Guru Nanak's companion was Bhai Mardana, a Muslim. He was the first Rababi, literally bard or Rebeck player of the Panth. This tradition continued on in the times of Guru Hargobind Sahib, where many also became Dhadhi's. Into the times of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, then into the times of the Sikh Misals, all the way up to the Singh Sabha movement.
In Khalsa Rahit Prakas, Babu Teja Singh first insults the tradition of the Rababi's. He says " why are these filthy Muslims, who smoke, allowed to do Kirtan. It is against Gurmat they must take Amrit first". This kind of racism is common throughout this book. See British Library, Bhasaur, 1917, Panj D 549.
It was due to this racism that the tradition of stringed instruments, and kirtan in traditional ragas came to an end. To the improvised version found in the AKJ.
Rababi’s unfulfilled desire Rashmi Talwar
WITH an ardent desire and hope in his heart, Bhai Lalji, the 17th generation descendant of the family of Bhai Mardana, came to Amritsar from Pakistan, to perform kirtan at Sri Harmindar Sahib.
All his hopes were dashed when the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) refused him permission, upholding the ban imposed on non-Sikhs performing kirtan at the Golden Temple.
A visibly distraught Bhai Lal, a ‘rababi’ and Muslim by birth, in a special interaction with The Tribune said, “Even my old age does not allow me the comfort of the claim of having achieved all in my lifetime, as a fervent desire still remains with me of performing kirtan for the one last time at the Harmindar Sahib. The craving for blessing from Guru Ram Dass, the founder of the Golden Temple, after performing kirtan is the life’s only mission left unfulfilled”. The ‘rababi’ who performed kirtan for two hours at the Golden Temple for one last time in 1962 besides 14 kirtans at Akal Takht asks emotionally, “Will I go back once again to Pakistan with an unfulfilled dream?”
The ban was imposed soon after his last performance in 1962. Belonging to the generation of Bhai Mardana, a Muslim ‘rababi’ of the time, being nine years older than the first Sikh Guru Nanak Dev, he started accompanying the Guru. Then for 47 years at every forum that the Guru sojourned to, Bhai Mardana performed kirtan with him. So much so, many of the ‘banis’ of ‘rababis’ were incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib.
In the footsteps of his forefathers, Bhai Lal too, is completely devoted to the traditional ‘parampara’ of kirtan. He can perhaps be counted amongst the few ‘kirtankaars’ of the world today who can sing kirtan using all 31 ragas without eyeing a paper. Sikh history and historical moments are on his fingertips.
Born in 1929 as Ashik Ali at Goindwal where his father was a “rababi” performing kirtan at Goindwal Sahib, Lal Singh learned the Gurmukhi (Punjabi) at a local primary school. Then he was sent to learn kirtan from Bhai Khisita at Amritsar at the age of 11 years in 1940. After two years of tutorship under him, Bhai Lal started kirtan under ‘rababi’ Bhai Chand; “Since then I came to be known as Bhai Lal and have been addressed so, ever since,” he recalls.
Thereby Partition led him to flee India, and he and his father settled in Lahore where he got married and fathered four sons. While his sons enjoy kirtan and accompany him somehow none of them have actually followed in their forefathers’ footsteps due tolack of patronage from Sikh institutions and Sikh bodies. “Two of my sons are electricians, while one polishes utensils and the youngest remains a free roamer despite having passed plus 2,” he says with regret.
On his last visit to India in 1999, Bhai Lal was honoured with 19 awards by various Sikh organisations. These included the honour conferred at Anandpur Sahib by the SGPC, one by the Delhi Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee another by Damdami Taksal, Patna Sahib, Hazoor Sahib and others.
Talking about Pakistan, he says, “Who is interested in kirtan in Pakistan?” and reveals that the chance to perform kirtan is only during the Indian jathas’ visit at Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib and Dera Sahib Gurdwaras or occasionally when a Sindhi devout of the Guru, invites him for kirtan. Sindhis, he says are the only Pakistanis who thoroughly enjoy kirtan and hold it in great regard.
Meanwhile, in a fervert appeal to the SGPC on behalf of ‘rababis’ and Bhai Lal, the International Bhai Mardana Yaadgari Kirtan Darbar Society president Harpal Singh Bhullar says the SGPC going against the very tenets of Sikhism which follows the tradition of denouncing discrimination on all levels, including religion, caste and colour by disallowing ‘Rababi’ Bhai Lal to perform in the Golden Temple, while no ban exists on them in any other gurdwara in the world.
Below is a clip of Bhai Lal performing some amazing kirtan:
Now compare with this Kirtan: