Giani Rann Singh – the Passing of an Era

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By Karminder Singh Dhillon

Malacca Granthi Rann Singh was the last of a generation of local granthis.

Yes, there indeed was an era when our granthis were locals. They were “one of us” – either born here or of the same generation of migrants as their sangats. 

They spoke a language the local congregations understood, were looked up to, and were sought after.

They made a living out of being granthis and raised upright families, but they were not in it for the money. They were dedicated, upright, disciplined and respected.

Their love and dedication made our going to the Gurdwara meaningful. Their life styles of minimalism, honesty and approachability made us proud of them, as they were of us.

It was a blessing growing up as a child, teenager and young adult in that era.

It was a greater blessing to be born and raised in the homes of one of them and thus witnesses the joys, struggles, spiritual happiness and sorrows of granthis of that bygone era.

Giani Rann Singh leading the ardaas at Gurdwara Sahib Malacca - Photo HARNARINDER SINGH HARRY
Giani Rann Singh leading the ardaas at Gurdwara Sahib Malacca – Photo HARNARINDER SINGH HARRY

THEY WERE SOUGHT AFTER

The Malaya Samachar, a daily tabloid-sized Gurmukhi newspaper came by mail every day to my family home in Teluk Anson.

There were news and views in it, but more interestingly it carried a listing of major Gurdwara programs – anand karajs, marg dey bhogs, engament diwans, gurpurabs, akhand paaths etc.

The thing that mattered most in the programme write ups was be the name of the granthi / parcharak who would be doing kirtan or katha at prime time. For lots of the sangats in that era, this was one of the main factors when deciding which programme to attend.

In Perak, where I spent my childhood till early youth, there was Giani Mahinder Singh Chakarvarti who was based in Kampar Gurdwara.

Perak had the most number of Gurdwaras and the highest population of Sikhs, but not all could afford granthis. So Chakarvarti, like other granthis, often covered other Gurdwaras in Perak – Chemor, Tanjung Tuallang, Jelapang, Malim Nawar and Gopeng – just to name a few.

Chakarvarti had the sweetest singing voice and his melodious alaap was mesmerizing. He could   enthral the large sangats that turned up at the diwans in the wooden Gurdwaras of that era.

Chakarvarti has a special bond with my family. My father – Giani Darbara Singh Daler was the headmaster of the Kampar Punjabi School when Chakarvarti was the granthi.

The school had 8 or 9 teachers who ran ten classes from kindergarten right up to Gurbani paath of about 30 each; making the enrolment in the hundreds.

It is sign of the times that even the biggest Gurdwaras today are unable to get one classroom full of children to study Punjabi.

After Kampar for instance, my father became headmaster of the then newly constructed and expanded Malim Nawar Punjabi School that had even higher enrolment than Kampar.  It was in these classes that I myself learnt my basic Punjabi.

It was when Sikh populations moved out of these smaller Perak towns in search for employment in the new townships of Selangor and KL that these schools were scaled down or shut.

It was under such circumstances that my father switched from being a teacher into a granthi in the later part of his life.

Chakarvarti’s personal bond with my father is etched in my memory. He conducted my father’s final rites 35 years ago. At the funeral, he sat beside my father’s arthee with a vaaja and had a personal conversation with my dad – all in music, and all in Gurbani.  He started with Kabir’s shabad “Baba, Boaltey Thay, Kahaan Gaye?”

Chakarvarti’s own passing left a terrible void. Luckily for some of us, one of his sons is a kirtenia and his singing is somewhat similar to his father’s.

Some of the peers of Giani Rann Singh. (L-R): Giani Sohan Singh (Malacca), Giani Babu Singh, Giani Gurchanran Singh Bhaur and Giani Darbara Singh
Some of the peers of Giani Rann Singh. (L-R): Giani Sohan Singh (Malacca), Giani Babu Singh, Giani Gurchanran Singh Bhaur and Giani Darbara Singh

THEY HELD THE SANGATS TIED TO THE GURDWARAS

Then there was Giani Rann Singh in Tapah.  I remember him as young and vibrant, tall and commanding, singing shabads and kavitas in his deep and rich voice with the accompaniment of the dholak and cymbals.

