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Amir Singh: The Pied Piper of Singapore

by SANMEET KAUR

 

 

Friday, Jan 8, 2010

Sardar Amir Singh of Singapore died this evening at his residence. He was in his mid-nineties.

Such is the quirk of fate that he passed away tomorrow morning since Singapore is half-a day ahead of Canada’s EST. Perhaps it’s only befitting that I am writing his eulogy the night before, after all, he was a man ahead of his time.

I didn’t know Sardar Amir Singh ji well, actually I know very little of him. But bits and pieces have fallen together and formed a mosaic in my mind’s eye and compelled me to slip out from under my covers this wintery eve.

Sardar Amir Singh ji was a well-known name in the 1950 – 1980s among the Diaspora before the Internet radically altered our lives. He would faithfully record all the ragi jathas that came to Singapore. In all probability he even recorded them on his trips to India and abroad. In any event, he had a huge collection of over four thousand recordings, including audio and video tapes, and spools. He meticulously compiled a glossary of this collection and freely distributed photostat copies of the same. If you wanted a particular tape all you had to do was write to him and he would send out the tape to you, for you anywhere in the world. His name and office address were printed on the glossary beneath the words, ‘Yours in Service,’ in English and ‘Daas’ (Servant) in Punjabi.

Apart from the staples – Nitnem, Sukhmani Sahib, Assa-di-Var, Simran - he also had in his collection, tapes especially recorded for him by various ragis. Bani of Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur ji, Bhagat Kabir ji, shabads from Sukhmani Sahib, Dhadi jathas , over 400 tapes of shabad-kirtan with vyakhia – providing explanation of the recorded shabad ‘for better understanding of Gurbani ,’(For this he would rope in a ragi and a kathavachak.), Barah Mah (set in kirtan) , the translation of the Ardaas in English, the explanation of the Lavans in English and many, many more, including my personal favourite – shabads in raag by a number of ragis romantically titled ‘Guldasta –’ Bouquet vol. 1, 2,3….

All the big names are there on the list –Bhai Gopal Singh ji, Bhai Sadhu Singh ji, Bhai Rajinder Singh ji, Bhai Charanjit Singh, Bhai Dharam Singh – stalwarts of the old brigade, the golden era, my father calls it.

Also, Bhai Chattar Singh ji, Prof Darshan Singh ji, Ragi Harjinder Singh, Ragi Harbans Singh… Among kathavachaks both Maskeen ji and Parwana ji are the most prolific and have also done a lot of the shabad cum vyakhia tapes in Vade Bhapaji’s collection as well gems like explanation of the Mool Mantar, a set of 15 tapes.

He didn’t stop there, he made video tapes – on the historical Gurudwaras, the basic values of Sikhism, the role of Sikhs in modern Indian history – to name a few.  They were amateur attempts as far as the technical aspects are concerned. However, he was probably amongst the first who realized the importance of interpreting Sikhie in a modern tone and language (English) so that it may appeal to the youth. Mostly these ‘films’ have both Punjabi and English versions. The language is simple and he even did the voice-overs!

Keep in mind this is the 1970s we are talking about – some four decades ago. This pioneer was already tweaking the workings of the old establishment to strengthen the foundation of what would become the base for our generation. This was his seva. He ran a flourishing textile business ‘on the side.’

Though he was well-known to my late Nana ji, I first heard of S. Amir Singh ji when I married his niece’s son. He was Vade Bhapaji, my mother-in-law’s Tayaji, who had a passion for kirtan and a greater one for sharing it.

Vade Bhapaji was instrumental in instilling this love in my mother-in-law. This was Singapore of the 1960s and early 70s. Ragi jatha’s were scarce and Mom regularly found herself doing kirtan at Gurudwaras, on Gurparabs, Rainsabahis and social functions. She even sang the Lavans on a couple of occasions and got accustomed to Vade Bhapaji ‘s telephone call asking her to get ready, volunteering her to do kirtan at some stranger’s homes in the absence of a ragi jatha.

My mother-in-law seized this passion with an energy that has come to be her trademark, it being so singular. There was not a ragi that passed the shores of Singapore in ‘those days’ from whom she did not learn a few shabads. Her favourite remains Bhai Chattar Singh ji and she must know all his tunes; for the ones he did not personally teach her, she managed to figure out herself.

This gift she passed on to my husband. I remember his eyes light up when during the course of our courtship he first realized that I could do a bit of kirtan. I remember the first time I saw him listening to kirtan at the Gurudwara, sitting erect, enjoying divine melody. My heart swelled with such wonderful feelings.

This common love has saved our family from many a pettiness I think. For all the times I’ve shared with my mother-in-law nothing beats the memory of us doing kirtan together. Perhaps one – When I was pregnant with our daughter, my first trimester was particularly difficult. To calm my nerves I would ask Mom to sing and she would – one shabad every evening. Without the harmonium; just her sweet, penetrating voice and the shabad. It was a short window of calm which gave me a great measure of peace during a time when my body was in chaos.

Many a time I have encountered Bhapaji’s legacy. He passed on his collection to Mom. For many months our family was charged in re-mastering his tapes and transferring them on to Cds. This even gave my husband and me the opportunity to travel with Bhai Jasbir Singh ji Khannewalle on his last tour across Canada months before he passed on.

We would record the kirtan, make copies and put up a stall. Behind each Cd sleeve there was a short note on the roots of this endeavour. Naturally it had Vade Bhapaji’s name on it. I was more than surprised when while in Surrey a few of the elders would return, asking, confirming if we were indeed part of the same Sardar Amir Singh of Singapore who ‘would send the cassettes.’

