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.
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.
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 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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