He told stories, made witty statements and created much laughter. The Sangat understood him and connected. And they kept coming back.

Malim Nawar Gurdwara has a granthi in the form of Giani Najjar Singh Kavisher. A bespectacled,  thin and lanky granthi who wore the tightest of chureedar pyjamas with below the knee kurtas.

SEE ALSO: MALACCA’S GIANI RAN SINGH DIES OF CANCER

His speciality was singing poetry (hence his takhalus – Kavisher) on the vaaja with the accompaniment of dholak and chimta.

He would put the vaaja on the speaking stage and perform from behind it, standing. He always started with a rendition of the Hindi film Nagin’s snake charmer Been music of Mera Man Dole, Tan Dole which he played full blast on the vaaja for a full 10 minutes, complete with the dholak and chimta in full tempo.

His finger work on the vaaja was mesmerizing. He managed to settle the large crowds whose hypnotic state was betrayed by the swaying of their heads. Once he got the sangat’s undivided attention with his charming tune, he delivered his messages.

Kuala Kangsar had a granthi named Giani Jaswant Singh Pohup.  The word ‘pohup’ is Sanskrit for flower and is the origin of the word “pushp.” But given his commanding stature, height and vociferous style, the sangats called him “Pope Ji”.  For all intents and purposes, he was their local “pontiff.”

Ipoh’s Vadda Gurdwara had Giani Gurdial Singh as granthi whose sibbling Giani Sohan Singh was granthi at Telok Anson. Both enjoyed the distinction of decades of un-interrupted service at both places given their immense humility and sweetness. At least one of them was lovingly referred to as “Mittha Giani” by the local sangats.

Police Gurdwara in Ipoh had the legendary Giani Gurcharan Singh Bhaur. He did Kirtan with his family of daughters who had enchanting voices. To many in the Sangat, it was clear that the mix of father-daughter shabad melodies were irresistible.

Then there was Giani Mahinder Singh Missionary who was granthi at Gurdwara Tanjung Malim. His speciality was writing and speaking on Sikhi matters.

THERE WERE ICONS OUTSIDE PERAK TOO

Giani Bachittar Singh of Tatt Khalsa wore the crown in Kuala Lumpur. He was self-taught in all aspects – Raags, Gurbani and Punjabi even – passing his Gyani exams from Punjab University on an external study basis.

My father sent me to him to learn tabla during my secondary school days.

There were others of similar stature – qualified granthis such as Giani Mahinder Singh and Giani Babu Singh Missionary who served with distinction at Gurdwaras Titiwangsa and Maindoab, respectively.

The former sang the most melodious shabads and dharmik geets with his family jatha – his three daughters on the vaaja and his son on the tabla, while the latter was a prolific writer and a good poet. Giani Mahinder Singh and his daughters did kirtan on Radio Malaysia during gurpurabs.

Malacca had Giani Sohan Singh, High Street had Giani Shaam Singh, Johore Baharu had Giani Gurdit Singh Ghali. All were renowned in their own ways.

There were of course many more such granthis in that era. I have only managed to mention those I had personally met or known. These represent a small sample, I am sure.

All of those mentioned have passed on. Yet, Giani Rann Singh’s passing has created a void that goes beyond just his personal demise.

It has created an emptiness that comes with the complete demise of an era. It thus creates nostalgia for the innocence and beauty of the granthi-sangat relationships that existed then.

THE NOSTALGIA.

The one thing that is the common denominator of the granthis of the above era is that while they all raised families within the precincts of the Gurdwara, not one of them managed to persuade their offspring to take up the profession.

It is not that they did not pass on the skills they had. Many of their children are kirtanias, Sikhi-writers, parcharaks, akhand pathees and even leaders in various religious organisations.

But none is a granthi, giving rise to the view that such a situation was purposive and very much by design. In my home, my father’s instructions were clear to all of us.

Such a reality is perhaps a stinging rebuke of the state of affairs of our sangats and Gurdwaras.

The result has been that local-granthi-ship died with our local granthis.

Our current granthis (with miniscule exceptions) largely belong to a class of people who are foreign, have money as their primary motive, are merely using Malaysian Gurdwaras as a transit point for visas to the western countries, have little or no religious knowledge, come from deras and have little passion for their job.

