Kids Corner


Where Every Child Knows Raags:
The Magic of Sikh Classical Music





Every evening, after school homework or hockey practice, the boys and girls of Bhaini Sahib, a sleepy village near Ludhiana, Punjab, grab their instruments and run to the music room. There, under portraits of great musicians, they learn to sing or play the sitar, sarod, tabla and dilruba. They learn compositions about peacocks dancing in the rain, and about Guru Nanak.

They learn how to accompany each other. They learn how to listen.

Bhaini Sahib could be any other Punjabi village hidden amidst endless wheat fields. But it harbours one rather amazing secret. Over the last 100 years, every child here has been taught Sikh classical music. Regardless of whether they grow up to become farmers, shopkeepers or homemakers, music remains a parallel track in their lives.

"We believe that if you learn music as a child, you become a better human being. Some of us have gone on to become professional musicians, but that is not the goal." says Balwant Singh, 36, an accomplished vocalist who, when he is not out performing, is gently cajoling notes out of the children, or teaching them why a certain raga is sung only at twilight, or why the beats of the tabla correspond to the rhythmic cycles of the universe.

"The tradition is very strong," he says. "When we were children, we were all woken up before sunrise to practise; today my 14-year-old son is doing the same thing."

Music has always been embedded in the Sikh spiritual tradition, and the verses in the Guru Granth Sahib are meticulously set to 31 raags -- starting with Sri, ending with Jaijaiwanti. This Scripture incorporates the teachings of the Sikh Gurus as well as a number of Muslim and Hindu mystics whose teachings conformed to Sikh principles and values. The verses are accompanied with recommended Sikh classical raags to which they are to be sung.

Around the mid-19th century, a group known as the Namdharis made a base in Bhaini Sahib, in Ludhiana district, where many Sikhs were martyred during the freedom movement against the British. Today, the village is home to around 500 families.

The tradition of teaching music to children was started by Baba Partap Singh. He famously said, "I want the fragrance of music to touch every child."

When he died in 1959, his son Baba Jagjit Singh had inherited his passion. He was himself an accomplished singer and played the dilruba, whose plaintive notes have traditionally accompanied shabad music. He gradually nurtured a potent musical environment – in Bhaini Sahib and across the subcontinent, touching lives across religious boundaries.

The elders of Bhaini Sahib encouraged young people to pursue music at a time when it was not a respected vocation in a newly created India which was still struggling to enter the twentieth century.

Baba Jagjit Singh built ties with the great masters so that they could teach the children of Bhaini Sahib. He went to Benaras and won over Bismillah Khan. The initially grumpy shehnai maestro melted when he heard this unusual Sikh visitor sing, and agreed to take one of the children, Kirpal Singh, under his wing. He taught him the taar-shehnai, a string instrument which sounds like the shehnai because of an attached conical mouthpiece.

Today, Kirpal Singh is a banker but also happens to be one of the top taar-shehnai players in the world and has, in turn, taught many children.

Many years ago, the tabla master Kishan Maharaj was similarly cajoled to teach a child, Sukhwinder Singh, who now teaches tabla and the jodi-pakhawaj (a traditional Punjab gharana style of playing) to children.

Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan spent many days in Bhaini Sahib.

And Shivkumar Sharma gets his santoors made by an elderly Sikh there.

This loop of learning has fostered both excellence and perpetuity. The best among the children learn with the great masters so that they can come back and continue teaching younger children. A hostel in central Mumbai is available for free to any child who wishes to come and learn at the Allah Rakha Academy or with Shivkumar Sharma or Yogesh Shamsie, all of whom have close ties to Bhaini Sahib.

"The tradition of ensuring that every child is steeped in music continues today," says Gurdial Singh, a product of the Bhaini Sahib conservatory, who now teaches children sitar while pursuing a PhD in music at Panjab University in Chandigarh, Punjab.

Thanks to the Sikh diaspora, Sikh classical music has travelled to all these places and children there learn singing as well as traditional instruments like the dilruba which is scarcely played on the subcontinent any more. Harbhajan Singh, a sitar player and vocalist, who learned with Amjad Ali Khan, has taught at least three generations of children in both Punjab and the United Kingdom.

The children of Bhaini Sahib play their instruments as if they were cycling down the fields; they guzzle music as if it were desi ghee. Not surprisingly, many children have excelled in other fields – in keeping with what brands like Baby Mozart peddle to ambitious parents, that music makes you sharper all round. Bhaini Sahib has produced many sports stars, including a captain of the country’s hockey team and a national badminton champion.

The music room leaves little time for digital devices or other distractions that mesmerise the young today. While many youth in India have been addled with a drug problem, not one teenager from Bhaini Sahib has fallen into substance abuse.

"Their addiction is music; it is a shortcut to the divine," says Taranjeet Singh, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, who is making a documentary on Bhaini Sahib and its relationship with music. "It inculcates a discipline within you. If your life becomes disciplined as well as lyrical, you will live peacefully. You will not fight at home. We will have a more peaceful world. Instead of firing a tank, fire a raag and see the difference."

It is early morning in Bhaini Sahib. The birds have begun to sing, long before darkness turns into dawn. Twenty-year-old Aasa Singh, gifted with a magical voice, starts with Raag Bhairavi, reaching higher notes as the sun slowly rises above the lake nearby. He is oblivious to his audience. Later, as he puts his taanpura down, he says, "I feel blessed."

[Courtesy: Times of India. Edited for]
October 17, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 18, 2016, 4:27 PM.

This is Punjab's 'Shantiniketan'.

2: Raj (Canada), October 20, 2016, 11:12 PM.

But, how many gurdwaras will allow Namdharis to do kirtan? Then they wonder why Jagjit Singh turned to Ghazal singing. I had seen him sing gurbani kirtan in Ludhiana when I was but a child. I never forgot it all my life. We need to respect and support our artists.

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The Magic of Sikh Classical Music"

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