Vandana Shukla, Tribune News Service
Sultanpur Lodhi, February 19. The edifice of Quila Sarai made of Nanakshahi bricks is crumbling. So is the famous Lahori gate, despite its unimaginative PWD kind of restoration, which lends it a strange hybridised identity.
The quila, caught in the maze of bureaucratic files and delays, needs a retaining wall – not of cement and concrete but of a strong and resilient will to revive and retain its cultural legacy.
The quila resonates with history and a legacy of traditional music. Despite political apathy, it turns out that people of the town and adjoining villages have taken it upon themselves to turn the endeavour of a cultural revival, initiated by Anad Conservatory, into a success.
Harbhajan Kaur and over a dozen other Sikhs, who have travelled from different continents, have been living inside the quila, for the last two weeks. They feel they are receiving music in a completely cultural context.
“Most of us who have been fortunate to receive lessons in traditional Gurbani kirtan twice a year from Bhai Baldeep in USA or Canada, for the last 15 years, have discovered so many other cultural dimensions of this music here,” says Nirvair Kaur from Arizona.
She plays the taus, an almost extinct stringed instrument played by the Sikh Gurus. Geographical distance from her cultural moorings does not deter her. “I do my riyaaz everyday, and sing kirtan with the community,” she says.
Her daughter Niranjan Kaur, a Fulbright scholar, who is working on Dagarbani for her Ph D from the University of Michigan, is among the few women who have ever played the Amritsari pakhawaj.
She has come with her toddler daughter. The locals have made room in their homes for women with young children. “We have eaten 30 meals that have come from 30 different homes, from far off villages- it’s a cultural immersion for us, one that is musical,” says Nirvair.
Siri Ram Kaur Khalsa, an Italian, sings Gurbani Kirtan, with her two young daughters Dev Swarup Kaur and Sant Kaur, 13 and 10, who also play the pakhawaj. Ram Kaur began getting lessons in Naad Yoga in Italy and gradually discovered “The energy of singing during the course of kirtans”.
Though her daughters carry their Italian names too, they are drawn to the music, and sing kirtan, of their own volition.
Harbhajan Kaur says she never felt like a Catholic, the religion she was born into. She had been an opera, rock and jazz singer and played the guitar, but fell in love with kirtan the moment she heard it first.
“I liked the poetry of shabads. There is no duality in this literature. We began by singing translations of the kirtan, and moved on to transliterations,” she says.
For senior musicians like her, learning another discipline of music has not been a cake-walk.
“Moreover Bhaiji did everything to instil in us humility, so we need to sing kirtan,” she adds.
Sat Kirtan from California agrees. She too had been a piano and violin player. First, the religion changed her, under the very exacting Guru late Harbhajan Yogi, who made them believe in the virtues of going through hardships, and then music. Then, the two blended. “It’s musical religion for us,” she says with a smile.
But Harbhajan finds herself especially blessed. Her Guru Bhai Baldeep is going to gift her a Rebab, handcrafted by him, at the same venue where Guru Nanak had blessed Bhai Mardana with gift of the strings to help him blossom in the music of his soul.
But, this was five centuries back. In the jet age, Harbhajan and other devotees of devotional music have travelled from Italy, USA, Canada and UK to discover the source of the musical fountain they so love.
“A renaissance is happening here because everything is musical; the trees, birds and people, who overcome barriers of language with hugs and love. Where else would such music have originated?” wonders Harbhajan.
On his part, Bhai Baldeep says musical talent is of secondary relevance to him. Though all of them are musicians trained in western music, what matters to him is seriousness of the quest and purity. “The purpose of this music is not to turn one into a fine musician alone. The purpose is to help one evolve into a better human being,” he says.
His disciples agree. And they feel the place is meant for “finding possibilities”. As if to echo their thoughts, a bird begins to sing, perched on a unique tree in the sarai, which has both neem and peepal sprouting out of one stem.