All they need to become a granthi is to learn a few shabads, memorise a few verses of Gurbani, and narrate unbelievably tall tales disguised as katha.

They are thus unable to connect with us, cannot communicate with our younger generation and end up propagating deviant practices and dividing sangats.

We call them “Giani” because we think that is the term for anyone who wears a kurta, pyjama and dons a round turban.

In the era I discussed above, our granthis were called “Giani” after they sat and passed for the Giani Examination conducted by Punjab University, where Giani was equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts degree in Punjabi.

LAST MAN STANDING BOWS OUT

The word “Rann” means battle ground. Giani Rann Singh was thus literally the last man standing in the battlefield of an era that had long fallen.

Even as a lone warrior, Giani Ji stood tall and proud and held the fort in ways that would have done all his contemporary granthi-compatriots proud.

It surely must have saddened him to see them go before him, one by one. Yet we know that he himself left the world beaming with pride on account of a life well dedicated, a sewa well performed and the Sangat well served.

May Guruji bless the family he leaves behind. – ASIA SAMACHAR, 26 Jan 2015

Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston) writes on Gurbani and Gurmat issues in The Sikh Bulletin, USA. He also conducts Gurbani Katha in local Gurdwaras. He is currently running an Understanding Sohela Class at Gurdwara Sahib Petaling Jaya on Sundays 7 – 9 pm. He is based in Kuala Lumpur.

 

 

[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]

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10 COMMENTS

  1. “In the era I discussed above, our granthis were called “Giani” after they sat and passed for the Giani Examination conducted by Punjab University, where Giani was equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts degree in Punjabi.”-A statement that I cannot fault with.Indeed it was down the memory lane as well for me.

    Although apart from Giani Gurcharan Singh Ji Bhaur, who I had many personal dealings through the family, I did not know any one of the others personally, although having an interest in Punjabi language, I used to read many of their writings, kavitas etc through the Malaya Samachar since it started publishing in 1963.

    May I recall a number of others from that era that I have met who had visits to my home was Giani Gurbax Singh Khandewala[I believe]who I understand moved to Singapore eventually.

    Giani Gurbax Singh Khandewala was the product of Amargarh Vidyala,in his early years near Bhathinda, as was Giani Gurcharan Singh Bhaur.

    Along with Giani Bhaur ji, others from that vidyala were an ex police sargent major Dasaundha Singh, who served as Granthi in KL for a short period before his expiry.His wife, an adopted child of Chinese ancestery was also an akhand pathi.

    Another was my brother in law , Sr Gurbax Singh,a Sgt major affectionately known as “kati chali” in Central Police Gurduara IPOH- who did very good kirtan, although he was a fulltime in the police.Then there was his brother, Gian Singh, who served as granthi at Tapah, Kampar then at Segamat for many years.

    For a short period another product of Amargarh Vidiala , a Giani Nihal Singh too served the sangat in Malaysia before he returned to India, and in the late 70s landed in the United Kingdom, at Sheppard’s Bush Gurduara, where he served for three years before retiring.

    These individuals were trained and taught by Giani Phuman Singh, an highly acclaimed personality that sat up the highly Sikh doctrine Centre of education at his village,Amargarh -he was Sr Gurbax Singh “kati chali’s blood chacha. This centre runs to this day,and has produced many good ragis and Gianis.It appears in the 1920’s Malaya, many of the early granthis came from this centre.Giani Phuman Singh JI toured Malaya in the late 40s and early fifties, dispensing the message of Sikhi.

    In Penang, from the Wadda Gurduara there was Giani Balwant Singh Balp -a Phd from Punjab University who was also well known among the Sikh research Board activities in the Punjab.He was a very simple and sweetly spoken gentleman,always in white kurta – pajama, who served the sangat very well.

    It is sad that we have lost the skill and knowledge from that era,and failed to mainatian it to this era.Now we have to import largely from India, people who are not always dedicated as the personalities from the earlier era.Being away for a long time from Malaysia, I may have erred in some names, but I believe by and large that is about all , I have to add.

  2. Autar Singh is right. Karminder Singh, you have taken me down memory lane that is so full of proud thoughts.

    My biggest achievement in life is being able to read the Guru Granth Sahib. For this I owe so much to your father Gyani Darbara Singh and your mother Gyani Gurcharan Kaur.

