim and Hindu musicians along with Sikhs from various communities and countries, a colorful garden singing in rāga basant, “The sky blooms, the earth blooms, the Lord King blooms in eternal love, everywhere you look. The Vedas bloom, the Smritis bloom, the Bible and Koran bloom. Shiva blooms in yoga and meditation, Kabir’s master is in everything just the same.” When this program airs, the viewers will see something very different than the usual image of matching rāgis with harmonium and tabla. The listeners will hear a new sound that is also very old, when they hear rāg basant delivered by Bhai Baldeep Singh, accompanied by stringed instruments and Parminder Singh Bhamra on pakhāwaj.
At the prison, we looked out from the stage at bleachers filled with inmates, official guests and prison workers. Bhai Baldeep reminded the group gathered there that he, too, is a prisoner of the mortal body and it’s five wardens. He sang, spoke and joked with the “captive audience” who were treated to a program unlike any they had seen before. The jailers and jailed even joined in singing moko tārle rām. “Swim me across, Lord, I’m ignorant and know nothing about swimming, Dear Father, give me your hand”. The program was an oasis of beauty in a stark, grey, concrete world. The posters and invitations had named the program, “Reviving the Spirit”, and judging by the laughter and spontaneous rounds of “Bole Sone Hāl” from the stands, it seems to have done just that.
Almost every day we had one or more meals in homes in the community. Often the Manganiar boys from Rajasthan would be asked to perform for our hosts. One night we went to dinner in the village and found that a stage had been set up in the courtyard. Several local musicians performed as the assembled folk stayed warm under piles of quilts brought out by our hosts. The Manganiar boys sang beautifully. Although most of our group doesn’t speak or understand Punjabi, we knew the women were being asked to sing when we heard the word “bibi” in the announcer’s message. Fortunately we had taus and electronic tānpura with us and four foreign women sang in rāg tilang.
The cow shāla is a little piece of heaven on earth, especially for the animals that live there, a centuries-old temple that cares for cows with the kind of devotion reserved for the divine. The animals are beautiful, healthy and gentle. We were handed trays with piles of aromatic greens and home-cooked cakes of porridge and invited into the barns to hand-feed the sacred cows. I especially enjoyed the black one who was being milked as I held out the treats and she stretched her long tongue to grab the snack, curling and flexing it as if she had a thumb attached. We joined Bhai Baldeep on stage to sing in sangat with people and cows. After the program we were treated to fresh, warm, sweet, cardamom-scented, milk. As the sun sank in the sky, local children filled the courtyard and the shāla began its evening distribution of free milk. With prevalent attitudes of mistreatment of animals, it is comforting to know that such a place exists in the world.
Throughout our stay in Sultanpur Lodhi, we encountered the memories of this ancient town, which is at least two thousand and five hundred years old. It has been a center of culture, trade, spirituality and learning for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Guru Nanak lived here for fourteen years, started his family, and began teaching. A few relics from the time of Guru Nanak remain, but most of the historically significant sites have been replaced with new gurdwara construction as a type of monument to the past. The town was known for beautiful orchards, gardens and surrounding forests, which have now become expansive stretches of flat green farmlands.The Qila, an ancient fort, where we met for the kirtan workshop is home to a pre-Mugal-era mosque that Guru Nanak himself had visited, the remains of the darbār hall of the King of Kapurthula, colonial-era barracks, and modern-day police offices. It is a place where past, present and future intersect. For the future, Bhai Baldeep envisions a massive restoration effort to preserve what remains of a significant past for the Qila and for the town, while developers are already staking out the ancient undeveloped lands owned by local farms for new housing markets.
In twelve days, Sultanpur Lodhi found a permanent place of residence in our hearts and we will treasure memories of our time there, the learning we engaged in at the Qila, and the community that became our new extended family.
The One in the cow,
The One in the cow herder,
The One in the singer, the string-player and drummer,
The One in the listener, the One in the song.
The One in the child,
The One in the mother,
The One in the young beauty with a red part in her hair,
The One in the gray-haired elder with glasses.
The One in the prisoner,
The One in the guard,
The One in the dignitaries who sit proudly,
The One in the hopeless who sit with shoulders slumped,
The One in the giver of garlands,
The One in the teacher who receives the praises,
The One in the student,
The One in the driver and cook.
The One in the ladies turning chapatis over the fire,
The One in the gentlemen sitting in chairs,
The One in the parrots,
The One in the trees.
The One in the relics of the past,
And hope for a future where they will last.
The One who has always inhabited this place,
The One who brought us here, by His grace.