If music is his passion, being a true Sikh is his profession. Meet Dya Singh, whose rather unconventional approach to kirtan has made him quite a loved figure.
By Indira Laisram
Dya Singh was five years old when he began sitting crossed-legged on stage with his father and singing along. For 17 years, he accompanied his father who was a musical sensation on his own. A vivid memory of that life in the 1950s was of his father engaging the whole sangat or community, who in turn were totally immersed in the kirtan (devotional singing). A spiritually uplifting experience on both sides, it also showed his father was a man of the people.
Little wonder, then, that Giani Harchand Singh Bassian was Dya’s biggest inspiration. A kirtaniya or a spiritual minstrel going back before the Second World War in the northern Indian state of Punjab, he joined the army and was with the Royal Horse Guard (a cavalry regiment of the British Army) of the Maharaja of Kutch at one time. Quite the restless soul with strong spiritual inclinations, he moved around the country and learnt the craft of singing from wandering sadhus (Hindu renouncers or ascetics). “The music of the sadhus cannot fall into a certain category. They were qawals (devotional singers) and had a lot of spiritual material in their songs. They did raags, folk songs and they used Gurbani (the text of Sikhism’s Holy Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib). It was very earthy, that was my father’s background,” he says.
Harchand Singh Bassian was in the engineering core of the army unit in Ambali when he used to conduct the kirtan with the Sikh contingent every morning. He went on to become the army chaplain and later the official ‘granthi’ (custodian of the Guru Granth Sahib) of the battalion. In 1947, he got a transfer to Malaysia as a spiritual teacher and granthi.
Dya, the youngest child to his parents, was born in Malaysia, a country he fondly recalls was a beautiful embodiment of all things multicultural. His teenage years were spent accompanying his father on singing tours. Naturally, his music evolved from what he learnt from his father. He also used every opportunity to explore his talents sometimes singing for radio stations in Malaysia imitating Bollywood singing greats such as Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey or Mohammad Rafi. “It was good money as a student. We had the orchestra of the radio. Unfortunately, I never kept any of the records,” he says, with a bit of a cackle.
While his father returned back to India in old age, Dya sought to preserve and carry on his father’s legacy with purity while absorbing some influences from the other raagis he listened to as a child.
Moving to London to study chartered accountancy, it was there that he discovered a different dimension to his kirtan. “I was exposed to some wonderful people like Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, Gulam Ali and Mehdi Hassan. The ghazal side of singing that I was not exposed to in Malaysia became the new dimension in England. This was the 1970s-80s. And I started singing ghazals in mefils (gatherings).” He also struck a long friendship with renowned ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh, who passed away in 2011. Together they composed a few melodies and released a CD, which initially hurt the sensibilities of a few Sikhs who believed kirtans should not be mixed with the commercial. More on that later.
Indeed London gave him a lot of fruitful relationships including meeting his wife Jassi Kaur Singh, a nurse and leader of multi faith movement in Australia, with whom he has been married for 42 years now. But after 10 years of living in the UK, a tempting invitation to Australia found both of them packing their bags and landing in Adelaide, where they would establish the first Gurudwara as also the Sikh Society of South Australia. “The beauty of Adelaide then was that it had no Gurudwara. Jassi and I found a primary school and used its premises to gather the few Sikh families there, have a langar and teach kirtans. We started rolling from the Baisakhi of 1982,” he fondly recalls.
1984 was one of the darkest years for Sikhs around the world. In October of that year then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. And her assassination triggered genocidal killings around India. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 left around 8000 dead.
“It had a traumatic effect on all of us, it split the community. I suddenly found I was wasting my life. My whole attitude towards work changed. You have come to this world to do something and I wasn’t meant to be an accountant,” he says, adding, “People were trying to destroy Sikhs but I was determined not to let that happen. My whole mode of thinking turned to what can I do for the Sikh community. The only tool I could use towards that end was my music. That is when my whole focus turned towards kirtan. It was a turning point in my life.”
