Kids Corner

Image below: Hazara Singh Ramta, Toronto, 1992. Courtesy: Amarjit Singh Chandan.


Punjab’s Inimitable Troubadour:
Hazara Singh Ramta
August 1, 1926 - September 6, 2017





August 1, 1926 - September 6, 2017

Growing up in Patna in the State of Bihar -- a thousand miles from the land of my ancestors, my parents being refugees from the carnage of The Partition -- had interesting aspects to it.

To a young boy who only got to visit Punjab periodically and only for short periods, everything about Punjab was mythic and idealistic. Music, dance, legends and folktales, saakhis and history, even the new Punjabi capital of Chandigarh and Punjab’s record-breaking Bhakra-Nangal Hydro-electric Dam, everything acquired a larger-than-life aura.

Punjabi music and dance in particular were a constant, nagging source of hunger and frustration: I could never get enough of them. It was a blessing that Patna was, by dint of being the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, one of the four great Takhts (Sikhdom’s Thrones of Spiritual Authority). It was therefore the venue for three or four massive annual celebrations which drew hundreds of thousands from around the world. The literati and the glitterati, the powerful and the famous, and those who were top of the line in every field would, sooner or later, turn up in Patna to pay obeisance or to speak and perform and dazzle the crowds.

Thus, long before the age of television and the all-pervasive technology we enjoy today, I got to see and hear the best in every field live and first hand.

But still, it was not enough that I got a mere taste of things once or twice a year. I was jealous of those I thought were able to reach out and touch and taste these pleasures anytime at will, each and every day out there in faraway Punjab.

Bhangra, for example, would send my young heart spiralling into unadulterated joy … but we could only see it on an average once a year when a troupe would arrive from Punjab and do a 30-minute show at the Punjabi Bradari (Community Hall). For me, it’s brevity and another wait for a full more year was an exercise in utter frustration.        

The same held for my favourite singers like Surinder Kaur and Asa Singh Mastana.

But nothing charged my soul with more joie de vivre than the occasional appearance of Hazara Singh Ramta with his iconic Ik-taara (toombi, a single-stringed Punjabi musical instrument, plucked with a finger from each hand).

Ramta was a phenomenon on the Punjabi music scene, but his art and talent are difficult to describe because he had a foot in a number of genres, each of which he plied with ease and excellence.

He was, of course, first and foremost a folk singer and a bard. He was a comedian as well, but more of a precursor of the modern-day stand-up. A satirist and a social commentator par excellence, he wrote his own material, whether it was the verses he sang or the jokes he regaled us with.

The mere mention of his name instantly conjures up his image which his fame had helped subsume as his own brand: A starched turban with a towering shamla; a long, knee-length kurta, delicately embroidered; a matching wasket (vest, waistcoat) worn over it; an ankle-length tehmet (akin to a lungi, but worn loosely, like trousers); and a pair of Punjabi juttis with a pronounced nokh (curved point) that served as his standard footwear.

His repertoire began -- in his trade-mark voice raised to a nasal pitch -- with the age-old Jugni (folk-songs tracing the travels, trials and tribulations of a wanderer) and the ditty, Jugni Gayee Sadar Bazaar (Jugni Visits the Sadar Bazaar).

Which would immediately set the tone of his performance, since his nom de plume, ’Ramta,’ by which he was universally known and referred to, itself means ‘wanderer‘.

The songs that followed were essentially also couched as travelogues, each with himself as the protagonist, but depicted as a country bumpkin forever at odds with modernity. Initially, he sang of his adventures as he ventured around Punjab (undivided and divided), then beyond around the subcontinent, and then, invariably, as his fame grew and drew him to international audiences, to more distant locales around the world.

The ’tales’ were hilariously self-deprecatory and, when mixed with a rustic and simple vocabulary, had us rolling in the aisles. It was the child-like innocence and yet awe of the new world that made his verses so delectable. Even as a young boy who had a limited Punjabi vocabulary, I could savour the words and phrases and their nuances, and found in them a treasure-trove of humour.

He played masterfully with his self-described ignorance of the English language, especially during his early travels abroad, and quipped on his valiant attempts to impress his hosts with the few words he said he had managed to pick up. He had me in hiccups each time he sang how he introduced himself in England as “Thousand-a Singh”. ’Hazaar’, the root of his first name, literally means ’a thousand’ in Punjabi! 

Ramtey da Vyaah (Ramta’s Wedding), Ramta Gya Villait (Ramta Goes To England), Ramta Canada Vich (Ramta in Canada), are but three titles that instantly come to mind. I think somewhere in storage I still have EP and ‘78 rpm’ vinyl discs of these and other memorable gems.

Imagine my delight when, shortly after we moved to Canada, I found out that Ramta was now living in Toronto. But sadly, for years, we never heard of him. I was told it was because of a run-in with the law … apparently a real-life ‘adventure’ which inspired no humour. And had kept him low for some time.

And then, out of the blue, shortly after the tragic events of 1984, I received a call from him. He had tracked me down because he had followed my activism in the mainstream press and wanted to help in any way he could.

One thing led to another, and before long one evening we had a mini-concert in my small apartment in Don Mills, with Ramta and his Ik-taara as the stars, surrounded by more than 60 die-hard fans perched all over my furniture and floor.

It was a magical evening. Even my daughter, then just 6, was mesmerized by his persona and delivery, even though the words were mostly lost on her.

Ramta spoke passionately that night about his personal distress over the goings-on in India a la 1984 and implored his fans to whole-heartedly support our projects. Upon his urging, the evening turned into an unplanned but successful fundraiser!

Thereafter, he also appeared at one of our annual Vaisakhi gala dinners (Centennial Foundation, Toronto) at my bidding. I always felt so very supported by his readiness to stand with us in all we did, even though he had for decades been in ’retirement’ and voluntarily out of the public eye.

*   *   *   *   *

Hazara Singh Ramta, 91, passed away in Brampton, Ontario, Canada on Wednesday, September 6, 2017 after a brief illness.

He was born in Sahiwal, Punjab (now in Pakistan) on August 1, 1926. His singing career began in the 1960s and his fame spread to all the continents.

"It was dad's last wish to return to Punjab, his motherland, after spending over 53 years in Canada. He was admitted to the hospital just four days ago with multiple age-related complications," said Renu Kaur, his daughter.

The family plans to immerse his ashes at Kiratpur Sahib in Punjab, located on the banks of the River Sutlej.

He is survived by his wife Raj Kaur, daughter Renu Kaur, son Gurdeep Singh, four grandchildren and two great-grand children.

September 26, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Balbir Singh Momi (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), September 27, 2017, 12:47 PM.

Good job to remember folk singer Hazara Singh Ramta. We had always good relations with each other. There should be a annual gathering to remember him.

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Hazara Singh Ramta
August 1, 1926 - September 6, 2017"

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