Sultanpur Lodhi Intensive Kirtan-Yog Retreat
February 9-20, 2012
The experience of the kirtan course at Sultanpur Lodhi cannot be easily described in words. The overarching feeling that I have on many levels and realms is the feeling of coming home. The feeling of home comes from being in the physical location here in Sultanpur, being in the company of like-minded individuals, and engaging in (what appears to be) the beginning of my life’s work. The feeling of home also comes from the awareness in my body and soul that there is no place I’d rather be, nothing I’d rather be doing, and no extraneous baggage in the way of walking this path, climbing this mountain, or falling down this infinitely deep pit.
Prior to arriving at the course, I experienced the most painful year of my life. The source of the pain was from going through a divorce and all of the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual elements that are a part of that. After the separation, which happened at the beginning of November, I underwent a major cleansing of many of the experiences, possessions, and beliefs that accumulated in my past. I felt a deep need to hit the “reset button”, and I peeled away many layers of the “onion”. In the end I had sold/given away almost all of my physical possessions and deleted/trashed all unnecessary files.
In the space of this nothingness, it was clear that the next step I wanted to take was to come to this course in Sultanpur. So this course to me is not just another thing that I have done in my life, but the learnings from it are beginning to form the basis for my life as a whole.
The things that I have learned are not high in quantity, but they are high in quality. From Parminder I learned 6 sections of a ched composition, dha doon dhay taa-di-chownkari, and another two-cycle composition in 12 beats. During the course I did not have much time to spend on the pakhawaj actually practicing all these, but in all the down time (including travel, breaks, before bed, etc) I practiced recitation of the compositions. I was able to memorize all of them and feel comfortable reciting them.
Today, the day after the course, I finally had some time on the pakhawaj, and I found it relatively easy to translate the bols to the drum (at a slow speed).
At the beginning of the memorization process for the compositions, I was very frustrated in that nothing seemed to stick. I had to continually go back and review even simple phrases. But with gradual experimentation, I was able to “remember how my brain worked”, and with the last few compositions I got I was able to memorize within just a few minutes.
There were only two evening percussion sessions with Bhai Baldeep. The first one I received only a few minutes of instruction, though it was very valuable. Some basic hand positions and technique was corrected that significantly liberated and deepened my sound. The remainder of the instruction was with Parminder. I found him to be a very good teacher. He had many wonderful insights about pakhawaj playing and the music study process in general.
Even though I did not spend much time actually playing the pakhawaj, by the end of the course my playing had improved significantly. In just being in the presence of Bhai Baldeep and Parminder playing, I recieved so much by osmosis. Bhai Baldeep’s mastery of the instrument touches me deeply. The range of expression, the freedom, the simplicity, the effortlessness, the sensitivity, and the power was a great inspiration and helped me to connect more deeply with the drum. Parminder’s youthful spirit and freshness and willingness to share made me feel very at ease yet at the same time fueled the fire of my commitment.
The vocal studies in the classroom were also relatively small in number (in comparison to other courses), but high in impact. The course began with instruction on the “sa si su se suN” naad yoga exercises. The shabad “Tum Ho Sub Rajan Kay Raja” in Bihag was taught. Two teekas, one in Tukhari and one in Bihagara were taught. These both are really powerful exercises that really broke through some barriers. The lectures of Bhai Baldeep were varied in nature. One teaching that left a particularly strong impact was about giving justice to every word and every element of the music, and there is nothing in Gurbani Kirtan that should be taken for granted. I also spent some time learning/reviewing basic exercises with the elder students.
The learning outside of the regular classroom sessions was quite varied and it always defied the expected. One primary source of this was the addition of the Manganiar boys to the learning environment. When I arrived in Sultanpur the afternoon before the course, the boys were sitting on the grass playing music together. I had no idea who they were and no idea they were going to be participating. The music they played was very nice. They appeared to be simple, shy, nice, polite village boys. Later as the course progressed, the facade was shattered quite nicely! They were very outgoing, uninhibited, not-always-polite, and fun loving. They frequently would spontaneously play percussion or burst into song. Their organic and passionate connection to the music was an often times a welcome contrast to the often hesitant, shy, careful, sweet, renditions by us westerners.
Sometimes it was a not so welcome intrusion on nap-time or a focused study/practice period. Their music put me deeply in touch with important aspects of what I’ve always wanted my relationship to music to be: natural, full of life, passionate, organic, and integrated with daily living. But being folk musicians, and not trained in theory, they were only able to play within certain boundaries. So I was also able to see the importance of careful learning and practice.
The other way the course defied expectations was with the interactions we had with the “outside world”. We were very strongly supported by Dr. Harjit Singh and family. Many dinners and events with the community in around Sultanpur created a profound experience of community support. Due to the language barriers, much of the time we couldn’t speak with the people we met, but the hospitality transcended words, leaving us touched by the generosity and love of our hosts.
There were also a variety of “surprise” events that spiced things up quite a bit! There was a local World Polio Day parade promoting a vaccine for children that the whole group participated in. I’ve always been quite a fan of local parades, as they feel so humble and real and transmit an experience of local character and spirit. Another surprise was that Bhai Baldeep and the members of the course were invited to be filmed for PTC, the internationally broadcasted Punjabi TV network. One of the most profound surprise events was a performance for the inmates of the now famous Kapurthala jail. To see such tortured souls be touched by such divine music and divine people was a reminder of the true power of Gurbani Kirtan. The music and the message transcended the boundaries of the “illusion” and brought deep healing to so many people (maybe for just a short time, but perhaps some permanent shifts were made!) Many of the other significant surprises were the guests that came to visit, many of which were elders in the Gurbani Kirtan community.
Another element of the course that was quite interesting was that Bhai Baldeep asked me to be the photographer for the course. My experience was that it is sort of a mixed blessing. On the good side is that I felt satisfied knowing that I am documenting such important historical events. It also kept me awake and aware because I had to be present for all the important moments. However, it also created a sort wall between me and “the outside world”, often preventing me from being fully engaged in the event itself.
The course was so varied and so, at times, spontaneous, that a short review such as this doesn’t do it justice.
There are so many elements that I have left untouched. But all in all, it was a historical event that will be remembered for the rest of our lives and I’m sure will be remembered for many generations to come. It being the first major course held at the Qila for the Anad Conservatory, it will forever be remembered as the course that started it all. I felt so honored and inspired to be part of such a ground breaking event that was so important for the revival of true Gurbani Kirtan both in its musical manifestation but also in its return to its birthplace here in Sultanpur Lodhi.
(Written mostly on February 21, but completed in the weeks that followed)
Nadar Nihal Singh is a Jazz Saxophonist from Tucson, Arizona. His involvement in music and a variety of other performing arts has brought him to many cities in the US and Europe, including a seven year stay in New York city. Since February, 2012, he has lived at Qila, Anad Khand, Sultanpur Lodhi and is currently undergoing intensive training in pakhawaj of the Sultanpur Lodhi-Amritsari Baaj with Bhai Baldeep Singh.