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Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharn Singh Ragi
Honoring
Bhai Avtar Singh Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ragi
The Lord Almighty Akal Purakh has His unique ways of communicating His will, His directives, His message to mankind. To Moses he gave in writing, striking the stone with fire-lightning, leaving behind the tablets with commandments. To Prophet Mohammed it came as Ilham which he dictated to give us Quaran Sharif. Through Satguru Nanak the divine mandate was transmitted to us in form of Bani. Bani is divine revelation in which the word (shabad), music (dhun) and time cycle (kaal) are integrated/fused. This, Satguru Nanak sang to the accompaniment of Bhai Mardana's rebab. Thus began the tradition of shabad kirtan as the sole mode of worship for the Sikhs.
Bhai Avtar Singh
Bhai Gurcharan Singh

By
Sikandar Singh
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The divine songs that the Gurus and their musicians sang came down in guru shishya parnali over the centuries. We call these shabads or reets. (Like kriti's of South Indian traditions). One such potential kirtaniya sat in the presence of the fourth Guru and imbibed the spirit and soul of this music and the roots of shabad kirtan in the family were established. This association with guru ghar continued through generations and the tradition got richer and richer. Family history tells us that one Bhai Sahib Singh served in the court of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, having taken Amrit on the historic Bhaisaki of 1699. This association with the Panth and shabad kirtan continued through the centuries. These were the ancestors of Bhai Sahibs Gurcharan Singh and Bhai Avtar Singh whose sixty years of performing kirtan we celebrate today. To their family, the panth is indebted for giving us the glimpses of the Guru's intent of shabad singing.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib is a rich treasure of music. Thirty-one raags with variants, folklores such as anjali, alahniya., sudd, vars in various raags, etc. All this and more is the rich musical heritage of the Sikhs in particular and Punjab in general. The tradition that Bhai Sahibs have preserved and practiced with total integrity to the guru shishya parampara and the repertoire that they have inherited contains almost all aspects of music mentioned in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
In the late sixties, senior raagis of the era got together at the insistence of Punjabi University. When the question of the true structure of some of the raags in Sikh kirtan was sought to be authenticated, the venerable Bhai Samund Singh Ji told them that only the family of Bhai Jwala Singh Ji (father of the Bhai Sahibs) was in a position to present the true ethos of raags of the Gurmat Sangeet tradition.
Bhai Gurcharan Singh and Bhai Avtar Singh, sons of the legendary Sikh kirtaniya Bhai Jwala Singh, are the 11th generation flag bearers of the original ang (style) of shabad singing of Sikh gurus in the medieval Punjab. The compositions they sing date back to the guru period and some are note by note as the gurus sang. For sixty years they have been performing kirtan, accompanied on the tabla or the jori by their nephew Bhai Swaran Singh, himself an accomplished artist.
They are among that rare and vanishing class of musicians of their tradition who are fully conversant and apt in singing all the raag variants, lores (dhunian) and the other variants of the music forms incorporated in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. At least for the last half century their kirtan has been regarded as a standard against which gurmat sangeet of shabad reet parnali (traditional compositions/kritis) singing is to be measured.
Gurmat Sangeet, or shabad kirtan, is not mere singing of gurbani in raags. Rather it is a unique style with fusion of shabad, raag and tal. Shabad-reets are kritis (compositions) of Guru period, some of them are the originals sung by the Gurus themselves. This is the heritage that has been entrusted to the Punjabi University by the two brothers.
Besides their other achievements and their contributions to this art form, the two brothers have done the greatest service to the world of musicology by recording 500 of their original medieval compositions (48 hours) and annotating them before donating the same to Punjabi University, Patiala. The two volumes, Gurubani Sangeet--Pracheen Reet Ratnavali, were published in 1976. This was a unique gesture as no Indian artist of repute would easily share the core of his art with outsiders, leave alone documenting and giving the same to an institution.
They have extensively disseminated their art in the U.K., North America and Canada--both in the community and outside. In fact, there seem to be more admirers of this tradition of kirtan outside India.
Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh are perhaps the only kirtaniyas today who reflect the original intent of the gurus in their kirtan. Their music is a frozen heritage of sacred music of North India from the period stretching from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The tradition has been passed on to the next generations in the family. Kultar Singh, son of Bhai Avtar Singh and a mechanical engineer by profession, joined Bhai Avtar Singh's jatha in 1999. Since then he has been practicing the family tradition with his father and carrying it forward. Bhai Baldeep Singh, rooted in the family tradition and a grandnephew of the senior Bhai Sahibs is an accomplished musician, researcher, preservationist and a musicologist in his own right, carrying the heritage into the 13th generation.
Bhayee Sikandar Singh is a member Trustee of ANAD Foundation and Co-editor of Nishaan Quarterly.