Poster of the event.

On Wednesday November 28, Bhai Baldeep Singh visited the Sikh musicology class at Hofstra University, Long Island. It was an auspicious day indeed, being the 543th Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary. We could not celebrate it in a better way than singing with our students, colleagues, and members of the Sikh sadh sangat. Among the guests, we would like to mention, Dr. Balbinder Singh Bhogal (Chair of the Sikh Studies at Hofstra University), and Mrs. Indie Singh (daughter of Dr. Hakam Singh, who established the Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair in Sikh musicology in the loving memory of his wife).

In such a special athmosphere, all congregated to attend a wonderful lecture entitled “Tradition of Gurbani Sangeet and Its Study”. Only a day before, I had requested of Bhai Baldeep Singh to give a talk about the meaning of ‘tradition’ in the field of Sikh musicology, and he promptly set up a presentation focused on this topic.

In the academic context, the intellectual and abstract appreciation of music traditions, it is sometimes divorced from the actual meaning of the performance and its transmission from one generation to another. Hence, Bhai Baldeep Singh stressed the concept of tradition as:

“The tradition is
a stream of knowledge,
its waves,
its memory banks.
It remembers,
it cherishes,
all those who savored from,
and contributed to,
its riches.”

According to lecturer, who was recently appointed as Visiting Professor at the Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, the intellectual pursuit should proceed at the steps of the “exponents of the tradition for they are the bearers of the memory of how Gurbani Sangeet has been sung and practiced over the centuries”. Unlike a few contemporary scholars, the authority of the tradition and the scholarship of the tradition bearers, past or present, must not be understated or underestimated. In Bhai Baldeep Singh’s words,

The tradition is the Master,
its students,
its students

The purpose of the event at Hosftra was meant to create a platform where students living in the United States could have not only a direct interaction with the 13th generation exponent of the Sikh Kirtan tradition, but also a link to the authentic tradition, remembering those who took the responsibility to preserve and pass the ancient knowledge and discipline (maryada) transmitted by the Sikh Gurus. As Bhai Baldeep Singh pointed out while introducing some of the elders “who, the traditions’ custodians in the 20th century, brought its pedagogical processes” to us.’The presentation was enriched by rare pictures of those masters, such as: Baba Jwala Singh, Gyani Bhagat Singh, Bhai Arjan Singh Tarangar, Bhai Avtar Singh, Bhai Gurcharan Singh, Gyan Harbhajan Singh, Sakar Khan Manganiar, Ustad Bahadur Singh and Bhai Balbir Singh.

And from the memory of the past, our guest weaved a link with the present, leading the new students into the practice of an ancient form of raga Asa. His methodology is an interesting mix of parables, metaphors and riddles interlaced with humour. For example, one slide in his presentation carried as if his invite to sing. It read:

“If you think you can sing,
I will show you,
you can’t.
If you think you can’t,
I will transform you into a
one who can…

Baldeep Singh concluded the class giving a brief, yet an intense rendition of alap, followed by the composition Oha Prem Piri, an original masterpiece of Guru Arjan Dev set to tala Chartal.

Students who were already trained in the raga and in the first part of the composition (asthai) enjoyed singing along with Bhai Baldeep Singh, and worked on the antara, sanchari and abhog, the following stanzas of the shabad. Alas, the time slot of a class was too short for satisfying the quest and, following a students’ desire to hear more and more, Bhai Baldeep Singh kindly agreed to give an extra class, and we all look forward to the start of a next avartan of the tradition….

Photos by Parminder Singh Bhamra and Dr. Francesca Cassio.