    She was my Punjabi school teacher at Rawang Gurdwara and taught me how to read and write Punjabi. I then continued learning from your father when he was Rawang Granthi some years later. He taught us how to read Gurbani by santheya, finishing the Granth Sahib in about two years.

    In Rawang, your parents created so many of us pathis, that our sangat could do our Akhand Paths all by ourselves. Many of us are still doing this sewa even if we have moved out of Rawang.

    Now my biggest desire is to pass this ability to my children. I struggle with it because it is not easy.

    As I read your article, memories flooded me. I feel so lucky to have them as my teachers.

    I feel sad reading that Gyani Ran Singh was the last such Granthi, and that he is gone.

  3. Gurfateh jio. Thank you Karminder Singh ji for taking me down memory lane. Looking at the names mentioned has brought back pleasant memories. I was blessed to have spent time in the sanggat of some of these luminaries of the Panth. Some were my formal teachers, others shared their knowledge in personal discussions. I started learning Punjabi in GS Tg Tuallang in 1958/59 (can’t recall the name of the Bhai Sahib ji). Then GS Kampar with Chakarvarti ji. Later in Bidor. In Tapah I had many informal chats with Bhai Rann Singh ji. Later in KL had the privilege of chats with Giani Bachittar Singh ji, Giani Indar Singh Gill ji and his wife Bibi Inderjeet Kaur ji, Also Giani Mahinder Singh Titiwangsa, Giani Babu Singh, Giani Mahinder Singh Missionary, Giani Gurcharan Singh Bhaur, Giani Tehil Singh TR, etc etc…
    Thank you again.

  4. First and foremost, A BIG THANK YOU to the writer for taking the effort to publish this article in particular, because I was born and raised in Malim Nawar, Perak and Giani Darbara Singh Jee taught me Gurmukhi which I am very proud of as I managed to teach my children, who can now read and write. I must also add that Giani Darbara Singh Jee had the most beautiful gurmukhi handwrting I have ever seen. Needless to say I was also blessed to listen to Gian Kevishar Jee who was a
    maestro in vaja. They are no longer with us but they have left a legacy behind which I am very proud of….waheguru bless their souls….WJKWJF

  5. Giani Rann singh was an instrumental part of my life growing up in seremban in the 70’s… A man i have total respect for and i regret not making the time to go seeing him in his last days. I last met him last year in july when i coud see he was losing his health …

  6. A agree with the writer the present situation of Grantis are indeed very bad state. They are more interested in making money not sharing any Gurmat Gian and Gurbani Vichaar and partly the Parbandak are to blamed for all this because u pay peanuts and u get .uneducated and the least qualified person. Giani term is a very complex word and it is beautifully explained by Guru Teg Bahadur in SGGS JI when we read Slook Mahala Navau . WJKK WJKF

  7. giani harcharan singh is ayoung local giani in gurdeara. sahib melaka he has baan in melaka as a young granthi since he was 25 years old and he is a very good granthi the sangat of melaka look up to hid and he is a very dedicated granthi we the melaka sangat look up to his services and even though giani rann singh has passef on he has dedicated giani harcharan. singh to be the granthi to replace him

  8. A notable absentee from the august list of Granthis is the late Giani Indar Singh Ji Gill who served in Gurdwara Sahib Sentul. A most learned Kathakaar who could hold the sanggat spell-bound with his sermons on Gurbani and Gur-ithiyaas. This talent was passed on to his son Harwindar Singh Gill (ex-Jathedar of Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.

  9. I may be mistaken, but isn’t one of the sons of Giani Gurdit Singh Ghali of JB currently a granthi (at Kluang?). I believe another son has been the tabla player for Giani Mahinder Singh Khalsa.

  10. I fully agree with the author of this article . I had the opprtunity to know his parents.I also learnt Gurmukhi from his mother and also learnt to do path from his father. Although we had a small wooden Gurdwara we looked forward to every Sunday when we could go to the Gurdwara. Today the kids hardly want to go to the Gurdwara because they hardly understand anything and no effort is made to connect to the young. The trend is to hold as many akhand path and jodhmelas. I really miss the good old days.

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