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Above: Photo of Bhai Ghulam, by Ranvir Jagdev. Below: image of Rababi Bhai Sundar Giani, an ancestor of Bhai Ghulam.

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Minstrel of The Guru:
Bhai Ghulam Mohammad Chand





1927 - April 29, 2015

Bhai Ghulam Mohammad Chand, whose forefathers traced their lineage to the family of Bhai Mardana and whose request in the post-Partition years to recite kirtan in the Golden Temple was declined by Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) citing that he was not an amritdhari Sikh, died in Lahore on Wednesday (April 29, 2015) late evening.

Despite being a Muslim, Ghulam Mohammad performed several times in the gurdwaras in Pakistan. He was the sixth generation of Bhai Sadha and Bhai Madha, who sang during the lifetime of Guru Teg Bahadar and Guru Gobind Singh.

Bhai Ghulam Mohammad's father, Bhai Sunder Giani was one of the last rababis to perform in the Darbar Sahib before 1947.

Confirming Ghulam Mohammad's death, Navtej Kaur Purewal, deputy director, South Asia Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, said, "Bhai Ghulam Mohammad passed away in Lahore on Wednesday after a long period of ill health. I came to know him in 2008 after he was refused to perform kirtan at the Darbar Sahib. During his life time, he longed to recite kirtan at the Darbar Sahib, but his wish had remained unfulfilled."

Navtej also sponsored Ghulam Mohammad's historic visit to the UK in 2011 and also wrote a research paper on the Rababis titled 'Sikh/Muslim Bhai-Bhai? Towards a Social History of the Rababi Tradition of Shabad Kirtan.'

Born in Rajasansi village near Amritsar, Punjab in 1927, Bhai Ghulam Mohammad had migrated to Pakistan after the Partition. He shot to news in 2008 when his wish to recite kirtan at Darbar Sahib was declined by the SGPC citing a ‘code’ which allowed only amritdhari Sikhs to perform kirtan there.

England-based Punjabi writer Amarjit Singh Chandan, said, "Bhai Ghulam virtually died the day he was not allowed to perform kirtan in Darbar Sahib in 2008 for not being an 'amritdhari'. Didn't they know that his forefather Bhai Mardana was not one either? The latter was Baba Nanak's true and first Sikh, his lifelong companion and rababi."


Such was the pain that Bhai Ghulam Mohammad carried after the refusal to perform kirtan in the Darbar Sahib that in an interview with Navtej Kaur in 2011, he said, "Who bothered to ask whether we were amritdhari Sikhs in those days? Were my ancestors? Did they wear the 'dastaar' (turban) and show the signs of being a Sikh? No. But that never stopped them from having a passion for gurbani kirtan and their work ... Those people (the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee that manage gurdwaras in Punjab) have a short vision ..."


"Most Sikhs mistakenly say he is a direct descendent of Bhai Mardana. The complex inter-marriage of rababi families makes the family tree less straightforward to draw out. He was a descendant of Bhai Sadha and Bhai Madha -- also rababis -- who sang for the Sikh sangats during the lifetimes of Guru Tegh Bahadar and Guru Gobind Singh. So, he is their sixth generation," said Navtej Kaur.

Professor Gurnam Singh, founder-head of Gurmat Sangeet chair, Punjabi University, Patiala, who also recorded Bhai Ghulam Mohammad's several recitations, said, "It is correct that he was not a direct descendant of Bhai Mardana biologically. But since Bhai Mardana is considered as the root of the entire rababi tradition, he is usually seen as forefather of rababis."

[Courtesy: Times of India. Edited for]
May 1, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), May 01, 2015, 10:54 AM.

We lost an institution and closed an important chapter of Sikh history when the last of the kirtanias from the Muslim tradition passed away. From the times of Guru Nanak, Muslim devotees of Nanak had remained part of the Sikh sangats. They were there throughout the times of the Gurus and beyond, until the Partition of Punjab in 1947, when a gulf was created between the two communities. Sikhs began to shrink from the universality of the Gurus' message for the fear of their being eaten up by the majority communities around them. They began to suspect any one not born of Sikh parents and began to build walls around themselves. Muslim rababis were thrown out first. There were exceptions. Punjabi University invited them with full respect and encouraged them not to leave the tradition. But the so-called clergy from Amritsar continued to hold on to the recently created rules set in stone, inspired by their predecessors who disallowed Guru Teg Bahadar from entering Sri Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Our Guru had to be given a space to spread his message by the womenfolk of the area, as was the case centuries later by Punjabi University with the Rababi kirtan singers. I brought the past historical fact to the notice of Rababi Ghulam Mohammad when he was turned away from the sacred precincts in Amritsar. I told him that he should not feel depressed as he was in a good company. However, they and their elders continued to perform kirtan in gurdwaras and private sangats in Pakistan and were welcomed by Sikh congregations throughout Punjab, India and abroad. We will sorely miss them all.

2: Kaala Singh (Punjab), May 01, 2015, 12:36 PM.

So, non-Sikhs could perform kirtan for the Gurus but cannot in our times? Do these guys who man the SGPC have a clue about the true values of Sikhism? This is not in the spirit of universalism preached by the Gurus. The SGPC today controls most of the "revenue-generating" gurdwaras in Punjab and elsewhere and their only interest these days is to siphon-off the money that comes from the community and not to uphold the values of the Sikh faith.

3: Rup Singh (Canada), May 01, 2015, 4:13 PM.

Very sad indeed, with each generation's passing, much is lost. Even today Sikh amritdhari women are not allowed to do kirtan at Darbar Sahib ... against all principles and values of Sikhi! The masands are alive and well. It is also important to note that in Sikhi, there is no emphasis on pilgrimages or rituals for salvation, living in devotion and service is all that matters.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 01, 2015, 6:38 PM.

