[In memory of the late Bhai Avtar Singh Ragi: January 8, 1925 – November 24, 2006]
My introduction to Bhai Avtar Singh was in the late 1970’s. Okay, to be fair…I was only a toddler and my family was hosting a kirtan at our home in memory of my great-grandmother who had recently passed.
Maybe it was only a coincidence that the famous ragis, Bhai Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, sons of Bhai Jawala Singh and 11th generation kirtanis, were passing through Washington D.C. and were available for kirtan seva that morning.
Perhaps it was only a coincidence that my great-grandmother herself enjoyed listening to their kirtan very much. And maybe it was also a coincidence that two of her own sons were in fact named…Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh.
Coincidences aside, it was the beginning of a very special relationship.
I can’t say I remember much from that kirtan, but my father did request Bhai Sahib to sing Ab ki baar baksh bande ko and the recording of that shabad has been etched in my childhood ever since.
Two decades would pass before our paths would cross again. This time, through my friend’s CD player in his car soon after Gurmat Sangeet (1999) was released. Although I enjoyed listening to kirtan, personally, I preferred a more popular form of kirtan with a faster tempo.
However, being that my friends were big fans of Bhai Avtar Singh and we listened to and sang kirtan together a lot, I was repeatedly exposed to Bhai Sahib’s reets (musical compositions)…and eventually, it grew on me. I particularly connected with Mero sundar kaho milay kith galli in Raag Devgandhari and Rattay ishq khudaae in Raag Asa.
With some help, I also learned how to play the latter on the harmonium, by thumbing through Gurbani Sangeet Prachin Reet Ratnavali, a book authored by Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh, wherein they have transcribed hundreds of musical compositions that have been performed in their family for centuries.
I was lucky that Bhai Sahib was well recorded. There was an abundance of tapes, CDs, and MP3s available of professionally-recorded as well as live kirtan. I compiled nearly a full collection of his work and listened to it at every opportunity I had.
After spending years absorbed in his 31 Raagas (2001) CD, I had the great fortune to listen to Bhai Avtar Singh live as he was passing through Chicago on his 2003 North American tour.
The first shabad I heard him sing live was Mohan neendh na aaveh in Raag Bilaval. A soon as he began the manglacharan, my eyes welled up. I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps it was the crackle in his voice that reminded me of a different era, or maybe I was feeling nostalgic of the recording I grew up with, or maybe it was the fact the shabad was sung in the same raag, feeling, and emotion in which my Guru wrote and sung it himself. Whatever it was…I was hooked.
I had the opportunity to listen to Bhai Sahib and his jatha, which included his son Bhai Kultar Singh and nephew Bhai Swaran Singh on the jori, on their two subsequent trips to North America in 2005 and 2006.
Bhai Avtar Singh’s last visit was most special to me in that in that I got to hear him perform kirtan while playing the Taus – a traditional string instrument he had not played for decades in favour of the more popular harmonium. It was breath-taking!
Although I enjoyed listening to Bhai Sahib do kirtan at the Gurdwara during his visits, it was the private concerts at people’s homes during the week I enjoyed most. Often times I would arrive early before work, right as Asa Ki Vaar would start. In that intimate setting, early in the morning with only a few people present, the experience was magical. Especially with the tanti saaz (traditional instruments), all I would do is close my eyes, and I would feel as though I was in Guru Nanak’s darbar – with Bhai Mardana plucking the rabab and baani flowing through the Guru.
I try not to put kirtanis and raagis on spiritual pedestals, but I do have tremendous respect for Bhai Avtar Singh for his 60 years of kirtan seva, his complete mastery of the art, and for preserving the tradition of Gurmat Sangeet.
On a personal note, his kirtan has touched five generations of my family, from my great-grandmother (the matriarch of our family), to my children – who have been listening to Bhai Sahib, even before they were born! What a beautiful link we all share in common…
Although I have listened to all types, Bhai Avtar Singh’s style of kirtan, with all the love and emotion he expressed it in, is what I’ve connected with the most. It has exposed to me the world of gurmat sangeet, which has encouraged me to understand and reflect on baani rather than simply listening to it. All of which (with His Grace) will bring me closer to the Guru.
For that, I am eternally grateful.
I thank Bhai Avtar Singh for helping shape my Sikh experience and thank Waheguru for giving us this rare gem of a man for a wonderful 81 years.
November 24, 2009