I had a similar experience in Amritsar. This took place a couple of years earlier when we went to India for the first time after our wedding. Outside Sri Harmandir Sahib my Dad’s friend runs a shop that houses all things related to Sikhie – books Gutkas, rumaale, pictures, kirpans, etc. In those days, we were still figuring out how to re-master and distribute Vade Bhapaji’s tapes. We thought it might be a good idea to run our thoughts by my Dad’s friend. Before we could finish, he dug out an old, much-used cardboard box full tapes, “These were sent by Sardar Amir Singh,” he said, “They are at least 20 years old but some still work. I play them occasionally.”

Unfortunately it was our lack of enterprise and manpower that we could not keep up the tempo of seva and see it through. It has slowed down considerably - life took over and having a kid changed our priorities.

Like I said, I didn’t know Vade Bhapaji, yet precious pieces of memory have formed a mosaic in my mind’s eye refusing sleep, compelling me to pay my respects. Because he lived his life the way he did, I am party to certain privileges – unarguably a most enduring legacy.

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Anand (India), January 09, 2010, 12:35 AM.

This was a nice tribute to a great personality. Fortunate to read this about a selfless person doing this nishkaam seva. Sikhism is full of such souls and I notice many of them are from the Sikh diaspora scattered all over the world. Unfortunately, commercialism rules the prominent raagi jathas in India and many of them, while singing in the diwan, in front of our Guru, say "now I'm going to sing this so-and-so shabad from 'my' new CD/cassette so-and-so." Promotion of their CD/ cassettes seems to be their sole aim at the diwan! (This is more prevalent amongst commercial raagis, not the Hazuri raagis from Darbar sahib, Amritsar).

2: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, CT, U.S.A.), January 09, 2010, 7:33 AM.

A lovely tribute! An 'ordinary' man who enriched so many lives and will continue to inspire many more.

3: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), January 09, 2010, 8:16 AM.

S. Amir Singh was a good friend of my father's and they both had a hand in instituting a gurdwara there (I forget which one, but recall Sunday Punjabi classes). As a kid growing up in Singapore, I recall him as a fixture in the gurdwara. Thank you for a nostalgic reminder from bygone days. Sanmeet, do you still have the collection?

4: T. Sher Singh (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), January 09, 2010, 8:44 AM.

In 1970, my parents embarked on a 7-month long, around-the-world tour covering more than 40 countries. Upon their return home (then, it was still India), they singled out and raved particularly about the Singapore community and this extraordinary man who, ensconced on that island, was providing soul food to Sikhs everywhere! Thank you for bringing S. Amir Singh ji alive for me after all those years ... I'd heard so-o much about his incredible seva!

5: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), January 09, 2010, 10:19 AM.

"Jhulte nishaan rahe - Panth Maharaj ke" - Each Sikh is bestowed with a privilege to carry the Nishaan of Guru Sahib through their life's journey. Sardar Amir Singh had the grace, passion and dedication to carry his. By proudly owning and continuing his legacy and doing the sewa in your own little ways, you are doing the same. Thank you, Simar and Sanmeet.

6: Sanmeet Kaur (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 09, 2010, 8:56 PM.

Reading all the comments has been so exciting because I'm completing my mosaic with every memory: adding yours to mine. Ravinder ji - Wonderful to learn you are from Singapore. Yes, we do have the collection. Most of it is still in its original form. Gurmeet, my dear, the first line of your comment gave me goose bumps. Thank you.

7: Manjeet Singh (Delhi, India.), January 10, 2010, 10:14 AM.

May Mamaji's soul rest in peace! He will be remembered always. .

8: Jitender Singh (New Delhi, India), January 10, 2010, 10:46 PM.

Thanks for such a highlighting tribute to such a noble soul. Such souls are really difficult to find in today's world. As far as S. Amir Singh ji is concerned ... gurbani says: "Brahm-giani sud jeeve nahi marta ... nahi marta. Guru Maharaj kirpa karan te aisian pavittar roohaan is sansaar vich hor paida karan!

9: Amarjit Singh Wasan (Singapore), January 10, 2010, 11:56 PM.

A very fitting tribute to a man who loved kirtan, promoted the love for kirtan and started recording kirtan for dissemination to so many around the world. His contributions to Sikhism were phenomenal. He was an icon in Singapore and will always be fondly remembered for guiding every religious ceremony that was performed in the Katong Gurdwara in particular. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

10: Sawaranpal Singh (Bangkok, Thailand), September 29, 2011, 11:25 PM.

He was a friend of my father. I was fortunate to have known him since 1952 when I was studying in Singapore. He was a true Sikh. He inspired me to read books on Sikhism when he gave me the book on the life of Bhai Randhir Singh. I salute him.

11: Harkirat Singh (England), October 28, 2012, 10:03 AM.

Lovely to read about someone who loved the Shabad Guru so much. If these old recordings are available to share with the UK sangat, then will be honoured to hear from you.

12: Manjit Singh Aujla (United Kingdom), January 12, 2014, 2:23 AM.

Seva and love of kirtan have inspired many and brought them to gurbani. I once had the good fortune to come to singapore in the early 90s and met S. Amir Singh and obtained some old recordings from him - absolutely wonderful! Can anybody tell me who has the collection now? gur fateh to all!

13: Pritpal Singh (Melbourne, Australia), December 22, 2014, 4:25 AM.

S. Amir Singh was truly a pioneer in his efforts to promote Sikhi in Singapore. I am personally grateful to him for inspiring in me my love for Sikhi. He used to make sure I got each copy of "Beads of Truth," the Sikh magazine published in the seventies in America.

14: Kaabal Singh (Bombay, India), April 21, 2015, 11:29 PM.

Sardar Amir Singh was an outstanding personality. He was a walking encyclopedia of Sikhism. I met him in 1990 and thereafter stayed in touch through correspondence. His extraordinary sewa is indescribable and endless.

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