Dya didn’t know where to begin from but he looks at things another way. “This is where God comes in. You start visualising things. I needed a good tabla player first and lo! It came in the form of my talented brother-in-law who migrated from India.” The duo were playing at the Gurudwara one evening when his current manager Keith Preston, himself a musician, happened to watch them perform and spontaneously joined them with a bouzouki.
Next Preston wanted to know if this music could be taken out of the Gurudwara with some translations in English. Before Dya realised, he was being offered a one-hour slot in the South Australia Folk Festival. Preston then organised another concert at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
“Seven people turned up at the ABC,” laughs Dya. Nonetheless, they were people who mattered. After that he was a regular on ABC playing the kirtan. Looking back, the career windfall came with this chance meeting with Preston. For the next 25 years, Dya’s music took him around the world touching souls.
Singing about spirituality in Punjabi with occasional English explanations, Dya blends traditional music with modern and contemporary trends, country and western and new acoustic sounds. His music indeed appeals to a globalized audience – one that traverses geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries.
In 1992, Dya cut his first album – Australian Sikh Rhythm and Soul, which quite turned him into a star. “Strangely enough it is still the best seller, I haven’t kept count of the number of copies I have sold, it must be at least 100,000 copies. There was tremendous effort put into it because it was my first CD. The recording is not as clear compared to now but there is that organic feel to it. People are still looking for it,” he says. Till date he has released about 30 CDs
In 1993, within six months of performing at the ABC, Dya and his team were on their way to the Singapore Arts Festival. After that, there was no looking back. Acquiring almost a super star status, he travelled round the world. 1991 to 2011 were his peak travelling years, living life literally out of a suitcase.
Doing a concert in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington is something that stands out in memory. “What amazed me most was after the first item, which was the multi chant, we got a standing ovation. We hadn’t even started. It was a sensational moment.” But the same thing happened at Semitic Museum in Chicago, he recalls.
On the invitation of Lord Indarjit Singh, promiment British journalist and broadcaster, Dya also performed at the 400th anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib at the St Paul’s Cathedral in London to an audience of 5000 people where Prince Charles was the guest of honour.
“Performing on stage is the highest moment of meditation because you are in the present. There is no greater moment in life,” says Dya Singh, whose other milestone concerts were the Woodford Festival, the biggest folk festival in the southern hemisphere. “That was at the end of the millennium and the theme was Sukhmani. About 40,000 people sat on the hillside chanting along,” he recalls.
Dya’s treasured memory is also composing a CD for renowned Indian novelist, lawyer, journalist and politician Khushwant Singh. “He gave me the shabads/hymn for which I did the recording. It was a very rough recording but I was able to do it on time just before he passed away. That is something of great affection to me.”
But along with fame also comes controversies. Dya admits to receiving a lot of flak at the beginning for taking the kirtan outside the sanctity of the temple.
Interestingly, twice he had to front up to two different jathedars (ordained leaders) in the Parliament of Sikhs in Amritsar. Dya’s argument was simple: “Even Guru Nanak preached in the markets. And if people are sitting on chairs with shoes on and listening to kirtan in these big shows or festivals, they are doing the same while driving and listening to CDs.” The important thing, argues Dya, is to look at the reach of the music and how it is touching lives. A veteran musician, Dya harbours no ill-will towards anyone who has objected to his style of performing or music.
However, Dya’s lowest moment, he reflects, was when he was touring the US and Canada around 2010-11 and he was criticised by a well-known Sikh luminary of trying to destroy kirtan singing. The mutterings got to him and it was in Vancouver at the end of the four-month’s tour that Dya decided to hang his boots, when eminent Kirtani Bhai Avtar Singh, who Dya held in the highest regards, showed him the strongest support. Avtar Singh, who came from a strong lineage going back to 16 generation of raagis, publicly praised Dya on stage for his unrestricted style of singing. “This is a carefree spirit because he is not bound by limitations, say, of the raag,” Avtar said of him. He also asked Dya to sing 31 raags of the Guru Granth Sahib in his own style but after listening to the originals sung by him. “That was my blessing from Pai Avtar Singh. I shared an affectionate relationship with him.”