SPGC: The present day masands have done more harm to Sikhi than anyone else. They have almost destroyed the tradition of Seva Panthis and Adan Shahis who propagated Sikhi more than anyone else. Guru Nanak with Bhai Merdana started the Rababi tradition that continues to this day but not in Harmandar Sahib. If SPGC could do it, they would refuse all the Gurus and Bhagats to enter the Harmandar because they were not Amritdhari or did not conform with their current diktats. Well, the 17th century masands did do so with Guru Teg Bahadar. Of Bhai Gulam Mohammad Chand, I remember he took part in some non-Sikh concert but he started with an Alaap: "Baho saastar bho simrtee paykhay sarab dhadhol / poojas naahee har haray naanak naam amol" [GGS:265.8] -- "The many shastras and the many simritees I have seen and searched through them all. O Nanak, they are not equal to Waheguru's Name. It is invaluable." My late Bhaaiyya ji (father) would tearfully remember Bhai Chand, the Guru's minstrel whose life revolved around Harmandar Sahib. Although we got rid of the mahants, but they continued as 'dhus' (uncouth managers), having only changed their garb. Bhai Chand had to leave his revered position of Guru's kirtania. It was Bhai Chand who started using 'parmaans' from Guru Granth Sahib, like the salesman who keeps rolling out the bolts of cloth, one after the other, to catch the eye of the customer. The parmaans made clear the main theme of the shabad instead of doing kathaa, as raagis do nowadays. It is heartening to know that there is yet a nursery in Pakistan that has kept the rababi tradition alive. When Bhai Chand had to abandon his ancestral village of Raja Sansi, he took with him the most valuable treasure - the Guru's bani - with him. He too has now passed away. I hope the tradition goes on and is not allowed to die. Thanks to Bhai Harbans Lal ji for his excellent note.

5: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), May 01, 2015, 8:48 PM.

He was indeed a very fine person. We enjoyed over a dozen kirtan performances by him and his jatha in Delhi a decade ago. They gave so much warmth to the sangat, with some extraordinary bandish-es in traditional raags. Thankfully, one can still enjoy his work on YouTube.

6: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), May 01, 2015, 9:58 PM.

It was 1944 when Bhai Chand (Ghulam Chand's father) was let go from serivice in the Darbar Sahib. Thereafter he used to recite kirtan every Sunday in the gurdwara in Khalsa College, Amritsar. The SGPC came into existence in 1925 and it took 19 years for the members to develop a 'Rehat Maryada'(code of conduct). It was decided then that all employees who are involved with gurbaani in historic gurdwaras should be amritdhari Sikhs. And at the time of Partition, Bhai Chand made a special request to the SGPC to reconsider him for employment because, according to law, no Muslim could stay back in East Punjab unless he had a job. The SGPC did not accommodate him.

7: Kaala Singh (Punjab), May 01, 2015, 11:36 PM.

The SGPC is now a pathetic organization, their only job is to secure the "income-producing" gurdwaras for the present-day corrupt 'Akalis' who control the SGPC. Gurdwaras are a major source of income for the Akalis and their vote bank. The other major source of income for the state is remittances from Sikhs living abroad. Other than that, the economy of Punjab is in shambles and there's no money to be plundered. Unless this flow of "free-money" is stopped there will be no development in Punjab as there is no need to do anything as gurdwaras and remittances will always be there!

8: Raj (Canada), May 02, 2015, 2:41 PM.

After Partition, someone from the Sikh community had suggested to the Muslim rababis to call themselves Nanak-panthis to avoid the wrath of the communal mobs on the Indian side of the newly carved countries. But, they refused and migrated to Pakistan. Unfortunately, some of them were killed by their fellow Muslims for singing the Kalam of kafirs. We should respect SGPC's decision to let only amritdharis sing gurubani inside Darbar Sahib. Sikhs never prevented them from singing in the Darbar Sahib complex. Only, inside of the sanctum sanctorum.

9: Sandeep Singh (USA), May 03, 2015, 1:24 PM.

@ Raj: Wow, "respect the SGPC's decision"? Simran, Seva, Inclusion (not exclusion) are the basic pillars of Sikhism. If anything contradicts that, it should not be associated with Sikhism. Keep it simple, like Sikhism.

10: Jasbir Singh Jassi  (New Delhi, India), May 04, 2015, 1:37 PM.

When I first heard him live, I was moved to tears. He was singing "haal mureedaan da kehan..." I remained glued to him, and continued to closely follow his traditional renditions of gurbani kirtan. Indeed, "baabey boar sukdey jaande!"

11: Harinder Pal Singh (Auckland, New Zealand), July 11, 2015, 12:12 AM.

Guru Nanak challenged the meaningless ritual of the Hindu 'tilak janjju' but Guru Tegh Bahadar gave his head to protect it: 'tilak janjhu raakha gur taka ..." I wonder why Sikhs do not understand the vision of our own Gurus who never wanted Sikhi to be controlled by priests or some kind of religion contractors who can for the sake of having hold on its wealth and Sikh contributions. Guru Sahib created the Sikh as a lifetime learner to become Gurmukh and remain free of brahminical ritual and superstition. At the same time, the Gurus protected freedom of worship -- not just for sikhs but for everybody else, including Hindus! -- from "bhey, bhau and bharam' but these are again being used to mass enslave many Sikhs and those who dare remind them Gurus' teachings are rejected as not being Sikhs.

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Bhai Ghulam Mohammad Chand"

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