But support also came from other quarters. “The moment people heard I was giving up, they said ‘you cannot do that. Continuing doing your own way’, they told me…”
Dya also laughs at how he almost went into bankruptcy in the pursuit of his arts. “I guess in the life of an artist like me, the ups and downs are part and parcel of the game. But the thing that sustained me was my spirituality. I had seen the touches of divinity which we call miracles. That divine hand touches you, shows you the way and makes your conviction even stronger.”
Having acquired his art through the unique oral tradition handed down from his father, Dya says every composition comes intuitively from the mind – like a production of something embedded in the subconsciousness. For instance a Bihari dharmic kavita he once composed with drums caught the attention of his older brother by surprise. And all that comes from the influence of classics such as Avtar Singh and Gurcharan Singh, whose music he heard as a little child.
There is no gharana or raag he can identify with because he learnt everything from his father, his best teacher. For his spiritual concerts, he likes to incorporate the styles of Muslim qawallis, Hindu bhajans and Sikh shabads. “Traditionally Sikhs have problems with that. But if I am doing a concert I am going to incorporate different elements into it because I want to engage everyone. And as far as I am concerned, Guru Nanak did exactly the same. He went around the world with a Muslim parimardana and I am just following in his footsteps. I am making use of the material around me. It is secularism I am promoting.”
One of the reasons why he never believed in receiving formal training was because he feared the loss of his originality. “I sing because I enjoy it, the day I stop enjoying I will stop singing (God willing it does not happen). God has been very kind to me because He has allowed me to do what I have always wanted to do.”
Today, the Dya Singh World Music Group is a true reflection of world music, fusion, interfaith, multiculturalism and also traditional Sikh music. A master musical interpreter of the traditional Sikh hymns with diverse influences from around the globe, Dya has twice been awarded ‘Instrumentalist of the year’ by SAMIA (South Australian Music Industry awards). In the year 2000, Dya Singh was awarded “Male Artiste of the Year” by the Australian World Music Organization.
Over the years, Dya’s onstage persona has come to more closely mirror his offstage personality – a staunch Sikh. And that is one of the reasons he stays engaged with Sikh youth camps and other activities where he gives discourses among other things. “Sikhism is the most humanitarian religion, it is this planet’s best kept secret, even the Sikhs are not aware or do not know what they have. My ambition is to make Sikhism more user friendly to the younger generations, that’s been my mission since 1984. To be able to live the life of a Sikh has been the greatest joy of this life… I wish I could portray that better to the younger generations,” he says.
THE ROAD AHEAD
At 66, Dya is now only ticking off his bucket list of to-dos. “By 2011, I was burnt out so I started cutting down on my shows.” He is happy that his three daughters who grew up as his vocal supporters are today full-fledged musicians on their own. “I am a proud father,” he beams.
But that does not mean he runs short of things to do. Right now he is busy working on his books which are an offshoot of his long association with author and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, after a chance breakfast meeting in Adelaide in the 1980s. “He told me everything is there in the Guru Granth Sahib, you don’t have to look further for information. I am a big believer in visualisation or mindful meditation, whatever you desire in the future you put it out to the elements – that is what Naam Simran is all about. He encouraged me to write a book on self-encouragement based on the guru granth sahib. That’s the start of my book.”
Excited at the release of his first book in a few weeks, Dya says, “I am here because of the power of my meditation. I have done it since age 40.”
But for all his achievements, Dya insists he would rather be known for nothing. “Even my name is borrowed from someone. It is a great joy to be live in oblivion.” But that is not likely to happen any time soon.